Franciscan spirituality boldly puts a big exclamation point behind Jesus’s words that “The last will be first and the first will be last!” and Paul’s “When I am weak I am strong!” Upside-downness is at the heart of our message, always prompting us to look more deeply and broadly. is opens up our eyes to recognize God’s self-giving at the far edges where most of us cannot or will not see God, such as other religions, any who are defined as outsider or sinner, and even to the far edge of our seeing, toward those who are against us—our so-called enemies.
In fact, truth, love, and beauty are most beautifully found at the lowest, weakest, and most concrete possible levels, like in a frog, a fugitive, or what others might call a freak. You have to accept God’s divine freedom to see this way! You must grow up to your full stature to find the full stature of God (Ephesians 4:13). Small souls are incapable of knowing a great God, and great souls are never satisfied with a small or stingy God. You have to become conscious yourself, and then all things will be beautiful.
Seeming absence, ironically, becomes the deepest recognition of presence, because it is thus awaited and needed. The entire world is indeed sacramental and mediates the message, and yet it is hidden in such a way that only the humble and honest—and suffering—will find it. Saint Bonaventure said that an uneducated washer woman could, without even knowing it, be much closer to God than a doctor in theology such as himself.
Francis’s own intuitive wisdom did not come from the outside or the top, but from deep inside him, because he allowed his heart to be broken and poor, especially when his vision for the friars was largely abandoned in his own lifetime. It is there that God can most loudly speak—which is really a constant Biblical theme, reaching its apogee in Jesus’s inaugural line “How blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3).
Note also how Francis was able to trust his own limited, formally uneducated, and simple human experience to know what he then knew with such calm conviction. Very early on, for example, when the friars were already being invited to dine with bishops and serve as court chaplains to cardinals, he strongly speaks against accepting these gracious invitations and says “You are thus being drawn away from the womb of your mother.” Now if he really said this, he is either anti-social, holier than thou, or he quietly knows what his core God experience demands. There is no secondhand knowledge of God for Francis and Clare. The best window to knowledge is through “the crack in everything,” as Leonard Cohen puts it. Francis wanted us to stay close to the cracks in the social fabric, and not to ensconce ourselves at the safe, even churchy, center. Not only were we Franciscans not to be prelates in the church, but we should not hobnob there too much. You tend to think like those with whom you party.