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.


6 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Great blog, will read more when I have time! xx

Comment by Emma

Thanks for the encouragement!

Comment by dianestranz

Thanks for the comments on my blog!

On New Year’s Day I went through every single thing I owned, assessed its value, and decided whether or not I needed it. I got rid of quite a lot, and most of what I kept related either to music or science. I’ve since noticed that with fewer distractions around, I spend more time on the things I really care about.

Comment by Jacob

Jacob, I think you have really hit the nail on the head: “with fewer distractions, we spend more time on the things we really care about.” And God leads us to empty our lives (of even things which seem worthwhile) because He desires us to fill our lives with what HE cares about, and because what He cares about is so basic, so fundamental, so easy to take for granted, sometimes we cannot see their value in His eyes until all else is stripped away.

You are clearly on the right track, because God LOVES both music and science, and I have invested much more time, money and attention to both of those vital areas since I’ve been living an intentional life of poverty. It truly is a life which appears ‘poor’ to the outside world, but which internally is rich, rich, rich. And, of course, genuine relationship (with God and with other human beings) is at the core of that richness, and genuine relationship has nothing to do with money or possessions.

Comment by dianestranz

I value your authentic journey.

Comment by Joseph

Thank you, Joseph. I value having ‘met’ you on Facebook. My goal is to connect with people in REAL ways, through dialogue about REAL issues — not superficiality — so I constantly second guess myself as to whether time spent on Facebook has merit or is, instead, the equivalent of watching Entertainment Tonight and/or reading People magazine (both being activities which make me feel slightly uneasy, like the Holy Spirit is there needling, “Girl, what ARE you doing with your time?!”)

But our communications are definitely worth it, as are a few others I’ve had . . . so. Technology is such a great thing, but it clearly has to be kept in perspective and within certain boundaries, don’t you think?

Comment by dianestranz

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