The Gospel of Mark, 12:41-44:
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
The last three reflections have allowed me to make considerable progress on the journey toward eternal encounter with God that I laid out at the beginning of chapter two. My starting point was “a frank recognition and acceptance of what it means to bear the human condition through my earthly life.” As an individual created by a Loving God, I acknowledged that my sin left me crippled and in need of my Creator’s help, and that in response, again through His Love, God sent His Son to chart a path that shows me how I can return to Him. Assets like faith, belief, joy, and hope are essential virtues that help me discover and journey down this road He has opened for me.
The first section of the road was paved with gratitude, and it led to Penance, the first major stopping point along the way. As the journey moved beyond Penance, I found that the next section of road was shaped by the work of self-denial as I endeavored to return God’s Love to Him unconditionally. The Love that He sends to me, and that I seek to return with interest, is a treasure that He reinvests as His plan to expand the total amount of Love present in Creation unfolds.
All three of these major themes (Gratitude, Penance and Self-Denial) were drawn from the first chapter of Love’s Reply. It is now time to press on, but before I leave Love’s Reply completely behind, I want to use one more quote from that book to help me characterize the next major stop on my journey. This quote comes from chapter nine, which is titled “Poverty as the Mirror of the Kingdom of God.” Early in that chapter, Esser and Grau say this:
The first followers of St. Francis called themselves the “Men of Penance from the city of Assisi,” or sometimes also the “Little Poor Men.” Both names well characterize the life they led. Both must indeed be taken together, since for Francis penance and poverty were inseparable.
It is the “inseparability of Penance and Poverty” that directs me toward my next destination. My next task is to investigate the relationship between these two pillars of the Franciscan charism.
When I started down the path to profession as a Secular Franciscan, I found myself confronted with the word “poverty” early and often. At the very beginning of my formation, I began to feel that I had always been a Franciscan, I just had not known that Franciscanism was the proper label for how I thought. I realized instinctively that the Franciscan charism was in harmony with how I saw the world. I already believed that money and worldly possessions did not hold the key to either happiness or salvation. I felt a certain disdain for wealth and earthly achievement and the steady and ready use of the word “poverty” was a large factor in how quickly I found a home in the Franciscan family.
Although I already tended toward poverty in my outlook, it took time for me to begin to understand the differences between material and Spiritual Poverty and, in truth, I am still learning. As a formator, I see this as a common trait in those who are just beginning their Franciscan journeys. They encounter the word “poverty,” and they find it attractive, often without knowing why. Because they have not yet been exposed to Franciscan thinking in any depth, they begin by thinking of poverty in terms of worldly concern. Poverty is the state that poor people in third world countries live in. It is defined by a lack of material goods and wealth, and it leads to outcomes like malnutrition.
While this aspect of poverty is something that Franciscans are meant to be aware of and combat, it does not begin to speak to the type of Spiritual Poverty that is at the core of the Franciscan charism. In one sense, the Spiritual Poverty that Francis demanded of all his brothers and sisters is the underlying reason that Franciscans habitually choose to work against material poverty. As Jesus told James and John in the scriptural quote at the beginning of the last chapter, all are called to “be the very last, and the servant of all.” When self-denial helps me fulfill this teaching of Jesus, I enter the realm of Spiritual Poverty and I find myself completely and utterly focused on God to the exclusion of all worldly and material concern. In this state, one of the things I feel drawn to is serving those who find themselves trapped in a condition of material poverty.
But when I fully embrace Spiritual Poverty, it is not just material things that I give up. I also give up all those worldly things that have to do with spirit. I give up things like ambition, power, control, and even negative things like envy. In short, I give up all those things that are related to my own self desire. The epitome of Spiritual Poverty is not the forsaking of material things, but the forfeiture of my own self-concern and self-governance. I no longer live according to my own desire. Instead, I live according to the desire of God.
The Sermon of the Mount informed much of the last reflection. In the Beatitudes at the opening of this teaching (Matthew 5:3), Jesus tells me,
“blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Article ten of the OFS Rule calls me to:
“follow the poor and crucified Christ, witness to him even in difficulties and persecutions.”
I am reminded again that article eleven states:
“in the spirit of the Beatitudes, and as a pilgrim and stranger on the way to the home of my Father, I should strive to purify my heart from every tendency and yearning for possession and power.”
This is followed by these passages in articles thirteen, fourteen and fifteen:
“the Secular Franciscans with a gentle and courteous spirit accept all people as a gift of the Lord and an image of Christ. A sense of community will make them joyful and ready to place themselves on an equal basis with all people …..”
“Secular Franciscans are called to build a more fraternal and evangelical world so that the Kingdom of God may be brought about more effectively. Mindful that anyone “who follows Christ, the perfect man, becomes more of a man himself,” …….
“Let them individually and collectively be in the forefront in promoting justice by the testimony of their human lives and their courageous initiatives…….
Again, all works together. In this instance, the aggregate of all these quotes serves to deepen my understanding of the relationship between self-denial, Spiritual Poverty, the Kingdom of God, and the obligations that one man has for his sister or brother in the realm of worldly concern and effort.
I am “a pilgrim and a stranger” in this world because, in the spirit of Penance, Metanoia, and self-denial, I am focused on God to such an extent that I am uncomfortable with the demands and the impositions the world typically makes on me. The world wants me to “yearn for possession and power,” but I am determined instead to “follow Christ, and witness to Him, even in difficulty and persecution” as I concentrate on my journey “to the home of my Father.”
When I let go of my desire for possession and power, my deep focus on Christ makes me aware that His entire earthly life is an example of Spiritual Poverty. Christ, “with a gentle and courteous spirit, accepted all people as a gift of God.” He “joyfully placed Himself on an equal basis with all people.” He showed how it is possible for me participate in the work of “building a more fraternal and evangelical world so that the Kingdom of God may be brought about more effectively.” He was “in the forefront of promoting justice by the testimony of His human life,” which has to be seen as the ultimate example of a “courageous initiative.”
When I adhere to His pattern and example, I “follow the poor and crucified Christ, the perfect man,” in order to “become more of a man myself.”
To the extent that I am successful, I become, as the Beatitudes suggest, “blessed” and “poor in spirit.”
And then I am, at least for a little while, to some extent, both located in the Kingdom of God and participatory in bringing it forth. In terms of chapter two and the words of St. Paul, I have chosen to comply with the plan of God to expand the amount of Love that is present in Creation.
This speaks to the depth of what the word “poverty” means in the Franciscan charism. There is a great chasm between material and Spiritual Poverty. To approach change and the world from a spiritual perspective is very much different than to approach it from a material one. It is the difference between a motivation that is found only at the surface and in the mind versus a motivation that is found in the depths of the heart and soul.
Just as the Rule asks me to move from the gospel to life and life to gospel, I am called to move from the spiritual to the material and back in terms of poverty. It is Spiritual Poverty that calls me to embrace the good work of battling material poverty in the world wherever I find it. The earthly work of battling material poverty should in turn feed my devotion to Spiritual Poverty.
All this is made possible by the extent to which my Penance and self-denial lead me to embrace a full attitude of Spiritual Poverty and its concomitant requirement that I reject not just unnecessary material possession, but also all those earthly possessions that come broadly under the heading power.
As the quote from Love’s Reply indicates, Penance and Poverty are inseparable. And they too exist in a circular relationship. Penance leads to Spiritual Poverty, which leads to Penance, which leads back to Spiritual Poverty, etc., etc.
As I consider the connection between self-denial and Spiritual Poverty, it is helpful for me to think in terms of clearing out clutter. One of the main reasons I reject worldly concern is that I understand and accept that Penance requires me to create space in my existence for God to occupy.
Think of it in terms of getting your home ready for a visitor.
It is early February. I am traveling in Florida. I am spending the mornings writing, the afternoons wandering through shops with my wife, and the evenings eating a quiet dinner out. This past Sunday I met my uncle, aunt, and cousins for dinner. As we were catching up, my wife and my cousin started swapping stories about visiting their sons at college. Of course, they were both quickly laughing about the lack of housekeeping skill demonstrated by young men living on their own for the first time.
I can remember being in the same position as a college student. I remember dishes piling up in the kitchen until there was not a single inch of counterspace left to set a glass on. I was tolerant, but I was the least tolerant among us, so I would be the one to give in and start washing. I would be furious with my roommates for the two hours it took to get everything back in order because, of course, they contributed greatly to the mess, but they were not helping to clean it up. I can also remember trying to remove the grime from the bathtub at the end of the year to get my security deposit back after months of neglect.
When I allow “the worries of this life” to intrude and take over, my soul becomes like my college apartment. It becomes cluttered, messy, and unclean. To harken back to the Parable of the Sower in chapter four of Mark, it becomes choked as if by thorns. I quickly find that I cannot keep up with the disarray and this becomes disheartening. The further I get behind, the less desire I have to deal with the mess. I become paralyzed. I just want it to go away, but I do not have the energy to make it happen.
At the same time, the world and the enemy find ways to introduce additional worries into the mix. Not only am I unable to deal with the clutter that already exists, but I also find it growing exponentially as this or that concern is heaped on the rest. The mess becomes permanent, and it takes on a life of its own. I am no longer in control (if I ever was), and I have no idea how I got to this state.
The Franciscan call to Spiritual Poverty is the antidote to this situation. If I can begin to focus on God, I can begin to whittle away at the mountain of worldly factors that contribute to the disorder I am experiencing. What used to be crucial loses its significance. As I make progress, I reduce the number of things that I believe to be critical, until it is only my relationship with God that I find truly important. The importance of other things then begins to be determined based on my understanding of what God desires for/of me.
This does manifest itself in material ways. I begin to set aside or give away the material things in my life that are no longer paramount to my old perception of happiness or need. The amount of clothes in my closet shrinks as I drop things off for the homeless. The old electronics stored away against a future need that will never come are also discarded. The number of pots and pans and towels and blankets decreases as I work at clearing out the material clutter that I suddenly find oppressive. The neglected corner of the basement or the crawl space where castoff stuff accumulates finally gets the attention that I have been promising it for so long.
This material cleansing is all fine and well. It is a first and necessary step on the road to Spiritual Poverty. But it is only a beginning. I need to move from the material to the Spiritual before the most important work can begin. When I can look at the dusty corners of my soul and see the cobwebs accumulated there, and when I commit to clearing them out, then I have begun the true work of conversion that marks the life and attitude of a committed Christian.
Like any aspect of conversion, this is a process. It is the work of the rest of my life. I still recall my humanity and my frailty. I accept that I must stay aware and that I must put the effort in day by day.
Francis speaks to all of this in chapter twenty-two of the Earlier Rule:
Therefore, all my brothers, let us be very much on our guard that, under the guise of some reward or assistance, we do not lose or take our mind away from God. But, in the holy love which is God, I beg all my brothers, both the ministers and others, after overcoming every impediment and putting aside every care and anxiety, to serve, love, honor and adore the Lord God with a clean heart and a pure mind in whatever way they are best able to do so, for that is what he wants above all else.
Let us always make a home and dwelling place there for Him Who is the Lord God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
God is Spirit and those who adore Him must adore Him in Spirit and truth.
The task I have before me is to convert my college apartment into “a home and dwelling place for Him who is the Lord God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
I used to be concerned about how my mom would judge me when she came to visit me at school and found the mess. I could get the dishes done so the counter was clean, but, despite my alleged concern, I did not care enough to clean the tub. I was content to simply close the shower curtain and hope that she would not look and see the grunge that was accumulated there.
With God, I know that He sees the nooks and crannies all the time. I cannot sweep dirt under the proverbial rug or hide skeletons in the closet. He knows, so I must do my best to fully prepare all the recesses of my soul if I want His approval when He visits and if I hope that He will stay. And I must also accept that I am going to miss a few spots. I do the best I can, improving as He points out to me the next location that needs attention. And I hope in His generous Mercy and bountiful Love that He will forgive the messes I have not yet gotten to.
As I seek to embrace Spiritual Poverty, instead of just giving away clothes, I pledge to give away everything that creates clutter and disorder in my soul. My need for power over others, to control every aspect and outcome in my life, and to find approval from worldly judges is set aside. My envy and jealousy at the prosperity and good fortune of others dissipates. I try my hardest to make my soul as clean and sparkling as it can be so that it becomes a welcoming place for Him to occupy.
I accept that He will not be impressed by any of the material things that I used to think were essential. He experiences Heaven continuously, so it is impossible for the size or opulence of my house to impress Him. His clothes are “dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” The cut of my clothes, no matter how fine, will not impact Him because He looks right through my outer garments to see what is inside of me. He rides on clouds and walks on water, so how could I expect a luxury car to prove to Him that I am in some way worthy of spending eternity with Him?
My material resources are placed at His disposal. I become a good steward of all that I possess when I accept that I have no possessions at all. Everything that I used to think of as mine I now regard as a gift given into my care. He is the proper owner of every good and Good in the world, and everything must be returned to Him the moment He determines He has need of it elsewhere.
As I give away my anger, all my other negative emotions, and all my claim to earthly wealth and power, I create a place of tranquility for Him and me to meet in. In retrospect, I recognize how silly and disrespectful it was for me to subject Him to the unpleasantness of my formerly sulky, cynical, and possessive mind. My own unattractiveness appalls me when I consider how neglectful I was of the dwelling place within me that, as my Loving Creator, He had every right to claim as His own.
The place where I meet Him needs to be pristine, untouched, and unsullied. It needs to be welcoming, warm, and friendly. It needs to be uncluttered, orderly and tidy. It needs to be prepared not according to my expectations, but to His specifications as He reveals them to me.
To create this space, I need to harken back to the work of the last chapter. It is self-denial, carried out completely, that is the key to bringing this transformation about. Only when I give away all my self-desire in favor of embracing His desire completely can I expect to succeed. This attitude of self-surrender, when it becomes permanent, is what makes Spiritual Poverty blossom.
The above quote from Francis calls me to “serve, love, honor and adore the Lord God with a clean heart and a pure mind in whatever way I am best able to do so, for that is what He wants above all else.”
If I look honestly at myself and at the motivations that have been the primary driving factors in my life, can I square them with the simple call to the service of God that Francis speaks here?
Is “what He wants above all else” the organizing principle of my life, or is what I want above else the prime factor that drives my decision-making process?
Knowing and living the difference is what allows me to move from a realm of self-love to a realm of Spiritual Poverty where loving God is my one and only concern.
Being able to clear space for God to occupy within the soul is part of what delineates Spiritual Poverty for a Franciscan, but it does not provide the complete definition.
To round out the picture, I must also clearly understand the underlying motivation of Francis in adopting Poverty as one of his guiding principles. This begins with what Francis found in the life of Christ when he examined it and elected to emulate it. As has already been noted, when I begin to examine the life of Christ closely, I see that it is, in its entirety, an expression of Spiritual Poverty.
For Francis, this truth became the bedrock principle that framed his entire religion.
This begins with the way Christ entered the world. (Luke 2:4-7)
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
The entire globe is familiar with this story. Even every non-Christian on the planet could tell you the circumstances of the birth of Jesus. There is no room at the inn, so Jesus is born in a stable and is laid in a manger. Too often, the full significance of the story is neglected. It is so familiar to me that I am inured to it. I either assume I know the importance of the story, or I do not bother to contemplate it.
Jesus, the Son of God and King of the World, Loves me to such an extent that, in an act of supreme self-sacrifice and self-denial, He chooses to be born into the world as a man in order to open the path to salvation for all men. He will leave the comfort and glory of Heaven and live within His Creation as He achieves this task.
As Son of God and King of the World, I surely would expect Him to be born into a station that is fitting of His status. I expect that He will be born into a royal family so that the pathway to His Kingship will be open and apparent. An earthly palace can never match the splendor of Heaven, but if He is born into a royal family, that means He will be born into some measure of the splendor He is accustomed to. It might not be the same, but He will have as much comfort and ease as any earthly life could hope to enjoy. He will have access to all the best food so that he grows up strong and healthy. He will have access to the best education so that He matures with the wisdom that a great leader must have. He will marry a beautiful woman who also comes from a royal background. And He will live a long, prosperous, and comfortable life for His entire stay amongst us.
In short, when He descends from Heaven, He will experience the very best material comforts and will possess the greatest power and wealth that an earthly life can offer. He’s the Son of God, that’s what He deserves. That is what I would choose if I were Him.
Instead, He chooses exactly the opposite. He chooses to be born in a stable to a couple that is from a backwater village looked down on by all. Remember what Nathaniel says when he is told about Jesus: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” He lives in obscurity right up to the onset of His public ministry. Until He reveals Himself, He is a common carpenter working with His hands just like any average person of His day.
And even after He reveals Himself, His lifestyle remains simple, and He remains bereft of material concern and comfort. He tells us in Matthew chapter eight,
“Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
The OFS Rule states in article eleven:
“Trusting in the Father, Christ chose for himself and his mother a poor and humble life……”
Christ deliberately chose a life of both material and Spiritual Poverty. He did so because He wanted me to understand the difference between what is important and what is not. The absence of material concern in His life left Him free to focus on the Father and to deliver His teachings without any distractions. His poverty and humility instruct me continually that to be saved, I must set aside worldly concern and focus wholly on God. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” is not something He said once. He said it repeatedly using many different combinations of words in the hope that the repetition would ensure that the message took hold.
But those words would have been empty if He had not lived them out fully as well. To deliver them from a palace would have been contradictory. As the Son of God, He used His life here on earth to reveal to me in both word and deed the essence of the Spiritual Poverty that He came to earth to proclaim.
It does begin with a disdain for material possessions. Thus, when He sent His disciples out to preach, He tells them (Matthew 10:9-10),
“Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff……”
It is complimented by disregard for worldly dominion and prestige. Because His Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, is not of this earth, He is unconcerned about the accumulation or possession of earthly power. (Matthew 22:21)
“So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
It is then completed by an intense and sincere focus on God. All the gospels speak regularly of Jesus seeking out solitude so that He could pray to and with His Father. The Transfiguration (Luke 9:28) is one prominent example of this:
“……., He took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray.”
When His disciples asked Him how to pray, He immediately taught them not to look to their own will or means to fulfill their needs, but instead to rely on the Father for everything that they required. (Luke 11:1-4)
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:
“Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.”
Immediately followed by (Luke 11:9-13):
“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
The prayer to the Father to “give us each day our daily bread” is reinforced by the deeper details of the following quotes. “Ask and it will be given.” “Seek and you will find.” “Knock and the door will open.” These are admonitions toward focusing on the Father and unceasingly tending to Him with all one’s being in an attitude of Penance and Metanoia. In response, our Father in Heaven will generously grant the Holy Spirit and everything else we need if only we ask Him in belief and deep sincerity.
This reinforces the idea that everything we have is a gift from God. Everything we have, we asked for in some way, either consciously or subconsciously, and it is the generous response of the Father that is the source of our possessions, both material and spiritual.
Jesus provides the pattern for everything that has been discussed in this chapter. The circumstances of His birth and His instructions to his disciples indicate His contempt for the material things of this world. His own consistent practice of prayer and His teaching display for us in indisputable terms that even though He was the Son of God, He still felt a primal need to focus on God always in a never ending attitude of Spiritual Poverty.
When Francis heard the description of the sending out of the disciples that is quoted above, his personal searching ended. He finally found exactly what he was looking for and he dropped everything at that moment to follow the teaching of Jesus precisely (The Life of St. Francis by Thomas of Celano, The First Book, Chapter Nine):
Francis immediately exulted in the Spirit of God. “This is what I want,” he said, “this is what I seek, this is what I desire with all my heart.” The holy father, overflowing with joy, hastened to implement the words of salvation, and did not delay before he devoutly began to put into effect what he heard. Immediately, he took off the shoes from his feet, put down the staff from his hands, and, satisfied with one tunic, exchanged his leather belt for a cord…….he was no deaf hearer of the gospel; rather he committed everything he heard to his excellent memory and was careful to carry it out to the letter.”
Francis heard the instructions that Jesus gave and saw the example that He set, and he became determined to become a perfect follower of Christ himself. He acknowledged that the message that Jesus embodied about living a life of Spiritual Poverty was also pointed directly at him. Without any hesitation, he embraced the Word and made Him his guide.
In turn, he becomes the example that I will follow. I will imitate Francis, and through him, also Jesus, as I chart my own course from Penance through Self-Denial to Spiritual Poverty. If I am successful, I can hope to achieve not only the overflowing joy of Francis, but also the peace engendered by Spiritual Poverty as described in this quote from the end of chapter six of Celano:
After putting aside all that is of the world, he is mindful only of divine justice. Now he is eager to despise his own life, by setting aside all concern for it. Thus there might be peace for him, a poor man on a hemmed-in path, and only the wall of the flesh would separate him from the vision of God.
I will seek God with all my heart, soul, and mind. I want to place myself in a position where only the thinnest of veils exist between myself and God. In the end, it is the example of Jesus that makes this possible. Just as he continually sought closeness to God despite being His Son, so will I seek that same proximity.
This desire for closeness informs the need and compulsion I feel to set aside all concerns and distraction so that I might embrace a life of Spiritual Poverty. I can make all the intellectual arguments I want about why a life centered on Poverty is the best possible life, but they pale in comparison to the example that Jesus sets for me. His entire life, from the modest circumstances of his birth to the submissiveness and nakedness of His Passion, is an overwhelming statement about the primacy of Poverty in a life well lived.
At the opening of this chapter, I provided the gospel passage where Jesus observes a widow placing pennies in the temple treasury. Jesus says “she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
Jesus did the exact same thing. Out of His Spiritual Poverty, He gave up everything. He started by giving up His position in Heaven to be born in a stable and He ended by sacrificing His very life on the Cross, all so I would have access to eternal life.
His Sacrifice on the Cross is itself the ultimate expression of Spiritual Poverty. (John 15:13)
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
If I wish to be the friend of Jesus and of God, I must reciprocate. Just as Jesus laid down His life for me, I must in turn lay down my life for Him.
All that we have discussed so far comes to this. The gratitude I feel for the Love that God bestows on me. The turning toward God with all my being as defined by the deepest meanings of Penance and Metanoia. The determination to practice complete material and spiritual self-denial.
Spiritual Poverty is the full integration and acceptance of these practices.
It is the outcome I seek when I determine to follow the example of Jesus and Francis precisely.