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refocused their charism, responding to the pressing needs of the day, and by listening to the voices of poor and disempowered people. Most congregations sought to recognise their international character and they also reflected on how the vowed life is meant to be a life of liminal, prophetic calling. They saw their vows as concerned with values rather than laws. Contemporary religious life is lived against a backdrop of climate change, environmental degradation, and the crippling extremes of wealth and poverty. The desire to live more simply so that others can simply live has gained momentum in the past decade. The vow of poverty is meant to be a safeguard against the abuses related to wealth and prop- erty. But in many cases, as Diarmuid O’Murchu has argued, it is dogged by a double flaw.
“…(a.) the accompanying spirituality is not about responsible care of the goods of God’s Creation, but about stripping away all attach- ment to material things so that the soul is set free for eternal life or for nirvana,” says Fr O’Murchu. “And (b.) the onus is ultimately on each individual person; consequently, the collective wealth of the monastery was never subjected to the same intensity of evangelical scrutiny.” Fr O’Murchu argues that the vow of poverty,
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10 | THE TABLET | 29 January 2011
as traditionally understood, emphasises the betrayal of Creation and the abandonment of basic human responsibility for the goods of Creation entrusted to human care. True to the hier- archical norms and traditions, the care of goods was entrusted to a bursar figure who distributed from a collective pot while adult Religious (men and women) behaved in a submissive way by asking permissions for the use of the most basic of goods. This in turn led to widespread abuse and a great deal of irresponsible evasiveness. With growing awareness of the earth’s finite resources and a calling to live in an inter- dependent way, the vow of poverty takes on a new meaning. It means that the Religious have to become informed about the systemic nature of poverty, yet this requires a set of skills and wisdom that traditional formation programmes for Religious never address. It requires a resilience and wisdom that under- stands how the world operates and requires the backing of groups of supportive networks. It works in creative networks such as the Religious at the United Nations (Run) who work in a consistent and collaborative way with a quality of engagement and monitoring which puts many governments to shame. So how do we move forward to the place of liminal witness and a world where all have enough? The difficulty for vowed Religious is that they have lives of frugality but they are never destitute. Instead they are well protected from the insecurities that the bulk of humanity endure. If they are to think again about poverty they need to counter the culture of con-
Religious have to become
informed abut the systemic nature of poverty, yet this
requires skills and wisdom that traditional formation does not address
sumerism that reduces people to insatiable consumers of goods and to objects of manip- ulation by the market. But they also need to be fully engaged in discourse about a sustain- able social order, which raises questions about justice, global citizenship, stewardship of the Earth’s resources, and the redirection of mas- sive military spending toward constructive social ends. The vow of poverty, as many of us under- stood it in the past, took detachment as the primary virtue. The vow for mutual sustain- ability cherishes the sacredness in the most simple of things. I once experienced this in a profound way. On a visit to a rural region in Cambodia where I had helped to build a small school, I was asked to go to the home of the village elder to receive a thank-you gift. My Western mind was wondering what this might be! The elder bestowed on me a Buddhist blessing as I entered her humble dwelling. Then she brought me to a small square opening at the back of her one-roomed thatched home and pointed to the view of the mountain – my gift to cherish and remember. This poor Cambodian woman epitomised for me the “poor in spirit” – those who are open to the generous abundance of God, and who recognise that God is very near in the ordi- nariness of daily living and encounter. A vow for sustainable living would be a way for the Religious to wit- ness to a different way of life to a consumerist lifestyle. As the US Catholic Bishops’ Con - ference said in “Called to Global Solidarity”, in 1997: “Cain’s question, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ has global implications and is a
special challenge for our time, touching not one brother but all sisters and brothers. Are we responsible for the fate of the world’s poor? Do we have duties to suffering people in far- off places? Must we respond to the needs of suffering refugees in distant nations? Are we keepers of the Creation for future generations? For the followers of Jesus, the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’.” We who belong to religious communities know that the current crisis makes all the more urgent the need to be still, to quiet our souls, to wait prayerfully – for a certain con- templative quiet is necessary for the voice of the Spirit to be heard. Living contemplatively may well save our sanity in a spirit-crushing, fast-paced society in which we live.
■Deirdre Mullan is Mercy International representative at the United Nations in New York. This article is based on a talk, “World and National Perspectives on Poverty and the Vow of Poverty”, given to the to the United States National Vocations Directors in Baltimore. The Sisters of Mercy are presenting a submission to the forty-ninth session of the Commission on Social Development to be held at the UN on 9-18 February, which will focus on the eradication of poverty.
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