Franciscan Poverty – Sine Proprio:

by Bret Thoman, OFS

Without Anything of One’s Own

Before you begin this lesson, I’d like for you to take out a sheet of paper. Draw a line vertically down the middle of the page and make two columns. On the top of the left column, write, “Things I value”; on the top of the right, write, “Things that concern me.” Take 4 or 5 minutes to list the things you value in the left column and things that concern you in the right column. [wait 5 minutes]. Now put the piece of paper aside as I begin this lesson.

Q: What is Franciscan poverty?

Francis defines his way of life and that of the brothers in the first sentence of his Rule of life: In Chapter 1 of the Earlier Rule of 1221 (Regula non Bullata), he says, “The rule and life of these brothers is this: to live in obedience, in chastity, and without anything of their own [sine proprio], and to follow the teaching and the footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the Later Rule of 1223 (Regula Bullata), Francis reiterated himself: “The Rule and Life of the Lesser Brothers is this: to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own [sine proprio], and in chastity.” In the Rules, the term, sine proprio, was a technical term used as part of a formula commonly used in the 12th century, which described the vow of poverty as one of the three evangelical counsels. So, this was not something new that Francis added to religious life.

I’d like to some other, slightly deeper, examples of Franciscan poverty. Francis used the same term, sine proprio, in other instances. In Chapter XI of one of his Admonitions, he said:

Nothing should displease a servant of God except sin. And no matter how another person may sin, if a servant of God becomes disturbed and angry because of this and not because of charity, he is storing up guilt for himself. That servant of God who does not become angry or upset at anything, lives justly and without anything of his own [sine proprio].

Here Francis extended the meaning of the term beyond one of mere technical form (as in the rules), and implies that poverty is more than a mandate or a material concern. In this description of living “without anything of his own” [sine proprio], Francis implies that poverty is a proper inner disposition; it is a serene response to another’s sins, defects, or vices. Thus, poverty reflects not just material issues (and their absence), but a “poverty of the spirit” – an emotional and spiritual detachment from another’s state of being around us. How is this an example of sine proprio? Ask yourself how you respond to others’ defects and vices? Do you get upset? If so, it’s an invitation to work on poverty in this sense.

In other writings, Francis used variations of the word, “proprio”. In Fragments Found in a Manuscript in the Worchester Cathedral, we find a form of the Latin verb appropriare which is the infinitive verb form of the word proprio, meaning “to appropriate”, “to make one’s own” or “to appro­priate to one’s self.” Francis writes, “No minister or preacher may make a ministry of the brothers or the office of preaching his own, (appropriet sibi ministerium vel officium praedicationis) but, when he is told, let him set it aside without objection.” Appropriare sibi can be translated “to appropriate to oneself.” Therefore, the sentence could be translated “No minister or preacher may appropriate to himself a ministry of the brothers or the office of preaching.” Here Francis is saying that the brothers should not become too attached to their ministries; they should humbly surrender them when required to do so. In this case, Francis describes a poverty of “detachment” a willingness to detach from those things around us – even when those things are good and you are doing the will of God. Francis says that even when we are in service and doing God’s will, we can “sin” against poverty. Have you ever “appropriated” to yourself a particular ministry, service, or apostolate?

In another writing, the 2nd Admonition, Francis says, “For that person eats of the tree of the knowledge of good who makes his will his own [who appropriates his will to himself] (qui sibi suam volun­tatem appropriat) and, in this way, exalts himself over the good things the Lord says and does in him.” What does this mean to you?

In this writing, Francis is extending the teaching on poverty to obedience. He is essentially saying that the person who appropriates his will to himself and in this way does not see that it is God who does good things through him is following Adam in disobedience and is sinning against poverty. There is the Scripture of the vines and the branches. (cf. John 15: 5) “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

And this holds true even when one wills something good; i.e. someone wishes to be helpful towards another or service oriented towards another. However, if that does not materialize, it is not God’s will, and the person should surrender his will to God’s. I remember one time hearing a Protestant missionary tell his story of his experience in China. He said that as a young pastor, he had gone to China and began preaching to the people. After a significant period of time, no one was coming to his church or listening to him. But he continued preaching. And still no one came. Finally, he cried out to God, “If you don’t convert the people and bring them to my church, I’m going to leave this country and go back home an atheist!” Then people began coming to his church. However, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was imposing his own will on God – if he was commanding God to do his will. It seemed to me that he was appropriating his will to himself and not God’s will. Obviously, one is appropriating his will to himself when he wills something bad to happen; for God never wishes for evil.

Scripture: The Lord says in the Gospel: “Whoever does not renounce all that he possesses cannot be my disciple; and Whoever wishes to save his life must lose it. That person who offers himself totally to obedience in the hands of his prelate leaves all that he possesses and loses his body.” (find quote)

So, once we scratch the surface, we discover a deeper understanding of what Francis meant by poverty. We see how poverty (or lack of it) characterizes one’s inner disposition and attitude. In Francis’s view, true poverty is not appropriating to one’s self what is not meant for one to have or keep. It refers to a way of life that is not merely void of material possessions, but that is free of self, liberated from personal desires, willing to let go of ambition, surrendered to God’s will. This is true even when one wishes to do good. Thus, the opposite of poverty is appropriating things to one’s self; i.e., clinging or grasping to one’s will, storing up treasures, possessing.

Francis believed that we have nothing of our own; everything that we have is not ultimately ours; it originates in God and will return to God. It is as if our possessions are actually “on loan” from God. Thus, Franciscan poverty is equally about attitudes and values as it is about wealth or the lack of it. When we come to a deeper understanding of Franciscan poverty, we discover a better ordered way to properly relate to (a) our brothers, (b) our selves, and (c) God.

See Admonition V: “Nothing belongs to you”

  • Now, take your sheet of paper that I asked you to make at the beginning of the lesson. Look back at your values and the things that concern you. Now consider the things on the two lists.

a. Only “keep” the things that are valuable to God and the things that concern God. We can have an idea of the things that God values by considering if you will take them with you to heaven after you die. Can you take your earthly inheritance? Can you take material things? No, but you will take your charity and love. Therefore, discard the things that are of no value to God; keep only the ones that are of value to God.

Every vice and sin that exists is a form of taking to ourselves what is not ours to take; i.e. the 7 deadly sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony

b. Now let’s look at the things that are of value to God. Even these things have their origin in God. Even these things do not belong to you. While not abandoning the things that you value and that concern you, even these things have to be surrendered to God. They are from God, and they must be always given back to God. When we go through life with this spirit, we are much more at peace. We give thanks, we rejoice, and we praise God for the things that he has given us – even if they are taken away.

Yet, even the good things that God gives us can be “appropriated to ourselves” when we fail to recognize that they come from God and are temporary gifts for our use

Are you appropriating to yourself that which is not yours to take? Or if has been given to you, are you putting it ahead of God?

c. Can you see how “appropriating things to yourself” is a violation of the first commandment. Do you see how living “sine proprio” – without anything of one’s own – is following the first commandment? How can you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, when you are keeping something for yourself that is not yours to keep?

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