Virtue: Possible with Poverty

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By Ben Duphiney, The Catholic University of America

Poverty is the spring from which Christian virtue flows. A complete and total emptying of the self allows for the Holy Spirit to fill the human soul  and completely transform it by grace. From an interior cooperation with grace, forming good habits (habitus) inclines persons to act well. “Our actions are crucial to who we are” as William Mattison says, and these very actions “shape our very selves.”[1] Therefore, how we act reveals who we are. Through the mystery of the Incarnation, God revealed the perfect example––how to act––for humanity to follow: Jesus Christ. There are far and few who quite literally followed Christ’s words, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”[2] Francis of Assisi took these words to heart, and through a journey of virtue, arrived at the place of total emptying himself to be satisfied by nothing but Christ. This triumph was not accomplished overnight; it took an entire lifetime! By acting in accordance with the words of Christ––and His poverty––growth in virtue was made a reality in St. Francis of Assisi’s life.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Saint Francis Embracing Christ perfectly illustrates a life of Christian virtue––with poverty as its source and at its center. It captures the end of the Christian life: union with God. Virtue is the means to acquire this perfect and total end. Therefore, Murillo paints the possibility for all Christians who desire to be “happy in this life, and supremely happy with [God] forever in the next.”[3] He captures the end of living a virtuous, Christian life.

St. Francis of Assisi did not begin his life as a saint. From his upbringing, “he lived in the clothing and spirit of the world” and “miserably wasted and squandered his time almost up until his twenty-fifth year of age.”[4] On the hunt for glory, Francis nobley went off to battle “to enrich himself in money or distinction.”[5] He received a vision from God but did not understand that the search for earthly glory was a waste of time. After experiencing––and acting upon––the desires of worldly glory, Francis understood the emptiness of pursuing vicious desires. When he returned home, his father was outraged and took him to the bishop to be tried. Transformed by grace and inspired to act virtuously, he “immediately took off and threw down all his clothes and returned them to his father…[and] was completely stripped bare before everyone.”[6] It was from this moment of poverty––the act of stripping down to nothing and being completely vulnerable––that his saintly journey began. The grace of God shattered the blindness of Francis, and he cooperated with divine grace to be transformed into the person God made him to be.

This total emptying of status, material goods, security, and comfort set Francis on a journey of virtue towards union with God. The first step of poverty led to the iconic message from the St. Damiano Cross: “”Francis, go, rebuild my house which, as you see, is all being destroyed!”[7] It is evident that Francis continually increased in virtue, as he acted in ways that were only possible with complete poverty and trust in God. He began to rebuild the Church and founded the Ordo Fratrum Minorum––the Order of Friars Minor. Poverty remains central to the very identity of the Franciscan movement, and it is through poverty that Francis continued on the journey of virtue. Perhaps the greatest moment of virtue in Francis’ life was the reception of the stigmata––a share in the five wounds of Christ. “His hands and feet seemed to be pierced through the middle by nails…[and] his right side was marked with an oblong scar, as if pierced with a lance.”[8] The sacred stigmata, received through another vision, was a sign of the holiness.  Francis “tried to hide these marks, so that human fervor would not rob him of the grace that was given.”[9]

As Francis of Assisi almost perfectly demonstrated, Growth in virtue is both possible and practical. From his beginning search for glory, to attempting to hide the most sacred sign of union with God, Francis is living proof that cultivating good habits leads to “happiness […] to which Christ calls his listeners.”[10] A closer look at Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Saint Francis Embracing Christ helps illustrate the growth of virtue and its final end. The overall composition is centered on the powerful gaze of Francis upon Christ crucified. Francis is below Christ, which speaks to his poverty and humility; it is a recognition that Christ is supreme and nothing else is above him. The only “footing” that Francis has is from stepping on the globe––in his total rejection of the world. Observers may recall the Gospel message when watching Francis reject the world: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”[11] It is through rejecting worldly things (i.e. status, wealth, honor, glory, pleasure, etc.) that he is able to lift himself to embrace Christ. Francis is not only lifting himself up; rather, Christ is meeting Francis where he is by reaching down to embrace him. This beautiful visual of the Christian moral life teaches us that as we reach up to Christ, He also reaches down to us.[12] It is the poverty of Francis that embraces the poverty of Christ. Angels hold a passage from the Gospel of Luke: “Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”[13] Once again, this is a visual representation of poverty––giving up everything to follow and embrace Christ. Giving up everything, material and immaterial, is the first step in growing in virtue. St. Francis of Assisi’s own growth in virtue is glorified by the reward that the Christian hopes to attain in the beatific vision.

Murillo’s masterpiece is still relevant and essential for the culture at large. The painting teaches and invokes the true meaning of life: union with God. At a first glance, it may appear to seem weird or sometimes even sacrilegious; why would someone––let alone this random guy in a brown dress––be hugging Jesus on the cross?!  But a closer and deeper gaze invites those who lay their eyes upon this painting to think about their own life and their own faith journey. The image of the crucifix of Christ with Christ on the cross is a powerful and recognizable image, and for someone to be embracing that famous image places “us” next to Christ and into the image. Murillo paints his very viewers into this painting because it is possible for each person to be united to Christ. This silent challenge moves hearts and inspires people to do more. In this very painting, the words of Christ are summed up.  A first-time viewer sees the Gospel lived out by a follower of Christ. One need not read the words “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself”[14] or “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”[15] in order to understand what he sees.

The power of art invades culture, and presents an answer to the questions that even St. Francis of Assisi asked: how do I attain happiness, what am I here for, etc.? To begin to answer this question of happiness, we first must remember that virtue is learned through imitation.[16] People imitate what they see, as we can clearly see through social media trends.  Artwork that inspires people will lead to their imitation. Murillo’s Saint Francis Embracing Christ demonstrates that growth in virtue is possible and  leads to true happiness. This piece of art also stirs up the imagination, which “we can rehearse…the knowledge that we might one day require”[17] to attain happiness. Through the witness of St. Francis, the wider culture is able to notice that the answer to happiness is found in actively choosing poverty, the source of the Christian moral life.

Edited by Maureen Francois

Bibliography

Armstrong, Regis J., et al., editors. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. Volume One and Two. New City Press 1999.

Mattison, William C. Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues. Brazos Press, 2008.

Scruton, Roger. Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. 1st ed, Encounter Books, 2007.

All Bible verses: NRSV

Art piece: Saint Francis Embracing Christ by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo  (1617-1682)


[1] Introduction to Moral Theology, William C. Mattison, 57, 58

[2] Matthew 19:21

[3] Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr

[4] The Life of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano, 182-183 (Francis of Assisi: Early Documents; volume I)

[5] Ibid., 185

[6] Ibid., 193

[7] The Minor Legend, Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, 684 (Francis of Assisi: Early Documents; volume II)

[8] The Life of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano, 264 (Francis of Assisi: Early Documents; volume I)

[9] Ibid.,  265

[10] Introduction to Moral Theology, William C. Mattison, 65

[11] Mark 8:36; c.f. Matthew 16:26, Luke 9:25

[12] The fullest expression of this love is through the Incarnation: the greatest act of poverty in history.

[13] Luke 14:33

[14] Mark 12:31

[15] John 15:13

[16] Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, RogerScruton, 37

[17] Ibid., 38

By Ben Duphiney, The Catholic University of America

Poverty is the spring from which Christian virtue flows. A complete and total emptying of the self allows for the Holy Spirit to fill the human soul  and completely transform it by grace. From an interior cooperation with grace, forming good habits (habitus) inclines persons to act well. “Our actions are crucial to who we are” as William Mattison says, and these very actions “shape our very selves.”[1] Therefore, how we act reveals who we are. Through the mystery of the Incarnation, God revealed the perfect example––how to act––for humanity to follow: Jesus Christ. There are far and few who quite literally followed Christ’s words, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”[2] Francis of Assisi took these words to heart, and through a journey of virtue, arrived at the place of total emptying himself to be satisfied by nothing but Christ. This triumph was not accomplished overnight; it took an entire lifetime! By acting in accordance with the words of Christ––and His poverty––growth in virtue was made a reality in St. Francis of Assisi’s life.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Saint Francis Embracing Christ perfectly illustrates a life of Christian virtue––with poverty as its source and at its center. It captures the end of the Christian life: union with God. Virtue is the means to acquire this perfect and total end. Therefore, Murillo paints the possibility for all Christians who desire to be “happy in this life, and supremely happy with [God] forever in the next.”[3] He captures the end of living a virtuous, Christian life.

St. Francis of Assisi did not begin his life as a saint. From his upbringing, “he lived in the clothing and spirit of the world” and “miserably wasted and squandered his time almost up until his twenty-fifth year of age.”[4] On the hunt for glory, Francis nobley went off to battle “to enrich himself in money or distinction.”[5] He received a vision from God but did not understand that the search for earthly glory was a waste of time. After experiencing––and acting upon––the desires of worldly glory, Francis understood the emptiness of pursuing vicious desires. When he returned home, his father was outraged and took him to the bishop to be tried. Transformed by grace and inspired to act virtuously, he “immediately took off and threw down all his clothes and returned them to his father…[and] was completely stripped bare before everyone.”[6] It was from this moment of poverty––the act of stripping down to nothing and being completely vulnerable––that his saintly journey began. The grace of God shattered the blindness of Francis, and he cooperated with divine grace to be transformed into the person God made him to be.

This total emptying of status, material goods, security, and comfort set Francis on a journey of virtue towards union with God. The first step of poverty led to the iconic message from the St. Damiano Cross: “”Francis, go, rebuild my house which, as you see, is all being destroyed!”[7] It is evident that Francis continually increased in virtue, as he acted in ways that were only possible with complete poverty and trust in God. He began to rebuild the Church and founded the Ordo Fratrum Minorum––the Order of Friars Minor. Poverty remains central to the very identity of the Franciscan movement, and it is through poverty that Francis continued on the journey of virtue. Perhaps the greatest moment of virtue in Francis’ life was the reception of the stigmata––a share in the five wounds of Christ. “His hands and feet seemed to be pierced through the middle by nails…[and] his right side was marked with an oblong scar, as if pierced with a lance.”[8] The sacred stigmata, received through another vision, was a sign of the holiness.  Francis “tried to hide these marks, so that human fervor would not rob him of the grace that was given.”[9]

As Francis of Assisi almost perfectly demonstrated, Growth in virtue is both possible and practical. From his beginning search for glory, to attempting to hide the most sacred sign of union with God, Francis is living proof that cultivating good habits leads to “happiness […] to which Christ calls his listeners.”[10] A closer look at Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Saint Francis Embracing Christ helps illustrate the growth of virtue and its final end. The overall composition is centered on the powerful gaze of Francis upon Christ crucified. Francis is below Christ, which speaks to his poverty and humility; it is a recognition that Christ is supreme and nothing else is above him. The only “footing” that Francis has is from stepping on the globe––in his total rejection of the world. Observers may recall the Gospel message when watching Francis reject the world: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”[11] It is through rejecting worldly things (i.e. status, wealth, honor, glory, pleasure, etc.) that he is able to lift himself to embrace Christ. Francis is not only lifting himself up; rather, Christ is meeting Francis where he is by reaching down to embrace him. This beautiful visual of the Christian moral life teaches us that as we reach up to Christ, He also reaches down to us.[12] It is the poverty of Francis that embraces the poverty of Christ. Angels hold a passage from the Gospel of Luke: “Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”[13] Once again, this is a visual representation of poverty––giving up everything to follow and embrace Christ. Giving up everything, material and immaterial, is the first step in growing in virtue. St. Francis of Assisi’s own growth in virtue is glorified by the reward that the Christian hopes to attain in the beatific vision.

Murillo’s masterpiece is still relevant and essential for the culture at large. The painting teaches and invokes the true meaning of life: union with God. At a first glance, it may appear to seem weird or sometimes even sacrilegious; why would someone––let alone this random guy in a brown dress––be hugging Jesus on the cross?!  But a closer and deeper gaze invites those who lay their eyes upon this painting to think about their own life and their own faith journey. The image of the crucifix of Christ with Christ on the cross is a powerful and recognizable image, and for someone to be embracing that famous image places “us” next to Christ and into the image. Murillo paints his very viewers into this painting because it is possible for each person to be united to Christ. This silent challenge moves hearts and inspires people to do more. In this very painting, the words of Christ are summed up.  A first-time viewer sees the Gospel lived out by a follower of Christ. One need not read the words “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself”[14] or “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”[15] in order to understand what he sees.

The power of art invades culture, and presents an answer to the questions that even St. Francis of Assisi asked: how do I attain happiness, what am I here for, etc.? To begin to answer this question of happiness, we first must remember that virtue is learned through imitation.[16] People imitate what they see, as we can clearly see through social media trends.  Artwork that inspires people will lead to their imitation. Murillo’s Saint Francis Embracing Christ demonstrates that growth in virtue is possible and  leads to true happiness. This piece of art also stirs up the imagination, which “we can rehearse…the knowledge that we might one day require”[17] to attain happiness. Through the witness of St. Francis, the wider culture is able to notice that the answer to happiness is found in actively choosing poverty, the source of the Christian moral life.

Edited by Maureen Francois

Bibliography

Armstrong, Regis J., et al., editors. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. Volume One and Two. New City Press 1999.

Mattison, William C. Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues. Brazos Press, 2008.

Scruton, Roger. Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. 1st ed, Encounter Books, 2007.

All Bible verses: NRSV

Art piece: Saint Francis Embracing Christ by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo  (1617-1682)


[1] Introduction to Moral Theology, William C. Mattison, 57, 58

[2] Matthew 19:21

[3] Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr

[4] The Life of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano, 182-183 (Francis of Assisi: Early Documents; volume I)

[5] Ibid., 185

[6] Ibid., 193

[7] The Minor Legend, Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, 684 (Francis of Assisi: Early Documents; volume II)

[8] The Life of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano, 264 (Francis of Assisi: Early Documents; volume I)

[9] Ibid.,  265

[10] Introduction to Moral Theology, William C. Mattison, 65

[11] Mark 8:36; c.f. Matthew 16:26, Luke 9:25

[12] The fullest expression of this love is through the Incarnation: the greatest act of poverty in history.

[13] Luke 14:33

[14] Mark 12:31

[15] John 15:13

[16] Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, RogerScruton, 37

[17] Ibid., 38

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