To Kenneth Clark he is the greatest figure in medieval Europe. The double church dedicated to his memory in Assisi is one of the premier achievements of Christian architecture. His prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace”, has moved into the mainstream of popular culture, and frequently appears on greeting cards.
Yet he himself left no major writings, nor a major building. His one tangible achievement is the Franciscan Order, which flourishes to this day but which divided over the issue of poverty in his own lifetime and nearly foundered after his death. Even his legacy as a visionary has undergone change. We tend to sentimentalize him, even trivialize him. The very image of Francis preaching to winged creatures suggests child-like naivete. He’s “for the birds”, and we needn’t take him seriously.
Perhaps this is the way of all those who have the most profound visions, those whose visions are not so much beyond our grasp as too deeply disturbing to our sense of order – both the order of the world as we perceive it and our own habitual, ordered identity.
Such figures need not be conscious revolutionaries in order to shake the foundations by their gift of insight. Sometimes – and here Francis excelled among all other medieval, and perhaps modern, figures – the visionary sees reality, through all apparent complexities, in its stark simplicity. “E=MC2.” “There is but one God and Allah is his name.” “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God.”
Leave All and Follow Me
The simplicity of Francis’ vision, if not as grandiose, has the equal power to disturb: leave all, and follow me. The reach of this vision goes beyond a challenge to the rising capitalism of medieval Europe. It extends to all, whether individual or group, who possess anything more than the essentials. It speaks to peace, to service, to care of the earth and one another.
How interesting, I thought at first, that Bill Avery should ask for an essay on Francis. Now I realize that his instincts were right. Francis speaks most of all to stewardship.
Born in 1181 or 1182 to a well-to-do cloth merchant, Francis was a spirited youth who saw considerable action as a knight. Knighthood constituted a class of warriors who became enamored with the combination of sword and Christian service, with ritual induction and a code of living, and above all with “chivalry”, which we associate with the rescue or assistance of women, especially one’s chosen lady.
Francis, however, did not reach his Damascus Road all of a sudden, but in successive stages. First, on a pilgrimage to Rome he was deeply moved by the city’s beggars – perhaps a feeling akin to one’s first sight of street-people within the shadow of our nation’s capitol; and yet for Francis, the moment was fraught with conviction, the conviction of being a person of means standing before a person who is poor; a “have” before a “have-not.” Even further removed from our ordinary response, Francis spent a day begging with them. The experience changed his life.
Francis: Turning Around
Nevertheless, the time of new beginnings was not complete. After considerable soul-searching, he returned to Assisi, there to renounce his former life.
As a gesture of his conversion, his “turning around” in the literal sense, he appeared before his father and his bishop to remove his clothes, the raiment that represented his wealth, privilege, class, and former life. The bishop had to restrain the father, angered beyond words, and Francis barely escaped to enter upon a time of testing.
What was the goal toward which he felt himself led? For a time he wandered alone, finding refuge in an old, ruined church which he began to rebuild by hand. When opportunity arose he ministered to lepers.
Then, one day in February, 1208, he heard a reading from Matthew. It was the simple, earth-shattering insight for which he had waited, and it flashed across his searching like a lightning-stroke: “leave all and follow me.” (Matthew 19:21; cf 10:5-10).
Francis accepted the challenge as a personal call to poverty and mission. That he considered it in closest possible parallel to the original call to the apostles is born out by the traditional number of followers he gathered, twelve; but Francis – always the enemy of spiritual pride – insisted that they be called Friars minor, “lesser brothers,” and to insure faithfulness to their mission, he wrote a brief Rule for them (the text of which unfortunately has not survived). “Brief” hardly describes this document which – the term is not an exaggeration–was a revolution in monastic life.
In the West, at least since the time of Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century, monks had been cloistered; that is, they promised to remain stable, preferably in a single community for life, along with making the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.
Francis Charts a New Course
Francis charts a new course. His little brothers are not cloistered; they have no homes at all. They are not just poor; then hold no property at all, neither as individuals – the common interpretation — nor as a corporate body. They will live by working and begging; they will minister by preaching, repairing churches, and serving the sick and poor.
Imagine the contrast: this former knight, now dedicated to the most complete and unqualified poverty yet imagined; and the former lawyer, now Pope Innocent III, perhaps the most powerful pontiff of the Middle Ages. Imagine also the conflict in the heart of this seasoned administrator, who, having declared that the church would approve no new orders, was visited by Francis to secure approval for his little Rule.
The year was 1209, and Innocent had every reason to believe in the prospects for “Christendom”, that remarkable and long-lived society in which “temporal and ecclesiastical swords” worked literally hand-in-hand. Cathedrals were rising everywhere, the French had just invented “Gothic”, great universities were beginning to replace the old monastic and cathedral schools, and above all, cities were growing once again on the strength of rising population and the increased flow of money-the nascence of capitalism.
What went through Innocent’s mind we can only guess, but the meeting with Francis must have left a deep impression. He decided, literally, to sleep on it, and in a dream imagined that he saw the church toppling over. It would have fallen too, had it not been for this simple brother who, without the physical attributes of a Samson, was able to keep it up. Straightway, Innocent endorsed the Friars minor.
Francis Driven to Deeper Piety
Francis and his brothers thus went forth to serve. But the remainder of the story is filled with irony. On the one hand, his strange personal vision drove Francis to a deeper piety.
He pacified the hungry wolf at Gubbio, counseled the birds, and addressed his “brother donkey” and “sister fire.” All this was crowned in 1224 by the painful glory of the Stigmata, the in-breaking onto his hands, feet and sides, of the wounds of his Lord. Never in great health, he must now face the rigors of poverty with a body broken for the sake of Christ.
Yet, on the other hand, we may find it astonishing that “worldly” elements of medieval society would flock to the Franciscan ideal in such great numbers-as many as 5,000-that they became difficult to supervise.
Francis was a religious genius, but not an administrator, so it was perhaps with a sense of relief that he accepted the challenge of going on crusade to Egypt in 1219 in the expectation that dialogue with the Muslims would bring permanent peace. When he returned, he found that the leadership had passed to others.
The brothers had already divided into provinces, and entrusted supervision to a cardinal in Rome. They also asked for a new, modified Rule, and while it is not altogether clear how much heart Francis put into it, a Second Rule was drawn up in 1222. Most important, it permitted the Order to hold property as a corporate body.
Laid on “the naked earth”
Before he died in 1226, worn with the burdens of poverty, with a movement that had grown beyond his capacity to stay in touch with it, and – not least – with the Stigmata, he attempted in a final, moving Testament to recall his followers to the simplicity of his original vision. At the last they laid him naked “on the naked earth”, as he asked.
What were his brothers to do now that Francis was gone? He truly intended them to be poor-about this there was no mistake and no quarrel.
But what of the corporate body? Should it not be allowed to accept gifts from the pious, so that these could be turned to good use in building hospitals, missions, and schools? Two groups divided over the question, and soon polarized.
“Conventuals” preferred the moderate version of the Rule. “Spirituals” insisted on the first Rule and the Testament, and later produced one of the classics of the movement, “The Little Flowers of St. Francis”.
The issue of poverty became one of the most bitterly contested of the late Middle Ages. Sometimes resorting to violence, the two sides kept up a running battle, only temporarily pacified by Bonaventure (1221-1274), until a tough-minded lawyer-pope, John XXII, felt the time had come to put the matter to rest.
Besides this, some of the Spirituals had adopted an ideology, drawn mainly from another visionary named Joachim of Fiora (1132-1202) which smacked not only of heresy but social revolution. As a lawyer, John went straight to the issue: what was the vita apostolica, the apostolic life? Did this life involve poverty? The pope’s response in 1317 was to declare as a heretic anyone who maintained that Jesus held no property.
A triumph for the Conventuals, the decision hardly satisfied the Spirituals.
Some, as Fratricelli, went into open rebellion; others took umbrage in courts around Europe which were already at odds with the pope. Some of these “outsiders” wrote pointedly about the limits of papal power, among them William of Occam, an English Franciscan, and Marsilius of Padua.
Still further, the radical Franciscans developed a curious strategy which was to have the most far-reaching, although perhaps unintended, consequences. According to Brian Tierney, their appeal beyond the decision of John XXII to the inerrancy of previous papal decrees is the first use of the doctrine of papal infallibility.
What in the man Francis, who set all this in motion and is called “one of the great originals in history”, inspired his vision?
When I was in graduate school, one of our young professors had just finished a book proposing a Freudian interpretation: the saint avoided money, as Freud would say, as one avoided excrement. This thesis, while not widely followed, does highlight an important connection between Francis and the newly found resources of capitalism. The church, after centuries of hesitation about money, including the condemnation of “usury”, the lending of money at interest, had started to adjust to a Europe embarked on a new era of prosperity with its profit-makers, banks, trade associations, corporations, and a new class of merchants demanding better education, better priests, better return on their investment.
In one sense, Francis represented “old time religion”, a piety of earlier, simpler, golden days when Christians could live without the complexities and temptations of capital.
Others find a compelling clue to Francis in his devotion to chivalry. Francis is the quintessential knight, defending the poor and defenseless, living by the code, dedicated to Christ. Above all – and here the argument is most persuasive – Francis had a love affair with his Lady Poverty, the ideal but unobtainable woman to whom, as a faithful knight, he dedicated heart, soul, and life.
Sensitivities Beyond the Norm
Perhaps we can never capture this “original” in any single theory. He simply escapes us when we try to close in on him. Like certain creatures who hear sounds above the range of humans, Francis appears to have had senses – or better, sensitivities – beyond the norm, and he could penetrate to the heart of the universe. What he saw there still resonates today, just as it did among his poor, quarreling brethren.
He puts the question directly and provocatively: what is the apostolic way to which we are called between the time of our Lord’s redemption and his coming again in glory? In what manner are we to hold the fort, tend the sheep, and make our garden grow?
Over the course of history, at least four schools of thought have given reply. The medieval answer was a kind of spiritual elitism: the call to the fully apostolic life can only be met by those stand aside from the world to carry out this calling – monks and nuns. Others must live compromised lives in a compromised world. If, for the medieval church, the vita apostolica is the dividing line between the “secular church” and the monks, then for the radical Reformation the apostolic life is the dividing line between church and the world. This response – although called “this-worldly monasticism” – has a certain integrity, especially when associated with an emphasis on peace and world service.
On the other hand, I find no biblical warrant for the typical late 20th-century Protestant notion that Christ only calls us to a spiritual poverty, in which, for example, the real problems of this world are not pollution, but pollution of the soul; not oppression, but oppression of the heart. Beyond the half-truths of this position, such bifurcation of soul and body, inner and outer, may have made sense to the Greeks who stood in the Stoa of Plato, but not to be earthy, soil-conscious, wholeness-oriented world of the Old Testament.
Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most forceful opponents of this Christianity, himself proposed that apostolic life was an “impossible possibility.” Although a gripping phrase – and Niebuhr himself became uncomfortable with it – it suggests that apostolic life is something we are required to attain on our own merits.
Yet Niebuhr’s epigram begins to suggest what appears to me as the best of all starting-points: the essentially paradoxical nature of our task. We live in, but not of, the world, and we must take both conditions seriously.
An awesome paradox. We cannot escape it. We stand under judgment because of our greed, our grasping, our accumulating, our self-love – in short, all that Francis perceived would continually afflict those who have. Yet, at the same time, we live under the promise. “I am not ashamed of the gospel”, Paul writes in Romans 1:16, “it is the power of God into salvation.” This is what the gospel empowers us for: to live fully, wholeheartedly, and with total commitment in both realms, both kingdoms, as if they are what we say they are, completely and equally gifts of God. In this way we may glimpse what Francis saw when first he met the homeless in Rome-the insight that, for all its infinite mysteries, creation is nevertheless simple: it asks nothing, but gives abundantly, like God himself.
What then? Since God has provided for our own redemption in Christ, since our destiny is set, we may turn all our energies to two powerful questions posed by our colleague Nelson Strobert: who am I this day as a baptized Christian? What does it mean for us together to be baptized Christians in the church and the world?
Rather than illusory blueprints, the tools for this work are the gifts of reason, common sense, dialogue – exactly what we mean by talents.
So it is that at the heart of his vision, Francis saw our stewardship: to ask nothing more than creation asks of us, and give back in loving care and service what is not ours, but a gift. Thus, with Francis, we may bear witness to a God who takes great joy in the manifold unfoldings of his marvelously varied creation, and who likewise – together with our brother earth and sister poor – enfolds us all, even now.
© Copyright 1994, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
This essay first appeared in Faith in Action. Articles in Faith in Action may be reproduced for use in ELCA and ELCIC congregations provided each copy carries the note:
© Copyright 1994, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Reprinted with permission.