Interiorizing Monastic Vows: Poverty and the Primacy of Grace Over Necessity
In the last post on “Interiorized Monasticism”, we were considering Evdokimov’s remarks on the universal vocation of all baptized Christians and how each is called to a “personal adaptation of the three monastic vows.” These vows constitute a great charter of liberty: “Poverty frees from the ascendancy of the material; it is the baptismal transmutation into the new creature. Chastity frees from the ascendance of the carnal; it is the nuptial mystery of the agape. Obedience frees from the idolatry of the ego; it indicates the sonship to the Father. All, whether monks or not, ask God for these things in the tripartite structure of the Lord’s prayer: obedience to the will of the Father; poverty of the one who is hungry only for the substantial and eucharistic bread; chastity, the purification from evil.”
Beyond this, however, Evdokimov goes on to tell us that these three vows “reproduce exactly the three answers of Jesus” to Satan on the mount of temptation; the most categorical no to all compromise and to all conformity with the Tempter. “The interiorized monasticism of the royal priesthood finds its own spirituality in taking to itself the equivalent of the monastic vows.”
How so? What does this look like? Evdokimov’s analysis is beautiful and compelling. “Our Lord’s answer: ‘Not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God,’ indicates the passage from the old curse: ‘In the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread,’ to the new hierarchy of values, to the primacy of spirit over matter, of grace over necessity. In the house of Martha and Mary, Jesus passed from the material repast and physical hunger to the spiritual banquet, to hunger of the one thing necessary. The version of the beatitudes in St. Luke’s Gospel accentuates the reversal of situations: ‘Blessed are the poor . . .those who hunger.’ Even physical poverty ‘in the sweat of your brow’ is no longer a curse, but a sign of election placed on the humble, the last and the least, as opposed to the rich and powerful. The ‘poor of Israel’ available for the kingdom, and more generally ‘the poor in spirit’, receive as a gift, gratuitously, ‘the wheat of angels’, the Word of God in the eucharistic bread. If the stones mentioned in the temptation had become bread, this miracle would have expelled ‘the poor man’ above all, not the beggar who is the object of charity bazaars, but the poor one who shares his being, his eucharistic flesh and blood. Thus, does every truly poor person ‘in the sweat of his heart’ share his being. . . . The Gospel requires what no political doctrine would demand from its adherents . . . True needs vary according to vocations, but the essential principle is found in independence in regard to all possessions. Absence of the need to have becomes a need not to have. The disinterested freedom of the spirit in regard to things restores its capacity of loving them as gifts from God” (The Struggle with God, pp. 122-123).
Every Christian, like the monk, is a cross-bearer and a Spirit-bearer, “for the cross is the the triumphant power of the Holy Spirit manifesting Christ crucified.” Such is the freedom and liberty of the children of God and Christ’s three answers in the desert must resound in our hearts and take flesh in our lives and actions. All true love is a victory of weakness and poverty. Like Christ, in our poverty we must be those who welcome the other without defenses - those who share our very beings, who trusting in the infinite love and tenderness of the Father, “descend ever more fully and joyfully into a realm in which we neither possess nor understand nor control anything.”
Further consideration will be given to the vows of chastity and obedience in future posts.
**All quotes from “The Struggle with God” by Paul Evdokmov