Growing up Protestant, I knew little of St. Francis of Assisi (1181/1182 – 1226) until I studied him in seminary. It was his uncorrupted humility and dedication to the poor that won my high regard for his life of obedience. Like modern times, Francis grew up in a time of great disparity between the rich and poor. His father was a merchant with financial resources. Francis gave all his inherited wealth to the poor and spent his life in abject poverty. This ‘begging’ order of monastics were called the mendicants (Latin mendicare “to beg”) or friars.
Dr. William C. Placher, previously the Charles D. and Elizabeth S. LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Wabash College, author of Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 2005), quotes from Bonaventure’s The Life of St. Francis, on God’s calling:
“Francis, who can do more for you, a lord or a servant, a rich man or a poor man?” When Francis replied that a lord and a rich man could do more, he was at once asked: “Why, then, are you abandoning the Lord for a servant and the rich God for a poor man?” And Francis replied: “Lord, what will you have me do?” And the Lord answered him: “Return to your own land, because the vision which you have seen foretells a spiritual outcome which will be accomplished in you not by human but by divine planning.” In the morning, then, he returned in haste to Assisi, joyous and free of care; already a model of obedience, he awaited the Lord’s will.” (page 144-145)
His family and religious leaders tried to get him to wisely use his family’s resources, but Francis continued to give it away to the poor and lived by begging. With time, others joined him in poverty and Pope Innocent III eventually allowed him to establish a new monastic order. For Francis, God’s call was the renunciation of wealth and serving the poor.
Christine de Pisan (1364 – about 1430) faced the same question: how do wealthy Christians best use their resources in obedience to God? She grew up in the court of Charles V, the king of France. She married well, but her nobleman husband died when she was twenty-five years old with three young children to raise. Christine decided to use her writing skills and was one of the few professional authors of her time.
In her book, The Treasures of the City of Ladies, she echoes the medieval beliefs on the elevated spiritual vocation:
“In God’s eyes life in a religious community is the highest level of life there is. Anyone who founds a religious order so that those who wish to live in contemplation can be separated there from the world in the service of God without any other cares pleases not only those people, but also God, who would be pleased indeed that each one said his offices there.” (page 182)
But Christine realized that God gave all people gifts which should be used to serve. Power, wealth, and wisdom were given to royalty to serve the people:
“There is no doubt at all that God wishes to be served by people of all conditions. At every level of society anyone who wants to can be saved, for the rank does not cause damnation, but rather not knowing how to use it wisely.”
Therefore in conclusion, the princess says to herself, “I see very well that, as I do not feel myself to be the sort of person who can wholeheartedly choose and follow one of these two lives [spiritual and secular], I will try hard at least to strike a happy medium, as St. Paul counsels, and take as much as I can from both lives according to my ability.” (page 184)
Two influential individuals answered the same question. Each took different paths but both desired to obediently serve God.