Mary as “Holy Lady Poverty”

The Nativity at Night, Guido Reni, 1640

This reflection appears today in a special edition newsletter published by the Our Lady of Indiana region. We normally get together for “Unity Day” in early August for fellowship as an entire region. Because of the pandemic, the physical gathering was cancelled this year. Instead, we asked our scheduled speaker for a reflection on his planned topic (Mary the Immaculata as seen through the eyes of Maximillian Kolbe.) Then several of us wrote reflections on Mary for the newsletter to complement his.

As I started work on my next post for the formation series “On Saying Yes” (by reflecting on the Annunciation and the rest of chapter One of the gospel of Luke), I realized that this reflection fits nicely as an introduction to where I am headed.

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Whenever I wish to investigate a topic in the Franciscan charism, I start with what I believe to be the three basic pillars of Secular Franciscan formation:

Tasked with the need to write about the relationship between Mary and Francis, I started by looking through the Index to the Sources for references to Mary in the writings.  As I reviewed the occurrences of Mary’s name, I found two immediate themes I might reflect upon.  (There are surely others.)

The first has to do with Mary as Advocate.  In Chapter CL of The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, Thomas of Celano records Francis’ specific wish that Mary be “Advocate of the Order.”  He describes her selection for this role as “giving great joy.”  Later, Mary is also portrayed as Francis’ personal advocate.  At the beginning of Chapter Three of his Major Legend, Bonaventure tells us Francis “begged her …… to become his advocate” and that “through the merits of the Mother of Mercy, he conceived and brought to birth the spirit of Gospel truth.”

Our Rule confirms Mary in this role in Article Nine as it names her “Protectress and Advocate” and calls on us to “express our ardent love” for her.

Mary was clearly instrumental in the founding of the religion that we, 800 years later, still seek to live out.  As you will see, I do not wish to diminish her role as Advocate or as a primary focus of anyone’s prayer life.  But, at least for me, this is a theme of Mary that I am familiar with.  Instead, I am choosing to concentrate on the other theme that struck me as I went through the Sources.  This has to do with Mary as bearer of the virtue indicated by the title “Lady Holy Poverty” (to quote Francis from A Salutation of the Virtues).

Coming into this I had not drawn a distinct connection between Mary, Mother of God and the Lady Poverty that Francis sought as his bride.  (I am not implying that Francis thought of Mary as his bride.  Francis acknowledged Mary as the bride of the Holy Spirit so it does not follow that Francis would think of himself as wedding her.)  I did not generally think of Mary, at least in Franciscan terms, as an archetype of virtue as Francis did.  I thought of her in that role of Advocate.  Thus I must admit to a disconnect between Mary and the concept of Poverty in my less than fully mature conception of Franciscan thought.

As I looked through the Sources, I found that disconnect challenged.  The passage that really brought this home to me is something I do not recall hearing before.  It occurs in Chapter CLI of The Remembrance of the Desire of the Soul, the chapter right after the reference to Mary as Advocate given above: 

He (Francis) could not recall without tears the great want surrounding the little, poor Virgin on that day (Christmas).  One day when he was sitting down to dinner a brother mentioned the poverty of the blessed Virgin, and reflected on the want of Christ her Son.  No sooner had he heard this than he got up from the table, groaning with sobs of pain, and bathed in tears ate the rest of his bread on the naked ground.      

Take a moment and place yourself in that scene.  Picture yourself in the time of Francis, in a handmade lean-to lit only by daylight coming through a door open to the elements.  See a brother in his habit mention the poverty of Mary and Jesus.  Then see Francis get up, “groaning with sobs of pain,” and move to the dirt floor to finish his meal. 

Can you bring yourself to sob in response to the privation of Mary and Jesus?  Not me.  Relative to this, there is no way my commitment to Spiritual Poverty could ever be sufficient.  The scene challenges everything about the way I live.  How, as Francis’ follower, can I hope to match the empathy he had for the Poverty of Mary and Jesus? 

Article Eleven of the Rule makes the task both more difficult and more urgent.  The example of Francis is hard enough to follow, but this article tells us that “…… Christ chose for Himself and his Mother a poor and humble life.”  The Poverty of Mary and Jesus is not happenstance.  It is a deliberate choice by Jesus.  Acknowledging that choice is critical to all Franciscans as they “strive to purify their hearts ….. as pilgrims and strangers on their way to the home of the Father.”

Remember that formation rests on three pillars.  The third, the gospels, provides the foundation for this article of the Rule. The evidence of Mary and Jesus rejecting worldliness in their lives begins with the Christmas story (which is antecedent to Francis’ sobbing as recounted above) and runs unchecked through the length of the gospels to His death on the Cross: 

  • Jesus could have chosen to be born under any circumstances.  He chose a manger in Bethlehem. 
  • He could have chosen to be born anonymously, in complete safety.  He chose to send the Magi to Herod and thus an early childhood in exile. 
  • He could have chosen to grow up anywhere.  He chose the backwater of Nazareth instead of a palace in Jerusalem.
  • He could have chosen a comfortable home as an adult.  He chose an itinerant lifestyle, dependent on the charity of others, with “no place to lay his head.”
  • He could have chosen to live to an old age.  He chose the Poverty of death on the Cross.

These are examples of lifestyle (there are many more), not quotes from His teaching.  Jesus did not just teach Poverty, He personified it.  Our decisions about how we implement Poverty in our own lives are not just attempts to follow theoretical instructions.  They are attempts to follow the corporeal example of both Jesus and Francis, which makes them more urgent. 

Because of our formation experiences, it is no surprise when we are reminded how literally Francis followed the example of Christ in choosing a poor and humble life.  For me, unfortunately, it is also no surprise that when I reflect on my life, I find my emulation of the pattern of first Jesus and then Francis to be significantly wanting.

Thank goodness, then, that I have Mary as my personal Advocate and Advocate of the order.  I crave her intercession in my prayer life as I desperately seek conversion to the ideals of Poverty that I know I must pursue more diligently.  I also rely on her support for the OFS as it provides “the fraternal bonds of community that will always be my help” as I attempt to sincerely embrace a lifestyle that brings me into closer communion with the design of Jesus and Francis. 

And further thank goodness that Mary is an Advocate who can identify precisely with my shortcomings.  She lived a fruitful, human experience of Poverty under the guidance of her Son.  Who better to present my prayers in pursuit of conversion than someone with personal experience living out the ideals that I am striving for so imperfectly?

Remarkable how Jesus worked that out!

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