Anyone living in modern America simply cannot get their heads around the idea that poverty is something to be revered as blessed and more, sought after. Having lived in Honduras and confronting abject poverty every day, even as I went to the grocery store to purchase my sons lunch snacks, I truly struggle with the mindset of the Middle Age penitent religionists that upholds the notion that poverty ought to be considered a blessing. There is nothing romantic about poverty. It can suck the life and soul out of you. People who are poor have no options, which means they often have no recourse or justice when they are wronged. Being poor turns one's face hard. It is very difficult to be poor: to wait in federal assistance lines and to use loose change to purchase this week's necessities. I am not enamored of the idea of choosing poverty, as was the case of Clare of Assisi and many, many others who joined her Order (for females) and Francis' Order.
Even so, it is worth pondering what exactly these people had in mind when they determined to take vows of poverty -- which meant surrendering to its associated social alienation, sometimes contempt and inevitable suffering -- for the purpose of being united with Christ.
Here I will refer to the writings of St. Angela of Foligno, the medieval follower of St. Clare who succinctly interpreted her beliefs. In her writings Angela highlights several positive attributes -- or "gifts" -- of choosing a life of poverty, of which I highlight five.
First: Choosing a life of poverty enables a person to know him/herself and also to know God. What one can endure and the spirit with which one endures it exposes the measure of the human soul while, conversely, being reduced (so to speak) to such levels of utter dependency drives the penitent to the heart of God. Then, crying out for help and sustenance and, receiving it, the penitent grows in God's graces.
“Through this consideration is granted grace upon grace, light upon light, and vision upon vision, and hereby [one] comes unto a more ample knowledge of God. The better he knows the more he loves, the more he loves the more powerfully he works, and this work is the sign and measure of love. For herein [meaning, in this testing] is it shown if the love be pure, true, and upright.”
Second: It fosters a kind of upside-down willingness -- even desire -- to be despised. This kind of thinking is completely alien to modern devotion -- particularly American devotion -- and in some circles it would even be considered self-destructive. But, in the context of the Middle Ages and the Penitential Movement, the desire to be despised meant only that one's complete fulfillment and satisfaction lies in being "cherished in the heart of none save of God alone, and by Him alone to be held in good repute."
Saint Francis was forever reminding his brothers of his own wretchedness. One of his brothers, Brother Masseo, who was “a big man and handsome of body,” cried out to Francis once, “You aren’t a handsome man, you aren’t someone of great learning, you’re not noble. Why after you? Why after you? Why does all the world seem to be running after you and everyone seems to want to see you and hear you and obey you?” Francis responded:
Do you want to know why after me? You want to know why the whole world comes after me? I have this from those eyes of the Most High God, which gaze in every place on the good and the guilty. Since those most holy eyes have not seen among sinners anyone more vile, nor more incompetent, nor a greater sinner than me; to perform that marvelous work, which he intends to do, He has not found a more vile creature on the earth, and therefore He has chosen me.”
Third: Choosing a life of poverty brings about an utter interior transformation of the soul, bringing one's own spiritual likeness nearer to the heart of "the most sweetJesus, [who] was full [of the same] thereof."
Fourth: The vow of poverty strengthens human will to remain resolute and unstinting in one's utter devotion in following the way of Jesus. That means, if necessary, rebuffing, rebuking or fleeing anything or anyone who might dissuade such devotion. "[We] must flee as though from a pestilence from all who hinder it from attaining unto these things, whether it be a carnal or spiritual person, and all the things of this world which it holds to be contrary to that good thing."
Fifth: When someone has attained this level of personal devotion -- of denying oneself to follow in the footsteps of Jesus -- it further removes any tendency one might otherwise exert to judge others. "[He] pronounces no judgment upon any other creature whatsoever, nor seeks to judge others, as the Gospel says. [He] must esteem [himself] more vile than all others (howsoever evil they may be) and unworthy of the grace of God. It must know, moreover, that whosoever strives to possess [poverty and its associated suffering] in this present life and mortal struggle will possess God in fulness here after."
The vow of poverty was not an end in itself. It simply provided the internal apparatus, which penitents imposed upon themselves in their external lives, to go forth in life and mission (whatever its form) with unreserved abandonment to the singular purpose of knowing, loving and representing God in this broken world.