A Minority Position

Alternative Orthodoxy

A Minority Position

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. Oppositional energy only creates more of the same. One of the Center for Action & Contemplation’s Eight Core Principles [1]

Throughout history, the Franciscan School has typically been a minority position inside of the Roman Catholic and larger Christian tradition. While not everyone shares our way of thinking, it has never been condemned or considered heretical—in fact quite the opposite. It has been allowed and affirmed because we simply emphasize different teachings of Jesus, offer new perspectives and behaviors, and focus on the full and final implications of the incarnation of God in Christ. (I’m not sure why that puts us in the minority of Christians, but so be it!) For Franciscans, the incarnation is not just about Jesus but is manifested everywhere. Once we learn how to see spiritually, “The whole world is our cloister!” in the words of St. Francis himself. [2]

From the very beginning, Franciscanism was sort of a para-church on the edge of the inside of organized Christianity, similar to others who had occupied that same position: desert fathers and mothers, many early monastics before they become clericalized and domesticated, Celtic Christianity, and even some religious orders down to our own time. Most Catholics are accustomed to such groups living on the side and the edge of the parish church system, but this is also why Francis of Assisi has often been called “the first Protestant.”

But how did Francis do what he did, from the inside and without oppositional energy?  Francis’ starting place was human suffering instead of human sinfulness and God’s identification with that suffering in Jesus. That did not put him in conflict with any Catholic dogmas or structures, merely to the side of them. His Christ was universal while also deeply personal, his cathedral was creation itself, he preferred the bottom of society to the top. Francis showed us that practical truth is more likely found at the bottom and the edges than at the top or the center of most groups, institutions, and cultures (another one of the Center’s Core Principles).

Since Jesus himself was humble and poor, then the pure and simple imitation of Jesus became Francis’ life agenda. He was a fundamentalist, not about doctrinal Scriptures, but about lifestyle Scriptures: take nothing for your journey; eat what is set before you; work for your wages; wear no shoes. This is still revolutionary thinking for most Christians, although it is the very “marrow of the Gospel,” to use Francis’ own phrase. [3] He knew intuitively what many educators have now proven—that humans tend to live themselves into new ways of thinking more than think themselves into new ways of living (yet another Core Principle). The lecture method changes very few people at any deep or long-lasting level. It normally does not touch the unconscious, where all our hurts and motives lie hidden and disguised.

References:

[1] See “The Eight Core Principle of the Center for Action and Contemplation” under Mission and Vision, https://cac.org/about-cac/missionvision/.

[2] “Sacred Exchange between St. Francis & Lady Poverty,” Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1 (New City Press: 1999), 552.

[3] Thomas of Celano, “The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul,” chapter 158, Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2 (New City Press: 2000), 380.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 82-85.

Image credit: St. Francis of Assisi (detail), Jusepe de Ribera, 1642, El Escorial.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Francis loved God above all and wanted to imitate Jesus in very practical ways. Action and lifestyle mattered much more to him than mentally believing dogmatic or moral positions to be true or false. Francis directly said to the first friars, “You only know as much as you do!” —Richard Rohr
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