The Divine Comedy: XIV. St. Francis of Assisi and Lady Poverty

Francisc_and_Lady_Poverty
“St. Francis Weds Lady Poverty” by Giotto, Basilica of Assisi.

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.”

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6 thoughts on “The Divine Comedy: XIV. St. Francis of Assisi and Lady Poverty

  1. I find ( having grown up in the church ) the Christian ideal of renunciation is somewhere near to masochism. Jesus said I come to bring you fullness of life… he did not neglect his body…he gave the impression of enjoying fellowship, he ate, drank and enjoyed life.
    He did condemn materialism,and attachment to the things of this life. But I simply cannot believe that if, as the church says God is Love, that He/.She/It wants us to feel miserable and deprived , and not honour the physical body which is the temporary vehicle of the soul.
    It isn’t logical to me that a Creator who has made a world teeming with beauty and abundance should want one part of that creation to be miserable, hungry and poverty-stricken.Ask and ye shall receive we are told.
    I love St Francis for his love of all creatures, and his insight into the life of the planet, so that all aspects were sacred to him, as to all those who understand his insights, but I cannot admire his self-flagellation.
    It’s a long way from Buddha’s middle way, and even the moderation which Jesus implied, as far as we can tell from the carefully edited gospels ( edited to convey what the church fathers decided people should believe)
    And I don’t actually believe that poverty is the same as being poor in spirit.
    I gather that one of the meanings of ‘poor’ in Aramaic was ‘simple’ in the sense of simplicity. So a more accurate translation of Jesus’ original words from the Aramaic, would be ‘Blessed are the simple in spirit. for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’..

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Valerie.

      Reading “King Lear” made me wonder whether Jesus really “enjoyed life” on earth. Can a god really enjoy life as a man, who is nothing but dust? If I believe,as Christians do, that Jesus is the Son of God, then I have to acknowledge the fact that God was born into this world for one purpose: to serve man and to die on the cross for man. No renunciation can even remotely compare to the self-renunciation of God, who is Love.

      I think St. Francis followed the example of Christ, because He called him,or rather, the love of Christ compelled him. So he too emptied himself, that he may freely give what he freely receives from Christ. He observed absolute poverty, but there is nothing in the accounts of his life that I’ve read that suggest he was miserable on account of his poverty. He exuded joy and love wherever he went, which was partly why many people followed him and the Franciscan order grew exceedingly.

      1. Thank you for exchanging views… I’m going to shock you by saying that I feel that Jesus was a man filled with the Christ spirit, and I feel he came on earth to teach us how to live like him ( and St Francis) but I do not believe that Jesus or God our Creator, requires us to be miserable, cold and hungry. And I have stepped away from the Christian belief that he redeemed our so-called sins by dying ion the cross for us. I believe that God’s creations are perfect, and we have forgotten that wholeness, and that is what Jesus came to remind us of…Be ye perfect, he said.
        One of main virtues that the Desert Fathers preached was discrimination, and that means to me doing everything in balance, common sense, moderation, some people like Francis get drunk on God, and live in bliss, for the rest of us, it’s the middle way, the way of the hearth in Indian terminology

      2. It must have been difficult to step away from what you grew up in, becoming a lost sheep, in Christian terminology, 🙂

      3. No, it seemed a natural progression as I had a deeper and deeper experience of God. I do not believe that the Divine Source differentiates between Christan, Buddhist, Jew, Moslem etc. We are all a part of Him/Her/It.
        After all Jesus saw himself as a Jew, and created scandal by including Gentiles – it was his successors who created Christianity…
        To me, It is one of the great failings of the mad-made religious construct called Christianity that it believes it has the only truth, and everyone else is ignorant, wrong or damned! How could a loving God outlaw and expel his creation because it does n;’t think in a particular way?
        And it is this fanatical belief that only Christians are right, and only particular sects of Christianity are right,which has created wars and violence throughout history.. The sufferings of the Quakers for example, or the Cathars are one small example of this. Only fundamental Islam has been as cruel and violent and one-eyed as Christianity , and all in the name of God! How can men be so ignorant or arrogant!!!

  2. As Shakespeare writes, “All that glisters is not gold”. Not everything under the guise of spirituality/religion is truth.

    To claim the exclusivity of truth is not necessarily fanatical or arrogant, IMO. It might even be life-saving. For example, suppose I were a doctor, and a patient who was seriously ill came to our hospital. Many other doctors gave their diagnoses and suggested treatments, but I had had more experience in this field and knew that the other doctors were wrong. The patient could die on the spot if mistreated. Should I be humble, deferential and keep my mouth shut, or should I insist on the only diagnosis and treatment that could save his life?

    I’m not qualified to discuss whether Jesus is the Son of God. But for discussion’s sake, let’s suppose that He is the Son of God. It would not be arrogant or ignorant of him to make such a claim, for he would simply be telling the fact. If he says anything to the contrary, he would be lying. As it is written, “If I honor Myself, My honor is nothing. It is My Father who honors Me, of whom you say that He is your God. Yet you have not known Him, but I know Him. And if I say, ‘I do not know Him,’ I shall be a liar like you; but I do know Him and keep His word.”

    You mentioned discrimination. That might be the key. I’m reminded of the story “The Prince and the Pauper”.by Mark Twain. How can the nobles tell which of the two young men who look exactly alike is the Prince? We need to discriminate the truth from falsehood. But nobody can discern the truth unless he knows the truth himself, or has a standard of truth to measure against.

    Many people have committed crimes in the name of Truth, however, in reality, they only serve their own lust for power and wealth. It would be unfair to blame the truth for the deeds of the hypocrites.

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