A Vow of Poverty: or not


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about taking a Vow of Poverty, which is quite a bit different than having to live, through no choice of your own, a life of destitution. I don’t have any hard figures, but I’m going to guess that there are about a hundred million times more people living in destitution than there are living under vows of poverty. Which would make those of us who are wannabe poverty vowees a fairly privileged class of people, as if we didn’t know that already.

That would be the difference between dumpster diving for sport vs. dumpster diving for your next meal when you haven’t had one in the past four days.

The Vow of Poverty is usually something you do if you are part of some religious order, for example if you are a nun or a monk. And it’s usually part of a three-for-one deal where you also get to take vows of celibacy and obedience. As much as I have been toying with the idea of the V.O.P. ever since I signed up for Social Security a few years ago, the other two, the V.O.C. and the V.O.O. have never held much interest for me.

I mean, think how disappointed my wife would be if I took a vow of celibacy—I realize I may be making an unwarranted assumption there. But on the other hand, think how thrilled she’d be if I took the Vow of Obedience.

No, the Vow of Poverty is the only one of the three which suits my lifestyle and current roster of personality disorders.

Before the Second Vatican Council of 1962-5, the V.O.P. was considered primarily as a Church-sanctioned entry into a state of dependency, where you gave away all your stuff and became completely beholden to others (generally a religious community) for board and room and clothes. I’m pretty sure that would not have worked for me, because I probably could not have found a religious community that would have had me, and so would have been forced to rely on the constant generosity of family and friends, a similarly improbable bet.

But the Church loosened the rules a bit, and now the V.O.P. is a ticket to holding all things in common (albeit in a religious community of like-minded folks), more a “what was mine and what was yours is now ours” sort of thing. What communism might have been if it had been invented in heaven and not 19th century London. Or what co-housing could be if your fellow co-housers and the IRS would lighten up a bit.

Taking a Vow of Poverty in the secular world is as yet relatively uncommon from what I can tell. It’s not the same as downsizing, which is little more than going on a diet to lose several thousand pounds of your stuff, and then feeling guilty when over the next year you just gain it all back and have to rent space at U-Store-It.

And there’s no federal certification agency to ensure that you are keeping to your vow, sort of like the problem of trying to buy non-GMO food. You just have to trust what it says on the front of the package. The closest you can come to proof of sticking to your vow would be the fact that the IRS has not yet hauled you in for an audit. Call it the non-SOM (Stuff Or Money) label.

In any case, I’m not yet sure whether I want to go for the full Monty, the irrevocable Vow of Poverty. So I am looking into the ethics of doing a R.V.O.P (Revocable Vow of Poverty), which like a revocable trust, is something you can back out of as long as you are alive. It comes with most of the caché of the vow taken by nuns and monks, but like a 30-day money back guarantee, if it’s not your size or color, you don’t have to go to the grave with it.

And you could sleep worry-free every night knowing you’d never have to wake up to the dilemma that Roy Cockrum, now a former monk, faced one morning in early July, 2014 when he woke up to discover that he was holding the winning Powerball ticket in Tennessee for a $289,800,000 jackpot. “Oh dear God,” Roy must have said to himself, “what am I going to do now?”

Stuff and money. It just makes me crazy.