Sunday, June 21, 2015 – Saturday, June 27, 2015

Legend of St Francis: 5. Renunciation of Worldly Goods (detail fresco), 1297-99, Giotto di Bondone, Upper Church, San Francesco, Assisi

Legend of St Francis: 5. Renunciation of Worldly Goods
(detail fresco), 1297-99, Giotto di Bondone, Upper Church, San Francesco, Assisi.
The Franciscan Way
Depth, Breadth, and Process  
June 21 to June 26, 2015
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, moving quickly into the new entrepreneurial class. Francis stepped into a Church that seems to have been largely out of touch with the masses. But he 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. He followed Jesus in at least three clear ways. First, Francis delved 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 have suffered,” for an understanding of how God transforms us. In other words, he found both depth and breadth–and a process to keep you there.

The depth was an inner life where all shadow, mystery, and paradox were confronted, accepted, and forgiven. Here Francis believed God could be met in fullness and truth. The breadth was the actual world itself, a sacramental universe that is right in front of you and everywhere, as opposed to the ideal, the churchy, or the mental.

Francis showed us the process for staying at the center: entering into the world of human powerlessness. In imitation of Jesus, he chose “poverty” as his honest and truthful lens for seeing everything. Francis set out to read reality through the eyes and authority of those who have “suffered and been rejected”–and come out resurrected. This is the “privileged seeing” of those who have been initiated by life, which allows you to know something that you can know in no other way. It is the true baptism of “fire and Spirit” with which, Jesus says, we must all be baptized (see Mark 10:39). Water baptism is the ritual symbol for the real baptism.

For Francis, first the true “I” had 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).

       Shared Knowing    
I believe that both Francis and Clare knew and loved from a different source; they knew and loved by participation in a Larger Knowing and Loving that many of us call God. Or, as Paul says, “They knew as fully as they were known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Francis and Clare were “known through.”

This kind of shared knowing, which is nothing but full consciousness (con scire =to know with) is what I mean by contemplation. True contemplatives surrender some of their own ego boundaries and identity so that God can see through them, with them, and in them–with a larger pair of eyes. It is quite simply a higher level of seeing. If you do not like the religious language, you can just call it consciousness itself, or deep consciousness. But you still have to let go of your small, egoic self to get there (John 12:24). Then some form of contemplative practice can maintain you in this larger seeing and this larger knowing over the long haul of life.

It comes down to this: when we see things in a unitive way, in conscious union with the eyes of God, what we see is qualitatively different. Basically, it is no longer self-referential but very expansive seeing, and this changes everything. The right energy comes forth when it is not “all about you.” Then a larger presence, an inner vitality, shines through your very words and actions–and this ends up becoming the core message itself!

The motivation, meaning, and inherent energy of any action come from its ultimate source, which is the person’s foundational and core vantage point. What is his or her real and honest motivation? Who is doing the seeing? Who is the doer? Is it the “cut-off branch,” the egoic self, trying to do the seeing (John 15:5)? Is it a person who needs to be right, or is it a person who wants to love? There is a very different kind of seeing from a person who has remained lovingly and consciously connected to the Source (God, Jesus, our Higher Power) than from mere self-interest and its small lens.

Shared Identity      
Francis spent much of his time praying in solitude in nature. He practiced contemplation, or “a long loving look at the real,” which allowed him to see in a new way. Seeing from a pair of glasses beyond our own is what I call “participative seeing.” This is the new self that can say excitedly with Paul, “I live no longer, not ‘I’ but it is Christ now living in me” (Galatians 2:20). In the truest sense, I am that which I am seeking. This primal communion communicates spaciousness, joy, and a quiet contentment. It is not anxious, because the essential gap between me and everything else has already been overcome. I am at home in a sacred and benevolent universe, and I do not need to prove myself to anybody, nor do I need to be “right,” nor do others have to agree with me.

A mature believer, of course, knows that it is impossible not to be connected to the Source, or to be “on the Vine,” as Jesus says. But most people are not consciously there yet. They are not “saved” from themselves, which is the only thing we really need to be saved from. They do not yet live out of their objective, totally given, and unearned identity, “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). This is what saints like Francis and Clare allowed, enjoyed, and “fell into.” It is always a falling! For most of us, our own deepest identity is still well hidden from us. We are all “Sleeping Beauty” waiting for the redemptive kiss. Religion’s primary and irreplaceable job is to bring this foundational truth of our shared identity in God to full and grateful consciousness. This is the only true meaning of holiness.

The irony is that this “holiness” is actually our “first nature”; yet we made it into such a contest that it did not even become most people’s “second nature.” This core identity in Christ was made into a worthiness contest at which almost no one wins and so most do not even try or give up early. Francis and Clare totally undermined this contest by rejoicing in their ordinariness and seeming unworthiness–which I believe is the core freedom of the Gospel itself, the ultimate coup d’etat of the soul. Now losers are the real winners, and that includes just about everybody.

The Scandal of the Particular  
Francis, like Jesus before him, overturned the whole honor/shame system that was the basis of his culture (and ours today, to a great extent). Francis’ identity came from within, from his core Christ identity. It was not dependent on what he achieved or possessed or on other’s opinions of him. Moreover, this was the lens through which he saw others and all of God’s creation. For Francis, Christ was in everything, so everyone and every part of creation was inherently deserving of respect because they all reflected a part of the image of the God who made them.

Because Francis was not an intellectual, he did not begin with universal philosophies and ideas and abstractions. He began with the specific, the particular, the concrete: this person, this squirrel. I believe love is always, by its very nature, particular. “Just this!” When you start with the specific, you have a beautiful doorway to the universal. On the other hand, when you start with universal theories, it makes it very hard to ever get back to respect for the particular. In fact, you tend to find a reason to see that the particular is never good enough. It is always flawed and imperfect. There is inevitably a reason why this particular person or thing cannot be included, because it is seen to be abnormal, poor, broken, leprous, sinful, or unorthodox. Look at our Christian history: it seems to have been a nonstop search for who is unworthy and who does not belong. What a horrible waste of energy.

Walter Brueggemann says the entire biblical revelation is built on “the scandal of the particular.” Get it in one ordinary, concrete moment. Struggle with it there, fight with it there, resist it there, fall in love with it there. It’s a scandal precisely because it’s so ordinary. What is true in one place finally ends up being true everywhere. This is especially clear in the sacrament of the Eucharist. The Eucharist offers one focused moment of truth, showing that the Christ and this ordinary bit of elemental bread are one, and therefore the spiritual and the material can apparently coexist. Struggle with that, resist it, fall in love with it, eat it. You can’t just think about it rationally in your mind. Spiritual things are known in a whole-body way. You know them with your body, heart, soul, and mind all operating together. In this mysterious sacrament of Eucharist, you eat the bread; it becomes one with you; you become one with all those around you who are the same Body of Christ. It’s a corporeal, cellular knowing. The bread is for the sake of the people, it is food for the sick and weary, a medicine for the soul to let people know that they are what they eat! Instead, as Pope Francis says, we made it into a distant “prize for the perfect,” and its transformative and healing power was lost.

Adapted from  Francis: Turning the World on Its Head: Subverting
the Honor/Shame System ( CD, MP3 download);
and Franciscan Mysticism: I Am That Which I am Seeking,
discs 1 and 3 (CD, MP3 download)
Just Do It  

One of the earliest accounts of Francis, the “Legend of Perugia,” quotes Francis as telling the first friars, “You only know as much as you do.” His emphasis on action, practice, and lifestyle was foundational and revolutionary for its time and at the root of Franciscan alternative orthodoxy (“heterodoxy”).

You may be wondering, “How can Franciscanism be an alternative and still be called orthodox (right and true)?” Heterodoxy is precisely a third something in between orthodoxy and heresy! I sincerely think Francis found a Third Way, which is the creative and courageous role of a prophet and a mystic. He repeated the foundational message of all prophets: the message and the medium for the message have to be the same thing. Francis emphasized the medium itself, instead of continuing to clarify the mere verbal message (which tends to be the “priestly” job).

The early Franciscan friars and “Poor Clares” wanted to be Gospel practitioners instead of merely “word police,” “inspectors,” or “museum curators” as Pope Francis calls some clergy. Both Francis and Clare offered their rules as a forma vitae, or form of life. They saw orthopraxy (correct practice) as a necessary parallel, and maybe even precedent, to mere verbal orthodoxy (correct teaching). History has shown that many Christians never get to the practical implications of their beliefs! “Why aren’t you doing what you say you believe?” the prophet invariably asks.

The Franciscan School found a way to be both very traditional and very revolutionary at the same time by emphasizing practice over theory. At the heart of their orthopraxy was the practice of paying attention to different things (nature, the poor, humility, itinerancy, the outsider, mendicancy, and mission instead of shoring up home base and “churchiness”). Franciscans at their best attempted to live inside the universal mystery of “church” and from there we went out to serve the world. Most Christians got it backward by living in the so-called secular world and occasionally “going to church.” Franciscan spirituality is “a sidewalk spirituality” for the streets of the world and the paths of the forest. It is not primarily based in the monastery, in church buildings, or in any asceticism or celibacy.

Francis himself spent most of his time on the road and in the woods, traveling between scores of towns. He also traveled with a couple of his followers to Syria, Egypt, and Spain. It does not seem he had much time for “community” as we now think of it. His life illustrated Jesus’ first and foundational definition of church: where “two or three gather in my name” (Matthew 18:20). Truthful encounter is always and already the mystery of “church.”

Francis emphasized immediate experience and lifestyle: living in a different way. We were to live on the edge of the church in a very different lifestyle than simply running the church institution. In Franciscan theology, the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. Just go ahead and do it better. If you really believe in the values you say you believe in, then put them into practice. Don’t waste any time trying to prove someone else is wrong or evil. As it states in the popular paraphrase of Francis’ Rule, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when absolutely necessary, use words.”

Adapted from  Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi,
pp. 52-53, 81, 86-87
Franciscan Mysticism: I Am That Which I Am Seeking,
disc 3 ( CD, MP3 download)

The Sacraments

St. Francis understood that the particular and the ordinary were the gateway to Heaven, to union with God. Everywhere he looked, he found the sacred. Read the following poem–Daniel Ladinsky’s paraphrase of Francis’ experience–slowly and aloud several times. Memorize a phrase or even the entire poem. Let its words, rhythm, and meaning sink deeper within your body and being. Then go out into your world and find ribbons of grace all around.

I once spoke to my friend, an old squirrel, about the Sacraments–
he got so excited

and ran into a hollow in his tree and came

back holding some acorns, an owl feather,

and a ribbon he had found.

And I just smiled and said, “Yes, dear,

you understand:

everything imparts

His grace.”
Gateway to Silence
“I am who I am in the eyes of God, nothing more and nothing less.” –Francis of Assisi
Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi

Francis: Turning the World on Its Head: Subverting the Honor/Shame System

(CD, MP3 download)
Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis
in an Age of Anxiety

A Spirituality of the Beatitudes 
In the Franciscan reading of the Gospel, there is no reason to be religious or to love God except “to love much the one who has loved us much,” as Francis said. Religion is not about heroic will power or winning or being right. This has been a counterfeit for holiness in much of Christian history. True growth in holiness is a growth in willingness to love and be loved and a surrendering of our willfulness, even holy willfulness (which is still “all about me”).

Franciscan spirituality proceeds from the counterintuitive spirituality of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). Read them and see how Francis exemplifies each one so well. While the Ten Commandments are about creating social order (a good thing), the eight Beatitudes of Jesus are all about incorporating what seems like disorder, which is a very different level of consciousness. With the Beatitudes, there is no social or ego payoff for the false self. Obeying the Commandments can appeal to our egotistic consciousness and our need to be “right” or better than others.

Obedience to the Ten Commandments does give us the necessary impulse control and containment we need to get started, which is a foundational need in the first half of life. “I have kept all these from my youth,” the rich young man says, while he then refuses to go further (Mark 10:22). The Beatitudes, however, reveal a world of pure grace and abundance, or what Spiral Dynamics and Integral Theory would call the second tier of consciousness and what I call second-half-of-life spirituality. Francis doesn’t call it anything; he just lives it on his path of love. Mature and mystical Christianity is “made to order” to send you through your entire life journey and not just offer you containment.

I hope you can now see more clearly how Francis cannot be written off as a mere soft and sweet figure. Looking clearly at his actual life and practice shows how he was deliberately undercutting the entire “honor/shame system” on which so much of culture, violence, false self-esteem, and even many of the ministrations of church depends. Doing anything and everything solely for God is certainly the most purifying plan for happiness I can imagine. It changes the entire nature of human interaction and eliminates most conflict.

Richard Rohr‘s meditations this year explore his “Wisdom Lineage,” the teachers, texts, and traditions that have most influenced his spirituality. Read an introduction to the year’s theme and view a list of the elements of Fr. Richard‘s lineage in CAC’s January newsletter,

“Franciscan prayer is not an escape from the world
but an entrance into it. We become conscious in prayer
of how much the world is with us and we are in the world.”
–Ilia Delio, Franciscan Prayer