Diane Stranz on American Life

About my Vow of Poverty

I noticed that the first search of this blog was an attempt to learn more about my vow of poverty.   I plan to eventually publish a book on the topic and do not want to ‘jump ahead’ of myself by talking off the cuff about something so integral to my life that it deserves thoughtful, deliberate, documented writing and analysis . . . .  But I started this blog to cultivate an audience, and I have an obligation to be responsive to that audience, so here is a little more information for whomever it was who was enquiring.  I hope what I have written here will suffice for now.

I took my vow of poverty silently and in my heart, between God and I alone, while I was standing in my closet one day in the spring of 1996.  About a month ago it occurred to me for the first time that I unconsciously obeyed Matthew 6:5 to ‘go secretly into my closet and shut the door’ in order to keep my prayer a private matter between God and myself, but there was no conscious intent on my part that day to do that.  The whole thing came about because I was in my closet sorting clothes to give to a homeless shelter when an acute awareness of the over-abundance in my life welled up within and caused me to grab pretty much everything off the rack and spontaneously give it away.  The taking of a vow of poverty had been on my mind and heart for some time, and suddenly that day, in my closet, I knew the moment had arrived for a full commitment.   This was probably in mid-April 1996.

At the time I was a stay at home mother of three children under the age of 5, living in an upscale neighborhood in East Dallas, Texas.  To understand how I got to the point where I would do such a thing — and to understand what it really meant to me at that time to ‘take a vow of poverty’ —  you have to know so much about my own unique spiritual and life journey  . . . and this is where I struggle about how much I should try to include in a solitary blog post!

I am no longer a practising Catholic, but I was devout in my child and young adult hood.  As a Catholic, I was  influenced by the story of St. Francis of Assisi, who I consider the father of the Christian vow of poverty.  [I have a great respect for Martin Luther and the Protestant Revolution, but I was repulsed by the cover of a protestant magazine I saw in the mid-1990’s which referred to protestant author Francis Schaeffer as ‘Our St. Francis’ as opposed to the Catholic St. Francis of Assisi.  It was the kind of ‘nanny-nanny-boo-boo-stick-your-tongue-out-at-your- rival’ sentiment which is juvenile, embarrassing and ought not to be tolerated within groups which claim to be religious and/or spiritual in nature!  Sorry, but I can never think of St. Francis now without thinking of that.] 

If you have never seen Franco Zefferelli’s movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon about St. Francis of Assisi’s decision to live a life of abject poverty in order to serve and follow God, you really should.  The movie Francesco starring Mickey Rourke and Helen Bonham Carter is also worth checking out, as is Donald Spoto’s 2002 book Reluctant Saint:  The Life of Francis of Assisi.  I do not think St. Francis did everything perfectly (indeed, I feel he royally missed God’s point by living as a celibate monk and refusing to marry St. Clare and father children, for example), but he was a trailblazer for individual freedom and self-determination — and you’ve got to love him for that.

Six months before I took my vow of poverty, I began journaling for the first time in my life as the result of reading and working through Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way (subtitled ‘A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self’).  That book changed my life:  you can learn more about it at http://www.theartistsway.com.  Don’t buy into all the BS about ‘creative clusters’ and study guides and the other hype Julia Cameron wannabes have created.  All you need to do is read the book and do the exercises she recommends to get all the transformative stimulus you need.  It is amazing how people ‘honor’ a nugget of gold by trying to ‘dress it up’ with silver paint and other crap. 

A fledgling journal entry written while I was working through The Artist’s Way in October 1995 reflects my thinking at that time about a Vow of Poverty:

[My neighbor] mentioned that [her son] only has two small crates of toys while our 3 kids have a room and a half full between them, and I got off the phone contemplating whether we are too materialistic — should I be getting rid of more things?  Are we too indulgent with the kids? (really the problem is with over generous relatives, not with us — we have purchased the kids a mere fraction of what they have). 

The reason why I felt to write this here was that as I was mulling this over, a quote stuck on my bulletin board lept out at me – one I rarely look at:  “Do not scatter your energies on unimportant issues in life.”  I immediately knew I had received a direct answer from above:  God really doesn’t care what you have in your life as long as your focus is exclusively on trying to live according to His will.  Indeed, it has been since I started completely focusing on trying to follow God’s will that I’ve had a more light-hearted approach to money and have felt more moved (by the Spirit) to make purchases than ever before. 

Of course, the purchases are completely different: I’ve bought myself virtually no clothes and have bought very few clothes for the kids, yet I buy books for myself constantly (all spiritual) and I liberally buy books, music, and art/craft materials for the kids.  No junk – all good, stimulating stuff (especially the books).  So, when God calls us to a life of poverty, it is not necessarily physical poverty, although I think He does call some to that vocation, for His own reasons.  The poverty to which we all must submit if we are going to do His will is poverty of desire:  when you have no desires to satiate, personal goals do not block you from receiving God’s messages of what He would have you do with your life, including what He would have you purchase and have around you.  (Indeed, I now see all the time all kinds of beautiful, colorful stained glass, art, candles, whimsical (yet reverent) home furnishings that I would love to see in the house – not because of any status thing, or a need to buy stuff, but because they are beautiful and uplifting and would help me to focus on what is important in life).

I still think the gist of this journal entry is true — but God DID lead me into a life of real physical poverty within three years of me taking my vow . . .  so whether I ‘just happen’ to be one of those few who God intentionally chose for that life or whether it is in fact a necessary part of a vow of poverty for anyone who takes such a vow is an issue I can still argue both ways, and which I intend to address at length at some future time.  Until then, it is something to think about for anyone reading this post.

P.S.  Check out also the life of St. Martin de Porres of Peru:  he literally and routinely gave others the shirt off his back and the food off his plate without a care in the world as to how he himself would do without that shirt or food.  That, to me, is the essence of a vow of poverty, and make no mistake that if you live like that in today’s world, you probably will find yourself really and radically poor . . . because even ‘Christians’ are repulsed by (and seek unconsciously to punish) human beings who do not place a high value on physical security and the possession of the objects necessary to ensure that security.   They may not THINK they are sold out to the material world in this way, but I could cite example after example of how their actions speak to this reality very clearly.  Again, more later.


Harry Potter is not a Role Model
February 22, 2009, 6:47 pm
Filed under: Children and Parenting, Literature | Tags: , , , , ,
Parents are the persons primarily responsible for molding their children into moral human beings of character.  Just as a parent should be concerned about a child’s nutritional intake, a parent should also be concerned about a child’s reading diet.  J. K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter books constitute a very poor reading diet.
I have done research on J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter Mania for years, including that I have read parts of the Harry Potter series for myself.  I am primarily turned off by the fact that Harry and his friends are all very small of character, immature, grudge-filled and essentially mean-spirited.  Fantasy writer Ursula Le Guin, who I respect, holds the same opinion:
When so many adult critics were carrying on about the “incredible originality” of the first Harry Potter book, I read it to find out what the fuss was about, and remained somewhat puzzled; it seemed a lively kid’s fantasy crossed with a “school novel”, good fare for its age group, but stylistically ordinary, imaginatively derivative, and ethically rather mean-spirited.
I am also convinced that Rowling’s ADD type of story-telling actually destroys a child’s interest in classic children’s literature.  There is a young student librarian at our local branch library who told me one day last summer (while I was perusing the shelf of children’s literature awarded the Newbery medal for excellence) that Newbery books are ‘entirely too boring’ for ‘the modern generation’ of readers, and that ever since she read the Harry Potter books she has no interest in any books which do not demonstrate a similar ‘fantasy/action adventure’ pace and story line (hence the rise of more obnoxiously poor books like the Lemony Snicket series, etc. etc.)
As literary critic Philip Hensher wrote in The Spectator in 2003:  “Rowling is not a subtle writer, and one of the tiresome things about her books is how routinely they resort to turning up the volume, rather than describing anything vividly.”  Yes, I agree.  Constant action, violence and emphasis on ‘good versus evil’ does not advance civilization in a peaceful, cooperative, loving, gentle direction — whereas numbers of good children’s books do:  Doris Gates’ Blue Willow, Lois Lenski‘s The Giver, Kate DiCamillo‘s The Tale of Despereaux, Paul Zindel‘s The Pigman, Scott O’Dell‘s Island of the Blue Dolphins, Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s Little House on the Prairie series, E. L. Konigsburg‘s The View from Saturday, Jean Craighead George‘s Julie of the Wolves, Ann Nolan Clark’s Secret of the Andes, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.  To name only a very few, of course.
Why waste our children’s time reading trash when there is so much good literature waiting to be discovered?  Horse trainers know that once you train a horse to ride Western saddle (which has far fewer demands and expectations of the horse than English saddle) you can never again get the horse to agree to/cooperate with being ridden English saddle.  I believe that once a child is permitted to indulge in a ‘reading diet’ of Harry Potter type fantasy, you cannot again get him or her back into a ‘meatier diet’ of genuine literature.  I may be wrong, but with my own children I prefer to err on the side of caution and feed only the meatier diet.
To date my 7-year-old son Jeffrey and I have worked our way through only a few chapter books — including Elizabeth George Speare’s The Sign of the Beaver, which Jeffrey loved — and my point to him is that we are not going to waste time on Harry Potter books when there are SO MANY MUCH BETTER BOOKS we still have not yet read!  Books which teach children how to evaluate and respond to moral crises in real life.  Reading should entertain and teach, but it should also help mold character and values.  And it is a parent’s job to care about that.

Stop Single-Purpose T-Shirts!
February 22, 2009, 4:10 pm
Filed under: Clothing, Thrift and Frugality | Tags: , , , , ,

I was on Facebook this morning and saw a sidebar ad titled ‘Need t-shirts for your church group?’ This reminded me of one of my pet peeves: garments created for a short term event which then have no purpose or use afterwards. Since I observe a vow of poverty, I purchase all of my clothing secondhand (from thrift stores like Goodwill and the Salvation Army) and there are racks and racks of t-shirts in second hand stores which NO ONE wants to buy or wear . . . and they are usually in mint condition. I am sure some of you think, “It’s not really a shame that I wore this Fun Run t-shirt for only one day and now have no use for it, because I’ll just give it to charity and some lucky homeless man will be grateful to get it.” Au contraire. No one, not even a homeless man, really wants to wear a t-shirt dated May 5, 2005, with corporate logos printed all over the back.

Believe it or not, many of us poor folks have very profound and deeply held values which have actually led to our present state of poverty — and one of those values, for some of us, is to not permit our bodies to be used as walking billboards for profit-oriented business concerns.  There IS a ‘politics of clothing’ (make no mistake) and you reveal much about yourself by the way you permit your wardrobe to be branded by corporate America.  But my point in this blog is not really about that:  it is about the wastefulness of creating any object you do not intend to use for a meaningful and lasting period of time.  This is especially true when you consider that most of the world’s clothing is created by wage slaves working in sweatshop conditions.  If you are going to fuel the market for that type of clothing production, you owe it to the poor man or woman who suffered to produce the t-shirt to at least WEAR the damn thing for as long as humanly possible!