St. Francis of Assisi: But Exactly Where Was He Going?

When my brother and I were boys we heard a great deal about St. Francis from a dear friend of ours, for whom poverty was, in itself, the highest of virtues. She had given up a lot of money, taken up a life of voluntary poverty, worked hard to help others as best she could, caring for the sick as well as offering constant prayers on behalf of all of us.

Yet, to my father, no authority on religion, St. Francis was not "The Saint of Poverty," as our family's dear friend kept insisting. To my father St. Francis was waging quite another kind of struggle--an effort to follow Christ's example, rather than exalt poverty per se.

For a long time I viewed his critique as that of the skeptic, if not cynic. Why distinguish between following Jesus Christ's lead, so to speak, as against working hard among the humble of the earth? Still, my father would not relent. It is possible, he claimed, to turn the poor, the humble, into a caricature of themselves: good only, honorable only, agents of the salvation of the rest of us who are well off and well educated.

During the years I lived in the South and worked with migrant farm workers and tenant farmers I came as close as it was possible for me to come in that direction: an intense involvement with extremely hard-pressed men, women, and children, and a determined inclination to see them uncritically. I find my presentation of them, in some of my writing, skewed--a failure of moral realism. I tended to overlook the moments and longer of meanness and spite, chicanery and deceit, in favor of a "them" I saw as utterly blessed, because poor--chosen by God to bear witness to the sins of their so-called betters. As I did so, St. Francis came to mind repeatedly--his ever-present loving-kindness. Surely we today ought to follow his lead!

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