I have mentioned a number of times that Franciscan poverty, freeing oneself of material possessions in order to identify with the poor Jesus, was a major attraction to me in my discernment; receiving a minor in Poverty Studies and completing an internship at a soup kitchen even before seriously considering the friars should tell a bit about me. I have also mentioned that defining Franciscan poverty has been an 800-year battle among Franciscans; what and how much one should be able to own has been fought over and divided the charism more than a few times.
In response to this (and the problems particular to our province of men in the 21st century), a number of our friars have taken the opinion that a friar “can be as poor as he wants in this province.” What they mean by this is that one’s personal decisions for a simpler lifestyle are one’s own free choice. No one is forcing us to spend any of our stipend, maintain excessive wardrobes, or consume any more food or drink that we want to. Even if others define poverty in an altogether different way and live much more comfortably than one would choose, their decisions, these friars would say, do not affect one’s ability to live poverty how they choose: you can be as poor as you want.
Over the past four years I’ve thought about and struggled to live out this opinion. There is great truth in it: why blame others or “the culture of the friars” for not living poorly enough when I take everything that’s given to me without question? I have been forced (in a very good way) to think about what I’ve been given by the friars and decide if that’s even too much. At times, it has meant giving back part of my stipend, abstaining from food or drink, and refusing gifts. And that helps. But I find that this is only part of the answer. When we choose to live together, whether that be in a Franciscan context, a family, or simply in a larger society, we are never free to do anything and everything we want.
It’s tough to be that poor in America. The broadest example of this is simply living in the United States. Having just spent ten days in one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, I have now seen real poverty (as compared to the “poverty” we Franciscans live.) I saw houses the size of the bedroom I’m in right now with dirt floors and little-to-no sanitation, teenagers that walk 2 hours each way to get an education, children that had to drop out of school to help support their families, and meals in which a tortilla is the main (or only) item on the menu. Compared to even the poorest in the United States, the average person in Nicaragua has very little.
And yet, there is a great appeal to the simplicity of lifestyle we saw. Sure, they had much less, but their world was not tied to material possessions in the way that ours is. Most of them had very little, but many of them had a sufficient amount, and were happy. It’s no wonder that so many people go on trips like these and have a great desire to change their lives when they come home. Looking at the excesses all around them in the US, people like myself, feel very uncomfortable with all the things they now see as luxuries.
But good luck getting rid of them. What I mean by this is not a cynical take on one’s ability to let go but rather a realization that much of what we have is built into our societal structure. Are we really going to renounce clean drinking water to be in solidarity with our poor brothers and sisters in Nicaragua? Are we really going to throw our toilet paper in the trashcan rather than flushing it to go through some of the hardships they do? Are we really going to turn off our air conditioners AND lobby that every other home and business we visit do the same so that we can experience the relentless heat we knew there? I don’t think so. They’re kind of ridiculous questions, really. But that’s the point. So many of our luxuries are built into our societal structure and are outside of our control. Short of doing these radically ridiculous things, we are not free to live as poorly as we want.
Living together means shared decisions. Bringing this question back to where it started, the Franciscan friary, we can see a similar dynamic. One’s personal decisions can effect the situation to an extent, but are not the only factor in the situation. What if others in the house don’t agree with one’s conception of poverty? What if everyone in the house has a different conception? I may think it inappropriate to ever eat filet mignon as a friar (hypothetical), while others might think it’s appropriate sometimes, and even more think that it’s appropriate often. Does the house eat filet mignon? My personal desires only go so far in community because, believe it or not, there are other personal desires than mine. I would obviously be free to abstain from eating the steak as it is outside of my conception of poverty and no one can force me to eat it. True. I could go make a PB and J sandwich and be completely happy. But look what I have done. I have decided that my personal desire is great enough that I’m willing to remove myself from the group to do my own thing. I have chosen that it is better to be “right” than to be “together.”
And maybe, at times, that’s what we have to do. Everyone can’t be happy all of the time, and I don’t mind abstaining for someone else’s happiness. For one meal, that’s no big deal. But what if it’s every meal? What if it’s every friar outing? What if it is the general life of the friary? I can abstain from eating certain meals, but I cannot abstain from living in a certain house or using certain furniture. Just as in the situation with Nicaragua, there is a clear sense of culture in each friary that cannot be discounted. It is something outside of an individual’s control and has a great effect on their ability to act how they want.
So, can you be as poor as you want as a friar in Holy Name province? No, not at all. And I struggle with that. But it’s a struggle I want to have because I am not called to be a king. I am not called to be right all of the time and to get my way. I am called, as a Franciscan, to a humble life in community in which I have to learn to accept my brothers’ desires as legitimate, to grow outside of myself, and to live with the poverty that I am not in control. Sometimes, as difficult as it may sound, I have to compromise on my own ideals for the sake of community. Does this mean that I’m a fraud, that I’m weak and a hypocrite because I don’t stand up for what I believe? No. It means that, while I will challenge my brothers to a simpler lifestyle when I can, I realized very early in my Franciscan life that we are called to be together, not necessarily always “right.” A big part of being Franciscan is realizing that community life is never going to be exactly how we envision it, but that it is better to be challenged by our brothers than to easily have everything we want on our own. In this way, I know that I could live material poverty better on my own, but it is only in community can experience the poverty of not being in control and having to work with others that are different from you. As a Franciscan in this sense, you can can be as poor as you want.