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St. Francis's Extreme Embrace of Poverty

Among his many virtues, [St. Francis of Assisi] is known for his passionate embrace of poverty. Not only did he forbid his emerging Order to own property, he added this discipline for each of the brothers: "Let none of the brothers … wherever he may be or go, carry, receive, or have received in any way coin or money, whether for clothing, books, or payment for work."

There were few exceptions. If a brother was sick or if someone needed medical attention, the brothers could beg for money to pay for a doctor or medicine. But other than that, they were never to touch money. In fact, they were forbidden from even being seen with a beggar who asked for money.

Francis was passionate about this rule, jealous for obedience to it: "If by chance, God forbid, it happens that some brother is collecting or holding coin or money," he wrote in his earlier rule, "let all the brothers consider him a deceptive brother, an apostate, a thief, a robber."

It was a passion without patience. According to an early collection of Francis stories, a layman entered the headquarters of the Order, Saint Mary of the Portiuncula, to pray. He also left an offering, laying some coins near the cross. Later that day, a brother saw the coins and unthinkingly picked them up and placed them on a window ledge.

Later, the brother realized what he had done. He also heard that Francis had found out. He was horrified, so he immediately rushed to Francis and implored forgiveness. He told Francis to whip him for penance.

Francis was not so easily placated. Instead, after rebuking the brother, he told him to go to the windowsill, pick up a coin with his mouth, and carry it outside. Then, with the coin still in his mouth, he was to deposit it in a heap of ass's dung. The brother obeyed gladly.

This is extreme discipleship, to say the least. But Francis knew that money was like a drug, as addictive and destructive to the soul as cocaine is to the body. Francis did not believe money could be used moderately or "recreationally" without it eventually enslaving. He believed Jesus literally: one cannot serve God and mammon (see Matt. 6:24).

In short, he was so jealous for God, so passionate about a fully realized relationship with him, that he acted in ways we consider "over the top."

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