When he was on pilgrimage to Rome,
Francis put off his fine garments out of love of poverty,
Clothed himself with the garments of a certain poor man,
And joyfully sat among the poor in the vestibule before the church of St Peter,
Where there were many poor,
considering himself one of them.
Celano, Second Life, IV, 142
(I was asked to preach for Mass on the feast of St Francis of Assisi at St Francis High School in local Watsonville. It got me thinking about my youth, and here's what I have to say to them...)
I have loved St Francis of Assisi ever since I was not much older than you. As a matter of fact, my senior year in high school when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life I decided that instead of going into seminary to become a “normal priest” as my parents hoped or going into music to try and be a rock and roll star as they expected, I decided upon graduation that I would move in with this community of radical Franciscans in uptown Chicago. I had had some kind of a conversion experience and decided that I wanted to give my self to God in some kind of a radical way. The only way I could describe it is that I sort of fell in love with God, and when I met this community I sort of fell in love with the life they were living and that was it––there was no changing my mind. It was a very simple life; we lived in two run down apartments in a very poor neighborhood. I can almost still smell various bodily odors in the stairwells where street people slept and did all kinds of wild things. We had a beautiful prayer life together––I often credit that community with teaching me how to pray. I was in college at the time but early in the morning before class old Br. Dominic and I would roam through the alleys in two beat up old Volvos, rummaging for newspaper and bottles for recycling; or we would go to the local bakeries for day old bread or to vegetable stands and get their old produce that we would pass out to our neighbors. (Early dumpster divers, I guess.) And we also did a little work repairing the houses of people who couldn’t afford to have them fixed up. And very month we would give away whatever money we had earned that month and start all over again.
But the thing I remember the most and makes me laugh now, is how my friend Michael and I were in competition to see who could live the most simply. I had given away practically everything I had. I had just graduated high school, so it wasn’t that much, mostly records and books and clothes. I was proudly living with just the minimum of clothing I thought necessary. Well, Michael, who had been a year ahead of me in high school, only had one pair of pants and one shirt, plus his shoes and winter coat, and two sets of undergarments that he would wash out every night; and he had only one book (the Bible) and his journals. I thought I was living simply in my tiny bedroom, but he lived in a converted pantry with just enough room to spread a thin mattress out on the floor to sleep and the silverware drawer for his desk. So I decided at one point I had to keep up with him and gave away more of my clothes ‘til I was down to two pairs of jeans and my old suit, and only a pair of army boots. The climax of my austerity came when I gave my gloves away to a homeless woman. Mind you, this was January in Chicago, and I was riding the elevated train to school each morning a block away from Lake Michigan, and it just happened to be the coldest winter in Chicago in recorded history. I was lucky not to have gotten frostbite until someone convinced me that it was not against poverty to get another pair of gloves.
I look back on those days and I think––We were nuts! But no, we were trying to imitate St. Francis, who was in turn trying to imitate the poverty of Jesus. You see, Francis didn’t live that kind of simplicity for its own sake. There was a reason for it, and it was something similar to what I was going through myself, though on a much more profound level. He did it all for love. It was like he was in love with Jesus, in love with God.
Maybe you are too young to understand this now––or maybe not––but hopefully someday you will experience and understand it. There is something all-consuming about love. When we love somebody (and something), we feel willing to give everything else away for the sake of that love; it becomes the most important thing in our life. This applies to all kinds of things: think of the discipline and self-denial that so many great athletes, artists, scientists, musicians, or writers put themselves through, all for the sake of that which they love. But it is especially true with other people: we feel we would do anything for that other person, anything to be near the Beloved, anything for the sake of that relationship. That’s why we say in the marriage vows, “forsaking all others.” (Even that’s a kind of poverty, a renunciation of sorts.) And this marvelous thing happens when we love someone: we start to take on some of the characteristics of that other, we want to be like them, we want to live in their world and we love the things that they love. And I think the same thing applies to God. There are moments in some peoples’ lives when a sudden glimpse of Ultimate Reality or an experience of the Divine causes such a desire for spiritual truth and the spiritual life that they forsake all else for it.
And Francis had a very unique relationship with God, and here is where it ties especially into his desire to live so poorly. First of all he loved Jesus so much that he became like Jesus. Some people actually thought he was another Christ! And then the more he became like Jesus, he really fell in love. He began to love who and what Jesus loved. Especially he was in love with someone he called Lady Poverty. Who is this Lady Poverty? First of all, [some think that she was an embodiment of his love for St. Clare, who was a young woman who later followed Francis by living a life of silence and prayer in a monastery that he founded for her. People think that he was in love with her; that’s why they are called the Poor Clares, just like our sisters up the road, they are images of Lady Poverty. And] you know the church is always portrayed as feminine too, and so Lady Poverty also symbolized for Francis the church itself. He was in love with the Church, the bride of Christ. But the other thing that is always portrayed as feminine in the Scriptures is Wisdom. The Hebrew Scriptures always speak of Wisdom as a woman by the side of God. So most of all, Francis was in love with this aspect of God, this feminine aspect of God––the Wisdom and power of God, and he was willing to forsake all others to be near her, to be filled with her sweetness.
So Francis’ love of poverty wasn’t for its own sake; it was for his love of God, and his love of Lady Poverty, for whom he was willing to forsake all others. His love of creation, animals and plants, and his love for the poor, for lepers, for the least among us, wasn’t for its own sake. When we love somebody we love and cherish the things that they love and the things that are a part of them, the things that they create. So he loved all of creation and other people because they were a part of God, something God created, an expression of God’s own self.
I guess what I wish for you on this feast of St Francis is that you too would fall in love, madly, deeply, passionately in love like St Francis did, with your dreams, with your talents, with other people, and ultimately with that Divine Source from which all those other things spring. The more we love God, the more we become like God––who was so in love with the world that he sent his only Son; and the more we love Jesus, the more we become like Jesus, who was so in love with the world that he had compassion on it, that he even wept over it on a number of occasions. That kind of love will ruin you, I warn you––lead you to all kinds of poverty––but it’s only that kind of love that can lead us to the mad, deep, passionate life like Francis had.