The Need to Own

Christians who take their religion seriously have a problematic relationship with the world.  They both participate in it and distance themselves from it.

One radical form this distance has taken in the Roman Catholic tradition is making vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, usually in a religious order. Christians who take this step make a public promise to deny themselves three forms of participating in the world highly valued by Christians themselves: owning, marrying, and shaping their own futures. So seriously does the Roman Church take these vows that it makes them binding by Church law.  I took them when I was 18 and had to be officially released from them before I could leave the Jesuits at 27.

The vow of poverty committed me to transferring my possessions to the Jesuit order so that they would be held in common with other Jesuits. What I failed to understand sufficiently at the time was how deeply I needed to own things (a house, a car, and furniture, for example) and how enormous therefore was the sacrifice involved in giving these things up. It is all very well to say that the those who take a vow of poverty are 1) responding to a call to imitate the Jesus of the Gospel, who had nowhere to lay his head; 2) following the early Christian community, who held their possessions in common; and 3) giving us an example of lives that run counter to the consumerism (the addiction to possessions) of our culture. But why is this need to own so deep in us that sacrificing it can be such a wrenching experience.

I think the answer is that possessing things is the ordinary way we have of leaving our mark on the world. It is as though the world remains a blank until we inscribe our lives on it by buying a piece of it. Perhaps this is why we like to commemorate the lives of well known persons by making shrines of their birthplaces and to revisit homes where we ourselves once lived. Or why it is so painful to go through the possessions of a family member who is no longer with us. Our possessions in a sense are our lives. A life lived without owning at least appears empty, even if in fact a life of poverty can be quite full, as suggested by the long lasting tradition of voluntary poverty.

Upcoming: The Need to Marry and be Faithful in Marriage

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