Lauda LX, Amor de povertate
(a cura di Claudio Peri)
Lauda LX, Amor de povertate (‘Love of poverty’) summarises Jacopone’s mystical journey. It explains the long and difficult path of abandoning one’s ego to leave one’s heart available to love of God and of his creatures. This lauda was one of the fundamental texts for the formation of mystics of all religious beliefs. Its value is also great in purely human terms: many agnostics or atheists of great spirituality could be recognized in these verses.
In summary, the purpose of a mystical journey is to live Jesus’ first beatitude: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5: 1-3). This is a journey that concerns all Christians because, as Karl Rahner: « the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all». The mystic is a person who has freed themselves from their ego and placed themselves in the hands of God. On this point there is agreement among the mystics of every religious faith.
There is also general agreement that mysticism is not an abstract state. On the contrary, one of the secrets of the great mystics is concreteness, the ability to perceive the uniqueness of every experience, even the smallest and to pay attention to the present without being overtaken by nostalgia for the past or fantasies about the future.
Finally, it has to be said that no mystic can avoid becoming a critic, on a social level, because by reflecting on themselves, mystics discover the roots of a society and sometimes of a Church that is sick (H. Nouwen). It’s a short step from mystic to prophet.
The vision Jacopone presents in this lauda radically contradicts the misunderstanding that by ‘poor’, Jesus meant those who have no material goods. Jesus never dreamed of praising misery and the burden of pain and injustice that it entails. And yet it is precisely there that we must begin, that is, with renouncing the possession of material goods. That’s where Francis began. That’s what Jesus asked of the rich young man who deluded himself that he was complying with God’s commandments.
The mystical journey, as lived and recommended by Jacopone, starts with renouncing the possession of material goods and then develops in three stages that reflect the sequence followed by Jacopone but are also, it should be noted, appropriate to the spiritual journey of every man and woman on earth.
INTRODUCTION TO THE MYSTICAL JOURNEY: RENOUNCE THE POSSESSION OF MATERIAL GOODS
Verses 1 to 13 contrast a life tormented by the desire to possess material goods with the calm, secure and peaceful life of those who are free of this desire.
We can update Jacopone’s thought with reference to all the evidence of our own day. Whether on a global or a local level, greed for possession is responsible for the greatest inequities, disparities and misery. When the economy becomes purely monetary and the value of a country is measured solely by GDP, the relationship with possessions becomes decisive for life, for ethics and also for the spiritual life.
Looking more modestly at our own personal experience, how many times have we worried about the desire to own something that then left us completely unsatisfied! The philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) said: «A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone».
O amor de povertate,
O love of poverty,
A DECLARATION OF INTENT
Having taken the first step of the mystical journey by renouncing the possession of material goods, Jacopone tries to help us understand the final goal to which he wants to dedicate his life. His capacity for synthesis is one of his most extraordinary gifts: in verses 16 and 17 he describes his ‘declaration of intent’ in four steps:
Deo no alberga en core stretto:
God cannot live in a narrow heart:
1: “God cannot live in a narrow heart”. God is not to be found in a heart full of prejudices and ego cravings. With lucidly secular sensitivity, Einstein said: «The true value of a human being can be found in the degree to which he has attained liberation from the self»
2: The only way to make room in our heart is to fill it with love. Love is precisely what enlarges the heart and expels selfishness from it.
3: Enlargement of the heart requires a condition called ‘poverty of spirit’, that is, renunciation of the ego.
4: The final result, the one that determines the success of the whole operation, is when the heart is big enough that God can live in it.
In two verses and 21 words (originally) the mystical journey of Jacopone – and of any mystic – is perfectly defined! Everyone knows what to do:
- Empty the heart of egotism and self-centeredness;
- genuflections and rosaries do not count. What counts is the space of love in our heart, available to other creatures and to God.
FIRST LEVEL OF THE MYSTICAL JOURNEY: RENOUNCE THE PRIDE, VANITY AND ARROGANCE OF POWER AND CULTURE AND THE HYPOCRISIES OF HOLINESS SANTITÁ
Jacopone overcame the temptation of possessiveness relatively easily, but it was more difficult for him to give up i) power: he was used to commanding and not obeying; ii) culture: he was used to studying and imposing his knowledge on less educated people iii) the reputation of holiness: this was slippery ground for him because at a certain stage in his life people had begun to consider and describe him as a saint.
These temptations were indeed commonplace in the society in which he lived and also in the Church of that time.
A far l’onore ’n te morire,
To kill your love of honour,
In the first instance, Jacopone is concerned to extinguish the desire for honour (that is, for power) in his own heart. He looks around and notes that in both society and the Church, power was linked to wealth. He was not wrong; in his day those who became bishops and cardinals came from noble and wealthy families. In Todi, it was also members of noble and rich families who were appointed Podestà (chief magistrate). This is no longer the case today and the temptation has become more subtle, but no less malignant.
Today even a peasant’s son can become a bishop or cardinal and it must be difficult to be called ‘Excellency’ or ‘Eminence’ without becoming a little intoxicated with power! The same applies in politics: there are politicians who are literally devoured by the ambition for power. They include murderous dictators and apostles of the violence that fills the earth. The vanity of being an ‘Honorable Member’, ‘Senator’ or ‘Mayor’ is often an insuperable attraction and conditioner in the lives of some.
Once the craving for wealth and power has been eliminated from one’s heart, other temptations arise to be overcome: those of culture (knowledge) and of holiness.
Intellectual ambitions and vanity were as common in the academies of those times as today. It goes without saying that Jacopone could not stand them and often exposed them with biting irony (read the funny and very brief laud, “Tal qual’è, tal’è”).
Jacopone’s reflection on holiness must have been more serious. In his time revelations of miracles, visions, bilocations and levitations (like hovercrafts on the water today) were the order of the day. Extreme fasting, to the point of dying of anorexia or starvation, was also widespread, especially among mystics – as were extreme silences, up to a record of decades without saying a word. Speculations, including economic ones, on miracles, relics and sanctity flourished in his time and have unfortunately dragged on into our days. All this upset Jacopone’s sensitivity to a fault that for him, was the most reprehensible sin: hypocrisy. When, for a while, someone began to spread the rumour that he was a saint, Jacopone dismissed it in a couple of lines as a temptation from the Devil.
How wonderful and what a joy, six centuries after Jacopone, to read the diary of the little saint of Lisieux, in which Thérèse speaks of wanting to seek the truth without any exaggeration and with no attraction for far-fetched narratives: no visions, levitations, bilocations, stigmata…
As for miracles, Jacopone makes a rather radical choice: he believes in the miracles of Jesus, as described in the Gospels – and in particular the most unprovable ones, such as the virgin birth, the resurrection, the presence of Christ in a piece of bread. Not only does he believe they are true, but he bases his entire life on them without hesitation. his step was the logical consequence of a decisive choice that his heart had made – that Jesus Christ was the incarnate God. Everything else followed accordingly: both the miracles witnessed by the Gospels and the suspicion that the miracles proclaimed by individual Christians and the Church could often be no more than self-interested manifestations of hypocrisy. . Jacopone’s consistency in faith, excluding the more or less imaginative stories about saints, miracles and holiness, is crystal clear.
If anyone today considers Jacopone’s mysticism ancient and outdated, it is because they don’t know how to look with a clear eye at the contradictions of today’s society and Church.
SECONDLEVEL OF THE MYSTICAL JOURNEY:TAMING EMOTIONS AND RELYING DEFINITIVELY ON GOD
After the renunciation of wealth, power, cultural prestige and reputation for holiness …Jacopone’s mystical journey involves overcoming an even more difficult obstacle: mastering the deepest emotional instincts: fear, hope, grief and happiness.
Quattro venti move ’l mare,
La vertù non è perchene
Four winds move the sea,
Stripping oneself of these four
Your virtue is not the cause of your salvation
Verses 32 and 33 express a striking concept: neither to fear Hell nor to hope in Heaven. We can imagine the impression this statement made on some representatives of the Church of Jacopone’s time, who based their message to the faithful on the threat of Hell and the promise of Heaven: indulgences, prayers for the dead, bequests to the Church for intercessory masses…
On a careful reading of the Gospels, Jesus never shows a particular interest in Hell. He speaks of it only marginally, using completely traditional phrases. His message is not threatening, but “good news”. At the time of Jacopone, the church had adopted the Dies irae for the funeral rites of the dead, which strictly speaking should be considered blasphemous, since anger is a capital sin that cannot be ascribed to God.
A few years after Jacopone’s death, Dante imagined that over the gates of Hell was written “Abandon hope, all you who enter”, words that can be spoken lightly only when a priori we are not included in those to whom they refer. Dante was a great poet, so great as to convince the Church to speak of him as an exemplary Christian, but he contributed hugely to giving us a weird image of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell. This story, inventing Hell, Purgatory and Heaven to reward his friends and shame his enemies – in short, this ridiculous imitation of God’s judgment – would not have pleased Jacopone. If he had known of it (which was not possible, as the Divine Comedy was published after Jacopone’s death) perhaps he would have advised the great Florentine not to joke with these matters. Who knows what flashes of controversy would be born from these two spirits, so full of strength, logic and imagination!
Jacopone essentially concludes: when you have emptied your heart of the impediments of the ego and filled it with the love of God, do not worry about Hell and Heaven – indeed, do not worry about anything. Such thinking has profound resonances in Christian spirituality. Saint Augustine, one of Jacopone’s most loved references, had written centuries earlier: «… Once and for all, then, a brief precept is given to you: Love, and do what you want. If you are silent, be silent with love; if you speak, speak with love; if you correct, correct with love; if you forgive, forgive with love. The root of love must be within; nothing but good can come forth from this root »
And little Therese of Lisieux, centuries after Jacopone, wrote: «The fire of love is more sanctifying than that of Purgatory». Eight centuries had to pass after Jacopone’s death before the Church found the strength to cry out “Don’t be afraid!” with John Paul II.
THIRD LEVEL OF THE MYSTICAL JOURNEY:GIVE UP THE PRESUMPTION OF KNOWING THE TRUTH
In the last part of the laud, through paradoxes and declarations of inability to express himself, Jacopone says that perfect humility overturns and contradicts everything our mind is used to believing, because “God’s thoughts are not my thoughts, his ways are not my ways” (Isaiah 55, 8)
This is certainly the highest step of the mystical journey: where one renounces judging, recognizing oneself as incapable of knowing the truth of God, the True One.
Lo terzo ciel è de più altura,
Da onne ben sì t’ha spogliato,
Questo cielo è fabrecato,
Che che te parea non è,
Questo cielo ha nome “none”:
Onne luce è tenebrìa,
Vivere eo e non eo,
The third heaven is the highest,
When you have stripped yourself of all good
This heaven is built
What seemed real to you is not ,
This sky is called “no”:
I live but it’s not me,
These verses express an idea, a sentiment that illuminates Jacopone’s mysticism, upsetting every perception but causing him to perceive infinite beauty in the perfect annihilation of self. Arguably, few scholars have grasped the unique value of this testimony. The most concrete and striking connection is contained in verse 47: “the proud are in heaven/ and the humble are damned”. The autobiographical reference is inescapable: Jacopone had identified with apparently humble people and had clashed with apparently proud people. Now, having stripped himself of the prejudices and comfortable assumptions of the past, contemplation reveals to him a reality quite the opposite of what he had believed and poetry arises from his inspiration with the same thrilling eruption of his spiritual perception:
All light is darkness,
and all darkness is light …
This experience is directly connected to that of his imprisonment, in which he had plumbed the lowest depths of humiliation, but, at the same time and for that very reason, the greatest strength of spirit that launched him towards the “highest heaven”.
In this final phase of the mystical journey one is finally able to understand and carry out a very difficult commandment of Jesus, the most difficult for a strong-willed and critical character like Jacopone:“Do not judge and you will not be judged; do not condemn and you will not be condemned”(Luke 6:37). This call from Jacopone is directed to each of us.
Let’s try to understand each other: what we declare as truth may be false and what we condemn as guilt may perhaps hide a larger conformity to God’s plan. Jesus repeated this concept to himself in every way. Jacopone’s poem calls all of us to a serious reconsideration of our manifestations of approval and disapproval.
Couldn’t Jacopone’s conclusion be, perhaps, the most genuine sign of holiness?
CONCLUSION: POVERTY MEANS FREEDOM…
This lauda is like a symphony that gradually swells in tone and timbre before eventually reaching the thunderous finale of the last verse, capable of occupying all the frequencies of our ideals, our thoughts and our emotions:
Poverty is owning nothing
and wanting nothing,
and possessing everything
in a spirit of freedom
“Poverty means Freedom!” Saint Paul said:“The Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom(2 Cor 3, 17)”. By this “we do not mean only a freedom from guilt, law and death, but also a freedom to act, for a life of gratitude, hope and joy” (Hans Küng)
Free yourself from the confines of the ego, give up judging and finally offer yourself, unburdened and free, to love. This is the goal of Jacopone’s mysticism, as of any religion and also of every agnostic or atheistic person who place themselves with humility, generosity and empathy at the service of others. Jesus repeated this recommendation endlessly:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matteo 5,3)
and, let me say with Jacopone,
theirs also is true freedom on this earth
Claudio Peri, December 18, 2021