Wednesday, November 9, 2011


At a retreat I attended last summer on St. Francis and Franciscanism, the question came up of the vow of poverty as taken by St. Francis and his followers. This is one of three vows that today's followers of St. Francis are asked to take, the others being a vow of charity and a vow of obedience. The Bible verse that came up was the following rather well known and often cited verse from Matthew (19:21), in which Jesus responds as follows to a wealthy young man who asks what he must do to be deserving of eternal life:
"Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
There were a number of wealthy people at the retreat. In fact, probably only those individuals with some money could have afforded to attend the retreat. This particular verse created some consternation with them until the priest who led the retreat interpreted the verse in a way that they found comfortable to accept, and one in which I have seen it interpreted on a number of occasions, a non-literal interpretation. To support the priest, here are a couple of other sources that use the same interpretation.
From the Corporation Sole: A person who has been initiated into a Religious Order may take a vow of poverty at any time during their membership in the Order. The vow of poverty is not to be interpreted as being for ever poor, but rather to sharing everything in common. Those who embrace a vow of poverty do not claim private ownership of any possessions: everything they have is used for the common good of the Religious Order.

From a Secular Franciscan website: Poverty was another thing that worried me when I was first discerning a call to the Franciscans. The example of Francis was one of total financial poverty... I later learned ... that one could live in spiritual poverty while being financially wealthy.
I did not say anything because my reaction was diametrically opposed to the interpretation of the others. After all, Matthew tells us that the young man went away sad "because he was wealthy." It seems, then, that perhaps a literal interpretation would not be inaccurate, and certainly St. Francis interpreted the passage literally. Yet, our retreat priest supported the view of the secular Franciscan above although it would have been interesting to see how he might have reacted to my experience for, you see, I have done this literally.

At the retreat, I said nothing, following my father's guidance that it is better to be silent and let people think you are a fool than open your mouth and prove it. So, I simply listened to the scads of people, most of the 60 there, who did have something to say, all of it along the lines that while St. Francis may have interpreted it literally, (1) we really cannot do so today and (2) the passage was never meant to be interpreted literally.

How sad, I thought, as I recalled my experiences with the literal interpretation and the intense pleasure and sheer joy that came from it.

A little over ten years ago my husband, Donnie, and I sold or gave away everything we owned. All our fledglings had grown up and in one fell swoop had flown from our nest to new nesting places of their own. Our 13-room house, with its suite of empty bedrooms, required dusting and cleaning for no occupants and with no extra hands to help. Further, I enjoyed little time at home because of an international consulting job that came me up in the air most of the time. If I were to have any income at all, I had to spend many days each month on a plane.

So, we decided to buy a fifth-wheeler RV and park it on a river in a wilderness area -- which brought us lots of excitement whenever the river flooded -- and planned to travel the country in between consulting jobs as soon as we could afford to buy a hauler for it. We never were able to buy that hauler, however; the kids always needed something, and we had old debts to pay. Three years later, when I was offered a job in Jordan, we gave the RV to a neighbor and moved to the Middle East.

In 2000, to return to my original story, we had 13 rooms of goods to unload. Nearly nothing would be needed for the RV -- just a few personal items, such as a minimum amount of clothes for work and play, and some work items, such as our two computers. That was it. There was room for nothing more.

So, we told our children that they could take whatever they wanted from the family heirlooms and any other treasure trove they saw lying around our large house, and they did. Surprisingly, there were no disagreements among them as to what each took.

Then I had to do something with my 5000 books (yes, I have typed the correct number of zeroes there). Being an academic at the time, I looked upon my books as my personal treasure. Letting go of them was particularly difficult. However, I ultimately found a very enjoyable way to do so. I contacted friends all over the world who ran libraries or training programs in need of books, offering the books for free if postage were reimbursed. My books went to programs as diverse as Harvard University and an English Teachers' Association in Uzbekistan. The rare books I had collected from Siberia I sent to the Slavic Library at the University of Illinois; books there do not circulate, and so I knew I would be able to visit my books again were I ever to need to use them (I have not had that need in the last ten years). With Lizzie being a graduate student there and my having led summer workshops there, finding my way onto campus and into the library would not be difficult.

We held a yard sale for the remaining items. Some sold; many did not. Then, we opened our house to a neighbor who collected items for the impoverished communities in the Philippines. He rented a large u-haul, and off went everything else!

It was quite a liberating experience, and we have not felt the need for "things" since. We took nothing except four suitcases to the Middle East -- mostly clothes and work equipment (especially Donnie's electronics). We brought nothing back from the Middle East when we returned to the USA in 2006 except for those same clothes and electronics. (Oh, and, of course, the cats that we rescued there.)

There is something magical about letting go of everything. Letting go and giving away worldly possessions creates a different and more important kind of wealth. That is what I think Jesus was telling the young man who, like many modern wealthy folks, just did not want to hear it. So, irregardless what the retreat priest told us, irregardless how some, perhaps most (?), secular Franciscans interpret the "vow of poverty," and irregardless of how anyone might prefer to treat Jesus's words metaphorically, like St. Francis, I plan to continue taking them literally.


  1. "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose..." ~Janis

    I've been busy. I found this message at the retreat shocking. You are a better woman than I, as I'd have stood up and asked, "Wait. Did you say spiritual poverty and material wealth? Isn't it supposed to be the other way around? When did we officially stop believing Jesus?"

    But then, almost everyone I know thinks I'm a fool.

    Yes, it's literal. Oh my Lord, forgive us our lack of faith.

  2. Indeed! Glad I am not alone in thinking there is nothing wrong -- and quite a bit right -- with a literal interpretation.