March 15, 2017
Nothing is Ever Really Ours
Everything is gift. That's a principle that ultimately undergirds all spirituality, all morality, and every commandment. Everything is gift. Nothing can be ultimately claimed as our own. Genuine moral and religious sensitivity should make us aware of that. Nothing comes to us by right.
This isn't something we automatically know. During a class some years ago, a Monk shared with me how, for all the early years of his religious life, he had been resentful because he had to ask permission of his Abbott if he wanted anything: "I used to think it was silly, me, a grown man, supposedly an adult, having to ask a superior if I wanted something. If I wanted a new shirt, I would have to ask the Abbott for permission to buy it. I thought it was ridiculous that a grown man was reduced to being like a child."
But there came a day when he felt differently: "I am not sure of all the reasons, but one day I came to realize that there was a purpose and wisdom in having to ask permission for everything. I came to realize that nothing is ours by right and nothing may be taken as owned. Everything's a gift. Everything needs to be asked for. We need to be grateful to the universe and to God just for giving us a little space. Now, when I ask permission from the Abbott because I need something, I no longer feel like a child. Rather, I feel like I'm properly in tune with the way things should be, in a gift-oriented universe within which none of us has a right to ultimately claim anything as one's own.
This is moral and religious wisdom, but it's a wisdom that goes against the dominant ethos within our culture and against some of our strongest inclinations. Both from without and from within, we hear voices telling us: If you cannot take what you desire then you're weak, and weak in a double way: First, you're a weak person, too timid to fully claim what's yours. Second, you've been weakened by religious and moral scruples so as to be incapable of seizing the day. To not claim what is yours, to not claim ownership, is not a virtue but a fault.
It was those kinds of voices that this monk was hearing during his younger years and because of them he felt resentful and immature.
But Jesus wouldn't echo these voices. The Gospels make it pretty clear that Jesus would not look on so much that is assertive, aggressive, and accumulative within our society, despite the praise and envy it receives, and see this as admirable, as healthily seizing the day. I doubt too that Jesus would share our admiration of the rich and famous who claim, as by right, their excessive wealth and status. When Jesus states that it is harder for a rich person to go to heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, he might have mitigated this by adding: "Unless, of course, the rich person, childlike, asks permission from the universe, from the community, and from God, every time he buys a shirt!" When Jesus tells us that children and the poor go to heaven more easily he is not idolizing either their innocence or poverty. He's idolizing the need to recognize and admit our dependence. Ultimately we don't provide for ourselves and nothing is ours by right.
When I was in the Oblate novitiate, our novice master tried to impress upon us the meaning of religious poverty by making us write inside of every book that was given us the Latin words: Ad Usum. Latin for: For use. The idea was that, although this book was given to you for your personal use, you ultimately did not own it. It's was just yours temporarily. We were then told that this was true of everything else given us for our personal use, from our toothbrushes to the shirts on our backs. They were not really ours, but merely given us for our use.
One of the young men in that novitiate eventually left the order and became a medical doctor. He remains a close friend and he once shared with me how even today, as a doctor, he still writes those words, Ad Usum, inside all his books: "I don't belong to a religious order and don't have the vow of poverty, but that principle our novice master taught us is just as valid for me in the world as it is for any professed religious. Ultimately we don't own anything. Those books aren't mine, really. They've been given me, temporarily, for my use. Nothing belongs to anybody and it's good never to forget that!"
It's not a bad thing as an adult to have to ask permission to buy a new shirt. It reminds us that the universe belongs to everyone and that all of us should be deeply grateful that it gives us even a little space.