Property, Ownership, and Poverty

In Catholic monasticism there is a vow of poverty.  Something similar can be found in the other monastic traditions. Also even for people not under vows but who are trying to live a serious spiritual life the dynamic labeled here “poverty” takes on a critical importance.  Right at the outset it should be said that there is both an external and an internal dimension to this notion of poverty.  And it should also be noted that ultimately the internal dimension is the most important–it is where one’s sense of identity abides, who you are, and what is the point of it all.  This latter shall be extensively discussed when we get to Ash Wednesday and Lent in a later posting.  Furthermore, nothing said here should be construed as a cosmetic overlay on the misery and social poverty of billions who are exploited and abused by economic and social systems that preach “a world of plenty.”  In fact if the rest of us simply practiced a humane poverty that problem would be partially solved.

Before we get to the notion of poverty in the spiritual journey, a few words are needed about the notions of “ownership” and “private property.”  In the modern West we have practically made a god out of these ideas. Tolstoy said that all property is theft–a typical Tolstoyean exaggeration, but you see what he is getting at.  It is at the very least a social construct, perhaps one could say a fiction, or to be more kindly and comprehensive, a myth.  In the Republic Plato says that at the core of every society there is this thing which he calls a “noble lie.”  It is something which is at the foundation of that society, a basis for its cohesion, yet it is also a fiction.  And every society has a “noble lie.”  And only those who are truly enlightened by what Plato calls “philosophy”–which is not the modern meaning of that word–truly “know the score.”  So for the modern West perhaps this notion of “private property” is at least one aspect of our “noble lie,” the myth that holds things together in our culture.

It is so arbitrary, isn’t it–I mean you draw a line here and you say stuff on this side of the line is “mine” and stuff on that side of the line is “yours.”  And I have a piece of paper that says this stuff is “mine.”  The sociologist Robert Bellah has pointed out the deeper psychological and spiritual implications of ownership(in his masterly study Habits of the Heart).  Say I want a car to get from point A to point B on some regular basis(already questionable to start with, but let us proceed on that assumption).  I could easily buy a Ford or a Chevy but I am “well off” and I buy a Mercedes.  The average Joe Blow can afford a Ford or Chevy but he cannot afford a Mercedes.  The whole point of owning a Mercedes, paying that extra amount, getting that leather, etc.,  is deep down, unmasked, a desire to say: “I am not like you; I am different; I am well off.”  I own a Mercedes because Joe Blow cannot own one, and when I drive around I proclaim that difference and I establish my sense of identity in that difference.  A total spiritual fiction.  Perhaps even to say, “I am a better human being.”  In any case,  the  notion of ownership has a very real bearing then on our sense of identity at the core of our being.  In the modern West this is simply a matter now of “you are what you own,” or “the one with the most toys at the end wins.”

Think of land, of Mother Earth, and this notion of “owning” it is even more bizarre.  Most aboriginal peoples have a founding myth where the territory they inhabit is given to them by the Great Spirit or a Deity, but it is a matter for the tribe’s use or thriving, not for ownership in the modern sense.  Everything of that land is seen in relation to that original gift.  Needless to say complications can arise as people did migrate and climactic conditions forced some tribes out of their territories into another place, etc. Conflicts could and did arise.  In the movie, Grapes of Wrath, based on Steinbeck’s novel, there is a scene early on where a sharecropper’s cabin is demolished by a bulldozer sent by the bank who now owns the land the sharecropper is sitting on.  The movie and the book raise the question of ownership of land–whose land is it anyway, and what does it mean to “own” anything?

All religious traditions have a very mixed record with regard to this point.  Institutionally they participate in the ideology of the culture in which they are situated.  This is reflected then in something like their notions of ownership and property and the meaning of poverty.  Monasteries have owned serfs and huge amounts of land and stuff; religious groups have owned slaves and have been very powerful in terms of their wealth.  Incidentally, in a related matter, monks have also been associated with violence and war at times as they succumbed to the ideology of their society–there is a new book coming out soon which details this even for Buddhist monks who normally are considered to be non-violent.  However, alongside this, in a kind of contrary and subversive spirit, each tradition has also had its holy men and women who have deconstructed their society’s  and their tradition’s notions of ownership and have redefined the value of poverty.  In the Christian tradition we find figures like St. Francis and Dorothy Day among so many others, and these stand in contrast not just with Wall Street greed, but also in contrast to folk like the European Protestants who theologized that wealth was a sign of blessing from God–the conclusion being then that those who had wealth were “blessed” and those who didn’t, well,…..   They seem to have ignored the Sermon on the Mount and followed one vein of Old Testament theology, which in itself was critiqued  by other voices within the Old Testament.  Today we see some of this in modern America in the so-called Gospel of Prosperity.  Also in some of these mega-churches where the member is offered all kinds of ministry in order to prosper, to invest well, to be healthy, to be happy, to be successful, etc. Everything except for the thirst for holiness.  Leon Bloy’s famous quip is forgotten: “The only sadness is the sadness of not being a saint.”

In any case, there is a peculiar problem within Catholic monasticism(which probably also afflicts other monastic groups like the Buddhists).  The Catholic monk, if he/she is a member of an officially recognized order will take a vow of poverty.  That means he/she will give up ownership of stuff–everything is owned by the community as it were.  The problem is that so many of these official communities are so well-endowed–often they sit on enormous land holdings, and often the monks have “all the comforts of home” at their fingertips while never having to worry about paying any bills or where their next meal will come from.  Some will even have access to “Our Lady of Visa” and can go shopping on the monastery’s bill–of course with the abbot’s blessing.  Now the standard reply to this kind of criticism is that with the vow of poverty the monk lets go of controlling his belongings, that there is a check on any human urge to own and possess, and that primarily the vow is meant as an interior work–or as often it is put, spiritual poverty is what counts.  Now this is largely true, and we shall get to the significance of interior poverty in a later posting, but it still must be said that this apologia for a comfortable life while professing “poverty” sounds dubious to many people.  There is a connection between external, material poverty and so-called spiritual poverty, but that connection is very difficult to articulate except in the context of a whole spiritual theology.

We won’t attempt that now, but it is striking that almost all reform movements within Catholicism and within Eastern Orthodox monasticism have called for a return to a real external, material poverty as an expression of something deeply spiritual and authentic.  St. Francis, for example,  did not preach just an interior poverty–his Lady Poverty was one tough lady to be sure!  For those not in official monastic life but who are serious about a spiritual life, there are many other prophetic figures.  There is Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement.  There is the even more interesting and more significant figure of Gandhi, about whom we shall have to reflect at another time.  And there is our own American Henry David Thoreau, who summed up the whole dynamic of ownership and property for someone who seeks spiritual health: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

Ok, you will probably want to point out some inconsistencies on the part of any of these figures, as if that would vitiate their teaching.  Inconsistencies granted.  As Emerson put it:  “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Irregardless of who our role model may be we will find ourselves somewhere along this spectrum that ranges from St. Francis(or St. Nil) to the Tsar of Old Russia(or maybe to one of our billionaires)–the Tsar’s winter home in St. Petersburg had 1050 rooms, 1886 doors, 1945 windows, and 117 staircases–there is an Indian billionaire that is building his own skyscraper in Mumbai that will probably top this!).  Doubtless we are much closer to St. Francis than to these other folk, but whatever be the case we need to keep a critical eye on the dynamic that is really operative in our lives and social situations.  Do not let any communal ideology or cultural ideology or national ideology or religious ideology blind us into making ownership and property some kind of hidden deity–in other words, we really must have that, we absolutely need that, we have earned that–or it belongs to the community, not to me, so that’s ok….etc. etc.   There is a big difference between having the stuff that makes life humane and decent and a felt need to live in huge homes, gated communities, drive expensive cars, have all the latest toys, etc. etc.  To be in this condition is to be dangerously blind  to our real condition, to our relationship to others, to our true identity.  Recall Jesus’s parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man(Luke 16: 19-31).  Amen.

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