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The spirit of poverty of Francis of Assisi
Interestingly enough one of the most attractive things about St Francis of Assisi, besides his love for all creatures and their love for him, is his life of poverty. For young people especially the ideal of such a simple life, which St Francis puts before us, is very appealing. It was certainly one of the aspects which attracted me to the Franciscan way of life a number of years ago. I am sure it is so for other friars as well. It was thinking about this that urged me to look at what inspired St Francis to live such a drastic form of holy poverty.
"How blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is theirs" (Matt. 5:3).
These well known words from our Lord's Sermon on the Mount were taught to the crowds who came to listen to him and follow him. Christ taught the Beatitudes for his followers. This invitation to life is given to everyone, not just the Apostles. The invitation is given to all the baptised, all of the faithful.
Our immediate understanding makes us realise that we are called to have a spirit of generosity with the goods of this world, as well as a real detachment, so that the material world does not consume us. In other words, we are called to make the person of Jesus Christ and his holy Gospel our first priority, freeing us to do good with all that we have.
And so the question must be asked: Why did St Francis choose to give up all of his wealth and possessions, rather than do good with what he had?
He certainly had access to a great deal of wealth and could have accomplished much with his money and social influence. Most people would see the latter as the best thing to do. It seems to me that Christians, committed to their faith, would readily say that they believed the Lord wanted them to do good with what they had. In fact, I recall speaking to a young man over a year ago, who said he wanted to succeed in life so that he could use his wealth to do good. (Not to mention enjoy it himself along the way!)
However, there is something much more than doing good which drove St Francis of Assisi.
Looking at the Sacrum Commercium (an early Franciscan treatise on Holy Poverty) gives an insight into St Francis: "While they were hastening to the heights with easy steps, behold Lady Poverty, standing on the top of the mountain. Seeing them climb with such strength, almost flying, she was quite astonished. 'It is a long time since I saw and watched people so free of all burdens.' And so Lady Poverty greeted them with rich blessings. 'Tell me brothers, what is the reason for your coming here and why do you come so quickly from the valley of sorrows to the mountain of light?' They answered: 'We wish to become servants of the Lord of hosts because He is the King of glory. So, kneeling at your feet, we humbly beg you to agree to live with us and be our way to the King of glory, as you were the way when the dawn from on high came to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death'."
This beautifully written passage provides a vital clue to St Francis' pursuit of the Lady Poverty, as he lovingly called her.
St Francis understood. He understood the humility and love of the Son of God. He dwelt on it. He meditated and pondered the mystery. He saw how the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity "leaped from the Royal Throne" and embraced poverty to give us life.
"Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, beng born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:6-8).
And so, St Francis, utterly in love with Christ, desired to imitate him and to be in holy communion with him always. A man like Francis with so much love saw only one path - a path that was narrow and difficult; a path that few would take; a path that leads to eternal glory.
St Francis not only gave up all of his wealth, he also gave up his earthly heritage - an extraordinary move for a young man of his time. He gave up all pride and earthly glory. He gave everything for the love of Jesus Christ.
God has a place for everyone in his Kingdom. Here on earth the Lord lovingly accepts us all who desire him and keep his commandments. Not all are called to live the kind of poverty that the saints have lived. In truth some are given wealth in order to help the works and projects of Christ's Church, as well as the poor and needy. Married couples have a duty to provide for themselves and their children. Yet the spirit of this great virtue is for all of us to strive.
Let me conclude with these prayerful words written by St Francis:
Fr Christopher Sharah's Brothers of St Francis community is located in Toongabbie, NSW. Web site: http://www.fsf.org.au
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 12 No 5 (June 1999), p. 20
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