A few years ago, a young Benedictine Monk shared with me how, for all the early years of his religious life, he had been resentful because he had to ask permission of his Abbott if he wanted anything: “I used to think it was silly, me, a grown man, supposedly an adult, having to ask a superior if I wanted something. If I wanted a new shirt, I would have to ask the Abbott for permission to buy it. I thought it was ridiculous that at thirty-five years of age I was reduced to being like a child.”
But his attitude changed: “I am not sure of all the reasons, though I am sure they have to do with grace, but one day I came to the realization that there was some spiritual wisdom in this, having to ask permission for everything. In this life, ultimately, we don’t own anything and nothing comes to us by right. Everything is gift, everything should be asked for, not taken as if owned. We should be grateful to the universe and to God, just for giving us a little space. Now, when I ask permission from the Abbott because I need something, I no longer feel like a child. No, I feel like I am more properly in tune with the way things should be, in a gift-oriented universe within which nobody has a right to ultimately claim anything.”
What this monk had, in his own way, understood is the principle that ultimately undergirds all spirituality, all morality, and every one of the commandments, namely, that everything is gift, nothing can be owned or claimed really as one’s own. We should all be grateful to the universe for giving us a little space and we should be most careful not to claim, as by right, anything more.
But this goes against much within our culture and within our private inclinations. Within both of these we hear voices which tell us: If you cannot take what you want then you are a weak person; weak in a double way: First of all, you are a weak personality, too timid to be fully alive. Second, you have been weakened by religious and moral scruples and you are, at the end of the day, unable precisely to seize the day, to be fully alive. You are uptight, frigid, infantile, nothing more than a child held captive by superstitious forces. Why don’t you grow up!
It was precisely those kinds of voices that this monk heard during his younger years and it because of what they were saying he was resentful and felt immature.
But I am not so sure that Jesus would agree with these voices. I am not so sure that Jesus would look on so much that is assertive, aggressive, and accumulative within our society, despite the admiration it receives, and see this as what is meant, in the healthy sense, by the expression that suggests we seize the moment. I am not so sure that Jesus would share our admiration of our rich and famous who claim, as by right, their excessive wealth and status. When Jesus states that it is harder for a rich person to go to heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, he might have mitigated this by adding: “Unless, of course, the rich person, childlike, asks permission from the universe, from the community, and from God, for every new shirt!”
When I was a religious novice, our novice master tried to impress upon us the meaning of religious poverty by making us write inside of every book that was given us the Latin words: Ad Usum. Literally, that means: For use. The idea was that, although this book was given to you for your personal use, you ultimately did not own it. It was just for your use, your temporary use, real ownership lay elsewhere. We were then told that this was true of everything else given us too for our personal use, from our toothbrushes to the shirts on our backs. They were not really ours, but merely given us for our use.
One of the young men in that novitiate eventually left the order and is today a medical doctor. He remains a close friend and he once shared with me how, even today, as a doctor, he still writes those words, ad usum, in the front of his books: “I don’t belong to a religious order. I have no vow of poverty, but the principle our novice master taught us is just as valid for me in the world as it is for a religious novice. Ultimately we don’t own anything. Those books aren’t mine, really. They’ve been given me, temporarily, for my use. Nothing belongs to anybody and it is good never to forget that!”
It is not bad being an adult who, like a child, has to ask permission to buy a new shirt. It keeps us attuned to the fact that the universe belongs to everyone, to God ultimately, and all of us should be deeply grateful just for a little space.