A charismatic genius who spurned wealth

St Francis's cult of poverty barely lasted a lifetime
St Francis's cult of poverty barely lasted a lifetime
Joe Barry

Joe Barry

Our concept of poverty has changed dramatically over the centuries. Being poor used to be almost a prerequisite for admittance to heaven, but somewhere along the line, attitudes changed.

One could suspect that the idea of poverty and sanctity being as one was promoted by the wealthy in order to persuade the poor that they were actually lucky and, if they kept working hard, their place in heaven was secure.

But then maybe I am being too cynical here.

There have been many heroes throughout history who lived exemplary lives and shunned material possessions as being distractions that were essentially evil, believing that the only man who is truly free is the man who has nothing.

On a wet Sunday morning recently I began reading Kenneth Clarke's history of civilisation and found that the way in which people viewed the world in the Middle Ages was totally different to our attitudes today.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is where Clarke described how, towards the end of the 12th century, a wealthy young Italian named Francesco Bernadini began to give away all his possessions to the poor.

His father, a rich merchant in the town of Assisi, finally disowned him whereupon Francesco gave away even his clothes. He said it was a discourtesy to be dressed in fine clothing in the presence of anyone poorer than himself.

Eventually the Bishop of Assisi gave him a cloak and he headed for the hills barefoot where he spent three years living in poverty and caring for lepers.

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We now know him as Saint Francis of Assisi and he must have been an amazing man - especially in the manner in which he lived by his beliefs and demonstrated that wealth does not necessarily bestow happiness.

Moving forward six centuries, in the mid-1800s Lord Acton, an English Catholic historian, was one of the most deeply learned men of his time.

He was no doubt familiar with the life of St Francis and is remembered principally for the following maxim: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely"

Well, lots of money bestows power so what happened in the meantime that gave us our changed attitude towards poverty today?

All modern democratic governments refer to the abolition of poverty as one of their primary aims and the idea that a lack of material possessions might be a recipe for happiness has lost currency.

Yet there is that famous quote from the Bible: "Cast away your earthly goods and follow me."

Now I am by no means a religious person - I take the history of all religions very much with a grain of salt - but much of what they encourage us to do provides a great recipe for a happy life, especially if one follows that other equally famous quote: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you".

Getting back to St Francis, even if you only believe a fraction of what has been written about him, he was undoubtedly a charismatic genius and his fame has endured right up to the present day. Sadly, the religious leaders of the 1200s were of a worldlier disposition.

Despite having been granted permission by the Pope to found an order of monks, his cult of poverty barely lasted his lifetime.

The Church had by then become part of the international banking system and Francis's disciples, who stubbornly clung to his doctrine of poverty, were denounced as heretics and burnt at the stake.

It was just too inconvenient to have idealists let loose among the people when there was so much money to be made in banking. Now does that remind you of anything from our recent past?

Saint Francis died aged 43 in 1226, worn out by his austerities. On his deathbed he asked forgiveness of "poor brother donkey, my body" for the way he had neglected it.

He is credited with having had a great love for wildlife and the natural environment. He had a unique rapport with birds and is considered the patron saint of ecologists.

In his writings he stated: "If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men."

Regardless of the myths and legends that have inevitably been attached to his name, if even half of what we read is true, he must have been quite a man.

jbarry@ independent.ie

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