Franciscan Poverty

 by Bret Thoman, OFS
As we begin a new year, let’s look at the origin of the word, January. It comes from the Roman God, Janus, who was venerated by the Romans as their first indigenous god. His name comes from the Latin word, ianus, which means door or passageway, in that he was the god of each beginning in space and in time; he was the beginning of the year, of religion, of life. For this reason, he was depicted with two faces, one that looks to the East, and one that looks to the West. Janus was a door that opens, an era that begins, a hope that rekindles, a renewal that begins anew.

So, as we consider this new beginning, let’s look again at poverty, since it is so fundamental to our vocations, not just as Franciscans – since it is at the foundation of who we are, but also as Christians.

In fact, since we were considering for a moment the Romans, who were pagans, let’s look for a moment at their worldview and relate it to poverty. The Romans, as well as the Greeks, believed in a religion that elevated nature above humanity. Their pre-Christian worldview that had as its form: the gods – nature – mankind. Yet Christianity countered this worldview with: God – mankind – creation. In other words, the cosmos is for mankind and mankind is not for the cosmos.

We could apply the “Great Chain of Being” to this. According to our biblical and Christian tradition, we have God, then humanity, then the rest of creation. Therefore, creation exists for humanity, not vice versa. In fact, creation exists to serve humanity, not vice versa.

Some modern philosophies have inverted the order and have elevated creation (i.e., nature) above humanity. Sometimes, in the process, there is an outright rejection of God altogether. When this happens, nature becomes the object of worship. We can look at certain films, like Avatar, to see this worldview at work in popular culture. A few years ago, I went to Disney in Orlando with our kids. In the Animal Kingdom theme park, they have what they call the “Tree of Life,” which represents the balance of nature, the circle of life, all living things coming together in harmony. The Vatican newspaper said, regarding Avatar that nature is no longer “creation to defend” but a “divinity to worship.”

At any rate, without getting too far off on a tangent, it is that the Jews and Christians of ancient times believed that: “there is a God, and immediately after him, we who are made by him are altogether like unto God, and that all things have been made subject to us — earth, water, air, and stars — and that all things exist for our sake, and are ordained to be subject to us.”

Let’s look at Scripture.

Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth. (Genesis 1:26)

This biblical vision is beautifully expressed in Psalm 8:

When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place— What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, put all things at his feet. (vv. 4-7)

St. Paul completes this vision indicating the place that the person of Christ occupies in it: “the world or life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God” (1 Cor 3:22 ff.).

What is does our Franciscan vocation teach us in regard to the world? The story and calling of Francis challenges us to detach ourselves from the world: a fuga mundi. We have writings from Clare and Francis speaking of “hating the world.” Did not Francis and Clare both “leave the world” in order to embrace poverty, not a spiritual poverty, but an economic and material poverty? Did not Francis strive toward asceticism and corporal penances in terms of fasting, punishing his body, even “hating his body”? As Francis was constantly looking up to heaven, did he not seek to “leave the world”?

Yet, doesn’t that seem to contradict our Franciscan charism of love for all creation? Isn’t the “Integrity of Creation” one of the SFO commissions? What about Francis’s Canticle of the Canticles? Didn’t he sing praise to God for all creation, which elements he referred to as his brother and sister; i.e. sun, wind, fire, and moon, water, earth, and death? Incidentally, these elements: air, earth, wind, and fire, were believed to be in the middle ages the classical elements making up the simplest and fundamental parts of which anything consists or upon which anything is based. They went back all the way to Greek philosophy in the West.
Apparently there seems to be a contradiction of despising and leaving the world on the one hand, yet treating material things with the greatest care and concern on the other. But this is not a contradiction, but is proof of the previously formulated principle: Creation exists for mankind, not mankind for creation. In fact, we will know how to correctly value earthly things in the measure in which we yearn for heavenly things. Because those created things are precisely sacramental signs that point us to the Creator. If we love created things disproportionately, then we become submissive to those things and we lose everything. But, if our hope is in the Father in heaven, then the created order will become for us a sign of the presence of God, yet it should never replace God.

Where does this originate?


Q: What would be the opposite of this?
Let’s look at idolatry for a moment.

At the foundation of our faith and belief is worshipping God – putting nothing before God. Conversely, any time we put something in front of God, there is a risk that it can become idolatry – the worship of a created object in the place of God.

We have the story of the Jewish people worshipping a golden calf.

When the people saw that Moses was delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for that man Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.” Aaron replied, “Take off the golden earrings that your wives, your sons, and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He received their offering, and fashioning it with a tool, made a molten calf. Then they cried out, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:1-4)

I’ve always thought it strange that the people of Israel would worship a golden calf. What benefit is that?

However, there is another, lesser known, story of idolatry that comes from Isaiah.

The woodworker stretches a line, and marks out a shape with a stylus. He shapes it with scraping tools, with a compass measures it off, making it the copy of a man, human display, enthroned in a shrine. He goes out to cut down cedars, takes a holm tree or an oak. He picks out for himself trees of the forest, plants a fir, and the rain makes it grow. It is used for fuel: with some of the wood he warms himself, makes a fire and bakes bread. Yet he makes a god and worships it, turns it into an idol and adores it! Half of it he burns in the fire, on its embers he roasts meat; he eats the roast and is full. He warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm! I see the flames!” The rest of it he makes into a god, an image to worship and adore. He prays to it and says, “Help me! You are my god!” They do not know, do not understand; their eyes are too clouded to see, their minds, to perceive. He does not think clearly; he lacks the wit and knowledge to say, “Half the wood I burned in the fire, on its embers I baked bread, I roasted meat and ate. Shall I turn the rest into an abomination? Shall I worship a block of wood?” He is chasing ashes! A deluded mind has led him astray; He cannot save himself, does not say, “This thing in my right hand—is it not a fraud?” Remember these things, Jacob, Israel, for you are my servant! I formed you, a servant to me; Israel, you shall never be forgotten by me: I have brushed away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like a mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you. Raise a glad cry, you heavens—the LORD has acted! Shout, you depths of the earth. Break forth, mountains, into song, forest, with all your trees. For the LORD has redeemed Jacob, shows his glory through Israel. (Isaiah 44:13-23)

In this Scripture, we see a different aspect of idolatry: that of taking what God gives us – that which is even necessary for life – and worshipping it instead of God. In this case, the Israelites were worshipping wood, which is necessary to build fires in order to cook and to stay warm during the cold months. This form of idolatry is different from the golden calf. This is interesting, because the Israelites were taking things that are God-given and are necessary for life. However, the wood used for fuel became for them a god in itself. They took their dependence on the wood and elevated it above God. In the process, they forgot that God gave them the wood for their own good. This is an example of appropriating to themselves what was not theirs to take. What they were given, instead of “receiving,” they “took.” Do you see the difference?

When we dedicate ourselves to true poverty, we live a life of surrender. We do not selfishly “cling” to the things that we desire or even need. We do not hoard things that are given to us. We gratefully and generously accept the things that come into our lives as being gifts from God. And when they go away, we do not complain, moan, fear, or become saddened.

Do not love the world — that is the key! Or better yet, enjoy the world, not as an end in itself, but as good in itself, and as an instrument, as a sign, as a sacrament of what is beyond. In fact, we will have true happiness in this world, only if we have our heart fixed on the world to come. Then we will know how to correctly value earthly things – by the measure in which we yearn for heavenly things. As long as we are constantly fixing our gaze in heaven, we can enjoy the things of the earth below without becoming too attached to them. When we have them, we can praise God, when we don’t, nothing has changed.

So, what is the idolatry we are guilty of? I doubt that anyone would worship wood today. So what are the worldly things that are necessary for our life today? What do we need? Some examples that come to mind are money, employment, jobs, house, etc. Of course we do need those things, which are good, and I am not suggesting that we discredit them. The point is, however, that they never take the place of God. When we love these things and they take the place of our love for God, they become idolatry. Material things are to be used and not .

Applying the great chain of being, we are to use the things below us in order to look to God above. We are to worship God who is above us, not the created things that are below us. When we replace God with material things, nature, or created things, we look up to them and those things become idolatrous.

And what about the other needs that are not material, but are perhaps emotional? What about relationships; i.e., spouse, family, friendships, children? We can speak of relationships also as needs. But do we become so needy in our human relationships that they take the place of God? Do we worship them instead of God?

Francis and Clare approached the created order with radicalism. They strove to empty themselves of all and every worldly thing in order to praise and serve God alone. They wanted nothing to interfere with their relationship with God. This is why they rejected all material things including money, property, and ownership in order to look only up to heaven.

This is why it is so important that we keep our faith in God above and never replace him with created things. We should never lose sight of the first commandment: “YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.”

Constantly ask yourself what is taking away from the first commandment. What blocks you from the ability to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. What material things do you love in place of God?

Franciscan faith challenge for the month:
Keep a daily examen of conscience. Each day ask yourself what is blocking you from the first commandment. Is there something specific? Are there several things? Use the following steps to become aware of the things that block you:

  1. Find some time and a place to be quiet.2
  2. Recall that you are in the presence of God.
  3. Spend a moment looking over your day with gratitude for this day’s gifts.
  4. Ask God to send you His Holy Spirit to help you look at your actions and attitudes and motives with honesty and patience
  5. Now review your day. Here, ask yourself what material things block you from fully living the first commandment. The final step is our heart-to-heart talk with Jesus.
  6. Do this daily for the next month. Each day ask God for the grace to confront your vices and character defects. The Holy Spirit will most likely surprise you with many new graces.

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