Kenneth Baxter Wolf, The Poverty of Riches: St Francis of Assisi reconsidered, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
ISBN 9780195182804. Paperback 165 pages.
$52 online, $40 used. In State Library system.
Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf
Being a Franciscan is all about poverty. Right? Kenneth Baxter Wolf’s study of poverty in relationship to Saint Francis challenges our common conception.
Maybe it shouldn’t.
Many of the early Brothers came from the same class as Saint Francis. More to the point, the roll-call of those early Franciscans who became saints includes royalty and nobles. We hear of sainted King Louis IX and his sister the Blessed Princess Isabelle of France. Elizabeth of Hungary was the wife of a king. We visit Assisi and puzzle over the dazzling riches of basilicas and churches dedicated to the poor man of Assisi.
There are ironies here.
Kenneth Baxter Wolf walks us through the early sources and shows that Francis was about a different sort of poverty: a poverty that was more attractive to the wealthy burghers of Assisi than to the involuntary poor. Wolf teaches history at Pomona College in California and is well placed to compare Francis with other medieval saints. His ideas in this book, however, are controversial among fellow-historians.
Dr Wolf says that Saint Francis chose poverty; a strange choice because, firstly, his poverty did not help the poor. What he begged decreased the total possible alms in the area and may therefore have resulted in fewer resources available to the poor.
Secondly, choosing poverty romanticised it to some extent.
Thirdly, to ‘become poor’ was (and is) an aspiration open only to the wealthy, the middle class in particular. The involuntary poor cannot aspire to ‘become poor’!
As Wolf claims: “The point is not that Francis and his friars were never charitable toward the poor. The point is that charitable distribution was clearly ancillary to the Franciscan spiritual program, a program that put much more emphasis on the virtue that followed from acting poor than the virtue that came from relieving the poverty of others. “ [p. 25]
Wolf argues that Francis chose poverty as the concrete way of imitatio Christi, of identifying with Christ. What is crucial is not the poverty, but the imitation of Christ. For St Francis, poverty ‘was simply the most direct means of achieving a personal identification with Jesus, the practitioner of voluntary poverty par excellence.’ (p. 43)
Wolf contrasts St Francis with his near contemporary St Raymond of Piacenza (1140 – 1200), who became poor so that he could live with the poor and alleviate their poverty. From a similar background to Raymond, Francis began his ministry helping lepers, but it soon changed to be largely preaching to the wealthy.
This is one of those points where Professor Wolf may be criticised. The early biographers of St Francis most likely assumed that the ministry to the lepers continued while they described other aspects of his life, not that it disappeared with the descriptions of preaching missions and Chapters.
Why was Saint Francis so popular? Wolf argues he offered the wealthy a way to repent and return to God. Saint Francis used the techniques of entertainers and of merchants, attracting attention with strange antics, and then selling them the benefits of a renewed life with God.
Francis offered a way of being Christian which was ‘about redefining poverty altogether in such a way that only Christians of means could really appreciate it and aspire to it.’ (p. 89)
We read this text as First World Christians. Our nations’ welfare sytems make it difficult for us to really divest ourselves of our wealth. I found it helpful to be reminded by Professor Wolf that Franciscan poverty is not an end but the means to a deeper connection with Christ.
To those of us who live in relative wealth and privilege, the Franciscan call is not that we should live in abject poverty, but that we should repent our privileged view of ourselves and live in humility. Saint Francis appeals to us because he uses the language of commerce, the 13th Century equivalent of capitalism, to draw us in to a counter-cultural, liberating and humble way of living our faith.