Monday, March 21, 2016

Ad usum

The community to which I belonged, the Discalced Carmelite Friars, was one in which the members professed solemn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The vow of poverty meant, among other things, that an individual friar did not own anything. Everything belonged to the community as a whole. There were a number of old customs that reinforced this idea. For example, in days of yore, I would not have said that I am using my laptop. I would say that I am using our laptop.*

In reality, of course, there were things that were not shared in every day use among the whole community, things that were reserved for one friar, though they did not technically belong to him. Often in old books in the library, I would run across books with a phrase penciled -- always penciled, never in ink -- inside the front cover: Ad usum [followed by a name].

Ad usum means, as you can probably guess even if you have no Latin, for the use of. Books such as this were usually ones that the friar had needed for a class or perhaps one that he had been given for some other reason, like a breviary. His name was in it to let others know that it was reserved for him. Not because it belonged to him, however, but because the community agreed that it was for his use for a particular purpose and time. When that purpose was done, the book went into the library or the name was erased and another written in its place and it went on to other folks.

Over time, such customs fell largely out of use, although the canonical [church law] meaning of the vows remained the same.

I thought of this today because of something I was reading in another context. The writer mentioned in passing that the things he had were his only to use for a while, that they were not things he owned. 

The earth, for example, and all its resources clearly fall into this category, although an observer from another planet might not think that Terrans believe it to judge from the way we act. With regard to land, the idea is even enshrined in Old Testament texts about the Land of the Promise. When the land was divided up among the tribes, clans and families, it was the use of the land that was granted to individuals, not the land itself.

This land, as the song says, is our land.

As is so much else, though we forget it. 

*Rumer Godden, in her wonderful novel about a Benedictine abbey, In This House of Brede, tells of an old lay sister, a stickler in the matter of my/our, who announced at a community gathering that she had broken "our false teeth."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As the hymnist so rightly phrased it:

Thine the gold and Thine the silver,
Thine the wealth of land and sea,
We but stewards of Thy bounty,
Held in solemn trust for Thee.

W. F.