Religious Studies

Poverty and Saint Francis

It wasn’t until a few chapters into reading “Poverty and Joy” that I realized St. Francis’s definition of poverty was likely different than the colloquial definition.  Webster’s Dictionary defines poverty as either a “lack of socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions” or “renunciation as a member of a religious order to the right as an individual to own property.” While the life of Saint Francis encapsulates this, William Short’s interpretation of St. Francis’s life defines poverty as “living without grasping.” This definition was further expanded later in Short’s argument that “to understand poverty primarily as a matter of having fewer of these, or less of that, counting and measuring with the eye of a spiritual accountant, makes a caricature out of Francis’ vision.” Lastly, Leonardo Boff saw Francis’ life as one “not only ‘with’ the poor or ‘for’ them” but “as the poor.”

Given the above, it seems likely the second definition provided in Webster’s Dictionary wouldn’t exist without either Saint Francis or Saint Clare the latter of which went so far as to petition the Pope for the right to renounce property; however, the definition does not fully describe the motivation for voluntary poverty in that scenario.  For me, the best explanation of motive was described by Dr. William Cook in his series “Francis of Assisi” when he said Saint Francis’ actions could best be viewed under the lens of a person in love.

Before reading the material for this week, I always associated poverty with Gospel teachings like that of Matthew 19:21, in which Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me” or Luke 6:20 “‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Bonaventure accurately describes the example of Saint Francis as “an example of perfect contemplation.” Jesus explained how to be perfect, and Bonaventure described Saint Francis as such.  After this week’s readings, I more fully understand poverty as a mirror of the life of God and Jesus Christ, particularly his incarnation.  

The life of Jesus Christ is a story that involves the voluntary relinquishment of divinity.  Short summarizes this, “In Jesus God gives up all ‘property’, even divine status, relying on alms and the care of others: in his birth among the poor, his life and travel among people considered of no account, in his suffering and dying, naked and shunned, even by close friends and relatives.” For Saint Francis, a person who taught “by word and example” and as a person who “had become prayer” the only way to follow, get to know, and love Jesus was to choose to be as much like him as possible voluntarily.  

 A point made early in Short’s book is that tradition implies the life of several people “otherwise we would have only the spirituality of an individual.” Considering this, I appreciated commentary on Franciscan life from individuals like Ubertino da Casale who said poverty is a “defense against distraction, idleness, greed, and worldliness.” The effectiveness of this voluntary choice was echoed by Pope Francis’s wish that the church would be “poor and for the poor.”  

I wanted to share the full fresco “Allegory of Poverty” by Giotto Di Bondone.  I had to look it up given the lecture showed only a section of it.  I found the children antagonizing lady poverty and the guest reactions on the left and right very telling of the spectrum of acceptance Saint Francis must have felt (possible rejection or confusion on the lower right vs mirroring on the lower left).  

Poverty in the sense of “living without grasping” influenced spiritual practice for Saint Francis and Saint Clare.   To begin with, their motivation was not “for philosophical reasons nor for practical ones,” but instead, they embraced poverty “because it was embraced by their Beloved,” who was Jesus Christ.  Saint Clare viewed poverty as a “privilege,” and her life was to be a “mirror.”  A pivotal point to Franciscan poverty is in its voluntariness.  For Saint Francis, Jesus voluntarily chose to become incarnate as man, or “a creature,” and not just any man but a poor one whose life was dedicated to service.  This choice continued to manifest itself in the eucharist, where Jesus is present in the simple form of bread.  For Saint Francis, a life of poverty allowed for a change in perspective of the poor in health and creation.

The perspective changed from someone living on a different plane to equality.  This is most evident in the “Canticle of the Creatures,” where Saint Francis refers to “Brother Wind” and “Sister Moon” and blesses those who “bear infirmity and tribulation.”  The reference to non-human creation as “brothers and sisters” was sourced in the idea that because all creatures come from God, and all things were made “through him, for him, and in him,” they were essentially peers to himself.  This viewpoint could not have been made by someone “grasping” for something.  The change in viewpoint was expressed in the migration of Saint Francis’ description of lepers from distasteful to sweetness. 

The viewpoint that all creatures were brothers and sisters to Saint Francis may seem extreme; however, this viewpoint is explained with the understanding that the creatures were created through Christ, for Christ, and were “messages from Francis’ lover,” the practice in spirituality becomes clearer.  That these creatures were additionally commanded to “be fruitful and multiply” carried additional weight for Saint Francis, as evidenced by the story of his saving doves and befriending wolves in “The Deeds of Blessed Francis and His Companions.” 

Voluntary poverty requires self-discipline.  Unlike those who for any reason, are forced into poverty, the freedom to choose poverty indicates the ability to revert to a life of grasping or the ability to revert to a life of wealth.  Voluntary poverty in Franciscan spirituality is a life modeled after the voluntary poverty of Jesus Christ and seeing the created world through a modified viewpoint.  If creation, including inanimate objects like rocks and planets, are messages from God and created for God with a delegated mandate at creation, they would have to be viewed as family.  Moreso, individuals created with souls but living in an involuntary position of disadvantage would automatically become sweet to someone loving them as they were intended – images of God.  When considering the idea that “The humanity of Jesus, even more emphatically the body of Jesus, is the point of God’s creating everything,” living with grasping is futile and the opposite of what would be considered productive in forming a relationship with God.  Only through the relinquishment of wealth in every sense is it possible to obtain the viewpoint that every person, creature, and the created thing is indeed a brother and sister worthy of the care demanded by God.  

Reference:

Short, William J. Poverty and Joy: The Franciscan Tradition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999.

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Religious Studies
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