“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
Luke 10: 42-3
Today is the Feast of St Francis of Assisi. In both reality and legend Francis is a figure of the one who realizes in every aspect of his being the life of Christ within him. He was called to rebuild the Church of Christ by bringing the life of Christ back into a body that had become deadened by wealth and corruption. Francis not only resembled Jesus externally, including in bearing Christ’s wounds on his body, he actually reanimated Christ’s body the Church by breathing new life, through his very being and way of living, into that which had died.
By coincidence, the gospel for this year’s celebration of the feast is Luke’s account of Jesus’ presence in the house of Martha and Mary. At the heart of this gospel passage is Jesus’ reminder to Martha that, even as she works, she is to remember that “there is need of only one thing.” It is forgetfulness of this truth that is the source of all of her, and our, worry and anxiety. If we could be radically simple, if we could live in perennial mindfulness of the “one thing that is necessary,” we could live a presence that would free us from undue worry and anxiety. There may be no one in church history who grasped this truth and call better than Francis.
From the very beginning of his conversion, Francis recognized that his response to the call required a total and radical poverty. The starkness of this poverty is often very difficult for us to appreciate. Yet, what Francis understands is that for us as human beings to hold to the “one thing” that is necessary requires of us to let go, to release our hold, of everything else that is the source of those worries and anxieties.
In his initial rule for the Friars Minor, Francis says that his brothers should lay claim to no “house, or place, or anything for themselves.” They are to sustain themselves by seeking alms, and, significantly, they are not to feel ashamed for doing so, “for God made himself poor in this world for us” (Art. VI). In the familiar gospel passage of Martha and Mary, we recognize in these two friends of Jesus the bifurcation of our own attention. We know the truth of a presence that is truly “everything” for and to us, but we also recognize that our day to day life in the world is one of worry and anxiety about ourselves and our own lives. We are children of God and the beloved of Jesus, but we are also a “self” constituted by our social relations. While at the level of spirit we know that there is “need of only one thing,” in our external identity we are “anxious and worried about many things.” We fear pain and suffering; we fear loneliness and poverty; we fear unacceptance and rejection by others. In great part we feel the dread of shame, of being recognized by the world as the needy, weak, and dependent creatures that we are.
Francis says that his friars are to work to sustain themselves but they are never to accept money. They are to seek alms to provide for their physical needs, but are to come to where they do not feel ashamed for doing so. These words of Francis strike a most dissonant tone for us today. To our ear, it is strange beyond telling that a rule should attempt to legislate an emotional response. We are convinced that our emotions are a given, far beyond our own ability to reform them. Yet, Francis says that his brothers are to live by seeking alms in imitation of what God has done in becoming a poor and vulnerable human being and thus to reform and so overcome their mistaken shame at their own human poverty and vulnerability. This is a call to human reformation and transformation on an epic scale.
Jesus reminds Martha to stop worrying so much and to attend to the one thing that is necessary. Yet, he doesn’t tell her how to do that. Francis says that the only way to come to choose the better part is to abandon all our illusions of independence and autonomy. It is to come to know that life is to be found in truthfully living out our poverty and dependence. He also says that to travel this way will mean to face and to overcome our deep-seated shame at being merely what and who we are.
Isn’t this also what is true of us on a global scale? Isn’t it our illusion of power, control, superiority, and autonomy that source every conflict among us? Isn’t it our worry about our inherent poverty, contingency, mortality, and aloneness that turns our focus from the One who is our life to the things that are required to support our delusions?
The poverty of Francis is the way to a truly authentic life. It seems so drastic and distant from us because we hold onto our shame about our true condition; we think we need denial of our own destitution and mortality in order to survive. But those worries and anxieties belong to the life of our false form. To live out our dependence on each other without shame is, for Francis, to know “that peak of the highest poverty, which has made you, my dearest brothers, heirs and kings of the kingdom of heaven, poor in things but rich in virtues.” Our wealth and well-being do not lie in all those things about which we waste so much of our lives in worry and anxiety. If we dare to experience the mistaken “shame” we feel about ourselves by living out our need for each other and God, we shall discover that we are no less than “heirs, [queens] and kings of the kingdom of heaven.” Our resistance to the poverty of Francis is resistance to the very truth of our own existence, to living in the light of the one thing that is needed.
VI. That the brothers should appropriate nothing for themselves; and on how alms should be begged; and concerning sick brothers.
The brothers should appropriate neither house, nor place, nor anything for themselves; and they should go confidently after alms, serving God in poverty and humility, as pilgrims and strangers in this world. Nor should they feel ashamed, for God made himself poor in this world for us. This is that peak of the highest poverty which has made you, my dearest brothers, heirs and kings of the kingdom of heaven, poor in things but rich in virtues. Let this be your portion. It leads into the land of the living and, adhering totally to it, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ wish never to have anything else in this world, beloved brothers. And wherever brothers meet one another, let them act like members of a common family. And let them securely make their needs known to one another, for if a mother loves and cares for her carnal son, how much more should one love and care for his spiritual son? And if one of them should become ill, let the other brothers serve him as they themselves would like to be served.
St. Francis, Rule of Friars Minor