Stunning failure evokes stunning words and example

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 1, 2008

“Consider the lilies of the field” – words of Jesus treasured by St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is Oct. 4 and whose values have inspired many.  Photo by Mary Anna Harbeck

What could possibly be learned from a seemingly insignificant event in a small Italian town some 800 years ago that could help anyone keep this week’s global economic crisis in perspective?

Monday, Sept. 29, is a date that will forever be etched in history for the breathtaking losses in global stock markets following the U.S. Congress’s decision not to pass a financial rescue package for Wall Street.

Fear and anxiety have gripped many. Retirees and those nearing retirement are seeing their financial security placed in jeopardy. Others are coping with the loss of their homes, jobs, and dreams.

For a society so addicted to prosperity at any cost, the full impact of the crisis is yet to be seen. And at the heart of the matter is the question of values. Who would willingly choose poverty over wealth?

Back in the 13th century in the small Italian town of Assisi lived a young man named Giovanni di Bernardone, known to us now as St. Francis and for whom Cochrane’s Mount St. Francis Retreat Centre is named. St. Francis intentionally chose poverty over wealth.

My first memorable encounter with him came about through Franco Zeffirelli’s 1973 motion picture, Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

Zeffirelli focuses on a dramatic turning point in the life of his subject who has grown up in acquisitive, exploitative wealth, only to turn his back on it. Struck by the suffering and poverty of lepers in his midst, and inspired by images from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – and in particular, the lilies of the field and the birds of the air who trust in God alone – St. Francis himself chose to become a beggar.

In his embrace of “Sister Poverty,” he has ever since drawn the world’s attention to an alternative lifestyle of compassionate simplicity, free from materialistic anxieties – free to be truly human.

Oct. 4 is celebrated around the world as St. Francis’ feast day. What a coincidence that it should fall in the same week as our current global financial crisis. To remind us once more of the values that so fundamentally motivated St. Francis, I’d like to close this week’s column by quoting the larger context of Jesus’ words in this most famous sermon of all (Matthew 6:19-21, 24-33 NRSV):

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. . . .

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” . . . indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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