One of the things that I continue to discern on my Franciscan journey is the idea of poverty. When I look to scripture, Jesus is very clear about what it takes to follow him: “Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor” (Lk 18:22, Mt 19:21, Mk 10:21). It’s no coincidence that this same story is found in each of the synoptic Gospels, nor is it a coincidence that Jesus talks about the poor more than any other subject. Which makes me wonder a few things: 1) Is the vow of poverty an extreme expression of faith in Christ by men and women in religious orders, or is it something to which ALL of his followers are called? 2) Do even men and women religious fall short of Jesus’ expectations when they own simple, practical things like books and cell phones? and 3) Does poverty have a universal standard of living or is it relational to the rest of the community?
Honestly, I have no concrete answers for any of these questions at the moment; I ask them simply to show what sorts of things I think about during the day, and what sorts of things I will be attempting to answer over the next few years. So far, here’s what I’ve come up with:
I was looking around my room the other day, wondering, “What can I live without?” I thought about some of my clothes, the Bowflex dumbbells, and a lot of, if not all of my books. I had no problem imagining life without them because I see them as gifts from God, borrowed and shared so to make my life easier or more pleasurable. If I ever find these things are not being used, I will not hesitate to share them with those with greater need. Good, right? In the case of the rich man talking to Jesus, giving up what he could live without was not the problem though: it was giving up what he found dearest to him, his wealth, that kept him from following Jesus. So I asked myself, “What can’t I live without?” Essentially, what could potentially get in my way of following Jesus? I realized that my Mac computer and my iPhone were items that I prized much higher than anything else, and found myself very reluctant to even imagine life without them.
In one sense, what I take from this passage is that there is a certain disposition we must have towards all that we own, always able to drop whatever we have for the sake of following Christ. When we find ourselves becoming too attached to a certain possession, we might want to consider letting go of it, at least temporarily, as a way to clear the way for following Jesus. In the case of the rich man, it wasn’t the fact that he was rich that was important, but rather that he valued his money more than Jesus. For me, if I want to keep my computer or my phone, I need to start approaching them like my other items: gifts from God that are meant to be borrowed and shared; used but not loved.
That being said, I think this interpretation alone can be a rationalization to ease the consciences of all of us that own more than we need by saying to ourselves, “Well if I were to see Jesus face-to-face today, I would give up my (unneeded possessions) in a heartbeat!” This sort of interpretation upholds the status quo, and doesn’t ask for any true change in us right now. It in effect waters down the message of the Gospel forgetting that this passage still has a literal message: those with ____ need to give to those without ____ in order to follow Jesus. It doesn’t matter how easily we could let go of some of our possessions if we don’t actually do it from time to time.
From this, I think we are all called to determine what we could live without and share it with those in need. Such is the essence of Christianity. Part of my discernment over the next few years will be determine what exactly I could live without, and then to do it. As I begin to go a bit farther and live a life of vowed poverty, I think I’ll need to ask myself a more difficult question: “What can’t I live without, and how am I going to find a way anyway?”
Casey, Hi This is Nana. I am new on your list only because I am not a computer person – I do not have that knowledge. I depend on Grandpop and he is having a few problems with his computer so he’ll just have to get on the ball. Right now, I’m using Uncle Joey’s computer with Aunt Mary as my typist! Just want to tell you how happy and proud of you we are, both myself and Grandpop. I just think about the fact that I am one of 13, we have 10 children, and as you know, you are one of 28 grandchildren – none of which, other than you, have considered entering the religious life. We are very proud and happy and keep you in our prayers every day. We are so blessed and you can believe it because St. Francis stands outside of our pocono home every day and watches over us . Love you, Nana
Good Evening, Casey,
It’s interesting to see you wrestling with this question. I would have thought that the Franciscans would have answered it for you. This is the question that caused the Capuchin Franciscans to split from the Observant Franciscans (the branch of the Franciscan family to which the Franciscans of Holy Name Province belong). This same issue was the cause of the formation of the Franciscans of Primitive Observance [F.P.O.] in 1995. These men sleep on the floor and either walk or hitchhike wherever they go.
When confronted by the bishop of Assisi about St. Francis’ misuse of his father’s funds, Francis removed nearly all of his clothes, which is all that he had, and put on the traditional garb of the local peasants which ultimately became the present Franciscan habit. Thus Francis owned absolutely nothing and went door to door begging for his daily sustenance.
When Francis’ second follower, Bernard of Quintavalle, a rich and important citizen of Assisi, asked Francis how he should get rid of his money, Francis said. “We shall go and consult the Gospels to find out what Christ’s will is for you.”
“They opened the missal three times at random. The first time their eyes fell on these words, ‘If you would be perfect, go sell what you have and give to the poor.'” Englebert, Omer; St. Francis of Assisi, A Biography; St. Anthony Messenger Press, c. 1965. First Servant Books Edition, 1979, p. 46.
This is the same verse you quote above. It is from Matthew 19:21.
Thus, St. Francis and the first Franciscans followed a literal interpretation of the Gospel. Over the years, the Franciscans decided to moderate this way of life. Therefore, I think you should look to your director for the current application of the vow of poverty. He should be able to tell you what is considered appropriate for a Franciscan friar today. Then, you can decide whether you wish to follow a stricter interpretation.
May God Bless You,
Correction: The peasant’s tunic that St. Francis donned after he had returned his clothes to his father did not become the Franciscan habit. Per Murray Bodo, OFM, Francis’ friend Federico of Gubbio, “. . . gave Francis the hermit’s tunic and cord and sandals which were to become the distinctive garb of the Lesser Brothers for all of Francis’ earthly life and beyond.” Bodo, Murray, OFM; Francis, the Journey and the Dream; St Anthony Messenger Press; Cincinnati, Ohio, c. 1988, p. 19.
This left me looking around my room here at home. Much to ponder. We could all do with a little downsizing. I think it’s not so much what you own, but more of how those things interfere with your relationship with the Lord. The Franciscan goal is to live life simply and humbly. I think how you approach your vow of poverty should be toward the ultimate goal of that simple and humble life. As I meditated on your post, it also occurred to me that the other points of the vow of poverty are in realizing that you are totally dependent upon God, and in allowing the dependence and simplicity to help you to relate to your less fortunate brothers and sisters in Christ.
Although I consider myself Franciscan (my parish used to be staffed by the friars of Holy Name Province), I just started reading “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.” I offer you the following joke which is near the beginning of the book: A Franciscan, a Dominican, and a Jesuit were concelebrating Mass when the lights suddenly went out in the church. The Franciscan praised the chance to live more simply. The Dominican gave a learned homily on how God brings light to the world. The Jesuit went to the basement to fix the fuses.
This all having been said–it seems to me that you’re using your computer and your iphone to spread the Gospel, so I think they should be on the keep list. St. Francis would have been using pen and paper (the best human technology at the time), as you are using your computer. You getting rid of your computer would be akin to him going back to stone tablets.
Pax et bonem,
I just happened to read “Be a Franciscan” for the first time today and saw your post. I’m in no position to offer words of wisdom to you because I do enjoy the fruits of my labors. However, I will tell you that, many years ago, when my son was killed in a car crash, it was a friar who helped me through it. He made himself available to me via telephone and in person. Even when he changed his ministry location, he wrote to me via computer. I can’t tell you how much those letters meant to me. They encouraged me, they consoled me and they kept reminding me that God was crying with me, that He didn’t abandon me as I felt, that He was sharing in my pain. That friar has become an integral part of my family and over the years has been with us in happiness and more sorrow. Even when my husband died and he was out of the country, his letters and phone calls brought me comfort.
He used his iphone and computer to bring the gospel to life for me and I hope you don’t ditch your computer & iphone in the name of humility or poverty. After all, we’re in the 21st Century and God gave people the brains to invent the computer and iphone and to use it to spread God’s love.
I wish you well on your journey and will keep you in my prayers.
Pingback: Mid-Year Updates « Breaking In The Habit
Pingback: The Freedom of Letting Go « Breaking In The Habit
Pingback: The Freedom of Letting Go « Be A Franciscan
Pingback: Kenosis: What Could I Let Go Of? | Breaking In The Habit
Pingback: My Struggle With Poverty | Breaking In The Habit
Pingback: The Freedom of Letting Go - Holy Name Province