The Case for Downward Mobility

FRANCIS WAS THE SON of a cloth merchant, yet after his conversion he wore a miserable, threadbare patched tunic.

When his father begged Assisi’s bishop to stop his crazy son from giving away family property, Francis stood in front of the bishop and stripped himself naked to proclaim that he had no father but God.

In the surging profit economy of northern Italy, Francis told a Franciscan brother who had accepted a coin to shove it into a dunghill with his lips.

Crucial events in Francis’s relationship with Jesus Christ turned on poverty. He was enamored with the poverty modeled by Christ and the disciples, and he insisted his followers live in radical poverty. Why?

Poor Jesus

Francis was not a systematic theologian articulating an explicit, developed doctrine of poverty. He preferred acting out the truth to stating it in bald words. Still, his Admonitions (a collection of directives to his friars), and the Earlier and Later Rules (guides for his Order), offer material for an outline of his “gospel of Jesus’ poverty.”

To Francis the Gospels made it utterly clear that the only way to know God was through Jesus. And the Jesus Francis knew was humble:

"Why do you not recognize the truth and believe in the Son of God? See, daily he humbles himself as when he came from the royal throne into the womb of the Virgin; daily he comes to us in a humble form; daily he comes down from the bosom of the Father upon the altar in the hands of the priest” (Admonitions I:15–18).

Jesus was the one who emptied himself of status and glory and came as one who was humble and poor. Francis saw Jesus as coming in humility whether as a poor preacher or through a piece of bread (in Communion). Status and glory went with wealth; the high and the mighty were always the rich. But the crucified Jesus was lowly, weak, and therefore poor.

Those whom Jesus called to repent of the world’s way and to follow his “footprints” to eternal life had to be humble like him, renouncing the pride of station and power. That meant renouncing possessions above all. When Francis stood in front of the bishop of Assisi and stripped off his father’s clothing, it was a symbolic renunciation of his birth family’s whole life, a round of godless getting and spending.

Relinquishing the Will

Ever since the Fall, humans had claimed to possess things for themselves alone. Francis was particularly harsh about any form of “appropriation": arrogating to oneself what is God’s:

"The Lord said to Adam: Eat of every tree; do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He was able to eat of every tree of paradise, since he did not sin, as long as he did not go against obedience. For the person eats of the tree of the knowledge of good who appropriates to himself his own will and thus exalts himself over the good things which the Lord says and does in him; and thus … what he eats becomes for him the fruit of the knowledge of evil” (Admonitions II:14; emphasis added).

Glorying in your thoughts and deeds or lording it over brothers and sisters or owning property—all alike were acts of appropriation. They blocked out God and neighbor in favor of self. They did precisely what Jesus had not done. They flew in the face of the reality that God alone was Lord.

That reality, Francis constantly reminded his hearers, God would enforce at the Last Judgment. Thus Jesus’ call to repentance was a call to turn from appropriation to poverty:

"The Lord says in the Gospel: ‘He who does not renounce everything he possesses cannot be my disciple,’ and ‘He who wishes to save his life must lose it’ “ (Luke 14:33, 9:24;Admonitions III:1).

Concrete Acts

Anyone who decided to join Francis had to give away all possessions to the poor and live as the poorest of the poor.

Francis knew that some people who sincerely wanted to follow Jesus on the way of poverty could not lawfully do so. Bishops had no right to renounce the incomes and prerogatives of their sees; married people could not break up their households and vow poverty and celibacy without a spouse’s permission. For such people, Francis said, the spiritual desire to do so was enough. He supported the Franciscan “Third Order,” which permitted people to follow a rule of simplicity and devotion to Jesus while remaining in callings they were not free to abandon.

Yet all through his life, he insisted on literal poverty whenever possible. Concrete, life-changing acts were more pungent for Francis than feelings or abstract principles:

"Woe to that religious [friar] who does not keep in his heart the good things the Lord reveals to him and who does not manifest them to others by his actions, but rather seeks to make such good things known by his words. He thereby receives his reward, while those who listen to him carry away but little fruit” (Admonitions XXI:23; emphasis added).

Joyful Poverty

Following Jesus’ poverty inevitably brought suffering, which Francis accepted as self-mortification. His last years were suffused with darkness and pain, culminating in his receiving the stigmata of the Crucified (wounds in his hands, feet, and side). Yet these years also brought blessing and joy:

"Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. The truly pure of heart are those who despise the things of earth and seek the things of heaven, and who never cease to adore and behold the Lord God living and true with a pure heart and soul” (Admonitions XVI:12).

Those who were truly poor, and who thus did not appropriate honor or glory to themselves, were the only ones who could freely give honor and glory to God. Francis’s praise of God erupted at all times, even at the times of greatest darkness, as the Canticle of Brother Sun makes plain. The Earlier Rule, a list of demanding exhortations to the freedom of holy poverty, appropriately concludes with an ecstatic hymn:

Let all of us 
wherever we are 
in every place 
at every hour 
at every time of day 
everyday and continually 
believe truly and humbly 
and keep in [our] heart 
and love, honor, adore, serve 
praise and bless 
glorify and exalt 
magnify and give thanks to 
the most high and supreme eternal God 
Trinity and Unity 
the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit 
Creator of all 
Savior of all who believe in Him 
and hope in Him 
and love Him 
Who is 
without beginning and without end unchangeable, invisible, 
indescribable, ineffable 
incomprehensible, unfathomable, 
blessed, worthy of praise, 
glorious, exalted on high, sublime most high, gentle, lovable, 
delectable and totally desirable 
above all else 
forever. 
Amen. CH
By William S. Stafford

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #42 in 1994]

Dr. William S. Stafford is professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. He is author of Domesticating the Clergy: The Inception of the Reformation in Strasburg, 1522—1524 (Scholar’s Press, 1994).
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The Strange Stigmata

Did Francis really receive the wounds of Jesus?

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Fractures in Francis’s Order

How should his followers obey his instructions?

the Editors
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