The most honoured parts of the body are not the head or the hands, which lead and control. The most important parts are the least presentable parts. That’s the mystery of the Church. As a people called out of oppression to freedom, we must recognize that it is the weakest among us—the elderly, the small children, the handicapped, the mentally ill, the hungry and sick—who form the real centre. Paul says, “It is the parts of the body which we consider least dignified, that we surround with the greatest dignity” (1 Corinthians 12:23).
The Church as the people of God can truly embody of the living Christ among us only when the poor remain its most treasured part. Care for the poor, therefore, is much more than Christian charity. It is the essence of being the body of Christ…
Like every human organization the Church is constantly in danger of corruption. As soon as power and wealth come to the Church, manipulation, exploitation, misuse of influence, and outright corruption are not far away.
How do we prevent corruption in the Church? The answer is clear: by focusing on the poor. The poor make the Church faithful to its vocation. When the Church is no longer a church for the poor, it loses its spiritual identity. It gets caught up in disagreements, jealousy, power games, and pettiness. Paul says, “God has composed the body so that greater dignity is given to the parts which were without it, and so that there may not be disagreements inside the body but each part may be equally concerned for all the others” (1 Corinthians 12:24-25). This is the true vision. The poor are given to the Church so that the Church as the body of Christ can be and remain a place of mutual concern, love, and peace.
Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey
St. Francis saw this so clearly: it was only by “focusing” on the poor to the extent that he embraced their poverty for himself, embraced it as closely as a lover, that he was able—without, at least to begin with, even realising what he was doing—to cleanse the corruption that threatened to destroy the Church in his day.
But how do we, in our own time, come anywhere close to this? I have always wondered how we might truly follow this part of our vocation as Tertiaries. The Third Order of the Society of St. Francis was founded by Francis himself in order to provide a way to live as radical Christians in the world, rather than by walking away from it. As the Principles state (Day 4): “When Saint Francis encouraged the formation of The Third Order he recognised that many are called to serve God in the spirit of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience in everyday life (rather than in a literal acceptance of these principles as in the vows of the Brothers and Sisters of the First and Second Orders). The rule of The Third Order is intended to enable us in the duties and conditions of daily living, and for us to carry them out in this spirit.”
This is all very good; but where, in our own lives, does the rubber hit the road? It would be so easy to fudge the call to simplicity, or to let it stand as a merely external exercise. Where is the reckless love Francis had for his Lady Poverty?
Richard Rohr has some thoughts:
God calls all of us to take the demanding and liberating path of our own inner truth (John 8:31-32) [Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (NIV)]—and that means taking responsibility for everything that’s in us: for what pleases us and for what we’re ashamed of, for the rich person inside us and for the poor one too. Francis of Assisi called this forgiving the leper within us and Therese of Lisieux called it “The Little Way.” It is always the way of courage and utter trust, recognizing both light and shadow within us.
If we learn to honour and claim our inner inheritance, we will grant others the same divine donation. If we learn to love the poor one within us, we’ll discover that we have room for compassion for all “outsiders” too, because we now know that we are all the same. Human solidarity now comes naturally.
Those who have enough space within them to embrace every part of their own soul can receive the fully human and fully divine Christ. And the good news is that Christ himself will lead us on this path.
Adapted from Simplicity, p. 174-175
I confess that I’m really quite excited about Rohr’s words here. If the discipline of interior prayer can lead us directly into the love of inner—and ultimately outer—poverty, then at last we have a handle on our calling, and a real understanding of why prayer is so central to our vocation. Certainly my own experience seems to be bearing out all that Rohr says.
I’ll try and write more on this as it (hopefully!) becomes clearer…