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Voluntary Poverty and the Franciscan Path

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Franciscan Path of Descent

Voluntary Poverty
Monday, June 8, 2015

Francis was born in 1181 in Assisi, Italy. Already, Europe and the Muslim world had endured two crusades. The third crusade began when Francis was a boy, and the fourth when he was twenty-one. In short, the world was obsessed with war, fear, and security needs. Assisi itself was fighting an ongoing war with Perugia, a neighboring city. Francis rode off to fight and was taken prisoner by the Perugians in 1202. In 1204, the Christians of the West sacked and looted Constantinople, which the Eastern Orthodox Christians have never forgotten.

Shortly after that, Francis came out of prison dazed, disillusioned, and feeling there must be something more than all this torture, cruelty, and aggression. Francis seemed to realize that there is an intrinsic connection between violence and the need to protect one’s possessions, perks, and privileges. His own father was one of the first generation of propertied businessmen in the new trading class of Europe. One biographer found city records of 12th century Assisi showing that Pietro De Bernadone, Francis’ father, was indeed buying up the lands of the poor. Francis recognized that his father’s obsession with money had in many ways destroyed his father’s soul, and so Francis set out on a radically different path than his father, and in some ways, in overreaction to it.

Francis concluded that the only way out of such a world was to live a life of voluntary poverty, or what he called a life of “non-appropriation,” and to simply not be a part of the moneyed class. The rope that Franciscans wear around the waist is a sign that we carried no money, since the leather belt at that time also served as a wallet. Francis knew that once you felt you owned anything, then you would have to protect it and increase it. It is the inherent nature of greed—there is never enough. For some reason this is no longer considered a capital sin in our capitalist society. In fact, I have never heard anyone confess an offense against the 10th commandment. “Coveting our neighbor’s goods” is the very nature of our society.

One of Francis’ biographies, written in his own lifetime, tells of Francis saying, “Look brothers, if we have any possessions, we will need arms to protect them, and then this will cause many disputes and lawsuits, and possessions impede the love of God and neighbor. Therefore, let us decide we do not want to possess anything in this world.” This is a radical idea, one we later Franciscans have not followed very well. We found a way to have possessions, and yet we recognized that our possessions tend to possess us after a while. In fact the more we have, the more true this is. Even so, I have met many poor people who are very materialistic, and I have met many people of means who are extremely generous with their possessions.

Gateway to Silence:
Make me a channel of your peace.

Adapted from The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis, disc 1 (CD)

Image Credit: Stigmatization of St. Francis (detail), 1297-1300, Giotto do Bondone, fresco, Upper Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi, Italy.
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