The Search for Lady Poverty

Most everyone is familiar with St. Francis, that most gregarious and universal of Catholic saints, who exploded into a too-tired Christian culture with the force of a bomb, a weapon of mass construction. If you know a little bit more about him, you will know that his odyssey into sanctity began with an obsession with a lady no one had met, the Lady Poverty. All artistic depictions of her fail, and of the many mysterious and prophetic things that Frenchie Bernadone said and did, this was by far the most mysterious. He directed all the passions and longings of a lover towards her, extolling her loveliness and seeking her amorously. Like the medieval courtly lovers who sought only to worship a lady espoused by another, he adored her as the chosen spouse of Christ. Few among Francis’s followers seemed to share his mad passion, and it was the article of his order first abandoned by his more conventional followers, but the love affair remains prophetic even today.
Much as Christians still yearn for the days of the newborn Church of Acts, where all goods in joyful innocence were shared in common, so the poverty of Francis still haunts those of us who consider following the King. Poverty was indeed who Christ as a babe embraced and her setting-up-house was the early Church, but since then she has hidden in her cenacle, emerging only when she is needed and no one else will come.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, recalling the grinding poverty of the Russian concentration camp he endured, had the character of Nerzhin in his novel The First Circle say, recalling the prison food they were given,
Can you say you ate it? No. It was like holy Communion, you took it like the sacraments... You ate it slowly, from the tip of a wooden spoon, entirely absorbed in the process of eating, in thinking about eating and it spread through your body like nectar Can you compare that with the way people wolf down steaks?... It’s not a matter of how much of it, but of the way you eat. It’s the same with happiness it doesnt depend on the actual number of blessings we manage to snatch from life, but only on our attitude towards them. (quoted by Joseph Pearce in Solzhenitsyn: Soul in Exile, p. 111)
Doubtless she comes to minister to the Christian in need and embraces them if they will accept her, making lack sweet and rags into garments of lilies finer than the robes of Solomon. And like Christ, her profile most readily emerges only in the memory, as in Nerzhin’s retrospection. My own young daughter, looking back at our family’s times of need, observed, “It’s so much more fun to be poor than rich because you appreciate things more!” She then announced her intention of raising her own children poor because she wanted them to be enriched by this treasure.
So who is this elusive Lady and why should we care? I have long wondered since I happened upon the fragmentary prayer that opens this journal. For over two decade I have pondered it and prayed to come to know her better. I feel compelled to share this haunting in hopes that it will provide a way out of the tangled overgrown wilderness we find ourselves in and lead us to a better grasp of the Christ who loved her.  
Lord, show me Poverty
Whom You loved so dearly.
Merciful Jesus, have pity on me.
I am full of yearning for my Lady Poverty.
I can find no peace without Her.
You, Lord, it was, who first aroused love for her in my heart.
Grant me the privilege of possessing her.
I yearn to be enriched by this treasure.
I earnestly desire that it might belong to me and mine forever.
For Jesus, You were very poor,
And I want to call nothing under heaven mine,
But only to live on what others may give me.
This prayer of St. Francis—an actual one, unlike his famous “Make me an instrument of peace” prayer, whose historical lineage is more muddy--struck me as fundamentally disorienting. Was the man mad? Why this obsession with poverty?
Francis was middle-class (as am I) and his upbringing had been devoted to the production and acquisition of material comforts. But his drive for poverty was more than just reaction against his parents (though that does seem to be an element!).  The medievals loved allegory—personifying the abstract and making an idea into a person you could relate to—even fall in love with—so his expression of a troubadour’s love for a deprived economic state is thoroughly medieval—and just as unsettling now as it was then.


Popular Posts