i hate those people that tell you
money is the root of all that kills
they have never been poor
they have never known the joy of a welfare christmas
everclear, "i will buy you a new life," so much for the afterglow (1997)
Edward Blair Leighton, "The Charity of St.Elizabeth of Hungary" (c.1900)
i spent the better part of this past semester arguing to my students that francis may have been crazy, but if he was it was the good kind of crazy. i argued that francis needed to be interpreted not merely economically and politically, though this was important, but as a mystic, in the tradition of pseudo-dionysius and meister eckhart; that there was little distance between bonaventure's theory and francis's praxis.
partly i made this argument for my own benefit. i have always struggled a bit with the franciscan tradition and the belief that poverty was a good. in the 21st century the distance between the medieval mendicant orders looks small, but the franciscans really were radical in a way that, for instance, their nearest contemporaries, the dominicans, were not. for dominic, poverty was pragmatic. wealth symbolized corruption, decadence and heartlessness to those dominic was trying to reach. thus dominic insisted that the order lay aside wealth in order to reach those persons. francis on the other hand embraced poverty as a good.
i grew up in a home that was poor. the poor child of parents who were pulling their own way out of even greater poverty. my father spent most of his childhood in a small two room house that i only knew as a shed, leaning precariously to one side, used to store my great-uncle's lawn mower and a few other gardening items. it fell down a few years ago when a hurracaine blew it over. my parents were both the first in their families to get college educations. my father did not finish his until well after i was born. my mother, who was, in her youth, a better student, never used her teaching degree to earn money until after my little sister left home when i was in my 20s. i came along and interrupted her plans of being an elementary school educator.
we lived in a trailer in the middle of a large trailer park: the north carolina sun beating down and baking my mother in summers so that she would flee, me in tow, to the shopping mall or grocery store in order to find air conditioning. my first christmas was a green-stamp christmas. i have vague memories of our already outdated black and white television being broken for several years because they could not afford to fix it. there was a small (and later larger) garden through-out my childhood, not because my parents had any particular interest in gardening, but because it meant they did not have to buy so many vegetables. i could go on...
the truth is, i was so young i did not realize we were poor and by the time i was old enough to be able to comprehend it my father had completed his engineering degree and was working full time and we were not poor any longer. nonetheless it gradually became clear to me that we had been poor and that this was not the poverty of francis. this poverty hung about the necks of my parents like a millstone and they needed, desparately, to get out from under it. the poverty of francis was meant to be freeing, and freedom lived in pursuit of god. the goal was to create a situation in which one no longer desired anything other than god. and so, just as the great mystics would strip away every concept that stood between them and god, so also, francis insisted on stripping away every physical reality. it was a struggle to master not only the mind, but the desires of the body as well: to recover the beautiful edenic life, where body responded to mind, and reason and the will governed the material order.
it is a truism of medieval theology that god does not need anything. god is the Whole, full and complete. and if one is to be engodded, if is to be an alter-Christus, as francis's companions identified him, one must also desire nothing. this could only happen when one let-go and could simply be. god does not have nor possess, nothing belongs to god as a piece of property, god is the One that is also All, with nothing to lose or gain. for francis poverty was the way of capturing that idea, a way of reaching the point where one could simply identify in one's being and will with the divine in perfect love.
i am not poor; indeed i am, when looking at the world in its entirety - though this perspective is lost if one lives in america too long - one of the rich, one of the aristocrats, so fascinated by francis. i am elizabeth of hungary, looking for some way to lay aside my crown. having been spared the poverty of my family's background, i am now unable to find the poverty of francis and am instead trapped within the poverty of riches. i still have my theoretical issues with "voluntary poverty", but where will one find an alter-francis, in any case, that could show one the way?