One cannot avoid thinking about St Francis (San Francesco) here in Assisi, so to make that part of our time here more enjoyable I plotted to read three books beginning with Augustine Thompson’s fantastic biography/study, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography. Rick, a friend, gave me Ian Morgan Cron’s Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale, and then I recently received Franciscan John Michael Talbot’s joyous and very Franciscan take on music called The Master Musician: Meditations on Jesus [I’d have said Meditations on a sacramental or iconic view of music]. Alongside these I’ve read The Writings of Saint Francis, a collection of his two orders (1221, 1223) and some of his other reflections and meditations and exhortations. Then I noticed Richard Rohr’s recent post introducing St Francis, all of which lead me to a reflection on the Franciscan Way. (I’m no expert so I expect to be adjusting this over time.)
It is perhaps known to many of us that many stories (ahem, legends and tales and fantasies told so well in The Little Flowers of St Francis) have been told about St Francis and that is why a solid, historical-critical study of Francis needs to be read — and Thompson’s biography is just that. It is a splendid study shaped by a solid methodology and wise cautions, while not at all skeptical. I recommend it highly.
While in Assisi, of course, one visits both Santa Chiara’s church and San Francesco’s basilica, as well as the place of their baptism up the hill a bit, at San Rufino. Plus, if one has legs for it (which we did, once), walk down the hill to San Damiano to see where both Francis got his call and where Clare and her sisters took up residence for their ministries. With the relics that have survived in tact from the days of Francis and Clare it is not hard to get a realistic view of at least how they dressed and what kind of prayer books they used and how central the Eucharist and the church were to them both.
It is the appropriation of Francis that shapes much of the world, and much of that appropriate — as Thompson makes clear — goes well beyond the historical Francis but extends and expands Francis’ original vision. I begin then with Ian Morgan Cron, who tells in this novel the story of a megachurch pastor who collapsed under the weight of the consumerism and pace of megachurch-dom, recalled he had a Franciscan uncle named Kenny, and spent time in Assisi absorbing the Franciscan Way — which he summarizes at the end of the book as the pastor returns home to re-establish his own spiritual life, vocation as a pastor and all in a new kind of church. Here are his five themes:
Each of which is found in (the historical) Francis and each of which is shaped by Cron toward “translation” of Francis for (progressive) American Christianity and church life, but which can be compared rather fruitfully with Richard Rohr’s progressive approach to Francis:
Francis did not wish for himself or his followers to be priests, to take higher places on the Church’s hierarchical ladder of education, prestige, and power. Francis was apparently ordained a deacon, but only under pressure, because he never talks about it. The mark of a true Franciscan heart is devotion to the Gospel, regardless of title, group, or official status. These hallmarks of the Secular Franciscan Order (from the “For Up To Now” Manual) can be claimed and practiced by anyone:
- Simplicity: “There is no pretense in the Franciscan Spirituality. We who live by the Rule of St. Francis strive to be the genuine article, that is, people who do not care much for fame or wealth–people who live in simplicity.”
- Poverty: “Love of Gospel poverty develops confidence in the Father and creates internal freedom.”
- Humility: “The truth of what and who we really are in the eyes of God; freedom from pride and arrogance.”
- A genuine sense of minority: “The recognition that we are servants, not superior to anyone.”
- A complete and active abandonment to God: “Trusting in God’s unconditional love.”
- Conversion: “Daily we begin again the process of changing to be more like Jesus.”
- Transformation: “What God does for us, when we are open and willing.”
- Peacemaking: “We are messengers of peace as Francis was.”
Re-read these qualities of a Franciscan and discern if you are called to live in such a way, making the Gospel the very core of your day-to-day doings and being. What is yours to do?
The Third Order of Franciscans have the expectation of a personal order for life that includes each of these elements:
The Personal Rule of Life will normally include some commitment, clearly stated, in each of the following areas: 1. The Holy Eucharist 5. Retreat 2. Penitence 6. Study 3. Personal Prayer 7. Simplicity 4. Self Denial 8. Work 9. Obedience.
The Secular or Ecumenical Franciscans have these expectations of a personal order:
As members of the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans we covenant to draw up and live by a Personal Rule of Life based on the Rule of this Order and falling into these disciplines: Worship, Prayer, Penitence, Work, Lifestyle, Mission, Obedience, Community. We shall always be under supervision and accountable to an advisor.
Reading Thompson alongside The Writings of Saint Francis led me to see more of the historical Francis, who of course was not a modern progressive or a modern evangelical or a modern Catholic or any of the modern appropriations of his original vision. Each of these groups can learn to appropriate Francis and the Franciscan Way, but that historical Francis lived an inimitable life of radical austerity and commitment to walk in the way of poverty, obedience, chastity, obedience, and service.
So as I read the books the following characteristics of Francis rose to the surface:
1. Eucharist. You probably know the conversion story of Francis — he moved from Assisi’s party boy to Assisi’s protest boy, stripped himself near what is now the Piazza del Comune, walked away from his father’s wealth, and started to serve the poor in a life radically devoted to God in the way of Jesus. Much of this was a protest against consumerism and opulence. But the one noticeable item of indulgence Francis had was his Eucharist chalice and paten. The one element of his life that permitted a sign of extravagance was Eucharist. The first item in Francis’ exhortations was about daily participation in Eucharist. There is no Francis without being Eucharistic. Thus, sin is big for Francis, and so is confession of sin, and so too is forgiveness in Christ.
A note here: the Eucharistic focus of Francis created, along with the freedom flowing from #4 below (radical detachment from goods), the joyous life of the Franciscans. Joy, then, is part of Francis’ identity, even if he struggled himself with forms of (probably) depression. There is an artist in Assisi named Norberto whose paintings are full of extraordinary joy in how he depicts both Assisi and the friars. This captures the heart of Francis, and hence John Michael Talbot’s book on music, which sees in all elements of music iconic breakthroughs into the spiritual life, which ties to Francis’ love of nature and seeing God in all of nature…. I see Talbot’s little book as a clear path into the Franciscan Way.
A second note on Eucharist: the Franciscan Way is a way of daily devotion/prayer in the order of the prayer book or the practice of the hours, however many are kept (I don’t know the answer to this one).
2. Mary. Kris and I have been in a number of Italian cities and villages, especially in the hill towns of Tuscany and Umbria, and one thing we’ve observed is a high presence of Mary. While Assisi is less Marian than most of these villages that we have seen, Francis and Clare were devoted to Mary. Most modern appropriations — especially on the Protestant side (naturally) — lack any of Francis’ attentive devotion to Mary. (Fine with me.) But the real Francis and Clare were Marian in spirituality.
3. Catholicism and its sense of authority were prominent in Francis. From the very beginning Francis both needed and in some ways sought papal approval of the Franciscan Way, and in 1223 (he was 41 or 42 by that time and nearly two decades into his conversion life and not long before his death in 1226) he was granted the official papal status as an Order. While Francis was radically subversive when it came to exercising authority — and he made a mess of it at times, was mostly a bad administrator, but his charisma and surrounding brothers and sisters carried the day for him — he lived under and within the Roman Catholic system of authority and hierarchy. There is no genuine Franciscanism apart from participation in the Roman Catholic Church. (I’m not saying he can’t be appropriated for his other contributions, but at the core Francis is Catholic through and through.) Yes, I’m aware that Cunningham (in Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life) has made the case that Francis was the “first Protestant,” and I like the orientation since he was calling the flabby Catholic Church of the time to revival, personal discipleship, and to genuine obedience. But in the end Francis was not Luther; he submitted and Luther did not.
This sense of authority and order is appropriated today in all forms of the Franciscan Way, including the secular Franciscans, by having a spiritual mentor/advisor or director under whom and with whom one dwells.
Speaking of Church: I have attached here a picture of the Portiuncola which, along with San Damiano, was one of the churches Francis restored and which became the center of the Franciscan Way in his lifetime. Later in his life they had annual Chapter meetings here at Pentecost.
4. What is perhaps most noticeable about Francis’ life is his radical detachment from possessions, money, pleasure, et al. One could say that this distinguished him because it was here that made his own conversion break and it is this detachment that Francis required for all brothers and sisters. This has been reduced to three central themes or evangelical (gospel life) vows: obedience, poverty/simplicity, and purity/chastity.
In this element about Francis there is a radical scrupulosity and rigor and asceticism, perhaps even obsessiveness (Adrian House, Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life) to the point of bodily harm (Thompson, however, avoids this theme of bodily harm). What is undeniable is that Francis believed in non-ownership, non-connection to any kind of money, refusal to accept money and prohibition of his friars from raising money… though he was more than happy to receive the good foods folks offered him because they were to receive in joy what was set before them. Again, this theme forms the core of his vision since he was protesting the opulence and indulgences and materialism of his day. Protest against consumerism is a core way of appropriating one element of the Franciscan Way. To compensate for their detachment, Francis and the early friars also were committed to manual labor in order to provide for themselves and others. (Francis was himself a bit edgy about a life of study.)
A note: Radical detachment is not isolated in Francis but is the symbol of radical commitment to follow the express commands of Jesus. So, here we need to see his theme of discipleship-as-self-denial and it is in his discipleship vision that many today can learn to appropriate the Franciscan Way.
To develop this only slightly, but the radical detachment from goods or possessions is also a radical detachment from worldliness, from war, from warring — in other words, central to Franciscan spirituality is peacemaking or radical unprotectedness. This is where perhaps we should consider his asceticism, seen for example in the haircloth of his that has been preserved.
5. Only then does care for the poor make sense, and so compassion for the poor and commitment to social justice is inherent to the Franciscan Way. To be sure, for Francis and Clare without 1-4, 5 is hollow but this element of Francis’ life shaped his entire way of being. He was constantly concerned about lepers (and some think he may have contracted leprosy; Thompson suspects he got malaria on his trip to Egypt) and had a ministry to them and to all the poor (he was one of them, after all). While the larger themes of activism for social justice through governmental programs is beyond what Francis himself was involved in — he did speak to and against leaders of the Spoleto Valley who did not concern themselves with the poor — that kind of social justice commitment today is entirely expressive of the Franciscan Way.
Points 4 and 5 of course are the favorites of modern appropriations of Francis, but the real article knew that 4 and 5 flowed from 1-3.
Over to you, what do you think? I like dimensions of #1, #4’s theme of discipleship, and #5 but both for in the church and then extending it into the world. I have learned much from Francis, how about you?