Thursday, October 18, 2012
The Lord: Chapter 44, “Possession and Poverty in Christ”
My grandmother, who was comfortable, financially speaking, had a St. Francis statue in her garden. I remember hummingbirds hovering behind The Hermitage, her home. Ammie amazed her family and friends by becoming a Catholic late in life, and I followed her example, converting five years ago myself. Today, I have two Francises in my yard, proving among other things that the number of statues does not always correlate with the personal wealth of the owner.
Francis is the safe saint. It’s OK for anyone to post him on sentinel duty in their yard, since he might as well be the patron of the Audubon Society. Displaying the Blessed Mother or a crucifix is another thing altogether. Showing off the poor little man of Assisi to your neighbors is to say only that you love birds and flowers. And who can’t salute that?
But Francis conveys another message—about poverty—that is lost on most of us today. This chapter in The Lord is taken up with the parable about the rich man who wanted to follow Christ, leading to the punch line about a camel passing through a needle’s eye. Though Jesus himself came of poor parents, Guardini warns us that Jesus is not instructing us to abandon our possessions, not most of us anyway. After all, Jesus himself was seldom in need, with wealthy female followers providing for him and Judas minding his coins. “The Lord is no ascetic,” Guardini writes. “Christ’s greatness lies in his perfect freedom . . . Wonderfully free as he is of all desire, of all worry about property or livelihood, he is equally untouched by all cramp of opposition to things, of renunciation, and above all, of even the most unconscious resentment towards things he himself does not enjoy.”
Guardini notes “two legitimate Christian attitudes to property.” The first is taking proper care of and having proper gratitude for one’s possessions. As with virginity and Christian marriage, the subject of the previous chapter, there is a second alternative to the norm of good ownership, “a special order of things,” vowed poverty. Jesus says to the man, if this is what you want, then “away with things and follow me!”
But most of us have homes and gardens, with or without Francis statues, and what is left for us to consider? This—
Francis “entered the house of a man of means and conquered him for Christ.” Then what happened? “Perhaps the rich man, fired by Francis’ own example, also sold all he had and followed him. More likely, he stayed where he was. One thing though is certain; as long as the figure of his guest, the breath of his personality, the sound of his voice remained with him, he rejected any not quite straight deal; he did not press his debtors, or fail to help the needy and distressed who came to his door. . . . The realization of the order of perfection [vowed poverty] . . . proves the possibility of freedom from property, reminding those who possess it that there is freedom to be had also among possessions.”
If only a statue were enough to remind us of these things today!
As with marriage and virginity, Guardini notes, “The two orders are mutually dependent on each other. Only when marriage and property are seen in their true light and allowed to unfold their values freely, can virginity and poverty attain their purest form. Only when virginity and poverty are a real force in the general consciousness, are marriage and property protected from sinking into worldliness.”
Be free, my friend,
This series of posts continues here with chapter 45.