Saint Francis of Assisi stepped out into a world being recast by the emerging market economy. He lived amid a decaying old order in which his father was greedily buying up the small farms of debtors and moving quickly into the new entrepreneurial class. Francis stepped into a church that seems to have been largely out of touch with the masses. He trusted a deeper voice and a bigger truth. He sought one clear center and moved out from there.
His one clear centerpiece was the Incarnate Jesus. Francis understood everything else from that personalized reference point. Like Archimedes, Francis had found his one firm spot on which to stand and from which he could move his world. He did this in at least three clear ways.
First, he walked into the prayer-depths of his own tradition, as opposed to mere religious repetition of old formulas. Second, he sought direction in the mirror of creation itself, as opposed to mental and fabricated ideas or ideals. Third, and most radically, he looked to the underside of his society, to the community of those who had suffered, for an understanding of how God transforms us. In other words, he found depth and breadth—and a process to keep us there.
The depth was an inner life where all shadow, mystery, and paradox were confronted, accepted, and forgiven. Here, he believed God could be met in fullness and truth. The breadth was the actual world itself, a sacramental universe. It was not the ideal, the churchy, or the mental, but the right-in-front-of-us-and-everywhere—the actual as opposed to the ideal.
Francis also showed us the process for staying there—the daring entrance into the world of human powerlessness. His chosen lens was what he called “poverty” and, of course, he was only imitating Jesus. He set out to read reality through the eyes and authority of those who have suffered and been rejected—and come out resurrected. This is apparently the privileged seeing that allows us to know something that we can know in no other way. It is the unique baptism with which Jesus says we must all be baptized (see Mark 10:39). My assumption is that this is the baptism that transforms. It is larger than any religion or denomination. It is taught by the Spirit in and through reality itself.
We can argue doctrinally about many aspects of Jesus’s life and teaching, but we cannot say he was not a poor man, or that he did not favor the perspective from the bottom as a privileged viewpoint. All other heady arguments about Jesus must deal with this overwhelming fact. Francis did. This perspective became his litmus test for all orthodoxy and for ongoing transformation into God.
For Francis, the true “I” had, first of all, to be discovered and realigned (the prayer journey into the True Self). Then he had to experience himself situated inside of a meaning-filled cosmos (a sacramental universe). Finally, he had to be poor (to be able to read reality from the side of powerlessness).
Francis taught us, therefore, that the antidote to confusion and paralysis is always a return to simplicity, to what is actually right in front of us, to the nakedly obvious. Somehow, he had the genius to reveal what was hidden in plain sight.