When we say that religious Brothers and Sisters take the vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, we do not try to sanctify living in disgraceful conditions that many are forced to live in when they are poor. The vow of Poverty for a religious is more like living in a simple way, not relying on material things, but placing our hopes solely in God and His Providence.
Poverty as a vow needs to be clearly distinguished from the condition of abject misery of many that material poverty imprisons.
But it is still very real. A priest-theologian I knew said that poverty of its very nature is not something we embrace, it embraces you! And so a religious must try to learn to continually let go and rely totally on God.
Now, when someone takes the vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, does that have any value for those of us who do not? Is it just for their own personal spiritual growth?
Any virtue has natural effects for the community of the Church. So, if a person is a better person because of the vows that they have taken, is that not benefit enough for the rest of us?
Clearly it is a good, but it does not mean that there is not another, perhaps more important, result. That additional good can be called “instructional”, for the person in consecrated life (a Nun, Monk or religious Sister or Brother) is a public witness to qualities of life that we should all strive for in quieter and more appropriate ways (for us).
The Obedience of a Monk or Nun to their superior teaches us about the value of Obedience in our own lives in the world. The root meaning of the word “obedience” is “to listen”. Do not spouses need to be obedient to one another? Arguably many of the difficulties of marriage is that the spouses are not listening to each other!
Also, the public witness to Chastity may help the couple to be faithful and chaste with one another in the more private sphere of marriage.
The spiritual value of Poverty is that it helps us to see how dependent we are on God and how much we need Him. This “Poverty of Spirit” can have tremendous advantages for us. It helps us to “Let Go and Let God” in modern parlance.
This is a struggle at any stage of life, but especially in a person’s advanced age. This period of life can rightly be called the “School of Poverty” since there are many instances when one has to let go of the most basic functions of life.
We are aging from the moment of our conception. All of human life is a journey to death or the transformation of the self into one’s eternal destiny, wrought by one’s own choices and God’s grace. But what we generally call “old age” is a particularly sped-up version of what happens in life generally.
We have to let go of much of our work, the activities that have consumed so much of our lives. This can be a great loss when one loves what they do. But that is only the beginning of the losses of aging. Our bodies start to break down. We cannot think as quickly as we did. Our eyesight and our hearing start to diminish. We need some help getting around. Our sons and daughters take away our car keys! We are assailed by a host of diminishments, the worst of which for some is the loss of the faculty of the mind. We either learn to let go, or we get into rages and resentments that hinder our spiritual growth.
In a secular “this-worldly” way of looking at life, where death is merely extinguishment, old age is seen as merely a time when things are over for us and the best we can do is to get used to it. But for the person of Faith,
old age is a time of tremendous spiritual opportunity, when one battles the demons of meaning and, in the midst of physical and psychological pain, we give over our lives to God hanging on our cross on the mount of our personal Calvary. It is not the ending of life, but its summation!
Seen in this way, an elderly person is truly a hero who combats the worst demons of life to be faithful to God, their loved ones, and their true selves.
Old age is truly a time of instruction, a school, that teaches us to let go and let God!