My parents were traditional Midwestern Protestants who had several close friends who were Catholics, but who understood Catholicism as a separate faith from theirs. (This seems to reflect the way Catholics thought of Protestants before the Second Vatican Council, to be fair.) I never heard it directly from them, but through back channels I picked up that there was some consternation when I became Catholic, and years later, when a niece and later a sister joined the Church, they were a little more direct in expressing their concerns.
So it was a mystery to me how a statue of St. Francis of Assisi found its way into the courtyard by the back door we passed every time we left or returned to the house. It was a small statue of Francis with birds around him, which reflects the way the general culture thinks of him. Sort of a Dr. Doolittle with a religious habit.
But in Italy, his nickname, if you will, is il poverello, the little poor one, because he embraced poverty in a way few have. When his papal namesake was asked about why he chose the name Francis, the pope’s response began and ended with St. Francis’ commitment to poverty. And his story – from son of privilege to holy beggar, from leader of the popular crowd to embracer of lepers – is deeply rooted to an almost romantic commitment to Lady Poverty.
This focus on poverty isn’t really idiosyncratic; it’s hard to spend much time reading the New Testament without finding the many instances in which Jesus and his early followers taught through their words and actions about the centrality of poverty. Francis just took it farther than most.
To the extent that the message has made it to the present day, it generally focuses around ensuring that greed, or the love of money, isn’t your primary love. Jesus talks about how you can’t serve two masters, and for many of us it is a challenge to be able to say with a straight face that in our consumerist society, the love of our stuff hasn’t replaced our love for God and neighbor. The Christian appropriation of the Hebrew tradition of tithing is supposed to help temper that urge to glorify money and stuff, at least a little.
And it’s a good test to ask ourselves if we are more focused on love or more focused on money in how we spend our time and energy. But that doesn’t scratch the surface of Francis’ commitment to poverty.
Francis’ story of conversion has several turning points, but one of them is surely his renunciation of his family and its wealth. After his father called him to task for taking inventory from the family cloth business, selling it, and using the proceeds to rebuild dilapidated churches, Francis publicly cast off everything related to his family, stripping naked in the town square so he could give his clothes back to his father. The local bishop threw his cloak around him (both symbolically and literally offering him cover), and Francis begged for alms from then on. (Don’t try this at home.)
When a few guys asked to join Francis in his way of life, he sought guidance from the gospels, using the tried-and-true method of opening the book up randomly and putting his finger on a verse. (Don’t try this at home, either.) All three times, his finger landed on a different version of Jesus’ admonition to the disciples to “take nothing on the journey”, so from then on, his followers were forbidden from owning anything. New followers were told to sell their possessions and donate the proceeds to the poor.
Francis’ embrace of poverty was radically Christ-centered. Beyond the sayings of Jesus his finger landed on, he saw the embrace of poverty as the way we could most follow Jesus Christ, because Christians profess that in the person of Jesus, God uniquely gave up the trappings of divinity to become a poor human. The lack of checkbook balance is nothing in comparison to the willingness to give up heaven, to Francis’ way of thinking.
I think a lot of us can get behind the “don’t let money rule your life” message. But the “sell everything you own, give it to the poor, and beg for a living” message is a lot tougher to take.
Here’s what makes it hard to shake, though. Francis’ total renunciation of possessions calls some uncomfortable questions. Here’s one: Where is your trust? As much as we can say that we rely on God, I am going to tell you that I rely on a job to keep a roof over my head and food on the table, and I rely on savings and insurance and the rest to cover everything else. It would be a lie for me to say otherwise. But Francis and his followers, following Jesus, trusted God to give them what they needed, even when that meant sleeping in a stable or skipping some meals. That is trust I do not have or at this point even aspire to.
Here’s another one: Who are your people? By embracing poverty for himself, Francis put himself in the circle of the outcasts, the fellow impoverished. While he was unique in his ability to be revered by people from all walks of life, he hung with the poor as one of them. For the checks I may write and the service projects I may do, I still go home to my own place.
Those are the sorts of hard questions that the radical life of Francis of Assisi make you ask, if you get past the garden statue.
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