I’ve been spending a lot of time with St. Francis of Assisi lately, thanks to a book project.
The thinking I’ve been doing has been shaped by Fr. Augustine Thompson’s biography of the saint (first reviewed here) as well as studying and contemplating the writings we can credibly attribute to him.
I just have a few thoughts here – some I made in that earlier post. I’m doing this mostly for my own sake – to make sense out of all the notes and thoughts I have.
Bullet points for brevity’s sake.
- Francis didn’t have a plan. He did not set out to form a band of brothers – at all. His conversion was a personal one, and the life he lead for the first couple of years after it was the life of a penitent, pure and simple.
- What was his conversion, exactly? This actually is a knottier problem than we assume. It wasn’t simply rejecting a life of relative wealth for a life lived in solidarity with the poor, through Christ. In fact, well, it doesn’t seem to be fundamentally about that at all.
- Francis doesn’t say much about this at all himself. He refers to being “in his sins.” After his traumatic battle experiences, Christ drew him closer, he abandoned all for Christ, lived as a rather sketchy hermit-type penitent on the outskirts of Assisi, and then, in a crucial moment, encountered a leper.
- As he describes it himself, lepers had been figures of particular horror to him when he was “in his sins.” But now, God intervened, converted him, and the leper became a person through whom Francis experienced peace and consolation.
- Francis sought to do penance, live the Gospel and be a servant. He did not intend to draw followers, but did, and their initial way of life was simply living in this same way, only in community.
- It wasn’t until their form of life was approved by Pope Innocent that preaching entered the picture – it was an element that the Pope threw into his approval. This was a surprise to Francis.
Okay, break time.
To me, this is most fascinating because, as I mentioned in the other blog post, when we read history, we often read it with the eyes of inevitability. As in: everything unfolds according to intention and human plan. Just as it is with life in general, this is not the way history is, and it’s not the way the life of Francis was – well, not according to his plan. For he didn’t have one.
But this interesting turn of events shows how the Spirit shakes us up and turns us in a slightly different direction from where we thought we were going. It happened to Francis. He adapted, shakily and slowly. It happens to us.
Back to bullet points.
- When you actually read Francis’ writings, you don’t see some things that you might expect. You don’t, for example, read a lot of directives about serving the poor. You don’t see any general condemnations of wealth. You don’t read a call for all people, everywhere, to live radically according to the evangelical counsels.
- You do read these sorts of things – although not exactly – in the early guidelines for the friars and the few letters to fellow friars that have come down to us.
- But surprisingly, it’s not what is emphasized. So what is?
- When Francis wrote about Christ embracing poverty, what he speaks of is Christ descending from the glory of heaven and embracing mortal flesh – an act - the ultimate embrace of poverty – not just material poverty, but spiritual poverty – the ultimate act of obedience.
- Through this act of obedience, Christ is revealed as the Servant of all.
- So, as Francis writes many times, his call was to imitate Christ in this respect: to empty himself and become the lowly servant of all. To conquer everything that is the opposite: pride, self-regard, the desire for position or pleasure.
- Francis wrote that the primary enemy in this battle is our “lower nature.” He wrote that the only thing we can claim for ourselves are our vices and all we have to boast about is Christ.
- Francis also emphasized proper celebration and reception of the Eucharist – quite a bit. He had a lot to say about proper and worthy vessels and settings for the celebration of Mass. He was somewhat obsessed with respectful treatment of paper on which might be written the Divine Names or prayers. He prescribed how the friars were to pray the Office.
- The early preaching of the Franciscans was in line with all of this as well as other early medieval penitential preaching: the call to the laity to confess, receive the Eucharist worthily, and to turn from sin.
- Praise God. Whatever the circumstances – and especially “bad” circumstances – praise God.
- Accept persecution. It’s interesting that Francis routinely resisted church authorities affording his order any privileges or even writing them letters allowing them to preach in a certain vicinity. He felt that if they entered an area and were rejected, this was simply accepting the Cross of Christ, and should not be avoided.
- Begging was not a core value for Francis, as we are often led to believe. He and his friars did manual labor. In the early days, begging was only allowed on behalf of sick and ailing brothers, and then only for things like food. No money, ever.
- He really didn’t like telling people what to do. Well, my theory was that he actually did – what we know about his personality, pre-conversion, indicates that he was a born leader. Perhaps his post-conversion mode was not only an imitation of the Servant, but a recognition that his “lower nature” included a propensity to promote himself and direct others.
- That said, Francis’ emphasis on servanthood meant that his writings don’t contain directions for others beyond what the Gospel says (repent/Eat the Bread of Life) unless he’s forced to – when composing a form of life and so on. This tension, along with ambiguities in the Franciscan life, made for a very interesting post-Francis history, along with problems during his own lifetime as well.
To me, Francis is a compelling spiritual figure not simply because he lived so radically, but, ironically, because the course of his life seems so normal.
Because he had a life. That life was disrupted, and the disruption changed him. Disoriented him. He found a re-orientation in Christ: he found the wellspring of forgiveness for his sins and the grace to conquer them (a lifetime struggle). His actions had consequences, most of which were totally unintended by him, and to which he had to adapt, as he sought to be obedient to God. His personality and gifts were well-equipped to deal with some of the new and changing circumstances in his life, and ill-equipped for others. He died, praising God.
Yes, Francis was all about poverty. All about it. He was about the poverty of Christ, who was obedient and emptied himself.