In the outlook of several medieval Christian movements poverty was seen as a spiritual value. For some the rejection of material wealth was viewed as a fulfillment of Jesus’ instruction to the disciples. For others a life of poverty was a way of more fully identifying with the lowly and dispossessed. Finally, for some the renunciation of wealth was a practice for avoiding temporal entanglements that could interfere with one’s relationship with God.
The Waldensians were a Christian sect named for their leader, Peter Waldo (Valdès), who was reported to have "proposed to observe evangelical perfection as the apostles observed it," including selling all possessions (Etienne 144). Another source reported that the Waldensians "[had] nowhere a fixed abode, but wander[ed] about by two and two, barefoot, clad in sheepskins, possessing nothing, ‘having all things in common’ like the apostles, naked following the naked Christ" (Map 145). Waldo himself, in a statement believed to have been signed at the Third Lateran Council (Waldenses paragraph 2), claimed that he and his followers had renounced the world, giving all they had to the poor, becoming paupers and depending on God for daily food and clothing needs (Valdès 148-149).
In his First Life of Francis of Assisi, Thomas of Celano reports that Francis was "the true despiser of money" who "longed to possess wisdom, which is better than gold, and to get prudence, which is more precious than silver" (355). Francis’ motivation is also reported to be both an identification with the poor (Thomas 356) and observance of biblical instruction:
"Francis had heard that Christ’s disciples were not to possess gold, silver, or purse, nor to carry on their way a bag, wallet, bread or staff, nor to have shoes or two tunics, but to preach the Kingdom of God… Straightaway he puts his shoes off from his feet, and the staff out of his hands, and content with one tunic, exchanges his leather girdle for a small cord" (Thomas 357).
As the fame of the Franciscan order grew, would-be patrons attempted to provide possessions to the order, but Francis was adamant that such things would keep him and his followers from fully possessing the Lord (Thomas 359). Thus, poverty was also seen as a spiritual discipline – eliminating all else, one could more fully enter into relationship with God.
These sentiments are echoed in the letters of Hadewijch of Brabant, who wrote:
"All your perfection depends on this: shunning every alien enjoyment, which is something less than God himself; and shunning every alien suffering, which is not exclusively for his sake" (364).
She gave further instruction to her readers to give generously to the poor that they might ease the plight of the less fortunate while also overcoming the pride of the wealthy, warning that that possessions deceive their holders into thinking more of themselves than they ought, thereby becoming nothing in a spiritual sense (Hadewijch 365). Thus, Hadewijch also sees poverty as a spiritual discipline that allows those unencumbered by wealth to empty themselves of all worldly concerns and measures of success to embrace the virtue of humility and participate more fully in the divine life.
While reading Hadewijch I was struck by her comments identifying the crucifixion of Jesus with a payment of humanity’s debt (365). It would appear that the idea of satisfaction atonement was alive and well in Hadewijch’s theological framework. Though perhaps Anselm’s treatment of this subject is the most comprehensive and systematically thought out of its time, it would be interesting to trace the development of satisfaction atonement through other medieval resources as well.
Though few of us today voluntarily choose a life of poverty, the benefits of eschewing a life of wealth acquisition remain the same. With few notable exceptions do we find wealthy people who identify with the poor among us. And it remains true that if we are worried with making and keeping our money, we are often distracted from pursuing a spiritual disciplines or a closer relationship with the Divine. For those who claim biblical teaching as a primary locus of authority, Christ’s directives concerning our care for wealth and our approach to evangelism might well be reshape us were we to take these passages seriously. Though televangelists are correct in their claims that it takes millions to broadcast their message around the world, it is worth stopping to ponder: what if all Christians practiced charity, giving our wealth to those who are less fortunate, and depended on God to meet our needs as went about our daily lives declaring the Good News? Perhaps en masse such a devotion to the spiritual practice of poverty would reshape the economy of this world while bettering the plights of untold numbers of people. Perhaps the poor of this world could take more seriously the news of the gospel were it to be backed by demonstrative acts of Christian charity.
Hadewijch of Brabant. "Letters and Visions of Hadewijch of Brabant." Readings in World Christian History. Ed. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. Vol. 1. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004. 362-371.
Etienne de Bourbon. "The Waldensians and Vernacular Scripture." Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe. Ed. Edward Peters. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980. 144.
Walter Map. "On the Waldensians, 1179." Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe. Ed. Edward Peters. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980. 144-146.
Thomas of Celano. "First Life of Francis of Assisi." Readings in World Christian History. Ed. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. Vol. 1. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004. 354-359.
"Waldenses." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007.
Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe. Ed. Edward Peters. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980. 147-149.