Many people have lost heart today because we feel confused and powerless. The “powers and principalities” seem overwhelming: consumerism, racism, militarism, patriarchy, climate change, the corporate juggernaut. We feel helpless to choose our own lives, much less a common life, or to see any overarching meaning. The world is so complex, and we are so small. What can we do but let the waves of history carry us and try to keep afloat somehow?
Maybe we can at least look for some patterns, or for those who found the patterns. Let’s turn to a 13th-century Italian who has one of the longest bibliographies of anyone in history: Saint Francis of Assisi. His simple wisdom has attracted many cultures and religions and continues to resonate 800 years later.
Saint Francis stepped out into a world being recast by the emerging market economy and ongoing conflict. His father was greedily buying up the small farms of debtors, moving into a new entrepreneurial class. Europe was engulfed in multiple crusades, and the world was obsessed with war, fear, and security. The Church seemed to be largely out of touch with ordinary people. But Francis trusted a deeper voice and a bigger truth. He sought one clear center—the Incarnate Jesus—and moved out from there.
Francis understood everything from this personalized reference point and followed Jesus in at least three clear ways. First, Francis delved into the contemplative prayer depths of his own tradition, as opposed to mere repetition of tired formulas. Second, he sought direction in the mirror of creation rather than intellectual and fabricated ideas. Third, and most radically, he looked to the underside of his society, to the suffering, for an understanding of how God transforms us.
For Francis, the true “I” first had to be discovered and realigned (the prayer journey into the True Self). He then had to experience himself situated inside of a meaning-filled cosmos (a sacramental universe). Francis prayed: “Who are you, God? And who am I?” Finally, in imitation of Jesus, Francis chose poverty as his honest lens to see reality. He valued the authority of those who have “suffered and been rejected” and, with Jesus, come out resurrected.
In the beginning of the Franciscan Rule, Francis wrote, “The Rule and the life of the Friars Minor is to simply live the Gospel.” In fact, the first Rule that he started writing around 1209 is basically a collection of quotes from the New Testament. When Francis took it to Rome, the pope looked at it and said, “This is no Rule. This is just the Gospel.” I can hear Francis replying, “Yes . . . that is the point. It is just the Gospel. We don’t need any other Rule except the Gospel!” To be a Franciscan is nothing other than always searching for “the marrow of the Gospel,” as he called it.
When Francis read the beatitudes, Jesus’ inaugural discourse, he saw that the call to be poor stood right at the beginning: “How blessed are the poor in spirit!” (Mt 5:3). Henceforward, Francis’ reading of the Gospel considered poverty to be “the foundation of all other virtues and their guardian.” The other virtues receive the kingdom only in promise; poverty, however, is invested with heaven now, without delay. Notice how Jesus uses the present tense: “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
As a result, Franciscan spirituality has never been an abstraction. It is grounded in Jesus’ specific instructions to his disciples, not ideology or denominational certitudes. Francis’ living of the Gospel was just that: simple lifestyle. It was the Incarnation continuing in space and time. It was being Jesus more than just worshipping Jesus. At its best, Franciscan life is not words or even ethics. It is flesh—naked flesh—unable to deny its limitations, unable to cover its wounds. Francis called this inner nakedness “poverty.”
Francis did not want his friars to preach salvation (although they did that too) as much as he wanted them to be salvation. He wanted them to model and mirror the life of Jesus in the world, with all of the vulnerability that would entail. Today, many people use the phrase “preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words” to describe Francis’ focus on living authentically and creating real change.
Francis found a way out of the world of comparison, competition, greed, and the violence that comes with it. He felt that he had to live in close proximity to and even in solidarity with the excluded ones in his society. If we are not marginalized ourselves in some way, we normally need to associate with some marginalized group to have an enlightened Gospel perspective and to be converted to compassion. Jesus himself both lived and taught this “preferential option for the poor.”
Francis literally changed sides or teams. He was raised in upper Assisi, as one of those who considered themselves the majores, or upper class. In the lower part of town lived the minores, or lower class. Francis moved even further down, into the plain below Assisi where there was a leper colony, the excluded ones.
Members of religious communities usually place initials after their names to indicate their particular order. We Franciscans use OFM, Ordo Fratum Minorum—Latin for “the little brothers,” or the “Order of the Minor Brothers.” Francis told us to move down the social class ladder. We were not to identify with the climb toward success, power, and money. We were to be mendicants or beggars.
Francis resisted priesthood because, I believe, he was deeply aware of all that invariably comes with priestly ordination (education, titles, privilege, respect, income, special clothing, and the need to protect the establishment or institution). He wanted his followers to be “blue-collar” ministers who lived close to the people in every way rather than “white-collar” superiors. However, Francis was not long in his grave before the Church started ordaining as many Franciscan men as possible—who soon wore stiff white Roman collars. It gave us access, credibility, status, and stipends in academia, Church, and society. I know that it was probably inevitable, and not all bad, but it is indeed dangerous for the soul.
For Saint Francis, “poverty” and “penance” were not some kind of dark asceticism but a proactive, free leap into the problem. It is the same freedom that we see in Jesus when he says, “You are not taking my life from me; I am laying it down freely” (Jn 10:18). In the opening words of his “Testament,” Francis writes:
“The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards I delayed a little and then left the world.”
Francis’ phrase “left the world” did not mean leaving creation, but leaving what we might call the “system.” Francis left business as usual and lived in a radically different way. He decided to focus on alleviating the needs and suffering of others instead of self-advancement. Most of our decisions are usually based on personal, egoistic preference and choice. This is the life we are called to leave, the self that Jesus says must die to fall into our larger life or True Self. This brings freedom from the self, which is precisely freedom for the world, a freedom that is counter to our Western notion.
Imagine how different Western history and religion could have been if we had walked so tenderly and lovingly upon the earth, as Francis and Jesus did. Imagine what the world would be like if we treated others with inherent and equal dignity and respect, seeing the divine presence, the imago Dei, in ourselves and everyone else, too—regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, nationality, appearance, or social class. Nothing less offers the world any lasting future.
As he lay dying, Francis said, “I have done what is mine; may Christ teach you what is yours!” We can only change the world insofar as we have changed ourselves. We can only give away who we are. We can only offer to others what God has done in us. Francis walked the journey himself and thus he could lead others along the path. The cosmos is mirrored in the microcosm of a healed and healing life.
If we let the mystery happen in one small and true place, it moves from there! It is contagious; it is shareable; it reshapes the world. Both Jesus and Francis had no pragmatic social agenda for reform. They just moved outside the system of illusion, more by ignoring it than fighting it and quite simply doing it better. They knew that the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. Jesus and Francis moved to a much larger place that we call holiness/wholeness in God, and from there they could deal kindly with all smaller and confined places. Nothing threatened them; everything elated them, reflecting their own infinite abundance.
Don’t waste any time dividing the world into the good guys and the bad guys. Hold them both together in your own soul—where they are anyway—and you will have held together the whole world. You will have overcome the great divide in one place of spacious compassion.
Francis of Assisi must have known, at least intuitively, that there is only one enduring spiritual insight and everything else follows from it: The visible world is an active doorway to the invisible world, and the invisible world is much larger than the visible. This is the mystery of Incarnation, the essential union of the material and the spiritual worlds—or simply “Christ.”
Our outer world and its inner significance must come together for there to be any wholeness—and holiness. The result is both deep joy and a resounding sense of coherent beauty. What was personified in the body of Jesus was a manifestation of this one universal truth: Matter is, and has always been, the hiding place for Spirit, forever offering itself to be discovered anew. Perhaps this is exactly what Jesus means when he says, “I am the gate” (Jn 10:7). Francis and Clare carried this mystery to its full and lovely conclusions. Or, more rightly, they were fully carried by it. They somehow knew that the beyond was not really beyond, but in the depths of here. Francis’ biographer, Thomas of Celano, wrote, “Often, without moving his lips, [Francis] would meditate within himself and, drawing external things within himself, he would lift his spirit to higher things.”
All we need is right here and right now—in this world. This is the way to that! Heaven includes earth. Time opens us up to the timeless; space opens us up to spacelessness, if we only take them for the clear doorways that they are. There are not sacred and profane things, places, and moments. There are only sacred and desecrated things, places, and moments—and it is we alone who desecrate them by our blindness and lack of reverence. It is one sacred universe, and we are all a part of it.