Monday, September 8, 2008

More on Poverty: the 7th Tradition

I just picked up the 12 & 12 (AA's 12 Steps & 12 Traditions), and opened it to a random page. The 7th Tradition: "Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions." I read it. The tradition itself, the one-liner, is read at AA (and other 12-step) meetings when a basket is passed for contributions to the group's support. But I don't remember ever reading the chapter in the 12 & 12.

It says that "A.A. must always stay poor", and that "at that moment ..., the principle of corporate poverty was firmly and finally embedded in A.A. traditions." At what moment? At the moment when they declined a gift of $10,000 that had been left in someone's will. Wow. There's a big difference between that and the way religious congregations (maybe not all, but as far as I know) practice corporate poverty. "Fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions." Convents live on contributions! Maybe not 100%, but it's like public radio, "listener support is our most important source of revenue." (some of them, anyway ... and I don't know of any that on principle "decline all outside contributions".) And as I discern my future, possibly as a consecrated hermit, this is very relevant to the question of my own vow of poverty.

Should I be "fully self-supporting"? Or should I accept help? On the one hand, I recognize a danger in being too hard-headedly independent -- I have a very hard time asking anyone for help, and that is not necessarily a good thing. I NEED help sometimes, I am no superwoman! On the other hand, just because I call myself a woman of prayer, people ought to give me money? What for, so I'll pray for them? No, I don't believe in buying indulgences, and I don't believe in buying prayers. I am choosing not to go back out and get a regular job. A lot of people would like to give up their jobs. So they should spend some of their hard-earned money supporting my life of prayer? No. I'm a Benedictine monastic (in spirit), and they at least originally were self-supporting through their own labor; not a Franciscan mendicant (the word literally means "beggar"), that's a charism that has never appealed to me. But corporate poverty is also a Franciscan innovation. St. Benedict allowed new entering monks the choice of either turning over their property to the monastery community, or donating it to the poor, and they certainly have always accepted bequests. Maybe that was a big mistake! Surely the relative wealth of the monasteries, later on, became an anti-evangelical witness?

The desert fathers wove baskets from palm leaves. The work itself did them good (I understand that), and they sold the product to support themselves. Understand: the desert fathers went to market to sell these baskets, they didn't refuse to support themselves because it would interfere with their self-imposed solitude.

I worked my entire adult life as a bureaucrat, all but the first year or so for one single employer. I don't know how I am going to support myself once the residual dries up in a year. I am hoping goat's milk, goat cheese, goat's-milk soap, eggs, and maybe some garden produce will net enough to pay the bills. The difference between this and my old salaried life is embracing the uncertainty: God will provide. That doesn't mean someone will die and leave me $10,000 in their will. He will provide by my own efforts, my frugality, and I guess a good dose of serendipity. I guess. I don't know how it will work! But oddly enough ... I do have faith that it will work out.

So what to do if I need help? And what to do if help comes, unasked for? How do I square that with poverty, understood as being "fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions"? Why do I ask this, why do I prefer A.A.'s definition to the way of my beloved Benedictines? Well, because for me, a great part of the attraction I felt to entering Regina Laudis was explicitly, the security. I am NOT an organized person, I do not regularly balance my checkbook, but I had a regular, predictable income for 19 years, and the thought of having to pay the bills without ever knowing what would be coming in was terrifying to me a year ago. I thought entering a convent, where there are other women who are good at the things I am not good at -- like being organized and detail-oriented -- was not a bad thing. Like the body of Christ, each one of us different, each one good, each one only a part of the whole. But it's not -- for me, for MY conversatio morum -- anything like 'consider the lilies of the field.' I think for me, this kind of more radical poverty will be more transformative.

So again: how should I handle needing help, or receiving unasked help? Should I refuse gifts? Donate them to the (involuntarily) poor? Should I accept help, but pay it back when I can? Or "pay it forward", giving to someone else the help that was given to me? What about non-monetary help? How to even account for it, if I think I ought to be paying it back, or forward? Should I, or should I just be grateful for it? What if I CAN'T do something alone (like pin up the hem of the skirt I started making MONTHS ago and got stuck on)? Where's the line between friends helping friends, and accepting "outside contributions"? Because as a hermit, the "corporate" is the same as the "individual", whereas both A.A. and the Rule of Benedict distinguish between the two in their rules on poverty.

Hmm. Food for thought, food for prayer!

Blessings to all who happen on this blog.

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