A rich young man once approached Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” After referring to the Decalogue, Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” We read next that “when the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions” (Matthew 19:16, 21–22).
In contrast, Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone (1181–1226), who later would become known as Saint Francis of Assisi, the rich son of a prosperous Italian silk merchant, heard the voice of the Master and went away happy because he was a man who listened to the Word of God and acted on it (see Luke 8:21). Saint Francis underwent a gradual yet decisive conversion to Christ that would reinvigorate the missionary activity of the Church by founding the mendicant Franciscan Order. Upon studying the life of Saint Francis and the charism of the Franciscans, we discover that the paradoxical privilege of poverty is their lifeblood and treasure.
In his book “Spirit of the Liturgy,” Joseph Ratzinger considers the role of saints within faithful discipleship: “One might say that the saints are, so to speak, new Christian constellations, in which the richness of God’s goodness is reflected. Their light, coming from God, enables us to know better the interior richness of God’s great light, which we cannot comprehend in the refulgence of its glory” (111). In particular, the Franciscan constellation of meaning is revealed as Lady Poverty.
To understand the essence of holiness achieved by sanctifying grace, and not by human invention, it is necessary for us to pass beyond the frozen clichés of sainthood that arrest the possibilities of our own gradual and steady progress in virtue. We must let ourselves move beyond pious kitsch, beyond statuary and stained glass, beyond airbrushed halos and holy cards, beyond sentimentality and sensationalism. Instead, when we allow ourselves to be met by the rawness and realism of women and men who took the carpenter from Nazareth at his word and witness, we uncover in our souls a God who desires to rend the sinner from the saint.
Brother Francis was a man who went from riches to rags so that he could court lady poverty to the banqueting table where the wine never runs dry. When a friend once asked him if he was thinking of marrying a woman, Francis replied, “Yes, a fairer bride than any of you have ever seen.” He was speaking of his beloved Lady Poverty. Once this rustic migrant was wooed by lady poverty, his own flesh became a living Gospel, and his presence alone was persuasive.
Many know about the pivotal moments of conversion in the life of Saint Francis: his surprise encounter with a leprous man; the mystical locution from the icon of Christ crucified in the San Damiano Chapel; his creation of the first Christmas crèche; his stigmata received on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross; and even his missionary voyages and his attempt to convert the Egyptian sultan Al-Malik al-Kamil. In addition to these familiar scenes, might we accept the uncanny beggar’s invitation to contemplate the startling poverty that characterizes the disruptive discipleship of Saint Francis and the Franciscans? Let us examine a few significant passages from the Rule of Life of the Friars Minor penned by Saint Francis.
The very beginning of the Rule encapsulates everything that follows. The Friars Minor are “to live in obedience and chastity, and without property, and to follow the doctrine and footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1). Evidently, the God-Man loved poverty and Saint Francis recognized this about him. As for the man who wished to enter the Order of Friars Minor, Saint Francis instructs, “Let him sell all his goods and endeavor to distribute them to the poor,” and “let him not desire rich clothes in this world, that he may possess a garment in the kingdom of heaven” (2). Just as Saint Paul insists that “the love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Timothy 6:10), Saint Francis corroborates this truth by saying, “For we ought not to have more use and esteem of money and coin than of stones. And the devil seeks to blind those who desire or value it more than stones. Let us therefore take care lest after having left all things we lose the kingdom of heaven for such a trifle. And if we should chance to find money in any place, let us no more regard it than the dust we tread under our feet, for it is ‘vanity of vanities, and all is vanity’” (8).
Even though the Friars Minor were to live in abject poverty, their founder encouraged the brothers, “Let them take care not to appear exteriorly sad and gloomy like hypocrites, but let them show themselves to be joyful and contented in the Lord, merry and becomingly courteous” (7). The testimonies surrounding the life of Saint Francis do not portray a man who was poor and sad, but rather a merry witness to Christ and his Gospel whose poverty liberated him to rejoice even more. Far too often, when surrounding ourselves with passing pleasures, cozy comforts, and self-insulating patterns of being, we miss the secret made known in the life of “God’s fool,” namely, that voluntary poverty dilates the soul to the highest degrees of self-giving and truly humble magnanimity.
In these few passages of the Franciscan Rule of Life, the power of evangelical poverty is disclosed. Saint Francis shows how a decrease in my own private material goods can bring about the increase of spiritual goods in the other person facing me. Without the gradual or immediate forfeiture of material possessions, the spiritual advancement of the self and the other is thwarted. Holding loosely to the things of earth is necessary to hold tightly to the things of heaven. So may we ponder the radical discipleship of Saint Francis in order for our own lives to produce the rich fruit that is borne only out of the fertile soil of simple poverty.