By Br. Nathan Linton, OFM, Cap.
When I’m out walking in our neighborhood in Chicago, people often stop me and ask me questions about the Capuchins. Many of the people are aware that we have a friary on the corner of a busy intersection and will tell me that they have seen the ‘monks’ crossing the street or walking around McKinley Park. Inevitably, they ask me about our habit: “Why do you wear that?” I explain that it’s a sign of our consecration to God; that it was the clothing of the poor and the lepers at the time when St. Francis lived. Without fail, they then point at my cord and ask, “What do the knots mean?”
This is what I want to share with you today. While our habit has a lot of meaning behind it, the knots on the cord summarize our entire life. Tied into the simple rope around our waste are three knots representing the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, which all religious profess. I’ve heard some older religious joke about the vows, explaining them as “No money, no honey, and do what you’re told.” Not only does this generally get a laugh, but it summarizes the common understanding of the vows. However, while it may be a cute joke, it does not do justice to the complexity of these three practices which we strive to live. Nor does it explain the graces received by living them out, nor how they bring us into a deeper relationship with Christ. So why do we profess these vows? Why are they so important that people spend their entire lives trying to live them well?
These are great questions, and I want to do them justice. So please be patient with me. Today, I simply want to introduce you to the evangelical counsels and then take a quick look at poverty. While religious profess to live poverty, chastity, and obedience as public vows, we refer to this trio as the “evangelical counsels.” Translated into less theological language, we could call them the Gospel advice. As always, the Church did not pull these things out of a hat and declare them essential to the Christian life. The evangelical counsels are so called because they are taught by Jesus through his preaching and through his life.
When Jesus teaches or gives an example to his followers on how they are to live, he does not do so for just a portion of his followers but for everyone. While the counsels are lived in a special way by religious, who strive to follow the life of Jesus as closely as they can, they are meant to be advice for everyone. Now how they are going to be lived out depends on the person who is living them. As we talk about poverty, not everyone is going to be called to live like a monk – with no personal possessions and with all things held in common. Rather, they will be called to live simply according to their means. I will not try to tell you exactly how you are supposed to live out poverty, chastity, or obedience. What I will do is give you a brief reflection on how I see the vows as someone who professes to live them in the context of Capuchin Franciscan life and on the graces that we receive through their practice.
So, poverty. When I think of poverty in the life of Jesus, there are several Gospel passages that come to mind. In the story of the rich young man we hear about a man who desires to follow Jesus perfectly. When he asks Jesus what he lacks, Jesus responds,
“If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure I heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:21-22)
Poverty for the sake of poverty is not what Christ asked of the young man. Rather, he asked him to sell what he has and to give to the poor that he may follow him. We are called to live simply and to serve the poor so that we might realize our own reliance upon God and might cling to him more tightly.
This has been a lesson that I have learned time and time again during my process of discernment and in my religious formation. Through my experiences working with the poor, I have seen the way that God provides for them. I have seen how even in the midst of suffering, men and women who have nothing do not fear, do not worry, because they depend solely upon the generosity of God and his people. We profess poverty and minister to the poor not only because this is the teaching of Christ, but also because the practice itself draws us closer to Christ. We come to know that just as Christ takes care of his littlest one, so too does he take care of us; always guiding, ensuring, and providing for our needs. Our material poverty is meant to bring us into a deeper reliance upon and trust in God and to make us more accessible to his people.
However, while most people see material poverty as the core of the vow of poverty, we Capuchins closely tie poverty with the concept of minority. We are, after all, the Order of Friars Minor, Capuchin. That is, the order of “lesser” brothers. In this case, the entire life of Jesus of Nazareth serves as an example of what we strive for when we speak of poverty. In Philippians 2:5-7, we hear the following:
Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
Jesus, the Word of God, who was in the beginning, emptied himself that he may be made one of us; fully God, yet fully man.
This was a crucial image for St. Francis of Assisi. Jesus, in the words of Francis was the poor and humble Christ. He poured himself out for us that we may know his love. He emptied himself of all glory, of all stateliness, and came to us as a child: vulnerable and weak with nothing, not even a bed. He died a human death, a painful and humiliating death, stripped naked, striped with blood, that we may know his love, that he may know our pain. He continues to empty himself upon the altar of salvation, and he comes to us under the guise of bread and wine. Bread and wine! Not even something living! These are the lengths to which Christ will go that we might be with him.
This is the heart of the Gospel life of poverty. We are called to empty ourselves that we may walk with the lowliest. That in all things we are equal to those around us and can share with them the love of the one who gave himself to us entirely. It is in emptying ourselves that we come to know what Christ really did for us. It is not easy. No one said it would be. But in living a life of meekness, of humility, of true poverty, we are filled with love and with Christ. We come to know his will, and we taste of the joy that we will experience when we are united with him in heaven. In living poverty, we give up many things – material and spiritual – but we receive so much more. It was for this reason that our Seraphic Father Francis referred to ‘Lady Poverty’ as his spouse. For in poverty he saw the love of Christ and could not imagine a more perfect love.
And whoever observes these things, let him be blessed in heaven with the blessing of the Most High Father, and on earth with the blessing of His Beloved Son with the Most Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, and all the powers of heaven and with all the saints. And, as far as I can, I, little brother Francis, you servant, confirm for you, both within and without, this most holy blessing.
~The Testament of Saint Francis.