Brandon Mathews is a 25-year-old professional golfer. He was in a tie for the championship of the Argentine Open when during his final putt someone in the crowd yelped. Distracted by the sound, Mathews flinched, missed the putt and lost.
Back in the clubhouse he was angry until he was told that it was a man with Downs Syndrome who made the sound, unintentionally, out of excitement not malice. Familiar with the struggles those with Downs Syndrome face, Mathews immediately went to meet the man.
Mathews described their encounter this way, “I gave him a hug and I asked him, “Hey, are you doing OK? Are you having fun?” I just wanted to make sure he was enjoying himself, that he had no hard feelings, that he didn’t feel bad about what happened. I didn’t want anyone to be mad at him. I didn’t want him to be mad at himself. I wanted to make sure he knew that I wasn’t mad. That’s all I wanted to do.”
This kind of attentiveness and responsiveness to the needs and feelings of others is a cornerstone of Franciscan living. Brother Bill Short, a worldwide Franciscan scholar, and professor at our Franciscan School of Theology, tells another story that demonstrates this kind of attentiveness. It takes place within a monastery where monks eat their meals in silence. Brother Bill relates that since no one can say, “pass the potatoes”, or “I’d like some more water,” they live by a rule that requires them to be attentive to the monk on their right and the monk on their left. It is up to them to notice if they need potatoes or salt or more water.
Another example of this level of attentiveness and ability to sense and respond to the needs and feelings of others comes from one of our own ministries, the San Damiano Retreat Center. Wildfires in the area destroyed hundreds of acres and left dozens of people living in temporary shelters during the holidays. The staff recognized that being away from home on Christmas was difficult and might lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. In response, they agreed to work during the holidays, to provide meals, community and a sacred space for the victims of the fire.
These are examples of what we call “poverty.” As St. Francis reflected on Jesus in the gospels, he saw that He was always attentive and responsive to the needs of others. He didn’t cling to his gifts or possessions, rather, when faced with someone in need, he freely and generously gave away whatever he had. This poverty wasn’t imposed on him, Jesus chose it. It was the kind of poverty he recommended to the young man in the gospel of Mark 10:17-27.
Following in Jesus’ footprints, St. Francis also chose to live a life of poverty and he encouraged his followers to do the same. That is, to live without possessing, to be attentive to those around them and to freely and generously share, or give away, the material, spiritual, and emotional resources they had to meet the needs of others. But also, to recognize their own needs and ask others to help them, thereby, participating in a rhythm of giving and receiving that includes everyone.
Brother Bill Short points out that our institutional poverty as a ministry means that we give freely and generously to others, both of our possessions and our time, while recognizing that we are also in need and depend on the generosity of others.
- How attentive are you to the needs of others? Can you think of an example of when your attentiveness led you to generously give of yourself for the benefit of another? What was the gift you shared? How did you feel about it?
- What is your reaction to the idea that institutional poverty means that we notice the needs of others and give freely and generously to them, but also, that we too are in need and constantly depend on the generosity of others?
- Can you think of a story where your ministry practiced the radical generosity we think of as poverty? Are the stories well known throughout your ministry? If not, how can they be shared?