A Spirituality for Real Life: Understanding Poverty, Chastity and Obedience

I just finished reading James Martin’s most recent book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. Although the book makes for a wonderful introduction to Ignatian spirituality and to discerning what is of God vs. what is not from God, it is also a wonderful and thought-provoking read even for those who are familiar with the subject and/or who have done the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. For such readers, it is also a good “brush-up”; I found myself noticing things that I once loved that had fallen out of my prayer of late…not to mention realizing that my daily examen has become a bit too routine to be as helpful an exercise as it can be.

One of the things I found particularly beneficial in the book is Martin’s discussion of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and particularly, how those vows, which are taken by members of religious orders, can have meaning for those who are not members of a religious order. As Martin observes, the words sound threatening, but understood properly, they open the door to greater freedom.

Accepting a vow of poverty (voluntary poverty, as distinguished from the involuntarily poverty suffered by billions) is about a “sensible simplicity.” Martin is clear that he is “not suggesting that all people need to sell everything they own, beg for alms, let their hair and fingernails grow, and live in a cave, like Ignatius did after his conversion.” Rather, voluntary poverty is about not being controlled by our possessions: “the more you stop buying stuff you don’t need, and the more you get rid of items you don’t use, the more you can simplify your life. And the more you simplify, the freer you will feel, and be.”

Chastity, Martin reminds us is different from celibacy (which is also part of the vows of monastic life). Chastity is about love. Quoting Jesuit professor of moral theology Vincent J. Genovesi, Martin explains that “living as a chaste person means that our ‘external expressions’ of sexuality will be ‘under the control of love, with tenderness and full awareness of the other.'” This is a chastity the Church calls everyone to: a sexuality “guided by love and care for the other person.” (After discussing chastity and celibacy, Martin also has a really beautiful discussion about friendship.)

Obedience is a word people find even scarier than chastity. It sounds so unfreeing. However, as Martin explains, obedience is as much about freedom as poverty and chastity. Obedience in daily life lies in accepting what is presented ot us at the moment. For most people, Martin observes, obedience “is stepping onto the path of daily life and continuing on it.” It is accepting that what we face “is what God is inviting [us] to experience at this moment. It is the understanding that somehow God is with [us], at work and revealed in a new way in this experience.

Martin’s fuller discussions on these three vows are worthwhile reading in their entirety.


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