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.

The Wandering Sun

(This is an excerpt from an essay originally published in the New Hampshire Times)
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Waterloo Road runs east and west in front of my house, along the Warner River through a narrow valley on the shadows' side of the Mink Hills. Before the sun rises on December mornings into the pale blue gap between a bank of clouds and the horizon, its orange light lies first on the crown and shoulder of a little mountain called Chandler just a mile south of our house. During the summer the sun rises too far north on the horizon to light the mountain like this and so, after a week of overcast mornings at the end of November and another week of mornings when I left the house before the sun had risen, this first light on the mountain takes me by surprise.

For weeks, of course, I have been dimly aware each day that the daylight has been weaker, the darkness gathering more quickly on the drive home. Vague feelings of discomfort and anxiety trouble me as this darkness closes in at both ends of the day.

I like the darkness of a summer night, when the dew releases the smells of the earth and grasses, but these long December nights with their crystalline starlight give me the willies.

Each morning for the past two weeks I've been sitting by the wood stove to drink a cup of coffee and watch the sun rise, though more often than not all I've seen for my trouble is the progressive lightening of a heavy grey sky.

On those days when the sun itself has appeared, its rays stream in the window on the southeast side of the house and daily reach deeper and deeper into the back of the house. I've watched the sun rise first over the edge of a pine grove, then, several days later over the roof of a neighboring house, and now over a low hill south of the river. Its path seems to be dropping away from the earth like the spiral of an orange's skin as the knife peels it away from the fruit.

If this were my first experience with the phenomenon, I might have great cause for alarm. There is nothing in the observation of the sun's daily slippage south to suggest that the process will be halted or reversed. At this rate, if nothing changes, I estimate that by February the sun will be rising over the eastern shoulder of Chandler Mountain and setting on the western. By spring it will flicker briefly like an airport beacon on the mountain top and then disappear forever. It is a particularly, perhaps exclusively, human fear, this annual concern with old Sol's faithfulness to his duties on the planet.

On December 21, if the sun's rising is not obscured by clouds, and if my good intentions prove sufficient to wake me in time, I plan to trace on the back wall of the sitting room the outline of whatever shadow the sun's light casts.

That tracing will remain like a low-water mark as a record of this shortest day of the year, next to the door-jamb where we've been marking our kids' heights as they grow.

Brief as my recognition of the solstice will be, it is nevertheless in keeping with what all ancient astronomical observations and celebrations everywhere and in every era have meant to do—remind ourselves of our place in the universe, swinging around the sun through space on this little ball of living dirt and water, utterly dependent on that fat hot star, our gravitational minder, for the light and heat that give us life.