Every Friday morning after the office the leader of prayer reads a chapter of the Rule of St. Francis (1223) and we take fifteen minutes to meditate on its meaning in our life today. It is a great practice constantly reminding us of who we are and who we are to be as friars.
Today we read chapter four, “That the Brothers Should Not Receive Money”. In what is the most overlooked and disregarded chapter in the Rule, friars are forbidden to receive coins or money, either directly or indirectly, for any purpose other than the infirm brothers and clothing for cold places. According to Francis, the friars were not even to receive money to give to the poor. Instead, friars were to work for a living, taking in wages only what they needed to survive for that day, e.g. food, clothing, housing.
Naturally, this is something that has troubled me since the first time I read this on retreat in postulancy. What the heck do we do with this command? Clearly we’re not even trying to live this, we’re just blatantly ignoring it. If that’s the case, what else are we neglecting? It turns out, we’re also not allowed to enter the monasteries of women, appropriate houses for ourselves, and my favorite, ride horses. If all of these things are in the Rule, and we are clearly not adhering to them, how can we even say we follow the Rule at all? Is this, as some would say, “cafeteria Franciscanism?”
Without spiritualizing away the true difficulties of humility and material poverty that Francis experienced, I think true faithfulness to the Rule does not mean strict literalism. Just because the Rule says something explicitly doesn’t mean that that is exactly what we are to do. How is this not picking and choosing issues? The fact of the matter is that this document was written in a context not our own: society and Church of 1223 is nearly unrecognizable to society and church of 2014. Because of that, what was meant in 1223 is undoubtedly going to take on different meaning in a different time, place, and culture, making a literal adherence to that culturally condition expression a potentially inappropriate expression for today.
Faithfulness to the rule, thus, must not be a strict observance of the literal words but a faithfulness to the intended purpose of such actions. What was it that Francis and his brothers wanted to capture? What was it that they wanted to protect against? What is the underlying spirit that guided them to live as they did. In answering these questions, we find that the above passages are still critically important, but must take on a different expression today.
In the case of not receiving money, it must be remembered the economic context in which Francis lived and the role money had it in. Unlike today, money was not standardized and readily available. There were two types of coinage: one that the rich used, which held its value and was worth much more, and one that the poor used, which fluctuated in value and was often used as a means to cheat them out of due wages. It was an unjust system that disproportionately hurt the poor. Add that to a call to “leave everything” and follow Christ, relying solely on God’s providence with one’s eyes focused on the kingdom of heaven rather than the kingdom of fading money and power, and it’s clear why Francis forbade his brothers to take any part in this system.
With that in mind, we look to our own world. The concept of money is not a controversial topic any more. Not only is it standardized and readily available, it has completely replaced all other forms of economy. Try getting a job today and convincing the boss to pay you in loaves of bread and warm clothes. It won’t happen, and really, it can’t happen. That world has been replaced. Should we throw away the fourth chapter of the rule, then, since friars must receive money to live in this world? Absolutely not. Just because the specific expression no longer makes sense, the value still remains: we continue to live in a society that separates the rich from the poor, that acts with great injustice for the sake of money and power, and tries to distract us from what is truly important, following our Lord into the kingdom of heaven.
So, what does this look like? Well, it calls us to look at money in a different way than the world does. Although I get a stipend each month for my needs, I am reminded not to see it as my money that I can do with whatever I want and no one has a right to it, but rather something to use for the sake of the kingdom. Treating money as nothing more than a practical necessity, something to be shared and used for ourselves and others rather than something to be hoarded, defended, and worried about, frees us from the futile world of greed and consumerism, able to use things for the sake of people rather than what we usually do, use people for the sake of things. It calls us to often go without money, experiencing what the poor experience in this unjust system, to live as examples of people who’s joy is not dependent on material things.
Ultimately, what I’m trying to say in this post is that this process of understanding our Rule is not something reserved for friars but rather an example of the discernment all Christians must have each and every day. When we look at our sources for following Christ, are we called to live out the literal expression of the biblical text, or are we to be faithful to the intention God had through the writers? When we are able to shift from the former to the latter, to hold the text of scripture in one hand and the daily experience of this world in the other, what we’ll find is that the experiences are different but the truth remains the same. We can choose to remain in the realm of the literal, choosing the easy interpretation that does not force us to integrate the text in our lives but only gives us the option of accepting or ignoring bewildering precepts, or we can prayerfully engage the experiences of those who have gone before us as a common people, struggling through the ambiguity, to live the way Jesus would have lived had he walked the earth today.
What I say is certainly not easy, and is no easier in a faith community of diverse backgrounds and opinions. But that is our life. We do not live in a black and white world of easy answers. We live in a complex collision of worlds and realities that are all striving for meaning and all capture a bit of it, to varying degrees. It is only when we are prayerfully open to the diverse experiences our brothers and sisters that I think we will ever come close to living the way Jesus intended us to live.