Many people have a very romantic idea of Franciscan life and the vow of poverty. What I can tell you is that the meaning and the manner of living poverty has vexed Franciscans since the beginning with very little about it being terribly romantic. Most of the descriptions and stories of the life of early poverty were written years after St. Francis’ death, when the manner of living the vow – in conjunction with the vow obedience – was a divisive issue among the brothers. In one of the more notable descriptions from the Sacrum Commercium, an anonymous text from a latter period, the author tries to give his or her insight into St Francis: “While they were hastening to the heights with easy steps, behold Lady Poverty, standing on the top of the mountain. Seeing them climb with such strength, almost flying, she was quite astonished. ‘It is a long time since I saw and watched people so free of all burdens.’ And so Lady Poverty greeted them with rich blessings. ‘Tell me brothers, what is the reason for your coming here and why do you come so quickly from the valley of sorrows to the mountain of light?’ They answered: ‘We wish to become servants of the Lord of hosts because He is the King of glory. So, kneeling at your feet, we humbly beg you to agree to live with us and be our way to the King of glory, as you were the way when the dawn from on high came to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.'”
But does this description fit into the other things we know of the saint from Assisi? If asked about Francis of Assisi and poverty, or more specifically the disposal of worldly goods, most people recall the events of the years 1205-1206. These were the years when he was alone in his spiritual journey, before beginning a fraternal life of the “lesser brothers.” Francis was still a troubled young man trying to find his way in the world. It’s from this earlier period that we have the stories of Francis giving away his military amor and horse to a poor knight, giving away money for the restoration of abandoned chapels, the generous donations to the poor, as well as the frantic throwing of monies into the fountains of Rome. Eventually Francis found his path – as we have been describing in this series.
In 1209-1212, he finds himself the leader of a growing group of men dedicated to being poor for Christ. The Son of God who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness” (Phil 2:7) in what Francis saw as a most radical act of poverty. The life of poverty was confirmed for Francis in his experience of the sortes biblicae – the opening of the Bible, at random, three times to find verses that would reveal God’s will, e.g., Mark 10:17-21: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
Francis felt that worldly possessions kept the brothers from pursuing prayer, being dependent upon God, and following the way of Christ. And so when men came to join Francis, after a period of discernment, they were expected to dispose of their worldly goods. One aspirant was told to give away his worldly possessions – and he did to some of his less well-off relatives. Francis referred to him as “Brother Fly” which was about the worst thing Francis would say about another person. For Francis, this flew in the face of depending upon God since one could always return and ask favor of these relatives. One was supposed to choose: God or family.
Yet another person, himself poor, when asked to dispose of his possessions, was about to give away the family oxen to paupers in the town. Francis intervened and stopped the dispossession because Francis did not want the family to lose their means of livelihood. For Francis, compassion trumped other considerations. Francis referred to this brother as “St. John” the highest praise one could give.
New followers were expected to give up their goods and take up a life of common labor – yet take no monies for their work. Nevertheless, even Francis himself seemed to have received monies – but for the repair of churches or the needs of the sick. But the stories of living also show that money was something hard to distance oneself from. Even years later when Francis, sick in Cortona, gave away his cloak to a beggar. When the brothers found out, they wanted the beggar to return the coat to the very ill Francis. Francis agreed but only after the beggar was paid for the coat. Apparently, the friars (and Francis) were still handling money some twenty years after Francis began giving it away.
And it was not just money that presented a problem. In the spring of 1213, Francis and Brother Leo left Spoleto heading towards Rome. Along the way they stopped at the foot of a castle of Montefeltro where there was a feast in progress honoring a young man just knighted. In the course of the feast he preached to the knights and people present. Afterwards he was approached by Orlando du Chiusi, a man of great wealth and rank of the Caetani family. Orlando wanted to speak about the salvation of his soul with Francis. The words Francis shared with him that day and into the evening moved Orlando greatly. He gifted Francis with possession of a remote mountain, Mt. Alverna in Tuscany as a place of prayer and retreat for the brothers. Francis became a landowner. There are several medieval deeds of property transfer bearing Francis’ signature that have been discovered.
And the brothers continued to work out what it meant to follow Christ in fraternity with Francis of Assisi