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Portiuncula

After Pope Innocent III had approved the rule of life that St Francis had presented to him, the little band of Brothers set out for home. They rejoiced all the way back to Assisi with unalloyed joy, but Pope Innocent’s hopes for the new foundation were not unalloyed. One question still troubled him as it had already troubled Guido, the bishop of Assisi before him. For Francis had also asked permission to live in absolute poverty. How can anyone follow Christ in absolute poverty, owning nothing whatsoever, either personally or in common? And was it correct to say that this was the poverty as lived by Jesus himself and his followers? There is certainly evidence to suggest that the first disciples  pooled their resources and lived a life in common after the Resurrection, but no evidence to suggest that this became a universal norm in the early church, and that is a very long way from living without any personal possessions whatsoever. These are questions that have exercised the minds of Franciscan scholars for centuries.

One thing is for certain, this is precisely what Francis wanted for himself and for his first followers, so the moment a peasant drove his donkey into the little shed that was home to the brothers at Rivo Torto and claimed it as his own, Francis left without argument. The brothers moved to the small piece of land that came to be known as the Portiuncula, which surrounded the little church of St Mary of the Angels. Portiuncula  is a difficult word to translate into English. It is actually an Umbrian word spelled as Porzioncula or Porziuncola taken from the local dialect with which St Francis would have been familiar. It means literally, a small insignificant place, or piece of land of little value – a wasteland, if you like. It was just the sort of place that St Francis would have loved and valued as he did, imbuing the word for himself and all Franciscans with the sort of frisson that the word ‘home’ gives to most of us, no matter how high or how lowly our origins might be.

Although the Benedictine monks of Monte Subasio wanted to give Portiuncula to Francis, his own personal commitment to absolute poverty impelled him to refuse it. He only finally consented to accept it on the condition that it would remain in the possession of the monks. It was only therefore loaned to him and to his followers for the annual rent of a basket of fish that is still paid by the friars to this day. The Portiuncula has its own feast day on the 2nd of August on which the ‘rent’ has been paid to the monks for over 800 years. Francis surrounded the little piece of land with a rectangular hedge to give the brothers some privacy from the outside world, and then built a series of huts, so that each brother would have some privacy. They were built simply by plastering mud onto wicker-work walls with rain proof roofs. Later examples of these huts can still be seen inside the friary at La Verna or at the hermitage of Monte Lucco high up above Spoleto. The only other building was a simple shed where the first friars could meet together outside the church. And that was all that comprised, what was for St Francis, the blueprint that he wanted to be used for all other friaries. He wanted its very simplicity to speak to the world of the holy poverty that was so dear to him and yet  misunderstood by  many others.

Innocent III was more than sceptical about Francis’ commitment to total poverty, and his insistence that it was the clear teaching of the Gospels for him and for his followers. But Francis was adamant; after all he had heard the words of Christ for himself on the feast of St Matthias – they couldn’t be clearer:- 

“Provide yourself with no gold or silver, not even a few coppers for your purses, no haversack for your journey, no spare tunic or footwear or staff, for the workman deserves his keep.”

The Bishop of Assisi was sceptical too and so for that matter were many of his later followers. The bishop was grudgingly won over when Francis explained that once you own something you have to be prepared to fight for it when someone threatens to take it away from you, either on the field of battle, or in the courts of law. The bishop was at the time involved in numerous legal battles over his possessions, so he was able to see and even sympathise with the logic of Francis’ argument, even though he had no intention of embracing what Francis called Lady Poverty himself. The citizens of Assisi had even less sympathy when the same neighbours who they had seen handing out their money to all and sundry, came knocking at their doors with begging bowls in their hands. However, even they began to have second thoughts when the friars soon became a source of cheap labour, because all they would ask as recompense was just enough food and drink to keep body and soul together for a single day. Not a bad deal, especially when many of them turned out to be skilled craftsmen. Francis made it quite clear that they would only become beggars or mendicants, as they came to be called, if there was no work, and they would otherwise perish for lack of food.

Just as Francis had needed time to grown spiritually, so did the new recruits for whom he now had to act as their spiritual mentor, so that they would be able to do at the dawn of the thirteenth century, what the first apostles had done at the dawn of the first. However, just as St Francis had made something of a fool of himself when he was going through his first fervour, some of his new recruits did likewise, as is only to be expected. Many suffered the same indignities and even worse than those that Francis had to endure, until gradually, prayer, solitude and asceticism did for them what had been done for Francis. When a person first ‘gets religion’, it is only to be expected that  enthusiasm and religious fervour can become a little irksome to those who do not share this newfound conviction, or to those who are years ahead of them on the journey that they have just begun. Swift progress into the mystic way demands a compact and disciplined way of life, where daily time for personal prayer, solitude and asceticism are mandatory. This does not necessarily involve leaving ‘the world’ for the religious life. Blessed Angela of Foligno managed to reach the heights of the mystical life as a wife and as a mother, as did many others who joined the Third Order of St Francis. It was founded even before the rule of the first Order had been sanctioned. I would like to say more about it at another time, because even if you are not tempted to join them, there are many ideas in the Third Order Rule than can help all of us who would like to follow the example of St Francis in our daily lives.

David is the author of Wisdom from Franciscan Italy – The Primacy of Love which shows how the essence of Christian spirituality is restored by Francis.

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