The Feast of St. Francis

September 30, 2007




© Dr. Gary Blaine

University Congregational Church

September 28, 2007

Reading: “The Seven Social Sins” by M.K. Gandhi

1. Wealth without work.

2. Pleasure without conscience.

3. Science without humanity.

4. Knowledge without character.

5. Politics without principle.

6. Commerce without morality.

7. Worship without sacrifice.

St. Francis of Assisi is perhaps the most adored and universally accepted saint of the universal church. His statue is found on church lawns and gardens of every denominational persuasion, and is equally distributed across neighborhoods of various classes and races. The Franciscan prayer, “Lord make me an instrument of thy peace, where there is hatred, let me so love…” is found in many prayer books, missals, and hymnals. Francis’ hymn, “All Creatures of our God and King,” is triumphantly sung during the feast of St. Francis.

We are most familiar with his themes of peace and love of animals. Without doubt, they are consistent with the lore and bits of history that we have of this wealthy merchant’s son who transformed himself into a penitent. Less frequently do we speak of Francis’ affair with Lady Poverty. We know that he chose poverty and he is always depicted in the simple robe of a monk. But the fact of the matter is Francis did not take the vow of poverty either as a priest of the church or brother in a monastic order. In fact, Francis wanted to avoid as much formal structure as possible, including the rules of St. Benedict. He chose poverty for two reasons. The first emerged from his deadly fear and abhorrence of lepers. The story is told in many ways, here is my version.

Francis knew that his attitude toward lepers was not consistent with the gospel and certainly did not imitate the relationship that Jesus had with lepers. Lepers were outcast from all of society, but the Nazarene would not exclude them from his company. Francis knew that Jesus was not offended by lepers, was not afraid of them, and that he healed them. Francis did everything in his power to avoid them. Francis was also convinced that his mortification of lepers was a barrier to the full presence of God.

One day Francis was walking down a country lane. He saw in the distance a leper walking toward him. Lepers were required to ring a bell to warn travelers of their presence. They would step off the road and give wide berth to others. They wore bandages on their sores and a veil over their faces to avoid contaminating others. As Francis drew closer he could hear the faint tinkling of the leper’s bell. Francis’ stomach grew taut, threatening to vomit. His temple throbbed with revolt and sweat began to form on his brow.

By this time the bell began to clang. Francis could see the flies flitting around the sordid bandages. The wind carried the stench of carrion. Francis’ nostrils flared in revolt. Though his knees wobbled, Francis kept walking. The leper began to move off the road and was shocked to see the traveler gliding toward him. Francis walked faster and faster. His arms opened to receive the leper, who was too weak to run away from this apparent madman. Francis embraced the man, pulled back that foul veil and kissed his infected, oozing lips. The leper fainted away into the arms of Francis. The Saint lowered him down and watched that wretched soul transform before his very eyes. Some say that the leper transformed into the very body of Christ. I imagine Francis and the leper folding together into the figure of Michelangelo’s La Pieta in La Basilica di San Pietro. Others say that the leper became Lady Poverty. But regardless, Francis overcame his fear and from that time on never disdained the company of another human being, regardless of their wealth or health. Francis chose poverty because she brought him close to God.

Interpreting this story, Carlo Carretto gave these words to Francis.

“My Lady Poverty, whom I had seen in the leper, was the poverty of the entire world, she was in solidarity with all that is little, weak, and suffering, she was the tender focal point of the mercy of God.

My Lady Poverty!

Her most humble visage was the face of all the poor I had ever met, and who had gazed upon me with the sweetness and infinite discretion.

Her eyes were pearls washed in tears, but filled with a mystery not revealed to many.

Her afflicted members had the transparency of light, and were the only members truly chaste, and worthy to embrace the very Christ.

Her perfume was the odor of things invisible, and invited one not to the eros of easy things, but to the agape of heroes of the spirit.

Until now I had thought of poverty as the curse of the earth, a fearful mistake in creation, a kind of forgetfulness on the part of God, an inexpressible chaos which swallowed human beings and made them suffer.

Now I saw something else!”[1]

The second reason Francis chose poverty is because he believed that God had chosen poverty. He believed that the incarnation was the presence of God in the most impoverished of human conditions. He was struck by the possibility that God did not go among us as a prince but became a common laborer who was wounded and suffered the death of a thief. When Francis heard the words of the gospel, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he understood the difference between the poor and the poor in spirit. The poor in Spirit were those “who were able to love, in spite of their sudden vexations – poor people who were patient in trial, rich in hope, strong in adversity.”[2]

What is it that we might possibly take from this twelfth century divine? Perhaps we should avoid the issues of the poor and the complexities of poverty in the 21st century. Perhaps we should confine our selves to stories of fish and wolves. Or we might decide to use this story for our children in the hope that we might inspire them to social justice. Or, we might decide to take a more critical approach to St. Francis and note that he failed to offer little more than palliative care to the poor and diseased of Assisi. The poor Saint did nothing that altered the systemic poverty that not only ravaged Italy, but condemns billions of people on the planet today. And would it not be totally ridiculous to suggest that vows of poverty have real meaning in a globalized market economy?

Our treatment of poverty today is far different from collecting alms and sharing bread with orphans and widows. On a large social scale we tend to assume one of two positions on the issue of poverty. There are those who believe that we will eliminate poverty by strong government intervention. This is the premise of “democratic pluralism.” It means “markets need government to function efficiently since government establishes and enforces the rules that force corporations to absorb the cost of production rather than pass them on to society.”[3] Bureaucratic socialism is a cousin of democratic pluralism arguing that the government will create a social welfare system that provides food, clothing, housing, education, and medical care to the poor. The truth is that democratic pluralism and socialism are very limited by the fact that multinational corporations are often outside the reach of government control or guidance. Even institutions like the World Trade Organization and the United Nations have limited ability to control international companies. And the evidence clearly points to the fact that the gap between the wealthy and the poor worldwide has grown. While economic growth has been achieved it can hardly be called an equitable distribution of wealth.

Others argue that the real way to solve poverty is by the growth of the market. These “neo-liberals” believe that unrestrained economic growth is the solution to poverty. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” said President Kennedy. But the fact of the matter is that unrestrained market economies have yet to demonstrate more just and equitable economies. United Nations studies continue to show that about 20% of the world’s population controls 80% of the world’s resources.

Our humanity and the values we hold most dear are often crushed beneath the weight of the consumer market. Ethicists such as Pierre Bourdieu, David C. Korten, Harold Coward, and Daniel C. Maquire have argued that the market has become a new religion. The purpose of human beings is to consume and produce. Human teleology has been reduced to growth, productivity, economics, and the market place. The business paradigm has become the language and method of evaluating human worth, including the worth of the church. Furthermore, human beings live in unique cultures. Market economies and globalization roll over cultures and create what some writers are calling “McWorld.”

Deborah Savage from the University of St. Thomas wrote a paper for the 1997 Puebla Conference, entitled The Human Person: The ‘Subject’ of Wealth. Opposed to neo-liberalism and democratic pluralism, Savage points out that both schools of thought share a faulty common assumption. Both believe that the poor are not capable to achieving wealth and require some kind of intervention such as socialism or capitalism. Neither system recognizes that the source of wealth comes from the person, not from organizations, businesses, or cartels. Savage, however, believes that each person is a source of wealth and “any effort to increase the standard of living for all is accompanied by an effectively targeted attempt to develop the human capacity to create the wealth that fuels it.” Borrowing a term from Amartya Sen, Savage believes that real poverty is a result of “capability deprivation.”[4] In other words, there is poverty because human capabilities have not been allowed to flourish. Given the chance to grow and mature, human capability will create the lifestyle that a person chooses for him or her self. Wrote Savage:

“This approach to development is grounded in the conviction that the way to preserve human freedom, human dignity, and therefore human flourishing, is to concentrate on the development of human capability in such a way that individuals can exercise the most fundamental human freedom: to independently choose a life that has value to them.”

Reorienting our understanding of the poor toward their capability, toward the freedom of their will to choose a life for themselves suggests that they have greater value than units of production or consumption. It recasts them into women and men whose value is found in the image of God, and not defined as market units. That is to say, they are capable of making moral choices about the wealth of talent, skill, and vision that resides in our own minds. The poor are not caseloads, clients, or wards. They are agents of creation, agents of wealth, or, to use a common theological term, co-creators with God.

We can argue about political and social solutions to poverty. But if the poor cannot claim both their capability and responsibility for the creation of their lives all economic solutions will fail. That is a dimension of poverty that I do not think we have embraced. That is to say, we have not truly embraced the poor if we do not engage their abilities.

As we think about Lady Poverty and the outreach ministry of the church I think we have to ask about the role of global markets, the place of social policy, and the potency of human persons to shape their own destiny. There is no simple or single approach. It is a complex moral problem and my hope would be that the church would give witness to the complexity of poverty and not one-line moralistic bumper-sticker slogans.

For example, I believe that University Congregational Church could fund the building of a habitat for humanity house. We could volunteer to help build it. Social justice calls us to a hands-on commitment to serve the poor; to take them into our arms like St. Francis of Assisi. I believe that our physical expression of compassion is essential for the human soul and the integrity of the church. It shows solidarity with the poor as it deepens our own souls.

But if that is all we do, the house will not be built. We need to address the larger questions of homelessness. What are the economic, political, and personal reasons why people cannot afford to buy their own homes? What kind of education do we need that helps us address the systemic issues that lie beyond nails and lumber. What is the church’s role in probing and understanding the layers of reasons that people are homeless? How can we help educate our community, state and national legislators, and ourselves? What other social, educational, and religious organizations can be our partners in the elimination of homelessness? Let us support social policy that limits the scope of poverty. Let us press our society to recapture the capability of the impoverished to claim their wealth. Let us advocate market reforms for greater justice through shareholder initiatives, consciousness raising, and other educational means. Let us be the congregation that makes the difference in poverty because we can hold up the entire fabric of indigence and take all of her in our arms. Finis

[1] Carlo Carretto, I Francis, translated from the Italian by Robert R. Barr; Orbis Books, Maryknoll: 1982, p. 23.

[2] Ibid., p. 19.

[3] Deborah Savage, The Human Person: The ‘Subject’ of Wealth; a paper delivered at the 1997 Puebla Conference.

[4] Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom; Alfred Knopf: 1999.