The Poverty of Riches: St. Francis of Assisi Reconsidered

The Poverty of Riches: St. Francis of Assisi Reconsidered

The Poverty of Riches: St. Francis of Assisi Reconsidered

The Poverty of Riches: St. Francis of Assisi Reconsidered

Synopsis

Saint Francis of Assisi is arguably the most attractive saint ever produced by the Catholic Church. The unusually high regard with which he is held has served to insulate him from any real criticism of the kind of sanctity that he embodied: sanctity based first and foremost on his deliberate pursuit of poverty. In this book, Kenneth Baxter Wolf takes a fresh look at Francis and the idea of voluntary poverty as a basis for Christian perfection. Wolf's point of departure is a series of simple but hitherto unasked questions about the precise nature of Francis's poverty: How did he go about transforming himself from a rich man to a poor one? How successful was this transformation? How did his self-imposed poverty compare to the involuntary poverty of those he met in and around Assisi? What did poor people of this type get out of their contact with Francis? What did Francis get out of his contact with them? Wolf finds that while Francis's conception of poverty as a spiritual discipline may have opened the door to salvation for wealthy Christians like himself, it effectively precluded the idea that the poor could use their own involuntary poverty as a path to heaven. Based on a thorough reconsideration of the earliest biographies of the saint, as well as Francis's own writings, Wolf's work sheds important new light on the inherent ironies of poverty as a spiritual discipline and its relationship to poverty as a socio-economic affliction.

Excerpt

The idea for this book has been a part of me for a long time, at least since my graduate school days at Stanford in the early 1980s, when I first began to sift through Franciscan history in search of a viable dissertation topic. As it turned out, other saints intervened, and fifteen years passed before I found my way back to il Poverello. It seems as though I should be able to recall the exact moment when the coin dropped and I finally figured out what it was that had been bothering me about Francis all those years. I only know that I was already formulating the questions on which this book is based when I shared them with Robert McAfee Brown at his home in Palo Alto in early 1994. A timely invitation by my friend John Williams to speak at the University of Pittsburgh a year later gave me the opportunity to organize and present my thoughts on Francis and his “holy poverty” for the first time. I remember the energy that infused the audience that cold February afternoon in the “Cathedral of Learning. ” Everyone present seemed to have something eye-opening to say about the presentation. I returned to California convinced that I was on to something that would resonate with scholars from all across the academic spectrum.

I relived that experience many times with audiences in Kalamazoo (1996), Santa Barbara (1997), Knoxville (1998), Pasadena (1998), St. Louis (2001) and, of course, Claremont (1996, 1998, 2000, 2001). Each time, I learned a little more from the wide-ranging responses generated by my ideas. Over the same period of time, I subjected the thesis of this book, in one form or another, to the scrutiny of hundreds of students and more than a dozen scholars, including Peter Brown, Giles Constable, Sharon Farmer, Jim Powell, Tom Noble, Tom Burman, Richard Hecht, Kees Bolle, David Raizman, Betsy Perry, Jerry Irish, George Gorse, Bill Whedbee, Robin Walz, and Rick Wolf, each of whose reactions and comments contributed something to the final shape of this . . .

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