In the late thirteenth century, the otherwise peaceful Franciscans were deeply divided on the meaning of their vow of poverty. They knew that in their daily lives they were to follow the example of Jesus. But their problem, in a nutshell, was how poor was Jesus? How poor is poor?
Jesus’ wider group of followers did, it seems, include people who provided for him and his disciples. On the other hand, the 70 were sent out on a mission with next to nothing: “no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics” (Mark 6: 8), so that they were dependent on the charity of others to survive. Yet even this suggests that they had possessions, maybe an income, that for this venture they deliberately chose to leave behind, to step out in faith.
“One person’s moderation is another person’s luxury.”
Poverty is about having no choice: choosing to wear one tunic instead of two is not a mark of being truly poor. Years ago, when I was working in Tanzania, I had a driver who said: “It must be very expensive to live in a cold country because you need two sets of clothes.” Yet even that very basic choice between a summer cardigan and a winter coat is beyond the reach of the poorest people in our wealthy society.
If we are trying to adopt a simple lifestyle, we need to examine the nature and the implications of our choices. It makes economic sense to buy one good quality coat rather than a cheap one that won’t last nearly as long. It may also make ethical sense: pay more and get clothes sourced in an environmentally friendly way. Look for clothes that aren’t produced using child or slave labour. But in addition to issues of personal economics and ethics, it’s undoubtedly important to remember the people who struggle to afford even the cheapest outfits. If you have several decent coats, why not give one away?
In 1312 Pope Clement V sought to end the Franciscan dispute by advocating a favourite medieval virtue: moderation. “Let the Friars have a tunic with a capuche (hood), and if they wish to have it, another without a capuche. And let those who are driven by necessity be able to wear footwear,” he wrote. Sound advice, given the Italian winters, but let’s never forget that one person’s moderation is another person’s luxury. ¶
Words: The Revd Dr Paula Clifford. Photo: Shutterstock