The vow of poverty: Reflecting on the witness of Francis

By Richard E. Helmer

One early story of Francis, long before he openly renounced all worldly possessions and founded the friars minor in the early thirteenth century, is that he was approached by a beggar while selling cloth in the Assisi marketplace. The son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francis would have recognized the affluence of our context. Growing up, he had every imaginable worldly comfort – and that most enticing and precious of all commodities of affluence: choice. He tried his hand as a businessman, as a soldier, as a man of decadent leisure. But here, with a beggar asking for a mere few coins, Francis was confronted with the greatest choice of all: how to best help the lost and forgotten among us.

One of the latest debates in my parish’s largely affluent community is whether or not panhandlers should be permitted to beg at one of our busiest intersections. It made the front page of the the local paper the other day, with a respectable citizen, born into a respectable family in town, asserting concerns for traffic safety over and against the need for a bit of money to buy food or water for those passing from one shelter to the next. It’s a smaller version of the perennial debate in nearby San Francisco over what to do about panhandling. The real issue, it seems to me, is not traffic or public safety as much as the unsettling reminder the begging poor bring to the midst of our affluence – a reminder of the injustices of our economy, and more profoundly a reflection of our own vulnerability that we can often deny, however falsely, with our material wealth.

It was Francis who re-discovered, in a radical move that echoed Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel, how to undermine the whole argument. The young Francis, the story goes, ran after the beggar in the marketplace in Assisi, and when he caught up with him, he emptied the entire contents of his pockets into the beggar’s hands. It would be like handing a panhandler your entire wallet or purse – an invitation to a complete stranger to run through your whole credit line, empty your bank account of cash, or give away the power of your identity. Francis was scorned by his friends and severely chastised by his father for such an act of radical generosity. But how a move like that would radically change the climate of the debate over whether or not the indigent poor can stand at an intersection begging for a few quarters, a bottle of water, or a snack from a passing car!

Francis, when he at last embraced abject poverty as not just a way of life, but the Way he would follow after Christ, found himself re-anchored in the earth. Taking Jesus’ instructions literally, he walked unshod and barely clothed, begging his way for food and carrying not even a bag or a walking stick with him. He touches us in our context as perhaps the first Christian hippie, the first Christian environmentalist. He probably smelled. Rumor has it he even talked of befriending the lice on his scalp – enough to give our contemporary school officials fits of apoplexy! He called the scorching sun his brother and the cold moon of chilly nights his sister. From helping lepers to the legend of his making peace with a ravenous wolf, Francis became intimate with the very things from which our worldly affluence and comforts were meant to protect us: cold and hunger, death and disease, danger and vulnerability. In this way, Francis embraced the Christian humility of accepting our true reality. And it is no small irony that Franciscans remain one of the largest religious orders in Christianity, and the largest in The Episcopal Church and wider Anglicanism, now eight centuries later. They offer an alternative to the narrow and often stifling confines of our socio-economic climbing and covetousness.

Would Francis recognize a world of highways, cars, airplanes, and the complexities of Western free market capitalism? Would he understand the power-brokering of our politicians and the tug-of-war between wealthy corporations? I would venture to guess he would see at work in our lives the very same dynamics he decided to set aside in the early thirteenth century. Would he understand our desire to have our pets blessed this time of year, of our friendships with the creatures of the earth, whether they swim, walk, slink, or fly? I’m sure he would, though he might point out as a dog trainer I know muses, that it is not so much our pets as we ourselves who require tough training in the realities of these relationships!

When I recently attended the life profession of a Franciscan brother in San Francisco, the preacher at the service made note of a critical aspect of Franciscan spirituality, rooted as it is so deeply in the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Poverty,” he said, “is not the absence of riches.” For Francis discovered a different kind of riches when he set aside the affluent lifestyle of his family and renounced his material inheritance. He discovered a charisma that built a movement capturing the attention of popes and prelates, politicians and peoples, and the imagination of a Christianity yearning to free itself of corruption. He discovered a wealth of inspiration that brought about the rebuilding of churches throughout Assisi and beyond, and radically challenged the indolence of overly wealthy monastic communities and the machinations of ecclesiastical officials.

“Poverty is not the absence of riches, but the absence of power.”

Francis gave up control over his own destiny, and made no pretense to take the helm of the movement his witness unleashed. While he was called upon to engage in high-level conversations with the rich and the powerful, he eschewed authority for simplicity and lived quietly and generously in a society of friars and sisters for many years. It was entirely the work of the Spirit moving among the people that re-formed Western Christianity subversively and from within at the height of the Middle Ages. When Francis embraced poverty, he gave up his personal power to control what God was doing in his midst and through him. And in an irony worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Francis became more powerful than he could have imagined, perhaps in the way our prayers in the Daily Office offer as a closing benediction: “Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

Poverty in the fullest sense of the Franciscan vow and the witness of Christ and his first followers is about setting aside the personal power: the panoply of choices we all covet, the craven grasping to control our own destiny – so that God’s power, the unleashed an unpredictable wind of the Spirit, the insatiable life of the Divine, may go to work in and through our lives. It is an irony worthy of the Gospel that our worldly understanding of power and control diminishes us to the point of utter deprivation, of soul, of spirit, of community. Our material goods serve too often to more isolate us than comfort us, to dominate us with anxiety rather than to serve us with peace. Our pursuit of wealth as our culture not only poisons the earth, but poisons us into a false sense of security and control. Francis’ way of radical renunciation of material goods and choice actually unleashed more influence and power flowing from the Spirit of God than a hundred popes, corporate moguls, or presidents could muster – with all of their economic, political, and military might – for the Ages.

Francis discovered this in the marketplace as a youth when he emptied his pockets for a beggar. He was a laughingstock, yes, but isn’t it an interesting thing that we remember Francis’ generosity today, eight hundred years later as saintliness, his generosity as a reflection of God’s grace – and we cannot name even one of his friends who derided him as they clung so easily to their personal power and prestige!

To live into one of the greatest of all spiritual lessons, to give away power, to embrace poverty – it all begins with generosity: a generosity that Francis knew flows directly from the heart of our most generous God. . . from our God in Christ who embraces not just the beggar and the forgotten, but every leaf, every slinking creature, every speck of the Cosmos, every one of us. . . who gives away divine life even on the cross for us. . .and as Francis reminds us, wraps us up all together in a love of infinite abundance that transcends even death itself.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

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  1. Bill Carroll

    Thanks for this fine reflection, Richard. There has been some interesting reflection in Franciscan journals about the proper use of power when we are placed in administrative roles which dovetails nicely with general reflections about the use of power to empower others and power with vs. power over. The rule says that the lesser brothers are to live sine proprio, without anything that is one’s own. There are Franciscan analyses of original sin as appropriation, making one’s own the gifts of God, which are given to be shared in common. There is a critique of the present political and economic order implicit in this way of telling the story and also a critique of bourgeois religion which is far to accomodated to that order. Power too should not be appropriated. It is a gift meant to be shared and used in the context of koinonia, sharing of goods in common.

  2. tobias haller

    A superb meditation, dear brother in Christ! The desire to be free from desire, free of the desire to control, surrendering to the ability simply to enjoy, simply to be. I think Francis and the Buddha would have had a wonderful conversation!

  3. To give away power is harder than giving away wealth.

  4. The Rev. Richard E. Helmer

    Thanks for the gracious comments, Bill and Tobias! I agree it is easy to “baptize” our cultural obsession with material wealth, especially in our more established congregations. It’s a longstanding pattern in church history, dating all the way back to some of the Pauline epistles, where it is clear Roman priorities are starting to be adopted as Christian. It’s forever a tension in our midst…

    Ann, I agree, though giving away wealth is always a helpful start, as wealth gravitates towards (personal) power and vice versa.

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