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Highjacking Poverty?

July 4, 2014

Over the past couple of days, I endured a resurgence of the crippling joint pain of the chikungunya virus that I (and most everyone I know in Haiti) contracted a couple of weeks before my return to Canada. My doctor confirmed what my own research had revealed—that I might suffer similar painful bouts for several months. I have been effectively restricted to sedentary activities until the pain subsides, but in reality, this is not a real privation at all. I have been able to contentedly spend my brief (I hope) convalescence uninterruptedly rummaging around in the musings of others, free from misgivings that perhaps I should be doing something other than relaxing with a pot of ambrosial tea (very fittingly, as you will soon see, Monk’s Blend) and a thought-provoking book.

After my encounter with Thérèse of Lisieux, I committed myself to becoming more acquainted with another of the more preeminent saints, Francis of Assisi. I had known him since childhood as the friar surrounded by animals, but that acquaintance was one-dimensional. Having for years made extensive use of a quote attributed to him, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words”, I was surprised to discover some time ago that it doesn’t show up in any of his writings, and neither any of his disciples nor early or later biographers have these words coming from his mouth. I love the prayer that bears his name, but this too turns out to be a misattribution, its origins traceable back no further than 1912, almost seven centuries after the saint’s death.

On my initial search, I was faced with a somewhat bewildering catalogue of books on Francis. Deciding to follow the pattern I established with Thérèse, I chose to begin with a book about him rather than one of his own modest corpus of works. I narrowed my search to contemporary works, trying to avoid the more obvious adulatory hagiographies. Ultimately, I chose Francis of Assisi, A New Biography by Augustine Thompson, a rather scholarly work, based on sources written within thirty years of Francis’ death. It seemed to me fairly balanced; the author recognizes the important influence of this man on Christianity, but is also critical of what he sees as Francis’ motives.

While the author’s biographical narrative was enjoyable, and his historical analysis well researched and annotated, of far more interest to me was his commentary on the voluntary poverty of Francis. Presenting strong evidence to support his thesis, Thompson argues that Francis’ preference was for imitating poverty over alleviating it, and that his mission was directed specifically at the spiritual needs not of the poor, but of the wealthy. He contends that Francis: sought to live the life of a poor man not to be of service of the poor, but to induce others in his peer group to repent for their worldliness; identified with the poor to dramatize his rejection of the values of his social class; sought alms not for the aid of the poor, but as an exercise in humility that would give him credibility as a preacher of penance; and preached sermons that offered spiritual consolation and hope not to social outcasts, but to those who were in a position to enjoy life enough to feel guilty about it.

In short, Francis….offered his burgher audience a form of religiosity that truly gave them the spiritual upper hand, the moral “inside track,” in the race to heaven. It was not simply about affluent Christians counteracting the spiritually deleterious effects of wealth by engaging in acts of charity toward the poor. It was about redefining poverty altogether in such a way that only Christians of means could really appreciate it and aspire to it.

Thompson’s book provided me with a fresh perspective on the religious orders of medieval times. They were in reality an extension of the aristocracy, most monks sons of wealthy families who were able to provide the monasteries with the money and the vast tracts of land that they needed to support themselves and their liturgical activities.  As a result, the bulk of almsgiving was directed toward maintaining the artificial poverty of the mendicants and the monks rather than alleviating the very real poverty of the involuntary urban and rural poor.

The long-term effect of such patronage has been that the history of medieval sanctity quite naturally highlighted the activities of those who spoke most directly to the needs of the dominant sector of Christian society, the wealthy. Inevitably it was their versions of Christianity and their renditions of following the example of Christ that were endowed and immortalized.

Francis himself profited greatly from “sanitizing” poverty to underscore the particular merits of voluntary poverty, taking poverty as a virtue away from the involuntarily poor and giving it, in a newly spiritualized form, to the wealthy. It secured for him the respect and veneration of guilty burghers who had the resources and the influence to transform him overnight into an alter Christus (another Christ) and his followers into a powerful order.


Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)

Is this the correct rendering, or is Matthew’s “poor of spirit” what Jesus intended?

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