When St Francis of Assisi kicks your butt


Don’t be fooled by his gentle exterior. He’ll kick your butt, too.

If you asked me as a child what I liked most about Christmas, and I had answered honestly, I would have said this: “Presents”.
If you ask me as an adult what I like most about Christmas, it is the joy of seeing my son’s excitement at the magical magic of it all, and something about the smell of pine and twinkly lights, but ‘presents’ is still in my top three.
I love the giving of presents, thinking about that person for a few weeks beforehand, shopping online, choosing the right thing, hugging the secret. I love the receiving of presents (as a child, I liked surprises; these days, I like making wish lists.) I receive them each present as a token of love. I love Christmas, and I love presents.
But this year, there is a subtle shift in how I am feeling about Christmas presents, and it’s St Francis’ fault.
Recently I read an absolutely brilliant biography of St Francis of Assisi – When Saint Francis Saved the Church by Jon M Sweeney.
St Francis was neither a monk nor priest, and he travelled around with a band of followers; the ‘Robin Hood’ of the church, if you will. One of his distinctive values was extolling the ‘virtue’ of poverty. In an age where the church was storing up riches and making beautiful frescoes, St Francis’ existence was a challenge to Christian greed, and 800 years later, he’s challenging mine.
St Francis refused to let his friars even own their own prayer book. They didn’t like this, and neither would I, but he was insistent that they owned nothing of their own. It sounds foreign to us now, but when you read the gospels and consider Jesus’ commands to his disciples that they take nothing with them and rely on others’ hospitality, one wonders if there’s something in it. As Sweeney points out:

“If you read the Gospels and take the teachings of Jesus literally, Francis stands out as one of the only people we can clearly observe in history who was a true follower of Christ.”

Don’t get me wrong here: I am not St Francis, and I don’t think that owning things is a sin, nor do I think present-exchanging at Christmas is wrong in and of itself. It’s a great tradition, a tangible way of expressing gratitude and friendship. Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages, points out that for some people present-giving is their love language, the principal way they receive and express love. I have no wish to shame anyone for enjoying Christmas presents. We honour people by giving them special gifts, and Jesus received an expensive gift of perfume from Mary Magdalene with gratitude, not condemnation.
However, especially if we are rich, as I am*, present-giving can trespass all too easily onto less holy territory. You can usually tell when this has happened by how you feel on Christmas Day after unwrapping presents: if you feel slightly sick as you survey your haul, or if you feel a burning ingratitude (“these presents are all very well, but WHY didn’t they get me what I really WANTED?”) then it is probably a sign that you have been overtaken by the greed monster.
We live in a big vicarage, with nice furniture and huge wardrobes full of clothes. I have a stack of twenty books on my ‘to read’ shelf, which is roughly the same number I started the year with, and yet every time I see a new book everyone’s talking about I want to read it. We have stuff, and more besides.
It is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Sweeney** says that St Francis wanted to discover “what it was about complete poverty that provides an easier path to knowing God.” I am full, overfull, with material blessings, and yet I want more. Every time I look at a catalogue for present ideas for other people (which naturally turns into a list of things you might like for yourself), I feel like I am stuffing after-dinner mints into my face after a very large meal. I am wondering: do the possessions we own turn us into bloated Christians? I am slim in body, but obese in possessions – and I wonder what subtle effect this has on my spiritual life.
My friend is preparing to move, and is stripping down her possessions, selling things on eBay, giving clothes to charity, shredding old bank statements. I am a hoarder, and just hearing her describe her actions makes me feel sweaty and anxious. I like and look after my things, but sometimes I like them too much.
There is a proverb – give me neither poverty nor riches (Prov 30:8). The panic of poverty is not to be envied, but more insidious is the encroachment of riches. I am flicking through the catalogues, and hearing my heart whisper, “if I have this, then I will be a little bit happier.” I know it to be a lie, and yet I keep listening to it, even as the nausea grows.
I need people like D L Mayfield in my life who advocates ‘downward mobility’.
I need Esther Emery in my life, who lives in a yurt in the middle of nowhere, and powers her washing machine with a bicycle.
I need our new youth worker in my life, who is from India, and explains to my little boy that where he’s from they mainly just play with toy cars and make their own games.
I need St Francis in my life, kicking my butt from the grave.
I am feeling the discomfort that comes from God speaking into an area I would rather leave unexposed.
In an age of accumulation, sometimes we need to be stripped. This Christmas, I am praying for the attitude of St Francis: an uncluttered heart, a generous and light spirit.

*have you noticed how no one admits to being rich? We want to pretend we’re not – not really, not compared to Bill Gates or that person who lives up the road who has more money than us. We want to identify with the beleaguered poor rather than the comfortable rich. (Or maybe that’s just me.)

**I can heartily recommend the Sweeney’s biography of St Francis as a quick, thoroughly enjoyable, and thought-provoking read. If it’s not too ironic for me to say, it would make a wonderful Christmas present… Get it from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com (NB contains affiliate links: helps this site at no extra cost to you). I’ll be reviewing this at the end of November.


[tweetit]”In an age of accumulation, sometimes we need to be stripped.” – @Tanya_Marlow [/tweetit]
[tweetit]“Do the possessions we own turn us into bloated Christians?” @Tanya_Marlow. When St Francis of Assisi kicks your butt[/tweetit]
[tweetit]” I am full, overfull, with material blessings, and yet I want more.” – @Tanya_Marlow[/tweetit]
[tweetit]”I need St Francis in my life, kicking my butt from the grave.” – @Tanya_Marlow on Christmas presents:[/tweetit]
[tweetit]‘I flick through the catalogues, and hear my heart whisper, “if I have this, then I will be a little bit happier.”’[/tweetit]
[tweetit]Are you a hoarder or a minimalist? – @Tanya_Marlow on Christmas presents: When St Francis of Assisi kicks your butt[/tweetit]

Over to you:

  • Are you a hoarder or a minimalist?
  • How do you walk that line of loving to receive and give Christmas presents well, without greed taking over?


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18 Responses to When St Francis of Assisi kicks your butt

  1. Lisa England 23rd November, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

    I’m really with you on this one. I absolutely love Christmas and presents too, especially planning my present buying. It’s a project I love.
    But it does concern me how Jesus talked so much about riches and having money, and yet we don’t want to really tackle this very uncomfortable topic. Yes admitting I am rich feels difficult although it is true.
    It’s hard to find a balance between wanting to be generous and wanting to keep things in some sort of proportion.
    I start my Christmas shopping by going through the charity catalogues and buying as much as I can from them, and then for family include a donation gift to a charity.
    Think this was a really important issue to raise and think about.

    • Tanya 26th November, 2014 at 4:28 pm #

      I love the idea of going through charity catalogues – this sounds like a really good way of getting people presents. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  2. Esther Emery 21st November, 2014 at 6:09 pm #

    We’re doing a winter clear out of our yurt. Sending away the dump trucks from the sand box, the extra box of accumulated plastic toys from under the kids’ bed. And discussing with the kids which things we keep. The homemade things, the most valuable things, the most precious things. I always feel lighter when I don’t have things I can’t see!

    • Tanya 26th November, 2014 at 4:25 pm #

      I am challenged by your ‘don’t have things I can’t see’ thing. And about the clearing out of your yurt -I thought it was pretty sparse to begin with! I like that you chat with the kids about what to clear away and give away, and what to hold onto. That sounds like a really good discipline for them to get into at an early age.

  3. Mark Allman 20th November, 2014 at 8:56 pm #

    “I need St Francis in my life, kicking my butt from the grave.” Tanya great words here. I want to be generous and giving. I want to give others encouragement, praise, help, hope, and feelings of worth.

    • Tanya 26th November, 2014 at 4:23 pm #

      I always think of you as a very generous person, Mark. Maybe St Francis already kicked your butt at some point?? 🙂

      • Mark Allman 28th November, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

        Perhaps! 🙂 🙂

  4. Rebecka 20th November, 2014 at 7:12 pm #

    Very, very, very interesting post! I’m a hoarder trying (and failing) to be a minimalist. I often find myself wishing I had more money, but not mainly to be able to buy more stuff, although, of course, there are a few things I’d like to buy for myself, but so I could see other, more expensive, doctors and try different treatments… And hiring someone to do my house work!

    Christmas presents tend to make me nervous. I don’t feel like I’m very good at neither giving nor receiving them. I almost feel guilty when I receive presents that cost so much more than can afford to give and nowadays my brain is to fuzzy to be able to come up with something thoughtful enough to give to the people I love. To me, it’s not so much greed taking over as guilt, I guess.

    (Commenting on your blog is almost like therapy! I have to do a lot of soul searching.)

    • Tanya 26th November, 2014 at 4:20 pm #

      Ha! We are such kindred spirits. Hurrah!
      I wish you had more money too, cos things that get you better sound like good things to me, cos I’d love to see you better.
      Re: Christmas presents – maybe you need to see Christmas presents as a spiritual discipline this year? Sometimes we are in a position of not being able to offer very much to others, or spend as much as we would like (or they would spend with us). It’s really worth spending time with the uncomfortable feeling, because this is the exact situation we find ourselves in with GOd. Except, we like to pretend to ourselves that we’re not in that situation, and really, it’s a fair exchange – our salvation in return for our dedication. It takes discipline to remember that we are poor in spirit (and blessed are the poor in spirit). Perhaps this is also why Luke simply says ‘blessed are the poor’ – because if you’re poor, you know you need to receive grace. I think this Christmas could be an amazing opportunity to practise receiving well – receiving as a gift, without obligation or expectation. Freely giving, freely receiving. (This is my own challenge to myself, as well!)

      • Rebecka 30th November, 2014 at 10:34 pm #

        Yay for kindred spirits!
        I love your idea of seeing Christmas presents as a spiritual practice. I’m definitely going to try! xx

    • Tanya 26th November, 2014 at 4:20 pm #

      P.S. The therapy comment made me happy!

  5. Amy 20th November, 2014 at 6:22 pm #

    Absolutely. I remember once explaining to a brother at Taize what it was like to move house and how worried I was about whether to accept oversized sofas from other peoples’ conservatories. He responded with grace, amusement and genuine concern from the heart of somebody who doesn’t even own his own trousers.

    I’m neither hoarder nor declutterer. I’m a charity shopper. I love chucking stuff out as much as I love buying heaps of it in again. It’s a bad habit. I always think we have too much, but in the back of my mind my plans to make space are always making space FOR the next thing that I reckon will make life sweeter.

    I love St Francis, though, and you’ve inspired me to scale back again this season.

    • Tanya 26th November, 2014 at 4:15 pm #

      Oh man “the heart of somebody who doesn’t even own his own trousers” – there’s nothing like that kind of conversation to completely humble you, is there…??

      Well, there are worse things to be than a chronic charity shopper, I reckon. At least charity benefits!

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Amy – I really appreciate it.

  6. Mavis Poole 20th November, 2014 at 3:55 pm #

    A very bright#spotlight on#reality, as a lone parent ( all 3 now left the nest ) ,with hindsight
    I’m #rich in #blessings, Christmas is special bringing us together sometimes by e-mail,
    telephone,in person but always together within the#Christmas spirit, many thanks for a
    timely reminder it’s #who rather than #what that makes me#rich, terrific#blog. Cheers.

    • Tanya 26th November, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Mavis. Hope you get to enjoy Christmas with your family this year.

  7. Anna Wood 20th November, 2014 at 3:19 pm #

    You might also like the History of Ideas series on Radio 4 if you’ve not already tuned in. This one from Giles Fraser talks about similar ideas from the Franciscans, about how freedom comes from not having everything. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04p2871

    • Tanya 26th November, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

      Thanks for reading, and for thinking of this for me. Sounds like a good link!

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