Back in 2015, I posted about the prophecy of Saint Francis of Assisi that seems to have been fulfilled in the current occupant of the See of Peter.
Today, we begin a series based on the essays by James Larson †, entitled, “Saint Francis of Assisi: They Pretended to Love You So That They Might Leave You”. Larson strongly believed that the roots of the spiritual decay underlying this present wreckage of the faith arose nearly eight centuries ago in the twofold rejection of Franciscan Poverty and Thomistic Metaphysics. Larson dealt extensively with the latter on his site, “The War Against Being“and he had begun writing on Saint Francis and the importance of the betrayal of true Franciscan poverty before his untimely death.
Today, we discuss Part I of Saint Francis: They Pretended to Love You So That They Might Leave You.
“The Thirteenth century was poised on the cusp of the Renaissance, and the flood of pagan concupiscence and intellectual pride which was about to inundate Christendom.
“In the heart of this threatened world, God planted the two gifts of Franciscan Poverty and Thomistic Realism as Icons of Love and Truth, the vision of which would infuse every aspect of human culture with all that was necessary to protect it from these evils.
“These Gifts were rejected, and this rejection initiated a fundamental posture of prostitution towards the world which, like a slow-moving cancer, has eaten away at the heart of the Church for centuries. Wrongly, therefore, do we now wail at the post-Vatican II ruin of our Catholic world as though it were a sudden calamity unjustly inflicted. As we shall see, ours is a chastisement long merited.”
I believe that we have to go back to the Thirteenth Century in order to understand the crisis which has now largely decimated the Catholic Church. What happened almost eight hundred years ago instituted a spiralling process of betrayal which culminated in the chastisement from God which we have experienced as the post-Vatican Council II Church. That we now think Vatican II to be the source of this crisis, rather than its fruit, serves to indicate the degree to which self-delusion is the mistress of such betrayal. The darkness which has collectively descended over the Catholic mind, and the resultant ignorance in regard to the roots of its own illness, is now almost universal.
The thirteenth century was “The Greatest of Centuries,” not primarily because it was the century in which there were great Saints, magnificent cathedrals, Catholic monarchs, or even because it was the century in which all the principles of Catholic Faith and Catholic life were, to a significant extent, incarnated into the institutions of society. These “fruits” (to the limited extent to which they were realized) were derivative, rather than causative. Rather, it was the greatest of centuries because it was in this century that God bathed both human intellect and will in the transparent light of His own presence to the world. By so doing, He infused into our cultural “vision” an iconography of the perfect ordering of these two faculties towards both the created and the Divine orders.
The two primary vehicles of this revelation were St. Francis and St. Thomas. And this, not primarily because of their personal holiness, but because of the double-vision of life (the living of the Beatitudes) and Truth which God revealed through them.
Correspondingly, the roots of that spiritual decay which has increasingly penetrated Christian civilization over the past 7-8 centuries, and which has now culminated in the virtual death of this civilization, can be identified with two causative factors: 1) the stripping away from St. Francis of his Religious Order through the destruction of the ideal of Poverty, in which the Gospel light of purity of heart [which “sees God”] was manifested to the world in all its fullness; and, 2) the rejection of the purity of Thomistic Metaphysics, which contained the intellectual framework and vision absolutely necessary to our perception of the transparency of all creation, and therefore also integral to this vision of God’s presence in the world.
This twofold violation – of Franciscan Poverty and Thomistic Metaphysics – in turn engendered a war between Franciscan and Dominican spirituality which has been perpetuated down through the centuries. Such conflict could only have happened through a falsification of the charisms of both Orders. As Francis and Dominic literally embraced in their own lives, so did God intend the embrace of Franciscan and Dominican (especially in the form of Thomism) spirituality to endure until the end of time.
The Thirteenth century was poised on the cusp of the Renaissance, and the flood of pagan concupiscence and intellectual pride which was about to inundate Christendom. In the heart of this threatened world, God planted the two gifts of Franciscan Poverty and Thomistic Realism as Icons of Love and Truth, the vision of which would infuse every aspect of human culture with all that was necessary to protect it from these evils. These Gifts were rejected, and this rejection initiated a fundamental posture of prostitution towards the world which, like a slow-moving cancer, has eaten away at the heart of the Church for centuries. Wrongly, therefore, do we now wail at the post-Vatican II ruin of our Catholic world as though it were a sudden calamity unjustly inflicted. As we shall see, ours is a chastisement long merited.
In previous articles, we have dealt more extensively with the Gift of Thomas, and its rejection. Most of this article will focus on St. Francis, but with some emphasis on integrating the visions of these two great Saints.
St. Francis: The Key to Catholic Restoration
“Here the broad highway of the old world changed into the narrow way to life eternal.”
The above-quoted passage, taken from the early life of St. Francis titled The Mirror of Perfection (Speculum Perfectionis – to be designated here as SC)), speaks of that moment of God’s radical intervention in human history which was the life of St. Francis of Assisi. The great, tragic irony is that, despite the immense popularity of the Saint himself, even during his lifetime, this grace was almost immediately compromised and falsified by many who claimed to be his friends.
It may indeed seem disproportionate to place so much spiritual and historical importance upon one man, and the particular grace to the Church and the world which he represented. It would seem of value therefore to begin with the evaluation of Francis made by Popes in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries who saw in the following of St. Francis the great hope for the restoration of Christian civilization, and the defeat of all those forces which threatened its destruction. In his encyclical Rite Expiatis (On the Seventh Centenary of the Death of St. Francis), Pope Pius XI wrote:
“…in no one has the image of Christ our Lord and the ideal of Gospel life been more faithfully and strikingly expressed than in Francis. For this reason, while he called himself “the Herald of the great King,” he has justly been styled “the second Christ,” because he appeared like Christ reborn to his contemporaries no less than to later ages….”
Pope Benedict XV, in Sacra Propediem, expressed similar sentiments:
“The words of St. Paul, ‘Be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ,’ we may justly apply to Francis, who by following Christ has become His most perfect image and likeness.”
Popes such as Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV, and Pius XI all saw in this “following” of St. Francis something that was the key to overcoming the crisis of the present age:
“[St. Francis] has been appointed by Our Predecessor [Pope Leo XIII] as heavenly patron of the so-called Catholic Action, being a man destined by God for the reformation not only of his own turbulent age but of Christian society in all times.” (Rite Expiatis).
This translated into a call from these Popes for virtually all Catholics to join the Third Order of St. Francis:
“We do urge all Christians not to be behindhand in joining the ranks of this soldiery of Christ.” (Leo XIII, Auspicato).
“Urge those who have not yet entered this distinguished militia to do so this year. And let those who are too young become Cordbearers of St. Francis so that even the children may grow accustomed to the life.” (Rite Expiatis).
In other words, the gift of God which is the life and ideal of St. Francis of Assisi is to be seen not only as of a sort of general inspiration and motivation towards holiness, as is the case with all saints, but for a very specific purpose – for salvation of Christian civilization from all those forces which intend its destruction.
We should be startled by this assessment. No one could possibly conclude that the Franciscan Order of today possesses the power or grace to reform or save Christian civilization. The application of such terms as “militia” and “soldier” to the Franciscan Order now seems for the most part laughable, and the notion that children should be “Cordbearers” in such a militia seems even more absurd. Something happened which virtually destroyed the power of this inestimable gift from God. In order to understand this “something”, we need to penetrate to the heart of Francis’ life and ideal, and then unravel the betrayal which ensued.
An Icon in Stone
It is appropriate, I think, to begin with an iconographic depiction of this grace and its betrayal.
Four kilometers from Assisi is the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, the seventh largest church in Christendom, built over and around the original home of the Franciscan Order. Within this magnificent and massive structure, and directly under the cupola, stands a tiny church (only 22’ X 13’6”) called the Portiuncula (the word translates as “little portion of land”). The Portiuncula is the singular place on this earth most beloved to St. Francis; it is where he founded his Order, and where he passionately desired the most perfect preservation of his ideal. And, in St. Francis’ own words, “Of all the churches in the world that the blessed Virgin loves, she bears the greatest love for this one.” (Legend of Perugia, 9 – hereafter abbreviated LP)).
It is especially important to understand that the Portiuncula was never owned by Francis or the Order. To this day, the Franciscans pay an annual rent of one basket of fish to the Benedictines for its use.
The ideal which St. Francis desired to be preserved in this most holy of Franciscan sites was the Franciscan charism of Poverty. We must realize that Francis’ ideal of Poverty soared far beyond the evangelical counsel of poverty which we associate with the religious life. His “Lady Poverty” extended to all that is human – both interior and exterior. It encompassed the entirety of the Gospel – the mystery of Christ assuming absolute servitude and poverty for our salvation: God, poor in His birth, poor in His life and public ministry, and embracing absolute Poverty in His Death. As emphasized by Popes Pius X, Benedict XV and Pius XI, Francis’ charism of poverty penetrated to the heart of the perfect imitation of Jesus Christ: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58).
Because St. Francis considered the Portiuncula to be “holy, beloved, and chosen before all others by Christ and the glorious Virgin” (SP, 55), and because he intensely desired that the Portiuncula be the example and model for all the rest of the order, he gave minute instructions before his death for the preservation of this ideal. These instructions applied first of all to all those practices which cultivate the interior life of holiness – silence, prayer, holy conversation, physical labor, fasting and other forms of physical mortification. Especially, he sought to keep this place free from worldly conversation and news, and free from all that is not edifying. He gave specific instructions as to the qualities needed in the clergy and friars who were to reside and serve here, and he stated, “I do not wish anyone else, whether layfolk or friars, to enter this place, except the Minister General and the lay-brothers who serve them.” (Ibid.).
During St. Francis’ life, the General Chapter was held at the Portiuncula. The only dwelling that the friars had for their gathering was a small, poor hut covered with straw, the walls being constructed of branches and mud. Francis returned from one of the provinces to find that the citizens of Assisi had hastily erected a larger building for their use. Francis’ response was radical and drastic. He ordered his brothers up on the roof, and they began tearing off the tiles and throwing them to the ground, with the intention of demolishing the whole building. The citizens of Assisi finally persuaded Francis to desist from his project of demolition, employing the argument that this particular building belonged to the community of Assisi, and was not in any way to be perceived as the property of the Friars Minor.
At another time, the Minister General (most likely Francis’ Vicar, Brother Elias) decided to build two small houses close to the Church of the Portiuncula because of the increasing number of brothers and general population who came to this place, and because “it was practically impossible for them to provide for the needs of physical health and their spiritual life.” (LP,12)).
Upon returning from a journey, and having discovered this construction almost completed, Francis sent for the minister general and said to him: “Brother, this friary is the model and mirror of our Order. So that the brothers of the entire Order who come here may take back to their friaries the good example of poverty, I wish that the brothers of this friary bear with inconvenience and disturbance for the love of the Lord God rather than experience tranquility and consolations.”
There is therefore no question that the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, in all the various dimensions of its physical and spiritual grandiosity, amounts to a profound betrayal of St. Francis. One cannot help but call to mind the words of Our Lord: “Woe to you who build the monuments of the prophets, and your fathers killed them.” (Luke 11:47). The difference here being that with the tragedy which has befallen the Portiuncula, it was not St. Francis himself who was slain, but his ideal.
The Franciscan Ideal
Francis knew that what God intended to accomplish through his Order was something radically different from all other religious Orders. In his Testament, written shortly before his death, and designed not as another rule, but “that we may observe in a more Catholic way the Rule we have promised to God”, St. Francis wrote the following:
“When God gave me some friars, there was no one to tell me what I should do; but the Most High Himself made it clear to me that I must live the life of the Gospel. I had this written down briefly and simply and his holiness the Pope confirmed it for me [this early Rule has been lost]. Those who embraced this life gave everything to the poor. They were satisfied with one habit which was patched inside and outside, and a cord, and trousers. We refused to have anything more…The friars must be very careful not to accept churches or poor dwellings for themselves, or anything else built for them unless they are in harmony with the poverty which we have promised in the Rule; and they should occupy these places as strangers and pilgrims [no ownership].
In virtue of obedience, I strictly forbid the friars, wherever they may be, to petition the Roman Curia, either personally or through an intermediary, for a papal brief, whether it concerns a church or any other place, or even in order to preach, or because they are being persecuted… They should always have this writing [the Testament] with them as well as the Rule and at the chapters they hold, when the Rule is read, they should read these words also. In virtue of obedience, I strictly forbid any of my friars, clerics or lay brothers, to interpret the Rule or these words, saying, ‘This is what they mean.’ God inspired me to write the Rule and these words plainly and simply, and so you too must understand them plainly and simply, and live by them, doing good to the last.”
St. Francis envisioned such poverty for both individual friars and the Order as a whole. He gave strict orders that all friars must beg, that they must never touch money, that they must labor with their hands, they must never ride an animal unless sickness or old age demands such mercy, that all buildings must be extremely poor and constructed only of mud and wood, that they must not own books or pursue learning, etc.
As the Order grew in numbers, these demands became insupportable to Brother Elias and many of the provincial ministers. The Speculum Perfectionis offers an account of an incident which occurred quite late in life, during the period when he was writing the Rule of 1223. It is worth quoting in full, since it presents to us the Francis that very few wish to know:
“After the second Rule written by blessed Francis had been lost, he went up a mountain (Monte Colombo, near Rieti) with Brother Leo of Assisi and Brother Bonizo of Bologna, to draw up another, and under the guidance of Christ he had it written down. But many Ministers came in a body to Brother Elias, the Vicar of blessed Francis [Francis had resigned], and said, ‘We hear that Brother Francis is drawing up a new Rule, and we fear that he will make it so harsh that it will be impossible for us to keep it. So we would like you to go and tell him that we are not willing to be bound by this Rule. Let him make it for himself, and not for us.’ But Brother Elias feared a rebuke from the holy Father, and refused to go. And when they all pressed him, he said that he would not go without them, so they all went together.
When Brother Elias approached the place where blessed Francis was standing, he called to him. And when he had answered and saw the Ministers, he asked, ‘What do these Brothers want?’ Brother Elias said, ‘They are Ministers, who hear that you are drawing up a new Rule, and they fear that you intend to make it too hard. They refuse to be bound by it, and ask you to make it for yourself, and not for them.’
At this blessed Francis raised his face to heaven and spoke to Christ, saying, ‘Lord, was I not right when I said that they would not believe me?’ And all present heard the voice of Christ answer from heaven, ‘Francis, nothing in this Rule is yours; for all is Mine. I wish the Rule to be obeyed to the letter, to the letter, without a gloss, without a gloss. I know what the frailty of man can achieve, and I know how much I intend to help them. So let those who are not willing to obey the Rule leave the Order.’
Then blessed Francis turned to the friars and said, ‘You have heard! You have heard! Do you want this to be repeated?’ And the Ministers confessed their fault and went away confused and terrified.” (SP, 1).
Elias and the Ministers of course had a reasonable concern – reasonable at least from the perspective of every worldly concern imaginable. The Order had grown astronomically. There were all the issues of housing, feeding, government, discipline, etc. normally associated with such a large organization. It was only natural for the Church hierarchy, including the Pope, to desire that the Order be established as an efficient organization for ministry and missionary activity.
All this seemed impossible under Francis’ radical prohibitions against everything which insured any sort of stability or security for the Order, or which failed to provide security in regard to the “necessities” of life. Over and over again, we find Francis reiterating the same prescription for being a Friar Minor:
“I assure you, brother, that it has been and remains my first and last intention and desire – had the brethren only believed me – that no friar should possess anything but a habit, a cord, and an undergarment, as our Rule allows.” [sometimes he would add ‘shoes in the case of necessity’].
It is extremely important to understand that the objections raised by Elias and the Ministers, and the rationale used to justify these objections, were fully understood by St. Francis, and completely rejected by him. Francis received assurance directly from Christ that this extreme ideal of Poverty was the will of God for the Franciscan Order, no matter how large the Order became or what difficulties might be encountered with the increase and spread of the Order. The early life of St. Francis titled Mirror of Perfection recalls the following incident:
“When the Friar Ministers urged him to allow the friars to possess something, at least in common, so that so great a company might have some resources, blessed Francis called upon Christ in prayer, and took counsel with Him on the matter. And Christ at once answered him, saying, ‘It is My will to withhold all things from them, both in general and in particular. I will always be ready to provide for the family, however great it may become, and I will always cherish it so long as it shall trust in Me.” (SP, 13).
The simple, historical fact is that many provincial ministers, Minister Generals like Elias and St. Bonaventure, and future Popes, chose to trust neither Francis nor Christ.
The rejection of the Gift of God which was St. Francis and his ideal was not the accomplishment of men who intended evil towards the Franciscan Order, but rather a work of benighted love coming from his friends. Ministers and Popes (except, apparently, Innocent III) simply did not understand what God intended to do through St. Francis, and did not believe that his ideal could be realized on the scale of a large Religious Order. Francis’ response was simply to resign.
It is rationally incontestable that the life of no other Saint has been falsified to the extreme extent as has been the life of St. Francis. As we have seen, the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels is an icon of this betrayal in stone. But the falsification courses deep into every aspect of Francis’ life and message. This is especially true of the conventional rational given for his resignation as head of the Order.
Francis’ illness was certainly a sufficient excuse justifying his resignation, but it was not the determining reason. Responding to a question from one of his friars concerning this matter, Francis said:
“I put the Order back in the hands of God and of the ministers. I relinquished my post and resigned, excusing myself at the general chapter because my sickness would not allow me to care for the brothers. And yet, if the brothers had walked and were still walking according to my will, I would prefer that they have no other minister but myself until the day of my death. In fact, when subjects are good and faithful, when they know and fulfill the will of their superior, then the superior has scarcely any anxiety concerning them. What is more, I would experience such joy seeing the quality of the brothers and such comfort at the thought of our progress that I would let them have their own way and I would feel no added burden, even if I were nailed to a bed through sickness.
“My duty, my mandate as superior of the brothers, is of a spiritual order because I must repress vices and correct them. But if through my exhortations and my example I can neither suppress nor correct them, I do not wish to become an executioner who punishes and flogs, as the secular arm does. I have confidence in the Lord that they will be punished by invisible enemies (those valets of the Lord in charge of punishing in this world and in the next those who transgress God’s commandments); they will be punished and corrected by the men of this world to their great shame and confusion, and in that way they will return to their profession and vocation.” (Legend of Perugia).
The Mirror of Perfection relates a similar question from one of the friars, and records the following response of Francis: “For some of the superiors pull them in another direction, holding up to them as patterns the men of long ago, and disregarding warnings. But what they are doing and the way in which they are now acting will appear more clearly in the end.” The author then closes his account of this incident with the following:
“And shortly afterwards, when he was burdened with severe illness, he raised himself in bed, and cried out in vehemence of spirit, ‘Who are these who have torn my Order and my friars out of my hands? If I come to the General Chapter I will make my intention clear!’”
Having established the fact of St. Francis’ consuming passion for total Poverty, and its absolute centrality in regard to the Gift which God intended as the Franciscan Order, we need to penetrate to the reasons for this love.
Possibly the most revealing and enchanting of all the early works on the life of St. Francis is a work composed in the year 1227 (one year after Francis’ death), titled Sacrum Commercium. The title literally means “holy commerce or exchange.” It is an allegory depicting Francis’ romance with Lady Poverty, penetrating to the depths of the meaning and centrality of this virtue, and examining its history among men.
The Prologue to Sacrum Commercium begins as follows:
“Among all the excellent and excelling virtues that prepares in man a place and a dwelling for God and show man the better and easier way of going to God and of arriving at him, holy poverty stands out above all the rest by a certain precedence and excels the glory of the others by its singular grace, for it is indeed the foundation of all other virtues and their guardian, and it rightly stands first both in place [Poverty stands at the head of the list of Beatitudes] and its name among other evangelical virtues. The other virtues need not fear the pouring down of rain, the coming of floods, and the blowing of winds that threaten destruction, so long as they are solidly established upon this foundation of poverty.
This is indeed as it should be, for the Son of God, ‘the Lord of hosts and the king of glory’, loved this virtue with a special predilection, sought it out, and found it, when He wrought our salvation upon this earth. At the beginning of His preaching He placed this virtue as a light in the hands of those who enter the portal of faith and made it the foundation stone of his house. The other virtues receive the kingdom of heaven only in promise from Him; poverty, however, is already invested with it without delay. For ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, He said, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.
“Very properly is the kingdom of heaven said to be the possession of those who keep nothing of the goods of this world through their own will, their inclination towards spiritual things, and their desire for eternal things. For it can only follow that a person will live on heavenly things if he cares nothing for earthly things, and he who renounces all earthly things and ‘counts them as dung’ will taste with pleasure the savory crumbs that fall from the table of the holy angels and will deserve to taste how sweet and how good the Lord is.”
It is worthwhile noting here that St. Thomas establishes a one-to-one correlation between the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the first seven Beatitudes. The First Beatitude, Poverty, corresponds to the First Gift of the Holy Spirit – Fear of the Lord. And just as Fear of the Lord is “the beginning of wisdom” and therefore the pre-requisite for all further growth in the spirit, so Poverty is the foundation of all the other virtues, and therefore the pre-requisite for all advancement in living the Gospel life of the Beatitudes. We must be poor to all the things of this world if we are to become rich in God.
Sacrum Commercium offers a unique contribution to early Franciscan literature, because of its examination of the history of Poverty among men. Lady Poverty, in her conversation on the top of the “mountain of the Lord” (where St. Francis and his companions had ascended to meet her), stated her intention: “I therefore wish to recount for you, if listening to me will not bore you, the long but none the less useful history of my status, that you might learn how you ought to walk to please God, taking care not to look back once you have willed to put your hand to the plow.”
After examining the creation of man in Paradise, wherein “possessing nothing, he belonged entirely to God,” Lady Poverty then details man’s Fall from innocence, his being clothed with “the skins of the dead,” and his being cast out of Paradise “to multiply his labors that he might become rich,” and to await in tears and sorrow for a Redeemer – “until the Most High came into the world from the bosom of the Father, He who sought me [Lady Poverty] out most graciously.”
In turn, when Christ was to return to the Father, He sent His Apostles and Disciples out into the world in this same spirit of Poverty – “Everyone of you who does not renounce all that he possesses cannot be my disciple” – in order to convert all peoples back to God and the living of the Gospel.
This devotion to Lady Poverty overflowed into all the early followers of Christ. She refers specifically to the passages in the Book of Acts which details the character of their lives;
“And all they that believed, were together, and had all things in common. Their possessions and goods they sold, and divided them to all, according as everyone had need. And continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they took their meat with gladness and simplicity of heart; Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord increased daily together such as should be saved.” (Acts 2:44-47).
“And the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul: neither did any one say that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but all things were common unto them. And with great power did the apostles give testimony of the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord; and great grace was in them all. For neither was there any one needy among them. For as many as were owners of lands or houses, sold them, and brought the price of the things they sold, and laid it down before the feet of the apostles. And distribution was made to every one according as he had need.” (Acts 4:32-35).
It is clear from the above two passages that it was precisely this “commercium” of Poverty among the early followers of Christ that merited the grace for the massive conversions of early peoples to Christ and the Gospel. In the words of Lady Poverty,
“The truth of their words [in the Book of Acts] remained for a long time among many, at least as long as the blood of the poor Crucified One was warm in their memory, and the overflowing chalice of His passion filled their hearts unto inebriation…Enduring, this victory lasted for a long time, so that each day a thousand thousands were sealed with the seal of the most high King.”
Lady Poverty then proceeds to recount the great disaster that descended upon early Christianity:
“But alas! After not too long a time, peace was made, and that peace was more disastrous than any war. In the beginning few were sealed; toward the middle, still fewer; and at the end, very few indeed. And now certainly in peace is my bitterness most bitter when all flee from me, all drive me away; I am needed by none, I am abandoned by all. Peace was granted me by my enemies, but not by my own; peace from strangers, but not from my own children.”
It is quite revealing that in my 32 years as a Catholic I have never heard the above passages from the Book of Acts given any serious treatment (even though they are part of the cycle of readings during Mass), and never heard any explanation for the disaster which destroyed this early purity of Christian living.
The Early Church Fathers, who lived in these times of decay, were not always so silent. St. Cyprian of Carthage (250 A.D.) wrote a work titled The Unity of the Church. It was quoted extensively in Pope Leo XIII’s own encyclical on The Unity of the Church (Satis Cognitum). In the following passage from St. Cyprian’s work, I would ask the reader to note carefully the extent to which he clearly makes orthodox belief and “unity of mind” dependent upon Poverty, and the Charity which is its “commercium:”
“This common mind prevailed once, in the time of the Apostles; this was the spirit in which the new community of the believers obeyed Our Lord’s commands and maintained charity with one another. The Scriptures are witness to it: ‘But the crowd of those who had come to believe acted with one mind and soul.’ And again: ‘They were all persevering with one mind in prayer with the women and Mary who had been the mother of Jesus, and with His brethren’ And that was the reason why their prayers were efficacious, that was why they could be confident of obtaining whatever they asked of God’s mercy.
“But amongst us, that unity of mind has weakened in proportion as the generosity of our charity has crumbled away. In those days, they would sell their houses and estates and lay up to themselves treasure in heaven by giving the money to the Apostles for distribution to those in need. But now, we do not even give tithes on our patrimony, and whereas Our Lord tells us to sell, we buy instead and accumulate. To such an extent have our people lost their old steadfastness in belief. That is why Our Lord says in His Gospel, with an eye on our times: ‘The Son of man, when He cometh, shall He find, think you, faith on earth?’”
We need not get lost in trying to figure the extent to which this “having all things in common” was external. There could be endless, useless speculation in this regard. It is clear, however, that these first Christians broke bread “from house to house”, and that at least some therefore possessed their own homes. We need speculate no further in this regard than did the writer of the Epistle to Diognetes, writing almost 100 years later (130 A.D.): “They have a common table, but not a common bed.” It was the spirit that mattered – the externals obviously had their limits. As the passage from Acts 4 states, “Neither did any one say that aught of the things which he possessed was his own”. Their physical poverty was real, but not absolute. Their “spirit of poverty”, on the other hand, was quite absolute indeed. This Christian heart in which this spirit was operative was aptly described in the following passage from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (7: 29-31):
“This therefore I say, brethren; the time is short; it remaineth, that they also who have wives, be as if they had none; and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice as if they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; and they that use this world, as if they used it not: for the fashion of this world passeth away.”
And what makes this spirit possible?
The above-quoted passages from Acts has been quoted in order to exemplify the simplicity and poverty which was the core charism of the early Christians and St. Francis. But these scriptures also expose to our vision something deeper within the human heart, which makes such simplicity and poverty both possible and necessary. The one word which would seem to best expresses this “something” is “Immediacy”. It is the immediacy – defined as “the quality of bringing one into direct and instant involvement with something, giving rise to a sense of urgency or excitement” – which most characterizes the heart of these first Christians, and of St. Francis and his faithful followers.
And this immediacy is at the same time always present – it penetrated into all that these first Christians did, and every moment and part of their existence.
Repeating what Lady Poverty says in Sacrum Commercium, “
“The truth of their words [in the Book of Acts] remained for a long time among many, at least as long as the blood of the poor Crucified One was warm in their memory, and the overflowing chalice of his passion filled their hearts unto inebriation…Enduring, this victory lasted for a long time, so that each day a thousand thousands were sealed with the seal of the most high King.”
Interestingly, God’s demand that man recognize the immediacy of His presence, and be constantly inebriated with His presence, is not something which only became possible after the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Possibly the greatest passage in all of scripture depicting this “spirit” is to be found in Deuteronomy:
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our god is one Lord. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole strength.
“And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thy heart: and thou shalt tell them to thy children, and thou shalt meditate upon them sitting in thy house, and walking on thy journey, sleeping and rising. And thou shalt bind them as a sign on thy hand, and they shall be and shall move between the eyes.” Deut 6:4-8).
Immediacy in the First Christians
This image of the constant presence of God “moving between the eyes” is possibly the greatest mystical image in all of Christian literature. We are dealing here with human hearts and minds possessed by God in all their thoughts and activities.
It is this immediacy of the human heart among these first Christians which made possible the “single eye” which directed everything towards Christ. Further, this immediacy made possible not only this singular relationship with Christ, but with others who were members of His Body, and it also enabled true charity towards all other human beings (both friends and enemies) simply because they were all created “by Him, and in Him” (Colossians 1:16).
This profoundly “common” union of hearts with Christ and one another merited the grace that “the Lord increased daily such as should be saved”. This is why we see so many miracles among the early Christians, why we see the fulfillment of Our Lord’s words that “you shall ask whatever you will, and it shall be done unto you” (John 15:7), why 3,000 would be converted one day ,and 5,000 another, and that there could be such astonishingly rapid conversions of whole people and nations to Christ.
It is not at all necessary to be utopian in order to understand the unique spirit of these first Christians. Where there is human nature, there is always sin. We see these sins in the story of Ananias and Saphira, who sold land, gave part while hypocritically pretending to give all, and were punished by God.
We see it present in the various churches as revealed in the letters of St. Paul, especially those to the Corinthians, in regard to the unseemly behavior indulged in at Agape Feasts, the adulterous behavior of a son with his Father’s wife, the competition of various factions who claimed to be followers of one teacher in opposition to others, etc.
We explore the lives of these early Christians not because the perfection of human beings was across-the board accomplished, but because it was indeed present and visible in a way which it is not now – present to such an extent as to merit all sorts of extraordinary graces from God, and in a way which can clearly be contrasted with our present nakedness in this regard.
And so, we are compelled to ask the inevitable question: What happened within the depths of the souls of Catholics during the early decades and centuries of the Christian era which compromised this immediacy of Christ presence within the followers of Christ, and profoundly diminished the visible evidence of the power of God’s grace operative through them? Again, the answer is to be found in scripture – this time most aptly expressed in the Letter of St. James:
“You ask, and receive not; because you ask amiss: that you may consume it on your concupiscences”(James 4;3).
Everything we have is a gift from God. To see the life of Christ which is “the light of men” (John 1: 4), and to follow this life and light with an upright heart is to remain in the immediacy and presence of God’s Truth and Life. Sin, both original and personal, is the turning aside the gifts of God in order to possess and use them as our own possessions: “All we like sheep have gone astray, every one hath turned aside into his own way….” (Isaiah 53: 6). We all tend to do it. The extent to which we do it corresponds to the degree to which God’s immediacy and presence is lost to us, and we become immersed in hypocrisy and duplicity. At a certain point we enter into the spiritual death of mortal sin.
Lady Poverty and the Beatitude of Society
The nature of the Gift which God intended to give to societies through St. Francis, and which the world (including most of his own Order) rejected, is possibly best seen through St. Francis’ teaching on begging. In the Legend of Perugia, #3, we encounter the following:
“My dear brothers and sons, do not be ashamed to go begging for alms, for God became poor for our sake in this world. That is why we have chosen the road of genuine poverty in imitation of His example and that of His holy Mother: this is the inheritance that our Lord Jesus Christ has acquired and left us, to us and to those who, following Him, have chosen to live in holy poverty.” Then he added, “In truth I say to you, many nobles and scholars of this world will enter our Order, and will consider themselves highly honored to beg for alms. Go therefore and beg with confidence, with a joyful heart, and with the blessing of God. You ought to ask for alms with more cheerfulness and joy than a man who would offer a hundred pennies for one: in exchange for the alms that you solicit, you will offer the love of God, since you will say: ‘Give us an alms for the love of God!’ and heaven and earth are nothing when compared to this love.”
Francis envisioned a dynamic of charity at the heart of the relationship between his Order and the rest of the world. The Franciscan imitation of Christ’s Poverty was to be lived to the fullest extent by his brothers. The extraordinary graces received through this imitation of Christ were to be communicated to others through example, works of charity, and the preaching of the Gospel. The faithful would merit and receive these graces through their providing the extremely simple necessities of life required by the friars.
The fact that the graces received by these early Franciscans were real, extraordinary, and abundant is testified to by the plentiful early accounts of Francis and his companions who were faithful to their Franciscan vocation. The fact that the faithful responded to these graces in vast numbers is testified to by the incredibly rapid spread of the order, the large number of conversions, the early establishment and proliferation of the Third Order, the miracles, healings, miraculous resolution of enmities, etc. And it all came down to a formula of the most startling simplicity: one friar living Absolute Poverty, with all its implications both exterior and interior; and, on the other hand, one person, rich or poor, whose heart was open to receive these graces, and to respond with a slice of bread, bowl of soup, and possibly a humble place to spend the night. Although it is not recorded that St. Francis expressed his ideal in exactly this formula as just stated, it all comes down to this eminently simple, and fully realizable, ideal.
There would be no limit to the number of friars who could realistically follow such a life. Correspondingly, there would be no limit to the graces received by individuals, or by whole societies and nations which opened themselves up to such a living of the Gospel. Sin would, of course, continue to exist.
The Remedy for this Passion of the Church
But the graces penetrating into the heart of those societies which had embraced this experiment, would have prevented the growth not only of the unlimited materialism, avarice, usury, consumerism, impurity, murder of the unborn, and the incessant warfares which now scourge mankind in the flesh, but also all the manifestations of intellectual hubris – reductive science, technological oppression, and philosophical and theological error and heresy – which have now reduced the vast majority of men to intellectual and spiritual insanity.
It is also very important to understand that St. Francis founded the first Third Order for lay people. The Rule that he established for the Third Order of course did not require the extreme poverty which was to be the way of his Friars. Rather, it established them in that spirit of poverty which would empower lay people to engage effectively in that battle against the allurements of this world which are the ruin of the spiritual life. It will be worthwhile here to quote a rather long passage from Thomas of Celano’s First Life of St. Francis.
“Francis, therefore, Christ’s valiant knight, went round the cities and fortresses proclaiming the Kingdom of God, preaching peace, teaching salvation and repentance for the remission of sins, not with plausible words of human wisdom, but with the learning and power of the Spirit. The Apostolic authority which had been granted him enabled him to act in all things with greater confidence, without using flattery or seducing blandishments. Incapable of caressing the faults of certain men, he could pierce them; incapable of showing favor to the lives of sinners, he could smite them with sharp reproof because he had first persuaded himself by practice of that which he endeavored to commend to others by his words; and without fear of any reprover he uttered the truth most confidently, so that even the most learned men, mighty in renown and dignity, wondered at his discourses and were smitten by his presence with wholesome fear.
Men ran, women too ran, clerks hastened, and Religious made speed to see and hear the Saint of God who seemed to all to be a man of another world. People of every age and either sex hastened to behold the wonders which the Lord was newly working in the world by His servant. Surely at that time, whether by Holy Francis’ presence or by the fame [of him], it seemed that, as it were, a new light had been sent from heaven on earth, scattering the universal blackness of darkness which has so seized on well-nigh the whole of that region, that scarce any one knew whither he must go. For such depth of forgetfulness of God and such slumber of neglect of His commandments had oppressed almost all that they could scarce endure to be roused, even slightly, from their old and inveterate sins.”
“He darted his beams like a star shining in the gloom of night, and as it were the morning spread over the darkness; and thus it came to pass that in all short time the face of the whole province was changed, and she appeared of more cheerful countenance, the former foulness having everywhere been laid aside. The former dryness was done away and in the field erstwhile hard the crops sprang up quickly; the untended vine began moreover to put forth shoots of divine fragrance, and, after bearing blossoms of sweetness, yielded fruits of honor and virtue together.
Everywhere thanksgiving and the voice of praise were resounding in such wise that many cast away the cares of the world, and in the life and teaching of the most blessed father Francis gained knowledge of themselves, and aspired to love of their Creator and reverence for Him. Many among the people, nobles and plebeians, clerks and lay-folk, pierced by God’s inspiration, began to come to holy Francis, longing evermore to fight under his discipline and leadership: all of whom the Saint of God, like a plenteous stream of heavenly grace, watered with anointing showers, and beautified the field of their hearts with flowers of virtue. Truly an excellent craftsman after whose pattern, rule and teaching, heralded with noteworthy proclamation, Christ’s Church is being renewed in either sex, and is triumphing in a threefold army of men who are to be saved. For he assigned to all their rule of life, and pointed out truly the way to be saved in every station.”
True religious poverty is, of course the antidote to all sin. It establishes the soul in the first Beatitude, by which the soul lives in that spiritual simplicity which is poor to all the things of this world, and is thereby enabled to see God in all things: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” It is always tempting to believe that such “spiritual poverty” can be lived in the midst of external affluence, but this is most often a delusion. We are incarnate beings, and the life we live in the flesh necessarily resonates in the spirit.
St. Paul flatly states “For the love of money is the root of all evils.” It is worthwhile here to interject the teaching of St. Thomas on this subject, for it offers a striking confirmation of the necessity of poverty in the life of both individuals and societies.
Analyzing the distinction between the “beginning of all sin” on the one hand, and “the root of all sin” on the other, St. Thomas writes:
“We must therefore say that pride, even as denoting a special sin, is the beginning of every sin….On the other hand, in the order of execution, the first place belongs to that which by furnishing the opportunity of fulfilling all desires of sin, has the character of a root, and such are riches; so that, from this point of view, covetousness is said to be the root of all evils…” (ST, I-II, Q.84, a.1)
And since “every sin includes an inordinate turning to a mutable good” (Ibid., Q.72, a.2), it then follows:
“Accordingly, we must say that covetousness, as denoting a special sin, is called the root of all sins, in likeness to the root of a tree, in furnishing sustenance to the whole tree. For we see that by riches man acquires the means of committing any sin whatever, and of sating his desire for any sin whatever, since money helps man to obtain all manner of temporal goods, according to Eccles 10:19: All things obey money: so that in this sense desire for riches is the root of all sins.” (Ibid., Q.84, a.1).
A world which played host to vast numbers of Francis’ Friars Minor would be one in which the root of all sin was parched by the heavy cross upon which Christ thirsted. It would bear little resemblance to the world under which we are crushed today. This is true not only of the lower world of luxuries and specific sins of the passions, but also the “higher” realms of man’s social and intellectual activities.
It is riches which build modern economies, the unnatural life of cities, and the stilted technological world in which we try to raise our families. It is money which feeds the endless quest of reductive scientific research and the anti-God mentality which is inevitably its concubine. It is the world of finance which constructs the engines and schemes of international warfare. And it is money that maintains the Ivory Towers where modern philosophers and theologians culture their pestilence and perversities.
It need not have happened.
(End of quote)
[Ed. comment] This very long article may have tried your patience, but yet I cannot help but urge you to re-read it in a day or two, and as you think on it you will begin to see what Larson saw, the roots of the materialism that has so permeated the Church today.
On our own, we cannot restore the virtue of poverty to the Church. But on our own, personal level, we can certainly work towards purifying our own lives from so much entanglement with the things of this world. Just as we cannot force the pope to consecrate Russia, and so instead we work on our personal Consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, our First Saturdays of Reparation and making reparation of our daily duties; in the same way, we may make our own espousals to Lady Poverty and practice this spirit of holy poverty each time we are given the opportunity.
If you do decide to work on this, or if perhaps you have been working on this (several readers have, on their own) please share your impressions for us.
Thank you for reading, I pray for you always.
Remember – Our Lady needs us to obey: First Saturdays of Reparation, daily rosary, at least 5 mysteries, wear her brown scapular and live your Total Consecration to her Immaculate Heart, offering daily duties in reparation and for the conversion of poor sinners.
Open your hearts to the Lord and serve Him only: and He will free you from the hands of your enemies. With all your heart return to Him, and take away from your midst any strange gods” (I Kings 7:3)
✝︎ Immaculate Heart of Mary, Queen of our hearts, Mother of the Church, do thou offer to the Eternal Father the Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for the conversion of poor sinners, especially our Pontiff.
✝︎ Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Thy kingdom come! Viva Cristo Rey!
✝︎ St. Joseph, protect us, protect our families, protect our priests.
✝︎ St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.
~ by evensong for love of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ, King.
Vouchsafe that I may praise thee, O Sacred Virgin! Give me strength against thine enemies!