Br. Jeremy Hiers, O.S.A.
I remember the exact moment I first began to seriously explore the possibility that I might be called to religious life.
I was 32 years old, a successful careerman with a good salary. I was sitting in a comfortable house I owned all by myself in a northern Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C.
My house was filled with my favorite electronics, clothes, exercise equipment, and all the other material comforts I could dream of. This included a nice car that I loved very much sitting just outside my front door.
I was successful, independent, and much wealthier than I was as a kid. I had achieved “the American dream” as many of my colleagues, friends, and family had repeatedly told me.
My discernment to religious life began in my late 20s with a desire to do more to help those in need. This desire evolved and grew over time. By the time I reached the age of 30 my desire for ministry began to compete with “my American dream” come true. A tension emerged between my desire to spend more time in ministry and the responsibilities I had to meet the demands of my work, my private hobbies, and maintenance of all the possessions I had acquired. Even the nicest of houses and cars require a lot of maintenance and repair!
As I continued to explore this desire I came to understand I may have a calling to religious life. Yet I was immediately turned off by the idea when I discovered those in religious life take a vow of poverty. I didn’t know what this meant, but my initial sense was that it would be a direct reversal of my “American dream” come true.
Not only did I initially perceive that everything I had worked for would be thrown out the window, I also imagined a life of living in abject poverty.
Thanks to many movies I have seen over the course of my life involving religious life, I had many Hollywood style images of spending the rest of my life wearing clothes and shoes with holes in them, sleeping on a mattress as thick as a cardboard box, foregoing any form of entertainment, having to hitchhike my way home to see family, and having soup, bread, and water for dinner every night.
The calling seemed beyond anything I could ever do. Then I met the Augustinians.
From my very first visit with the Augustinians, I observed that that the Friars live in comfortable houses with heating and air conditioning, eat normal family-style meals with all the major food groups included, wear comfortable clothing, drive well-maintained cars, and do normal things together such as the occasional movie or baseball game.
My visits with the Augustinians revealed that the vow of poverty the Friars lived was completely different from what Hollywood had taught me the vow entails.
Nobody appeared to look uncomfortable or miserable. If I had run into an Augustinian on the street without knowing they were an Augustinian, I would have taken them as an average middle-class person living a happy and satisfied life.
What exactly is the Augustinian vow of poverty like?
The Augustinians embrace communal poverty, where we share all things in common. Modeled after the early Christian community described in Acts 4:32-37, we share everything in common and no individual calls anything their own. What we possess together we distribute to the various members of the community according to their need.
For example, if I receive a stipend for a particular ministry, or a cash gift from a friend or family member, instead of depositing it into my own personal account that accumulates for my own personal use, I deposit that into the community bank account and it subsequently gets used for the needs of all the members of a community. In turn, all my meals are covered, the needs of the house we live in are covered, and when I need something such as clothes or medicine or to travel home for a family emergency or just an occasional visit, the community pays for it.
As another example, instead of buying and owning my own car which only I am entitled to use (necessitating the need for other Friars I live with to also have their own car), the Augustinian community buys a car that all the Friars I live with are all entitled to use according to their need for a car. If it turns out I live with five Friars and our collective need necessitates the use of two or three cars, the community has two or three cars. The key is that we all share the use of the cars, instead of us having to pay for and maintain five separate cars that are only used part of the time.
Does this mean that if the “common” pot is large, we live large? Not exactly.
As we see in the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man, all Christians are called to live simply and rid their lives of those “earthly goods” that prevent us from following Christ more fully (Matthew 19:16-30). We Augustinians are no exception.
Augustinians, like all Christians, must strive to continually detach ourselves from the things that compete with God for our time and attention without neglecting our basic needs to live the life God calls us to. While we choose to live simply, it doesn’t mean that when our pants or shoes grow holes in them we cannot replace them. It also does not mean that I cannot have a hobby that helps me to grow as a person and have a healthy outlet from everyday stress. It also doesn’t mean that I have to hitchhike my way home to maintain a healthy, loving, and natural connection with my family. All these things help me to become a better person and a better minister.
So therefore, our model of poverty is one of detachment from excess, not deprivation of our basic needs as I had initially thought. Our vow of poverty allows us to enter a life governed by moderation and balance based on what we need to live the life of service that God has called us to.
Consequently, while I may no longer buy new clothes whenever I feel like it, I always have the clothes I need and I don’t spend every weekend in malls as I used to either.
While I no longer buy the latest iPhone every time a new one comes out, I have the technology I need for my studies and ministries without the need to devote all my time and energy keeping up with the iPhone everyone else has.
While I no longer own my own home and car, I no longer have to spend my weekends maintaining them either. I share that responsibility with my Augustinian brothers in the house we have been blessed to live together in.
The end result, and perhaps this is the most important point, is that I have more time and energy to devote to ministry and the service of God’s people.
The benefits to myself, the Church, and God’s people does not end there either. By sharing everything in common, I am more united in “mind and heart” with my Augustinian brothers since such sharing of material goods inevitably brings people closer together in the living out of their daily lives.
As a result, the entire Order of St. Augustine has more collective energy and spiritual and financial resources to give in service of God’s people. As a community we are able to reach more people more effectively because we share all things in common, just as the early Church did.
The vow of poverty I took in August 2017 has proven to be much more of a gift than a sacrifice and is certainly far different than the Hollywood imagine I had when my discernment first began. Thanks to the vow of poverty, I feel healthier, more balanced, more at peace, and more zealous for and effective in ministry than I ever have been.
I thank God each day for that gift and the new freedom this vow has afforded me.