Saints of the Dying Churches
This post is from the defunct blog “Dying Church”
Dying Churches don’t mount marketing campaigns for their saints. My friend Joel posted this at his place and it made me think of Leading Dying Churches…
Shaving a Fluffy Bunny Saint
“Francis embodied and endorsed a very specific kind of poverty that only Christians of means could effectively embrace. Considered from this angle, Francis, whom we are accustomed to imagining as a ‘friend to the poor,’ comes across more like a Robin Hood in reverse, stealing the one spiritual advantage that the poor seemed to have—that is, their poverty—and giving it to the rich.”
Kenneth Wolf, The Poverty of Riches: St. Francis of Assisi Reconsidered
There are certain people who you don’t just don’t touch. Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, Mother Teresa, and St. Francis of Assisi are names that commonly fall from the lips of Christians — Protestant and Catholic alike — who you do not allow an ill word about to pass unchallenged. When I read Sarah Lamm’s review of The Poverty of Riches: St. Francis of Assisi Reconsidered, a scholarly and critical work by Pomona College History professor Kenneth Baxter Wolf, two thoughts crossed my mind: “Uh-oh” and “It’s about time“.
It takes a special kind of courage to apply the razor’s edge to a fluffy bunny saint after all. Think of all the times you have seen statues of Francis in someone’s garden, on a wall, or in the name of a church. The word is out: you do not tarnish the legend of St. Francis of Assisi, you do not apply a depilatory to a man who gives most people the warm fuzzies.
But, from what I have read, Wolf is right: there are good reasons to question the saintliness of Francis. As Lamm points out: “Holy poverty….was voluntary poverty. Only the rich have the privilege of choosing to be poor.”
In Wolf’s judgement, Francis was as trendy as rich vegetarians and Arnold Schwartzenegger’s charity. He wore the roughest fabrics he could find, not to live like the poor, but to outdo the poor in his suffering. “No truly poor person ever had to work this hard to earn the disdain of his community” says Wolf. Francis socialized with lepers, it is true, but nowhere is it recorded that he attempted to heal their disease or ease their suffering. He directly competed with beggars for alms: undoubtably, he was prettier than the stump-armed and foul-smelling derelicts who filled the streets of medieval Europe and could collect handsomer subsidies for his spiritual projects. It is true that he opposed war and bravely faced the Sultan, but what did he do on behalf of the victims of class warfare in Italy? Did he speak on their behalf? Did he publicize their plight? Did he set up hospitals and orphanages? The answer is resoundingly, “No”.
For Francis, it was cool to be poor. He was more hippie (Cf. Brother Sun, Sister Moon) than Beat or Folkie. He did his celibate flower child routine and left the suffering and the destitute unaided, abandoned, ignored. When he got the big house he always wanted (a monastery) he retreated there and did nothing for the world of the poor.
While Francis himself professed a desire to be poor, he actually strove to be not-rich, which turns out to be something else altogether. As it turns out, the rich and poor of Assisi shared a common value; they all wanted to have money. After all, it’s nice to have.
Defenders of Francis will point to that passage of the Bible where Christ tells the rich young man to give up all his wealth if he means to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Wolf could counter this by pointing out that in the Sermon of the Mount, Christ says that when you make your good deeds public, they do not count towards redemption. We all know about St. Francis and the lepers, St. Francis and the Sultan, St. Francis and the wolf because St. Francis was an effective self-publicist. When we consider more modern saints such as Mother Teresa in this light, we are left to wonder: is there any reasonable path to saintliness through poverty?
I think so. If we combine the two dicta cited above, what we arrive at is poverty in anonymity. The saint does not receive recognition because the saint hides. He mingles with the poor, lives like the poor, does not attempt to stand out among them. He is just another one of the poor, susceptible to the same fluctuations of fortune as the best and the worst of them.
There, I’ve done it. I pulled the rough brown robe off your favorite saint and shown him butt-naked. Your inclination will undoubtably be to cover him up and accuse me of demonizing a good man. I counter with this: Francis of Assisi was a man of his times, not a conscious leech nor a fox, but a nice guy with an idea about spirituality which innocently departed from the path prescribed by Christ. He meant well as do the donors who give money in his name. Good intentions amount, however, to faith without meaningful works. If you mean to follow the teachings of Christ, you don’t try to outdo the poor and draw attention to yourself when you give up your riches: you become like them fiscally, you chance fortune, and you accept oblivion.
The greatest saint since Christ is unknown to humankind. If there is an omniscient God, then we will find out just who that saint is when we die. She may be that bag lady or he may be a Latino “illegal alien” father who works three jobs to feed his family.
It behooves us to look past the robe and the versimilitude of hunger and see every human being as a Buddha struggling to be, to realize that behind a mask there may lurk a just lover of the Universe. Rebuke the rich. Champion the poor. Look in the eyes of everyone you see and see a possible Christ in them.
We shouldn’t celebrate saints. We should try to live like one.
Exactly. Thanks, Joel, for pointing the way.