A lively discussion, during morning instruction on early Franciscan history, on the question of poverty.
In Francis' own lifetime the order moved away from his vision of radical simplicity. Against his will the brothers began to follow the customs of monastic life, adopting a strict regimen of prayer and fasting like the Benedictines, while relaxing the rule that the brothers live without any property for their collective use. This turnabout made it possible for the order to survive, but it also marked the end of the Edenic era, if you will, of the Franciscan movement.
Perhaps only Francis alone was able to realize the goal of evangelical poverty toward which the Spirit of God guided him. Ironically, he achieved this when he was forced to concede that his great experiment in Gospel living had failed. His dream was dissipated. Letting go of the pretension of universal dispossession, an absolute poverty for all the brothers: this was the greatest poverty of all.
Questions, I have a few. Is privation a necessary element of voluntary poverty? If so, what must its character or quality be? What is its degree? Is it more than material? Is it also emotional, even spiritual? Are any of these kinds of privation desirable, healthy, or sane?
Led by the Spirit, Francis practiced self-denial as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. Yet the order was compelled to channel its charismatic embrace of poverty into the more acceptable measures of monastic discipline. To what extent is asceticism compatible with poverty? To what extent is it instrumental to the charism of minority? When and how does it conflict with the spirit of Christian discipleship?
Has the idea of poverty become outworn after centuries of spiritual conflict within the Church? Is the term too freighted with negative associations? Has the word lost its integrity? Ought we not adopt fresh language to refer to the conditions under which friars live up to their call to minority? Perhaps "simplicity"?
I do not have answers, but I do know my own preferences, and I can anticipate the choices I would have made if I were living with Francis and his companions in those momentous days of the early 13th century when changes to their way of life were inevitable. Faced with ultimatums, it would not have been easy for any follower of Francis to make a decision freely and faithfully. Thanks be to God, we who are in formation today embrace both/and thinking-and-doing, and with the benefit of eight centuries of hindsight, plus an ongoing reclamation of the charisms of our order, we can reckon with the challenge of poverty with a liberty our ancestors in faith would envy.
Francis and Clare, pray for us as we prepare to take the vow of poverty and embrace the charism of minority. Give us a spirit of fidelity to the Gospel, the core of our Rule, and a greater love of the poor Jesus, the Heart of our heart and the Soul of our soul.