This Lent, we have been reflecting on the virtues that St. Bonaventure described in his book about St. Francis of Assisi, so that we might strive to embody them on our own journeys of holiness. The first virtue we covered was austerity and how Francis practiced forms of physical penance to tame the desires of the flesh and yoke them to the suffering of Jesus for the salvation of souls. Then, we looked at humility and obedience and how these virtues glorify God by recognizing that any gifts a person possesses, or any authority placed over him, is only because God has willed it to be so. We have now reached the Third Sunday of Lent, focusing on the virtue of poverty embraced by St. Francis.

Chapter Seven: Of His Love of Poverty, and the Wonderful Provision Made for All His Wants by God

St. Francis considered poverty the queen of virtues because it imitated the poverty of Jesus, who relied on the hospitality and generosity of others because he had “nowhere to rest his head” (Mat 8:20). When Francis would teach his fellow brothers about the virtue, he would reference Matthew 13:44 in which Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” As I mentioned in the first reflection, Francis had been a wealthy man before his conversion. Realizing that true happiness and freedom could only be found in conforming oneself to Jesus, and that all his money and possessions made him a slave to the temporal world, he radically heeded the parable and sold everything he owned, gave the money to the poor, and, like Jesus, relied only on the generosity of others as determined by God’s divine providence.

A man approached Francis at one point and asked to join his order. Again, using Jesus’ own words, Francis said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mat 19:21). However, rather than giving his possessions to the poor, he gave everything to his family members. Francis recognized that the man was clinging to his earthly attachments and denied him entry into the order, saying, “Thou hast given thy goods to thy family, and hast defrauded the poor; thou art not worthy to be a follower of holy poverty. Thou hast begun with the flesh, and hast sought a ruinous foundation.” In other words, when pursuing a particular way of life to seek holiness, your motivation must be rooted in virtue. In this specific case, the man sought to keep his possessions in his family rather than sacrifice them to provide for those who have nothing.

Now, if St. Francis and his followers gave everything to the poor to be poor themselves, how did they obtain provisions for themselves? Firstly, he always trusted that God would provide for their every need in various ways, which even he could not foresee. He reminded his brothers about how God sent the Israelites manna from heaven with the morning dewfall in the desert, quoting, “Man ate the bread of angels; He sent them food in abundance” (Ps 78:25). To doubt that God will provide for your every need is to doubt his almighty power, which he has proven time and again, both in scripture and in the miracles witnessed throughout human history. Secondly, St. Francis adopted the practice of begging, finding it “far better to live upon the alms which he begged from door to door than upon that which was freely offered to him.” At first glance, it may seem odd to place a higher value on things that are begged for over things freely given and received in generosity and charity. However, it makes more sense if you recall Francis’ love for humility. It takes far more humility to ask for something you need than to accept a gift you did not ask for. Through the practice of begging, Francis’ poverty was purified and enhanced by his humility.

Bear in mind, that while each of us may not be called to the same expression of radical poverty as St. Francis, we are all called to embrace poverty on a deeper level in some area or another. The opposite of poverty is wealth, abundance, and even luxury. With wealth comes the ability to own more material things and increase your physical comfort. That said, with the accumulation of worldly goods, there comes the potential of increased attachment to those worldly goods instead of dependence on God. As a thought experiment, imagine the house of a very wealthy man and the simple abode of a very poor man. While the wealthy man may love God and give to the poor, he has possibly grown overly accustomed and attached to the comforts his home and belongings provide him, such as a good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed, which in and of itself is not inherently wrong. The poor man might sleep on a straw mattress, but he is incredibly grateful for even having that much because it is better than the bare, cold floor. Now, imagine both homes and their contents are destroyed by fire. Which man will suffer more? Again, to own things and experience physical comfort is not wrong, but the more we are attached to them, the more trouble we may find ourselves in, especially if we begin to value them over God and our neighbors. If we are overly focused on our comfort during our temporary life on earth, then we may miss out on our eternal comfort in heaven, which is much easier to obtain when our attachment is to God alone.

This week, consider how you might increase your practice of the virtue of poverty by detaching from the things of the world. Since one of the pillars of Lent is almsgiving, this is the most obvious place to start. Even if you give to the poor already, how might you give more for the love of God? Reflect on a comfort that you have become attached to and consider letting it go. It might be a physical item, favorite food, ritual, or habit. Whatever you choose, the harder it is for you to do, the more virtuous the act is, and therefore, the better it will be for your growth in holiness. Remember, the treasure you seek is not here but in heaven. God will fill the void when you give up or give away something, just like he did for St. Francis.

Click here to see my interview about this series, Lent with St. Francis, with Will Wright from Good Distinctions.

You can find Lenten chaplet playlists here to help facilitate meditation on the Passion of Christ.

Read Lenten reflection series from past years here.

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