Several years ago a young Benedictine monk shared this story in class.
He lived in a monastery that kept a rather strict rule. Their observance of poverty and obedience required that he ask permission of his Abbot before purchasing anything, even the smallest object. If he wanted to buy a new shirt, he needed the Abbot’s permission. Likewise if he wanted to take some stationary supplies from the storeroom, a pen or some paper, he needed permission. For years, he felt that this was belittling.
“I felt like a child,” he said, “it seemed silly to me that a grown man should have to ask permission to buy a new shirt! I looked at men my own age who were married, raising children, paying for houses, and presidents of companies and I felt that our rule reduced me to a child and I resented it. But eventually his attitude changed: “I came to realize that there is an important spiritual and psychological principle in our rule, in having to ask permission to buy or use something. Ultimately none of us owns anything and nothing comes to us by right. Everything is a gift, including life itself, everything should have to be asked for and nothing should be taken for granted as if it was ours by right. We should be grateful to God just for giving us a little space. Now when I ask permission from the Abbot, I no longer feel like a child. Rather I feel that I am more properly in tune with the way things should be in a gift-oriented universe where nobody has a right to ultimately claim anything as his own. Everyone should have to ask for permission before buying or using anything.”
His story reminded me of an incident in my own life: When I was a novice in our Oblate novitiate, our novice-master tried to impress upon us the meaning of religious poverty by making us write two Latin words, Ad usam, inside of every book that was given us for our own use. Literally the words translate into “For use”. The idea was that although a book was given to you for your personal use you were never to think that you actually owned it. Real ownership lay elsewhere. You were only a steward of someone else’s property. And this idea was then extended to everything else that you were given for your personal use – your clothes, your sports equipment, things you received from your family, and even your toiletries and toothbrush. You got to use them, but they were not really yours. You had them ad usam.
One of the young men in that novitiate eventually left our community and went on to become a medical doctor. He remains a close friend and one day while I was in his office I picked up one of his medical textbooks. I opened the cover and there were the words: Ad usam. When I asked him about did this he made a comment to this effect: “Even though I no longer belong to a religious order and no longer have the vow of poverty, I still like to live by the principle that our novice-master taught us: In the end, we don’t really own anything. These books aren’t really my own even though I’ve paid for them. They’re mine to use, temporarily. Nothing really belongs to anybody and I try not to forget that.”
Both of these stories can help remind of something that deep down we already know but tend to forget, namely, that what ultimately undergirds all spirituality, all morality, and all authentic human relationship is the unalterable truth that everything comes to us as gift so that nothing can ever be owned as ours by right. Life is a gift, breath is a gift, our body is a gift, food is gift, any love given us is a gift, friendship is a gift, our talents are a gift, our toothbrush is a gift, and the shirts, pencils, pens, medical textbooks we use are each of them a gift. We get to have them, ad usam, but we should never nurse the illusion that we own them, that they are ours, that we can claim them by right. Metaphorically there should be an Abbot in each of our lives from whom we should ask for permission to buy or use anything. That would be a recipe for health.
In those moments when we are most in touch with ourselves (and generally those are the moments when we most feel our vulnerability and contingency) we sense that truth. The reverse is also true, at moments when we feel strong, in control, and aware of our own power, we tend to forget this truth and cling to the illusion that things are ours by right.
Maybe if we all had to ask permission to buy a new toothbrush or a new item of clothing we would be more aware that everything we think we own is really only ours ad usam.