Every day, millions of middle-class Americans feel trapped. Behind every McMansion and white picket fence, there’s someone who feels like a prisoner in their own life, desperate to remember what being free feels like.
It sounds ridiculous. Compared to the 2.8 billion people (almost half the world’s population) that live on less than $2 a day, American suburbanites live like kings and queens. We have food, shelter, clean water, access to healthcare — everything we need to live happy, productive lives.
But a gilded cage is still a cage.
Mortgages, credit card payments, student loan debts and a hundred other expenses form the bars of our jail cells. Freedom sounds great, but changing directions is next to impossible because there are too many bills to pay and leaving your job to try something new isn’t financially viable.
Clare of Assisi and the secret to being free
In the 13th century, an 18-year-old Italian noblewoman heard Francis of Assisi preach and made the decision to follow him in a life of prayer, humility and devotion to God. She called herself Clare and with the help of Francis, she founded a religious order called the “Poor Ladies of San Damiano.”
Clare and the other women in her order dedicated themselves to a lifestyle of joyous poverty, in imitation of Christ. But there was a problem: Clare’s radical commitment to a life of poverty went against the grain of society.
Why? Because at the time, those kinds of religious orders were subsidized by wealthy donors, bishops and other elites. And the subsidies came with strings attached:
By showering orders and convents with monetary gifts, wealthy and influential men exerted control over the female religious —financial leverage that kept women from making decisions for themselves and claiming ownership of their own destinies.
So, in her role as abbess, Clare petitioned the Pope to grant her order the “Privilege of Poverty,” a decree saying that the order could never be forced to accept possessions or endowments.
After waiting years for a response, Pope Gregory IX finally granted Clare’s request, just two days before her death. But her order continued and today, it’s known as the Poor Clares.
What we can learn about freedom from Clare of Assisi
Clare saw that freedom and finances are connected. On a practical level, she understood the frustration of the gilded cage and the incompatibility of affluence and truly being free. When it comes to freedom, Clare knew that less really is more:
The key to being free isn’t more money and possessions, it’s less.
More importantly, Clare realized that an abundance of possessions — and the economic systems that create them — can hold us back from living the life God intends for us. By simplifying and downsizing our lives, we regain our freedom one step at a time.
Instead of being controlled by other people, being free from possessions and payments allows us to experience the joy of placing control of our lives and our destinies in God’s hands.
Be warned: Reducing possessions isn’t a popular concept, especially in the suburbs — Ground Zero for consumer culture. Depending on how radical you get, your efforts could cause your friends and family members to wonder if you’ve lost your mind.
But that’s okay. They thought the same thing about Clare and Francis and even Jesus.
And they turned out just fine.