So, the men’s Bible study I’m part of just discussed chapter 10 of Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. I’ve always been skeptical about the book, but it gets helpful at chapter 6 when Eldredge moves beyond describing what he thinks a man should be and diagnosing our wound to discussing practical strategies for living in this world. Chapter 10 is called “A Beauty to Rescue.” As a chapter with some helpful tips for married men, this was good. One of the other guys observed, however, that if he were single he’d be pretty upset at the whole thing.
Indeed, this is one of the problems I have had with Eldredge — at times, he enshrines our own cultural attitudes as “real” masculinity. As someone with very dear and close friends and family who live full, healthy, spiritual lives and who happen not to be married, I take issue with the idea that every man has a beautiful woman to fight for. The preamble to the chapter shows that Eldredge needs to work through C. S. Lewis’ The Allegory of Love as well as sort out some ideas about ancient literature. Like, is Helen really a damsel in distress there to be rescued? Not only that, but romantic love is not the driving force of the Iliad, honour and prestige on the one hand and male friendship on the other are instead.
Nonetheless, most men fall in love with someone or something, something to die for, live for. In the Middle Ages, when the whole dominance of romantic love began to take hold in western literature, the ideal was of a woman of higher social rank than you, to whom you were not married, and who was your domina, your lady in the feudal sense. We get a lot of stories such as Lancelot being told by Guinevere to prove his love for her by purposely losing in jousts; Menelaus or Achilles would never have done such a thing.
The history of this idea is traced in the aforementioned Allegory of Love. It is called courtly love, and it was a main theme of the troubadours. Troubadours were the classy type of singer-songwriter of mediaeval France. Courtly love was a Big Deal in the 1100s. I’ve already written on this blog about how I think Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship is an antidote to this idea.
Another antidote comes a few decades after Aelred in the person of St Francis of Assisi. As a young man, Francis showed himself to be your average, normal Italian young man, joining local wars and suchlike. After recovering from his wounds, Francis was overcome by the Holy Spirit and had a powerful conversion experience wherein he rejected his wealthy, middle class upbringing and decided to become a hermit.
I won’t recount the whole story of St Francis (did that already). Francis, like most people in the broad-ish category of “monastic”, was a monomaniac for God. But he still had a beauty … well, not to rescue. It’s more like she rescued him.
St Francis and his band of little brothers (fraticelli) called themselves jongleurs de Dieu — jesters for God. Troubadours were the classy singer-songwriters. Jongleurs were not. They were common. So it was only fitting that these young men, many of them sons of wealthy merchants, sons of nobility, who have embraced Lady Poverty, would consider themselves and their preaching not as the artsy-fartsy troubadours but as the spiritual equivalent of the ribald jongleurs.
Poverty lay at the heart of Francis’ expression of the Christian faith. A complicated, sad story about mediaeval economics and human weakness will tell you about the Franciscans after his death. But while Francis lived, the ideal was that not only would no individual Franciscan own property, neither would Franciscan communities or the order.
The term we give for these friars and their comrades, the Dominicans, is mendicant. This is a word for beggar. In a world where wealthy men grew wealthier off the backbreaking labour of their unfree dependants, where merchants grew wealthy off charging unfair interest, where people went to war for the honour of their own city, where some lived in palatial grandeur while most lived in dirty hovels — in such a world, radical poverty such as St Francis modelled was a powerful statement of freedom from the world, the flesh, and the devil, a statement of the great freedom found only in Christ.
Embracing Lady Poverty was wild.