for even as a youth, he ran to war
against his father, on behalf of her-
the lady unto whom, just as to death,
none willingly unlocks the door; before
his spiritual court et coram patre,
he wed her; day by day he loved her more.
She was bereft of her first husband; scorned,
obscure, for some eleven hundred years,
until that sun came, she had had no suitor.
Nor did it help her when men heard that he
who made earth tremble found her unafraid-
serene, with Amyclas-when he addressed her;
nor did her constancy and courage help
when she, even when Mary stayed below,
suffered with Christ upon the cross.
When He who destined Francis to such goodness
was pleased to draw him up to the reward
that he had won through his humility,
then to his brothers, as to rightful heirs,
Francis commended his most precious lady,
and he bade them to love her faithfully;
and when, returning to its kingdom, his
bright soul wanted to set forth from her bosom,
it, for its body, asked no other bier.
Much as I like Dante’s poeticizing St. Francis and Poverty, I find the personification of Poverty as a lady lover misleading. Poverty is not a lady, much less a lover. A lady is dignified and courteous, but poverty is desperate and obnoxious; A lover gives all to the beloved, but poverty takes everything and gives nothing. Poverty is shunned as death, and in a very real sense, it is.
It is written in the Rule of St. Francis (1223), “The friars are to appropriate nothing for themselves, neither a house, nor a place, nor anything else”. St. Francis is one of the most beloved of Catholic saints, but perhaps the least imitated. Let’s be honest, nobody would choose poverty voluntarily and gladly, except a saint or madman. “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” (G. K. Chesterton)
According to the ancient Greek philosophers, there are three types of properties/goods: external goods, e.g., lands and possessions; goods of the body, e.g., health, strength and beauty; goods of the soul, e.g., knowledge, honor and reputation. St. Francis bids those who would follow Christ’s and his own example to forego all three types of goods. Truth be told, it makes me shudder just to think about what it means to follow the spirit and letter of his rule.
Firstly, the friars are forbidden “to accept money in any form…As wages for their labour they may accept anything necessary for their temporal needs, for themselves or their brethren, except money in any form.” It means he has to live literally hand to mouth, to beg for his sustenance every single day, to constantly endure hunger, thirst, weariness, sleeplessness, cold and nakedness.
Secondly, being poor may be no big deal when one is young, healthy, and not a care in the world, but abject poverty most often leads to malnutrition, starvation, lack of proper medical care, poor hygiene, diseases and death.
Thirdly, in a society where private property is valued above all else, the dirt poor are the outcast of society. As it is written in the Proverbs, “Every man is a friend to one who gives gifts. All the brothers of the poor hate him; How much more do his friends go far from him!” Poverty debases man and reduces him to slavery, without any genuine rights of citizenship. It was the case in ancient Greek and Roman societies, and it is the case in modern plutocracy.
All things considered, the idea that poverty is a lady lover is absurd. Even St. Francis didn’t love poverty for her own sake, but for the sake of Someone else.
In giving away all his earthly goods, St. Francis accepted the invitation which Jesus gave the rich young man who had inquired Him about the way to eternal life, “Sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” St. Francis wasn’t a social reformer, nor was he advocating socialism, he was pursuing Christ, the “treasure in heaven”. (To use a vulgar analogy, it is like trading in your old clunker and receiving a brand new vehicle in return. St. Francis was the true son of a successful businessman after all.)
To St. Francis, Lady Poverty was not so much a lover as a chaperon and faithful guardian, “the friend of the bridegroom”. She is constantly by the side of him who vows to give himself completely to Christ, lest he be enticed by the sirens of riches, honors and distinctions, and entangled and drowned by the affairs of this life. “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
Not only did St. Francis gave up all external goods, but also the goods of his body, which he referred to as “Brother Ass” and subjected to severe discipline. He believed sickness and death are part of God’s providence, and accepted them with alacrity and equanimity, referring to bodily death as “Sister Death” and his frequent illnesses as “sisters”.
On a certain occasion when the saint was suffering extraordinary physical pain, one of his religious meaning to sympathize with him, said in his simplicity, “My father, pray to God that He treat you a little more gently, for His hand seems heavy upon you just now.” Whereupon, weak and wasted as he was by his illness, he got out of bed, knelt down, kissed the floor and prayed thus: “Lord, I thank thee for the sufferings thou art sending me. Send me more, if it be thy good pleasure. My pleasure is that you afflict me and spare me not, for the fulfillment of thy holy will is the greatest consolation of my life.”
To suffer by necessity is difficult, to suffer willingly and cheerfully is even more difficult and rare, but it is not yet the Christian ideal. As St. Paul writes, “Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.” Out of the deep poverty, humility and simplicity of St. Francis, flowed rivers of pure love. He treated all creatures as God’s creation, which reflect His Image, and loved them all as his brothers and sisters, Christians and Muslims, the rich and the poor, men and animals, Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
Most people who give up material goods and physical comfort, either (as delayed gratification) to obtain more goods for more people, or to gain the goods of the inferior part of soul, that is they are willing to suffer as long as they gain the praise of men, glory and fame. St. Francis was willing to forego all these for Christ’s sake. In a letter addressed to his brethren, he writes “Hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves, that He Who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally”.
Paradoxically, absolute poverty is the Way to Heavenly Treasure. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”