On renunciation

Grant me the treasure of sublime poverty: permit the distinctive sign of our order to be that it does not possess anything of its own beneath the sun, for the glory of your name, and that it have no other patrimony than begging.

St Francis of Assisi

I’m writing these words on the first day of Lent, which is supposed to be a period of renunciation, at any rate for Christians. Other religions have their equivalents, of course; Islam has Ramadan, orthodox Jews impose various restrictions on themselves during Shabbat, not to mention the austerities practiced by the devotees of various Eastern deities. The Christian calendar used to be studded with fast-days; again, Judaism has a similar tradition.

It’s hard to think of any practice more contrary to the spirit of industrial civilisation. After all, are we not supposed to think of ourselves primarily as consumers? If we stop consuming, we are often told, the whole structure of our civilisation will come tumbling down.

Well, here’s the news, in case you haven’t been paying attention: the whole structure of our civilisation will be tumbling down in the not-so-distant future. Not, perhaps, in your lifetime, and perhaps not even in your childrens’ lifetime, but very much within the foreseeable future. And at that point, being able to do without things will very much be a superpower.

In the Christian tradition, at least, the classic monastic vows call for poverty, chastity and obedience. All of those are different forms of renunciation, with poverty taking the first place. (This rhetorical strategy is not always successful: we only now honour the third of the more recent triad “reduce, reuse, recycle,” perhaps because only the third is conducive to setting up a profitable industry. I’m pretty sure nobody is making much money out of poverty or chastity, or even – directly- from obedience.) Even chastity is a means to the end of reducing one’s involvement in the material world: if you don’t have kids, there’s much less onus on you to get and spend.

St Francis of Assisi is of course the poster child for this strain of thought within the Christian tradition. His canonisation in 1228 was controversial even at the time – plenty of people would have been more comfortable had he been declared a heretic – and in the main Christianity has steadily diverged from that ideal. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Christendom has largely been geographically co-extensive with the world that has mostly benefited from financial capitalism and industrialisation. It’s also probably not a coincidence that the life of St Francis, himself from a wealthy mercantile background, coincided with the first stirrings of merchant banking – and the rest, as they say, is history.

The thing about voluntary poverty, as distinct from the involuntary sort, is that it leaves a surplus that can be used for some other purpose than gratifying wants. In the case of the European monastic tradition, this allowed for the survival and transmission of classical literature and philosophy, Greek in the east, Latin in the west, which fed directly into the Renaissance. But Buddhist and Taoist monasteries have also performed a similar service in the Orient. There aren’t many rampaging barbarian warlords who are interested in nicking your manuscript of Sophocles.

There is also the point that your mendicant friar or sadhu or fakir is a walking opportunity for the average person to impoverish themselves, at least a little, by making a voluntary donation. Everyone involved in such a transaction acknowledges the value of something other, something higher, if only temporarily.

Moreover, someone who can renounce a thing, even if temporarily, whether it be alcohol, tobacco, or Cadbury’s Creme Eggs, has established a degree of independence, and, to that extent, freedom. We all recognise the distinction between the person who can enjoy a glass or two on the one hand and the hopeless alcoholic on the other. The first is free to choose; the second is enslaved.

We live in a culture that would like us all to become alcoholics, either literally or metaphorically. It is for each of us to resist as best we can, because the hangover is going to be catastrophic. And the easiest path is simply to choose something other, something higher, whatever that is for you. It could be as simple as going for a walk in the spring rain.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: