The Spirit of Assisi, the Spirit of Renunciation

Assisi is a mountain town that clings to the side of Mount Subasio between Perugia and Spoleto overlooking the Umbrian Valley. Best known as the home of St. Francis and St. Clare — thirteenth-century holy people and ecclesiastical reformers — it has more recently become known as a center for interreligious dialogue and peace work, both because of the influence of their lives and the work of recent popes to welcome people of all faiths there for dialogue. This spirit of dialogue, fraternity, and solidarity has become known as the “Spirit of Assisi.” As I journeyed to Assisi in March, I said publicly that I journeyed as a pilgrim in search of peace, solidarity, and the common good. But how are they to be found in Assisi? And what might Francis and Clare and their generations of followers have to teach us about Capita’s work and perspectives on flourishing?

First in 1986, and subsequently during the pontificates of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, the Holy See has hosted massive interreligious dialogues featuring the Dalai Lama, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the leaders of other world religious for shared prayer and conversation. These meetings have established the primacy of dialogue, fraternity, and solidarity in shaping religious contributions to our public life — this is the Spirit of Assisi and we should unleash it over the whole divided, broken, and warming world.

My journey came about as a result of my involvement as a board member and volunteer with the Felician Center in Kingstree, South Carolina. This outreach center, serving the poor in South Carolina’s rural Pee Dee region, is sponsored by the Felician Sisters, a global congregation of Roman Catholic religious women who sponsor colleges, hospitals, nursing facilities, schools, and outreach centers to the poor. 31 collaborators with the Felicians from across North America were invited to join in this pilgrimage to Assisi to drink deeply from the wells of Franciscan wisdom and learn more about the lives and spiritual visions of St. Francis and St. Clare.

What can the figures of Francis and Clare teach us about living well in our own age, an age characterized by disruption, inequality, relational deficits, and more? The case for our living in such an age is well established. What is less clear is what to do about it. Policy proposals are regularly trotted out, examined, proposed in think-tank panel discussions, and advocated for in Congress. Congress dutifully does nothing — the inaction itself being a feature of the dysfunctions of our age. What more can be done? What can we do to escape the cycles of dysfunction that trap our systems and that trap people who live in poverty? What can we do to establish the social conditions that promote the fulfillment of all people?

The “Spirit of Assisi” is, in part, a “spirit of renunciation” that allows our fellow citizens who suffer in poverty and despair to have more by our living with less. Renunciation is one good answer to the question: how might we live well in this age? This spirit is the basis of an alternative economy and politics necessary for building a more humane future in an age of technology-driven disruption, loneliness and despair, and inequality.

The episode in Francis’s life when, after his conversion, he stripped in the presence of the Bishop of Assisi and renounced his father’s wealth and privilege is the basis for this spirit of renunciation. As the current Bishop of Assisi has written: “this perspective urgently needs to be rediscovered, in a world ruled by an economy that ‘kills’ to the benefit of a few and to the detriment of a huge mass of human beings.” If we are to walk under the inspiration of the “Spirit of Assisi” then we must find ways to strip ourselves of wealth and privilege, so that others may have more. This may take the form of eating less so that the hungry may have more or so that we might lessen our impact on the planet, giving away our excess possessions, foregoing vain entertainments that too often exploit or diminish other persons, or running businesses and making financial investments for social good rather than for profit.

What might it look like if these renunciations shaped not only personal charity, but informed our politics and economics? If politicians renounced the need to always be on TV? If billionaires and millionaires could have even slightly less so that those who have nothing could have something? In the answer to these questions, we will discover that the “Spirit of Assisi” inspires not only revolutions of personal commitment to love but can inspire revolutions of solidarity and fraternity in communities, states, and in the human community

May we urgently discover the Spirit of Assisi and spread its message; Assisi and its sanctuaries are truly a “prophecy of a more just and fraternal society.”

Hilary Rikard