What U.S. Christians Can Learn From Saint Francis of Assisi

Cigoli,_san_francesco

“Make Me An Instrument” – A Prayer by Saint Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

————————————————————————————————————————————-

During the medieval period of the church in the west, cathedrals became grander, splendor became more awe inspiring, and the church itself saw itself in a great and powerful position. However, not everyone was on board with the majesty of cathedrals and the rising wealth present in society. In fact, a movement began to emerge. Francis of Assisi was a pioneer within the mendicant order as he sought to challenge the rejection of poverty[1]. His theology, his life, and his teachings would find him at odds with the status quo for a while, but they would later be affirmed through sainthood and this makes Saint Francis an important figure in Christian theology. Not too long before his death, St. Francis penned his “Testament” in an effort to make known his calling and beliefs as his order of friars known as “Franciscans” grew[2]. In this blog, I will show that Saint Francis wrote “Testament” to remind Franciscan monks of their calling into liberation through willing poverty which also speaks to the need for 21st century Christians to live with more economic humility in the United States.

Francis of Assisi lived from 1181-1226 and was the son of a wealthy merchant[3]. Francis was born into wealth, abundance, splendor, and his every need was well met in his childhood. Yet, Francis chose to give all of this up. He renounced his life, his inheritance, and even stripped down out of his clothing to the point he was completely naked before the Bishop of Assisi and the crowd he was brought before by his parents[4]. From this, he went out to preach a message of simplistic living and poverty with a lifestyle which hinged on the instructions of Jesus to “go out two by two” without any money or any possessions[5]. The educated in this new Franciscan order preached while those who were poor (the majority) taught the Christian life by living it[6]. For Francis, therefore, the Christian must be fully committed to living out their beliefs in their own lives, even in the embracement of extreme poverty. They must “leave the world”[7] as Francis did and cut ties with anything that is not God or spiritually fulfilling.

This important historical backdrop is further enhanced in “Testament”. Francis took a vow of poverty to both reject the commercial culture and values of thirteenth-century Italian towns and in an attempt to imitate Christ who (according to Francis) was “poor as he lay in the crib, poor as he lived in the world, and naked on the cross.”[8] These assertions about Christ are pretty spot on and it would appear that Francis embraced them to the furthest extreme possible in his time. His embracement of poverty was a declaration of liberation from what Francis saw as the control that possessions put on their possessors[9]. In other words, possessions were a wall, a roadblock, or a speed bump between the believer and God.

stf01019Francis indicates one level of extremity in “Testament” which also highlights the living out aspect of those who embraced his teachings, “And those who came to receive life gave all that they had to the poor and were content with one tunic patched inside and out, with a cord and trousers. And we did not wish to have more.”[10] All the Franciscans had for clothing was a single tunic with a cord and trousers. To think that they did not long for anything else is not only striking, but inspiring. This extreme embracement goes further in that it is the polar opposite of the booming Italian economy and the society that reaped the benefits through wealth and possessions.

The choice in regards to clothing was not the only extreme which Francis and his followers embraced. In fact, Francis had strict requirements regarding accepting or rejecting dwelling that was offered to them as they lived in total dependence on the land and the charity of others. Francis writes in “Testament”, “The brothers must be careful not to accept any churches, poor dwellings, or anything else constructed for them unless these buildings reflect the holy poverty promised by us in the rule. We should always live in these places as strangers and pilgrims.”[11] As can be seen, not just any dwelling is suitable for the Franciscans and wherever they are to dwell or preach must not be exuberant or as full of splendor as the churches in Italy at the time. Moreover, the call for the Franciscans to live as strangers and pilgrims indicates that they are not to dwell in these places for a long period of time or overstay their welcome.

Manual labor was also something that was very important to Francis. While Francis viewed the struggle of obtaining and maintaining property as a sort of end to the open and free heart, he championed the idea of free and humble manual labor[12]. Francis says of this in “Testament, “I definitely want all the other brothers to work at some honest job. Those who don’t know how should learn, not because they want to receive wages but as an example and to avoid idleness.”[13] It can be said that Francis wished for his followers (as well as himself) to remain vigilant, laboring, and always helping one another as well as their neighbors. It was not as much about the wages they would or would not receive, it was about the spiritual growth and the presence of the Spirit among them and through them.

Here also is the idea of “learning by doing”. This carries over into the idea of “putting actions with words” or “practicing what one preaches”. For Francis, this was more than a declaration, this was a way of life. This was a commitment. This was a bond entered into with poverty that should not and could not be entered into lightly. This is important, in that, Francis saw the need for complete and total obedience to the call. It is in this very sense of complete dedication to poverty and rejection of abundance that Francis seemingly “left the world” as he indicated in “Testament”[14].

This asceticism practiced by Francis has theological underpinnings as well. Because Francis saw the natural world as a sort of arena for God’s direct activity, he engaged with nature and his followers saw what he did in the world as his holiness or God’s revelation of holiness through him[15]. This may very well be a key reason he spent much of his time as a pilgrim and living off the land as he fully became poverty itself. It can be said that through nature, he experienced, communicated with, and shared Christ with others.

To sum up the feelings of Francis towards poverty as both liberation and possibly the most important element of his theology, one could reflect back on a time when his friends assumed Francis was contemplating marriage as a meaning of wholeness[16]. It is here that Francis tells his friends, “I shall take a more noble and more beautiful spouse than you have ever seen; she shall surpass all others in wisdom.”[17] That bride would be poverty itself. This gave new meaning to the popular verses found in Mark 10 and Genesis 2 that Francis and poverty would become one in a spiritual marriage. Francis was poverty and poverty was Francis and it can be said that one may not have been able to tell them apart. Caroline Marshall notes, “Francis’ romance with Lady Poverty, his spiritual bride, lay at the very heart of the movement.”[18] This was indeed a spiritual life that Francis married into and his marriage to poverty was the basis for everything he said and did. This underlying theme of poverty is rampant, blatant, and championed in “Testament” as a means to an end for a purely spiritual life in the face of sheer decadence.Bernardo_Strozzi_-_St_Francis_of_Assisi_adoring_the_Crucifix_-_Google_Art_Project

Twenty first century Christians in the United States can learn a great deal form the life of St. Francis and the “Testament” he left behind. In the United States, there is a great emphasis on the so called “American Dream”. That is, if you work hard, put in extreme effort, study hard, and have passionate drive, then you can become financially successful and live in complete and total abundance. This looks good on paper to someone who has not heard the teachings of Christ in Luke 6 where He blesses the poor and rebukes the rich, but to Christians who see these teachings as binding in regards to social economic standing, St. Francis starts to look a bit less radical than he is first perceived to be.

One of my favorite books that I read time and time again is by David Platt and it is called: Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. One question Platt asks in this book that constantly sticks out to me is this: “are we looking to Jesus for total leadership in our lives, even if that means going against everything our affluent culture and maybe even our affluent religious neighbors might tell us to do?”[19] Understand, Christ does not call us all to give up everything we have and live off the land, but He does call some to do so and St. Francis was clearly one of those who received the call.

What does it mean for the modern 21st century Christian in America though? It means that, we too, should rid ourselves of the desires for riches and the horrible associations we assign to poverty in this country. St. Francis shows us in his life and in “Testament” that making an impact in life or leading others to Christ does not require a dime from our pockets. It requires a commitment. A commitment that is lived out and supplemented with words rather than the other way around.

It is here we can marry “Testament” to modern day Christians. Francis drew all eyes onto the plight of the poor and the need to care for them as Christ instructs. In America, we often turn a blind eye to those who live in poverty as we accumulate more and more wealth and possessions. The result is often sickness and death of those who cannot afford to care for themselves. In this sense, Francis was right in his thought that possessions control those who possess them and in America, this is a huge problem. When we look at the shape of the world globally, we must be mindful that all we possess means nothing to those who live in mud houses or sleep in dirt holes. We should be viewing “Testament” as a call to change that has been missed for centuries.

Poverty should be embraced and lived, perhaps not to the extreme that Francis lived it, but in a similar fashion. Christians in America should follow suit behind Francis and give up the excess that has been accumulated. Understand, I am not making the case that we sell everything we own, live in the woods, and eat squirrel guts for the rest of our lives. What is being proposed, however, is the embracement of humble living. With this embracement comes the realization that Francis was right and actions speak louder than words.

Nobody is requesting we strip naked and live in tunics, but perhaps we should check our closets. How many of us have mountains of clothes we never wear that could be given to the poor? Yet we buy more. The case is not being made to forgo food and rely on the land and charity of others to survive. Food is essential, but we often find an abundance of food that accumulates so much so that expiration dates arrive before consuming does. The free willing charity in the United States is lacking horribly, but perhaps embracing humble living opens the eyes of this country in the same way Francis opened the eyes of the church. Excess things control us and living in humility is liberation as best we will experience it.

That is, if you don’t take it further.  There is a place in society for the embracement of poverty. Imagine, if all lived minimally and stewarded the excesses they had, all of society would be on a level playing field. Poverty would become a badge of honor and needs would be met. Francis was right in “Testament”, it is good that we “leave this world” as well. It is good that we stop operating under this egotistic self-serving “American Dream” and live like the least of us. Jesus reminds us in Mark 8 that there is no gain for a man to acquire the whole world when it causes him to lose his soul. Francis teaches us in “Testament” that the only results of humble living are enriched spirits and Christ coming closer causing the soul to be fed and that is something no possession can even come close to offering.

Through writing “Testament”, St. Francis reminded the Franciscan monks of the liberating calling they had as they embraced poverty which has much to offer modern day Christians in the United States. All it takes is one person to take a stand for a movement to begin. All it takes is one person deciding that, in a society of decadence and abundance, that too much is simply too much. St. Francis certainly was that man in this instance. However radical his embracement of poverty and humble living may have been, it cannot be denied that his life and writing require us all to more deeply question our own lifestyle choices. Possessions satisfy temporarily, but humility satisfies eternally.

[1] Margaret R. Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought, (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004): p. 158.

[2] St. Francis, “Testament”, Fordham University, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/stfran-test.asp (accessed 14 October 2014).

[3] Margaret R. Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought: p. 158.

[4] Thomas of Celano, “First and Second Lives of Saint Francis”, Fordham University. http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/source/stfran-lives.asp (accessed 1 November 2014).

[5] Margaret R. Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought: p. 159.

[6] Margaret R. Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought, (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004): p. 159.

[7] St. Francis, “Testament”, Fordham University, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/stfran-test.asp.

[8] Margaret R. Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought: pp. 160-161

[9] Caroline T. Marshall, “The early Franciscans: an alternative life style in the search for freedom.” Fides Et Historia 5, no. 1-2 (September 1, 1973), EBSCOhost (accessed October 24, 2014): p. 53.

[10] St. Francis, “Testament”.

[11] St. Francis, “Testament”, Fordham University, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/stfran-test.asp.

[12] Caroline T. Marshall, “The early Franciscans: an alternative life style in the search for freedom.” Fides Et Historia 5, no. 1-2 (September 1, 1973), EBSCOhost: p. 53.

[13] St. Francis, “Testament”.

[14] St. Francis, “Testament”. Fordham University, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/stfran-test.asp.

[15] Margaret R. Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought, (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004): pp. 159-160

[16] Caroline T. Marshall, “The early Franciscans: an alternative life style in the search for freedom.” Fides Et Historia 5, no. 1-2 (September 1, 1973), EBSCOhost: p. 50

[17] Ibid.

[18] Caroline T. Marshall, “The early Franciscans: an alternative life style in the search for freedom.” Fides Et Historia 5, no. 1-2 (September 1, 1973), EBSCOhost: pp. 52-53.

[19] David Platt, Radical: Taking Your Faith Back from the American Dream, (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2010): p. 121.

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charlestinsley

My name is Charlie Tinsley and I blog about The Bible. In particular, I post my thoughts, commentaries, and Bible Study teachings I have done. I hold a Bachelors Degree in Science in Religion Summa Cum Laude with a Biblical Studies Minor. I am currently studying for a Masters In Divinity at Eastern Mennonite Seminary with PhD ambitions in the study of Theology. I am married and have been for several years and I currently reside in Virginia.

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