Monday, March 25, 2013

The Little Flowers of Franciscan Apologists: How "The usual image of Francis and poverty is skewed."

Poverty of spirit seems to be completely
misunderstood by the learned and the clever.

"While many associate the 13th century saint with poverty, he wrote little about it and when he did, he was pointing to the humility of the Incarnation and the death of Christ."

Indeed, St. Francis wrote very little about anything.  Nevertheless, he lived a life of radical, voluntary poverty - he embraced it, renouncing the world, he shared, 'took on' the life of the most destitute.  Contemporary men and women, brought up in comfort and luxury with access to every commodity they desire, cannot fathom the concept of absolute poverty.  They will donate to the poor, serve the poor in soup kitchens, volunteer at shelters, even work side by side with the poor - but most of us go home to our comfortable lives.  Even in religious communities attached to nursing homes and other facilities for the poor - the religious can retreat to their 'cloister', get days off, take vacations, go on retreats, and so on.  I'm not casting aspersions, believe me.  I'm just positing a possible explanation why most religious bend over backwards to construct theological arguments on the true meaning of poverty...  'Glossing' over the real poverty of St. Francis and St. Clare, and their first followers.

From the last testament and will of St. Francis.
And when God gave me brothers, no one showed me what I should do, but the Most high revealed to me that I should live according to the form of the holy gospel. I had it written in few words and simply, and the lord pope confirmed it for me. And those who came to receive life gave all that they had to the poor and were content with one tunic patched inside and out, with a cord and trousers. And we did not wish to have more.
The brothers must be careful not to accept any churches, poor dwellings, or anything else constructed for them unless these buildings reflect the holy poverty promised by us in the rule. We should always live in these places as strangers and pilgrims. I firmly command all the brothers, by the obedience they owe me, that wherever they are they should not dare to ask either directly or through an intermediary for any letter from the Roman court to secure a church or any other place, to protect their preaching, or to prevent persecution of their bodies; but wherever they are not received, they should flee into another land and do penance with God's blessing.
And I firmly forbid my brothers, both clerics and laymen, to place glosses on the rule or say, "This is what it means." But just as the Lord gave me the power to compose and write both the rule and these words simply and purely, so you must understand them simply and without gloss and observe them by holy action until the end. - Last Will and Testament
From the Rule of St. Clare:

Shortly before his death he once more wrote his last will for us that we--or those, as
well, who would come after us--would never turn aside from the holy poverty we had
embraced. He said: "I, little brother Francis, wish to follow the life and poverty of our
most high Lord Jesus Christ and of His holy Mother and to persevere in this until the
end; and I ask and counsel you, my ladies, to live always in this most holy life and
poverty. And keep most careful watch that you never depart from this by reason of
the teaching or advice of anyone."
Just as I, together with my sisters, have ever been solicitous to safeguard the holy
poverty which we have promised the Lord God and Blessed Francis, so, too, the
Abbesses who shall succeed me in office and all the sisters are bound to observe it
inviolably to the end: that is to say, by not receiving or having possession or ownership
either of themselves or through an intermediary, or even anything that might reasonably
be called property, except as much land as necessity requires for the integrity and
proper seclusion of the monastery, and this land may not be cultivated except as a garden
for the needs of the sisters.
Let the sisters not appropriate anything, neither a house nor a place nor anything at
all; instead, as pilgrims and strangers in this world who serve the Lord in poverty and
humility, let them confidently send for alms. Nor should they be ashamed, since the
Lord made Himself poor in this world for us. This is that summit of the highest poverty
which has established you, my dearest sisters, heiresses and queens of the kingdom
of heaven; it has made you poor in the things [of this world] but exalted you in virtue.
Let this be your portion which leads into the land of the living (cf. Psalm 141:6).
Clinging totally to this, my most beloved sisters, do not wish to have anything else forever under heaven for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and His most holy Mother. - Holy Rule


If people choose to gloss over the poverty of Francis and Clare, or consign it to a particular way of life peculiar to medieval culture, or an exaggeration of hagiographers, so be it.  In our day, thank God, there are lay people, and perhaps more obviously, consecrated religious who embrace voluntary, radical poverty.  The Little Sisters and Brothers of Jesus for one, as well as the more visible Missionaries of Charity of Blessed Mother Teresa. They really are poor - crazy poor - like crazy St. Francis and other 'fools for Christ' sake.

Remember - the Missionaries of Charity do not even engage in fund-raising.

From an interview with Mother Nirmala, M.C.:
Q: What about financial means: food, medicines, material goods?

Sister Nirmala: Absolutely nothing is lacking. God provides-- everywhere in India as well as abroad. You know, that is the promise of God for us. When Mother started the society and Mother was called, she did not start on her own, Jesus called her to start this congregation. He wanted her to be poor and the poorest of the poor. He wanted her to be empty-handed and serve the poorest of the poor free. It is such a paradox, isn't? He said: I will provide. That was Mother did, and that is what we are continuing to do: trusting in God's Providence, serving the poorest of the poor, free. And God does it. His promise is fulfilled every day. All we need to do is to keep being faithful to our commitments, to answer the call of God, everything else follows.

Q: But Sister, what would you tell those people who are so afraid of lacking the "indispensable?
things every day, or those who want to possess more material things?

Sister Nirmala: Trust in the Lord and do your best. Let the kingdom of God in your lives and he will provide everything.

Q: How does the Order cope with all the financial and economical demands?

Sister Nirmala: By trusting in God, and he is providing. We never ask for things. People just come and give. Everywhere they want to carry out fundraising activities, we say: "Please don't
fund-raise; we don't want to use Mother's name. No."
We want people acting on their own. We want their spontaneous collaboration. But if somebody is going around fundraising in Mother's name, we don't accept it. We want to depend on God's providence--only. - Source
In order to accomplish his work, Christ emptied himself, having no place to lay his head, he embraced poverty.  The saints continue to follow him, clinging to him alone, in love.  Dependent upon and confident in God's providence.  "The poverty of Christ is a footstep to follow,” explained one Capuchin Franciscan. 

Evangelical poverty has many varied expressions in religious life and the life of Christians - I'm not advocating that to be authentic one has to be homeless or destitute.  I'm just trying to point out that Francis and many of his first followers, as well as reformers of the Franciscans throughout history, lived lives of radical poverty and extreme humility - and found it indispensible to their way of life.  Indeed, many if not all the efforts to reform the Franciscan Order over the centuries were initiated by those who sought to be more faithful to the observance of poverty. 

Then of course, there is
Dorothy Day, poverty wasn't
exactly a sentimental journey
for her either.

Reminder: Benedictines take a vow of stability, and depending upon the monastic, can pretty much manipulate that to mean whatever they want/need it mean, just as some religious do with their vows of poverty. God love them.



  1. Beautiful and very instructive post. Thank you.

  2. yes. God love the Benedictines. :)


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