Saint's poverty offers Christians wealth of reflection
by: Shanda Tice, Following their observance of The Way of the Cross and a simple supper Wednesday night, March 5, St. Aidan Episcopal Church members discuss ideas and themes presented in the book “Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone,” which they are reading in their book group. Clockwise from top left are George DeWitz, Bob Pierek, Marilyn Pierek, Byron McKinlay, Tammie Sartwell and Shirley Bush.

George DeWitz has some real problems with St. Francis of Assisi.

The Italian saint's wealthy father attempted to dissuade Francis, a worldly fellow who then embraced poverty and converted to Christ, from his budding ministry. So the eventual founder of the Franciscan order publicly rebuked his earthly father, stating he had only one father now - God in heaven. And Francis tossed off the garments his father gave him, to boot.

DeWitz, however, is a man who saw his father only once during his life. So he can't understand why Francis treated his own father with such contempt, even if he didn't want to do his earthly father's bidding. Even though DeWitz's father played no role in his life, he still went to his funeral, which is more than Francis did, even though his father had given plenty of money and support prior to their falling out.

Then again, DeWitz won't give up trying to understand Francis. Indeed, he's fascinated with him, as have been millions of Christians through the ages, whether because of the saint's love of animals and the natural world, his radically simple lifestyle, his profound devotion to the poor or his composition of elegant spiritual poetry.

DeWitz notes that he even shares that same relationship with God that Francis claimed.

'Because of not having a father in my life, I always looked at God as my father,' says DeWitz, a naval veteran of World War II and a retired advertising and radio industry man.

DeWitz has joined about a dozen other people at St. Aidan Episcopal Church, 174 N.E. Glisan St., this Lent to read and discuss the 2006 book 'Following St. Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone.'

The book was written by Susan Pitchford, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, who is also a member of the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis.

Third order Franciscans are lay people who belong to the order and participate in its works, but don't necessarily live in community or wear any distinctive clothing. The book details Pitchford's struggles and reflections with following the rule of her order.

DeWitz says he decided to join the study group because he's always been impressed by Francis' total commitment to the Christian life.

'This man is the ultimate imitation of Christ. You have to admire him for his steadfastness in searching for what he's searching for.'

The group prays the Stations of the Cross or Way of the Cross prior to each of its Wednesday evening meetings. The 15 stations tell the story of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. The group then enjoys a simple supper, and the church's rector, the Rev. Scott M. Dolph, leads a discussion of the book.

Cathy Hoye, whose late husband was an Episcopal priest, says she joined the group because she's always interested in learning more about her faith, and Francis exemplified that.

'He was a very unselfish person and certainly gave of himself,' she says.

During the discussion, she laughed when the group got talking about Francis completely renouncing his possessions, arguing that keeping more than one needed was stealing from those in want.

'This is making me feel guilty, with all the shoes and jackets I have!'

The discussion was wide-ranging, as the group members examined what Francis meant to their own lives, from his suspicion of education to his emphasis on action over words.

For a time, the members talked about what it meant to believe in God in a world filled with cruelty and violence, a highly personal moment for Elizabeth Voss, who lived through the July 7, 2005, terrorist bombings in London, where she was a law student. The Islamic extremist attacks killed 52 people on London's Underground trains as well as a bus.

Whereas others might see such an atrocity as evidence God doesn't exist, Voss says 'he becomes very visible when disaster strikes.'

'I always see God in the aftermath of that suffering.'

She notes, for example, the compassion shown by London taxi drivers who transported the wounded for free to area hospitals, and adds that citizens normally indifferent to each other vocalized their concern to one another.

Such compassion in the face of life's agonies is part and parcel of the message of Francis, DeWitz says, noting the saint was reputedly gifted with the stigmata, or wounds of Jesus, so intent was he on experiencing what Christ had suffered. In a world where most of us run from pain, St. Francis constantly embraced it, DeWitz says.

'Nobody could've possibly done what he did.'

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