Old-fashioned trunk-centered simplicity

I admire my sisters’ tales of trunks.

Long before I entered the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration – and long before Vatican II for that matter – the common, communal practice was that every sister had to fit all of her personal property into one trunk.

On the move

Our Franciscan lifestyle is an itinerant one. As sisters we frequently move for ministry. For much of our community history, sisters moved from one ministry site to another after just a year or so. They’d move by train, and all of their possessions would move with them in the one trunk. It was an economical and practical way to do things, and such a practice permitted ease for living a simple life of Franciscan poverty. 

The trunks contained three black and white habits, an extra pair of shoes, undergarments, and some prayer books. The trunk also held whatever supplies needed for a sister’s ministry, such as bulletin board decorations if she was a teacher or a white habit if she was a nurse. If a sister had any personal possessions that were especially dear to her, such as a family photo, those would have to fit in her trunk too.

Even though our style of simple living has evolved, the itinerancy of our lifestyle continues. (In fact, I have lived in eight different places during the eight and half years since I entered community!)

During my final year of college I was seriously discerning religious life. Part of what attracted me to the lifestyle was a deep desire to live simply. I wanted to decrease my environmental impacts and lighten my living. I wanted to live in solidarity with some of the poorest people I have encountered in my lifetime and not accumulate too much stuff.

My desire for simplicity persisted. On my convent move-in day, I felt embarrassed that my belongings filled an entire mini van. I apologized to the sisters who helped me move. I remember one sister commenting that my questions and feelings about poverty would be dealt with later.

Indeed, my feelings and questions were dealt with later, through the process and nature of initial formation.

No more black and white

Much has changed since the time when each sister was expected to limit her possessions to one trunk.  No one expects us to keep our belongings in one trunk anymore. One sister told me that sisters started using suitcases when the shift was made to lay clothes in the early 1970s.

During my earliest years of formation, I learned that my community will not provide a certain expectation about how much stuff I may have or how much space I require. As a woman who recently spent days paring down stuff that would have filled a medium-sized moving truck, I have felt somewhat envious of the prescribed limitations applied to my elder sisters.

Truly, the way that we each live out our vows of material and spiritual poverty is just as diverse as the members of our congregation. Some sisters have an amount of personal possessions equivalent to any middle-class American. Other sisters barely have anything to their names. As a newer member, I have been frustrated by this lack of consistency. Other times, I have felt lost and confused. I really wanted someone to make it easy for me and tell me how to do it; I wanted to remain immature.

In my struggles, I asked my sisters questions and would hear wise responses. I heard a variety of reflective comments about how to live radical Franciscan poverty in today’s modern, material world. Still, no sister handed me the “how to” guide or any other easy answers. Instead, sisters repeatedly challenged me away from my temptation to turn to any black-and-white thinking about the vow of poverty and Franciscan simplicity. (Maybe a black-and-white approach left us along with those black-and-white habits!)

What was expected of me, I slowly learned, was that I gain the inner strength to discern how God was personally calling me to live out the vow of poverty in today’s world. No one was going to tell me what I could and couldn’t have, for I am not a child and should not be treated like one. As an adult, I had to figure out how to appropriately live my commitment in a communal, messy, Gospel way.

The type of poverty I am living today along with my Franciscan Sisters is grounded in Christ and requires practice and prayer.  It takes discipline, discernment and integrity. It’s a challenging process of commitment to growth and accountability.

And, what it is required most is not a trunk; it is a hefty portion of strong Gospel-centered personal responsibility.

[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]