Voluntary Poverty

Franciscan Spirituality: Week 1

Voluntary Poverty
Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Francis was born in 1181 in Assisi, Italy. Europe and the Muslim world had already 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. Assisi itself joined in 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 (present day Istanbul).

Shortly after that, Francis came out of prison dazed, disillusioned, and feeling there must be something more than all this 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 twelfth 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, in some ways overreacting to his father, Francis set out on a radically different path.

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. Franciscans wear a rope around their waist as a sign that they carry no money, since the leather belt in Francis’ 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. That 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 tenth commandment. “Coveting our neighbor’s goods” is the very nature of our society.

Today the need for simplifying goes beyond an avoidance of violence. Our planet is in grave peril largely due to greed, overconsumption, and reckless exploitation. While most of us are not like Francis, willing to dive into a life of voluntary poverty, we must all make choices and decisions to do our part to follow these wise words of an unknown speaker: “live simply so that others may simply live.”

Gateway to Silence:
Who are you, God? And who am I?

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of St. Francis, discs 1 and 2 (Sounds True: 2010), CD.

Image credit: Saint Francis of Assisi Is Wed to Lady Poverty (detail), Fresco attributed to Giotto di Bondone, c. 1330, Basilica di San Francesco (lower level, over the altar), Assisi, Italy.
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