What made St. Francis of Assisi so revolutionary? Reviewing the political theorist Giorgio Agamben’s recently translated investigation of monasticism, The Highest Poverty, Nathan Schneider emphasizes that St. Francis dreamed of a way of living “beyond the reach of ordinary politics” – not by retreating from the world, but through engaging it:
The Franciscan emphasis on poverty, for Agamben, represents a critical extension of the monastic rules. Clare of Assisi, who led the female branch of the Franciscan movement, insisted that Francis had given her not a rule at all but merely a “form of life.” He taught his followers by example and by preaching, eschewing the decrees one might hear from a monastery’s abbot. When his followers failed to listen, he didn’t police or punish. “I do not want to become a persecutor to pursue and frustrate them, like the power of this world,” Francis reportedly said.
Rather than isolating himself in a monastery and relying on scripted liturgies, Francis lived in the world but not of it. He discovered, by trying to follow the example of Christ, that poverty could liberate one from the world’s principalities and powers even more completely than a cloister. He stressed that his brothers should wear the simplest of clothes, and eat what is placed before them, and claim ownership over nothing. They should never handle money. As one Latin formula put it, he aspired to “the abdication of every right,” a life entirely outside the law and the legal economy.
The cover of Highest Poverty shows Giotto’s famous picture of Francis preaching to birds; “even toward little worms he glowed with exceeding love,” it was said. Even today, the annual Feast of Saint Francis is when people bring their pets to church to have them blessed. But for Francis the birds were not pets; he referred to animals as his siblings not just out of affection but because, before the law, he sought to be equally exempt.
Read my Deep Dish essay, in which St. Francis figures decisively, here.
(Image of Legend of St Francis, Sermon to the Birds by Giotto, from the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, via Wikimedia Commons)