“Happy are those who live in your house, continually singing your praise!
Happy the pilgrims whom you strengthen, to make the ascent to you” (Psalm 84, 5-6)
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Father D'alzon and voluntary poverty
Emmanuel d’Alzon was born into a wealthy family that owned numerous properties and was financially quite sound. Thanks to the wealth of his mother, Madame de Faventine, the d’Alzon family was sheltered from material need. Although he was raised in such a favoured milieu, the young Emmanuel d’Alzon learned early on to lead a rather simple life; it was a conscious choice on his part. Right after his ordination in 1835, he rejected all the trappings of his previous estate and chose a more than a modest apartment in the old section of Nîmes. In 1845, when he made the decision for religious life at Notre-Dame des Victoires in Paris, he became even more attentive to his lifestyle: « I renounce all the property that belongs to me in the sense that I do not wish to use it except for the glory of God. I reserve the right to leave some of it to my family or not to, depending on what seems most prudent in the eyes of those I consult. I commit myself to live poorly as far as clothing, food, and expenses are concerned, without doing anything, however, that might indicate that I have already made a definitive commitment. » Fr. Emmanuel d’Alzon is very demanding when it comes to himself and we can note that he connects the vow of poverty with the need to work. Not to waste one’s time meant dedicating it to study or work. That would remain an essential point in Fr. d’Alzon’s vision of religious poverty.
It would be important to point out the generosity of Emmanuel d’Alzon. For him, it was not a question of amassing, but rather of distributing. Avarice was not in his vocabulary and, as a matter of fact, he often lacked sufficient foresight when it came to providing for the future. After his mother’s death, his financial situation became decidedly better because he had access to a significant inheritance. Certain members of the Catholic hierarchy came to covet this wealth especially those who wished to wipe out the debts of the apostolic vicariate of Constantinople. Emmanuel d’Alzon would prove to be generous to the point of making the two congregations he had founded more vulnerable, congregations whose communities and works also needed considerable financial support. D’Alzon was not a capitalist, even less a person of private means. He trusted in God and gave himself over to Providence for his daily needs. This did not stop him from being realistic, but at the same time very « supernatural ». « Ah! my God, when more money starts coming in, will we rely on you less for our livelihood and isn’t it more worthwhile to suffer from a little poverty? This virtue requires us to work and, in this regard, it has the great benefit of fending off slackers and discouraging laziness. Believe me, this sort of watchman prevents lots of abuses from occurring in many a convent….» D’Alzon didn’t want his religious to become rich and rely on their wealth like men of private means. He wanted poverty to be a goad encouraging work. In our day, the economic crisis we are experiencing has led us to give renewed value to manual work and community efforts to find new sources of income. In this sense, the crisis can be healthy, if it allows us to be more faithful to our religious consecration.
Voluntary poverty is a protest against today’s world
Emmanuel d’Alzon was a man of his time. He reveals a certain number of ideas concerning poverty and the poor that reflect the spirit of the age. There was, during the Second Empire, a certain diffidence with regard to the poor, who were considered to be lazy. Christian discourse was often an appeal to resignation rather than to changing the conditions of life. Nevertheless, Fr. d’Alzon suggested that voluntary poverty had the power of protesting the values of the world. « Above all, we want to practice poverty; we consider it indispensable in our day as a protest against contemporary morals. » There is a progressive openness of our founder to the realities of the working class. There is no doubt that Fr. Etienne Pernet’s influence was decisive in this area. Emmanuel d’Alzon encouraged him to found the Little Sisters of the Assumption and Pernet helped him to understand better the great distress of the simple people of his day.
The Assumption became aware of the social character of Pernet’s apostolic involvement, in touch as he was with the lower classes of society. It has been a tradition in the history of our congregation to recall that Fr. d’Alzon connected the vow of poverty to the virtue of hope. God is in fact our sole treasure and we must rely on Him for everything. There is a desire of self-surrender that is quite striking with d’Alzon and that he lived in his flesh. As Fr. Jean-Paul Périer-Muzet wrote: « Emmanuel d’Alzon left everything: his family, his aristocratic state, his relationships, his life of comfort. Emmanuel d’Alzon gave everything away: his fortune, his education, his health, his life in the service of the Church and of his congregations. » Emmanuel d’Alzon was an example of one who practised hope. He never allowed himself to be overwhelmed by adversity even though he had to face lots of failures. One might call to mind the disaster of the Australian venture, not to mention the many aborted attempts to merge with other congregations and the disappointments connected with the behaviour of certain religious. Finally, the death itself of our founder reminds us that right up to his last breath he tirelessly had to battle adversity. Hope flowed in his veins. He was a man who placed his trust in God alone.
Voluntary poverty implies the need to work
Finally, Emmanuel d’Alzon insisted that voluntary poverty entailed an obligation to work. A religious is faithful to his vocation when he engages in hard work. « Apart from what rest and recreation are necessary for human weakness, the religious spends all his time either praying or working – this is what his life is made up of. The work he does is a sacrifice of his body or of his intellect or of his will. And this, I repeat, is worship rendered to God the whole day long. It’s a question of wanting to get started and setting about it with vigour and determination... Let us work, let us work. The time is short. » His apostolic ambition, his zeal for the Kingdom of God, push him to be ever active. Voluntary poverty is demonstrated by one’s involvement in the material life of the community. We are servants. Emmanuel d’Alzon writes how early on he learned to make his own bed and eliminated the need for a servant to do it. It’s a moving account. « Can I tell you that I am finally getting down to living a life of poverty, one becoming of a future religious? For some time now, I have been making my own bed. The day before yesterday I changed rooms to a new one that I swept, probably not too well, but to the best of my ability. Today I put jugs and buckets in my corridor and the novices who live or will live here with me will try to follow the example that you set long ago in not having any servants apart from their own hands. Should I add that these poor fingers of mine inspire infinite compassion? When I arrange the covers on my straw bed, I usually skin them alive. So, please teach me how you are able to do it without too much damage… » So we see the aristocrat becoming a modest religious who accepts to undertake the humblest of tasks. This leads us to our own involvement in the material well-being of the houses where we live. Are we sufficiently involved in their upkeep? Do we rely rather on other brothers to free us from what we consider to be tasks that are below us?
Being configured to the poor Christ
It is not possible to speak of poverty without contemplating Christ on the Cross. He who was rich emptied himself « unto death, and death on a cross ». Jesus of Nazareth lived his life as a man in solidarity with all of humanity. His suffering wasn’t make believe nor was his death. Our poverty configures us to Christ. This takes place in stages. We become poor over the course of a lifetime by maintaining solidarity with other human beings and with the God of Jesus Christ. Fr. d’Alzon, in his letter on the crucifix, written at Lamalou-les-Bains on June 21, 1857, ushers us into the mystery of love that Christ lived for us. Fr. d’Alzon himself was marked by intense suffering associated with his illness. He discovered the limits to his activity and to his strength. The crucifix allowed him to place his faith in one who can do all things. He invites everyone to take up the crucifix in his hands and allow himself to be transformed. « Our Blessed Lord loves you, is instructing you, is fortifying you, by means of his crucified likeness…. You will experience the direct action of him who was nailed to the Cross for your sake. Your most earnest longing will be a transformation into Him. . ‘For me’, cries Saint Paul, ‘life means Christ’ (Phil 1:21). Your life will adopt this new dimension of ‘Christ’s fullness’. You will uncover vast spiritual horizons to which you will lovingly resort – and every form of life, every degree of knowledge, every extent of happiness, will be summed up in ‘Jesus Christ and Him Crucified’”.
So let us allow ourselves to be transformed into Jesus Christ because he is the truly poor one and he is the one who saves humanity from death. The vow of poverty configures us to Christ on the cross but also to the Risen Christ. The more we become poor, the more we become capable of new life, of eternal life. At the end of this brief overview of poverty as it was lived by Emmanuel d’Alzon, let us remember that our founder always took this vow seriously and found endless ways to put it into practice. As for Augustine, the placing of all in common was essential and work was indispensable. We have chosen to lead a sober and modest life.
From The letter to the Congregation on Religious Poverty (Letter n°2).