As I was completing the assigned readings for class the other day, I came across a line in Maurice Carmody’s book The Franciscan Story that I found particularly helpful as a point of reflection. Within a section chronicling the first days of the movement, Carmody has this to say about the earliest brothers’ need for a simply lifestyle:
At the heart of their brotherhood lay the conviction that they were called to live in solidarity with the poor, to work alongside them or, if necessary, to join them in begging. If they had given up work, it is hard to see how their way of life, which did not correspond with the traditional forms of religious living at the time, could have survived. Solidarity without work was impossible and begging would have been nothing more than a selfish intrusion into the world of the poor.
I am drawn especially to the last line and the dilemma that all who wish to live in solidarity with the poor have to face: how poor does one have to be “to be in solidarity with the poor?” Does solidarity simply mean being conscious of their troubles and working so as not to worsen them? Does it mean renouncing all of one’s worth, power, and status so as to live side-by-side with the homeless, begging for food to make a living?
What I take from this passage (and others) is twofold: No one can be in solidarity with the poor without experiencing true poverty for oneself, and that poverty is not something to be romanticized as an end in itself.
In order to be in solidarity with the poor, he wanted to know the poor by experiencing what they experienced. He lived where they lived, ate what they ate, and wore what they wore. In doing so, he not only experienced the physical struggles of their poor conditions, but also the psychological ones, like the stress of living without a safety net.
Francis was also conscious of the effect this would have and asked, does it help the poor if we are all just as poor? I’m reminded of a scene from a popular movie: witnessing a woman trapped in a bear exhibit at a zoo, the only four men around that notice her life-threatening situation decide to jump into the pit with her rather than get help. At that point, they were of course in solidarity with the trapped woman; on the other hand, they made her situation worse because there was now no one to help, and if help ever came they would need to help five people instead of just one. The same is true with Francis: had he attempted live at same level of poverty as those incapable of helping themselves, begging when he was capable of working, he would have simply made the life of the poor harder, and at what gain?
As a friar in the modern world, I will be faced with many difficult questions that require compromise and critical thinking so as to live as best I can withand for the poor. With very little way of answering any of them now, here are a few things I’ve been wondering:
- Is it better to buy higher quality products, i.e. cars, appliances, that will last longer and will certainly cost less in the long wrong, or to only purchase what the poor are capable of buying and deal with the same frustrations of lower quality products?
- Taking this question to the extreme (but still and important question), should we even own cars, washing and drying machines, and computers, or should we be forced to use public transit, laundry mats, and libraries for these needs like the poor are?
- Is it better to buy more expensive organic foods, products that are better for the environment, the workers, and our health, all things that friars should be conscious of, or do we resort to buying the cheapest foods we can find and distribute the savings to the poor?
- Is it better to become vegetarians, recognizing that meat is expensive, bad for the environment (in the amount it is currently consumed), and not always readily available for the poor, or do we simply try to provide more adequate nutrition to all?
I don’t think that there is a universally correct answer to questions like these, but I do think we can always strive for more nuanced ways to both be in solidarity with the poor and to serve them better. Ultimately, its helpful to remember that Jesus was not the poorest person in history, and so our imitation of him does not require us to be either. There is such a thing as dehumanizing poverty, poverty that strips a person of dignity and defaces God’s creation. In understanding this, we who seek to live in solidarity with the poor should never cross this line ourselves, foolishly and selfishly accepting less than human conditions. What good is it for the poor for us to jump into the bear pit? I think there are better ways to do justice to our neighbor than to take on their pain just to see how it feels. Then again, I speak from ideals and theories; let’s see what a few more years and some real life experience brings, shall we?
At St. Anthony Mission here in Greenville, SC we live “among” the poor. That is sort of a “with” the poor. But what it is not – that is, what we guard against, is any form of condescension, or any form of inauthenticity. You will discover quickly when you live among the poor that they can smell a rat fast. The poor know when we are playing games. When we live as we are gifted to live, and keep a focus on the LESSONS the poor can teach us, all the while offering our gift too, we have street cred with the poor. They then let us into the more critical part of their lives where the causes of debilitating circumstances lie, i.e., self image, educational achievement levels, addiction (which is highly related to self image and coping skills development). Frankly, an honest friar-minor will realize he shares these thoughts and feelings about himself at times. This is true solidarity with the poor.
True Franciscan poverty to me is three-fold.
1) No one is better than me, and I am no better than anyone else. We take our value from the pouring out blood of Christ alone.
2) The humility expressed as “everyone living authentically and giving their gift needs the environment to support that giving. No one gives when they feel threatened/judged.
3) Asking the hard question, “What is the measure of my life?” If the answer comes up as anything other than the love of Christ crucified, that other measure will fail, we will not persevere in this life, and the poor will see through it faster than any of us can.
In this mission which God has given us, a person can be rich, free, and genuine. No money or material possessions will give us this. It is gruesome honesty and hard loving from the strength experienced in the Holy Spirit as we encounter Christ crucified. Only Grace, the freely given, unmerited, favor of God can bestow the gift we all need.
When “I” am weak, then “I – with God” and strong. (paraphrase of St. Paul).
Patrick Tuttle, OFM Blessed to be in Greenville, SC
Thank-you for the gut check, Fr. Patrick. I needed that since I am living in a public housing project for the elderly and handicapped. Many of the residents are poor and few have a college education. I am so happy to attempt to be a follower of St. Francis.
Thanks for mentioning “The Franciscan Story.” I have purchased and started reading a copy. It’s very well written. I had previously read “Francis and His Brothers” by Dominic Monti, another good history. Will you also be reading the Monti book?
Emil, we were actually assigned both books for our Franciscan History class this summer. While “The Franciscan Story” is more ambitious to include all three orders in as much detail as possible, “Francis and His Brothers” offers a concise synthesis that is tough to beat. Hope you enjoy them!
Thanks, Casey. I’ll keep that in mind as I read the books.
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As a full time lay catholic Missionary family, I struggle with this exact dilemma…it’s actually how I stumbled upon this. We are called to be in solidarity with the poor… for us as a family with 7 kids, it’s hard to know what this should look like. Everything you said is everything I have pondered and prayed with. Our mission is fully funded by the generosity of others…I know the truth is the Lord desires us to fully rely upon Him for everything….but in our humanness we feel we need to be doing something more. I feel the Lord say, “Am I Not Enough?” “Do you trust me?” I think you said it right “No one can be in solidarity with the poor without experiencing true poverty for oneself, and that poverty is not something to be romanticized as an end in itself.”