An Introduction to Francis of Assisi
A Spirituality of Subtraction
Monday, May 18, 2015
Meister Eckhart rightly pointed out that spirituality has much more to do with subtraction than it does with addition. I am sad to say that most spirituality in the West has largely become a matter of addition. This “spiritual consumerism” focuses on learning more spiritual ideas, earning merit badges from God, trying to attain enlightenment, and the will power of heroic moral behavior. Yet the counter-intuitive nature of the Jesus-journey shows it is not at all about getting, attaining, achieving, performing, or succeeding (all of which tend to pander to the ego). Jesus’ spirituality is much more about letting go of what we do not need anyway. It more often involves unlearning than learning. Jesus taught us the way of descent, which we later called “the way of the cross.” Like few other Christians, Francis profoundly understood such a major turn-around. He wanted God, not his ego, to steer his life; so he practiced letting go of his own will, his own needs, and his own preferences until he was free of their domination and able to find happiness at a much deeper and more truthful level.
Much of Francis’ universal appeal is that he took a joyful approach to inner and outer liberation. His entire lifestyle was a wholesale critique of the way most people live, yet he did not do this in a negative or moralistic way. After spending time as a prisoner of war when he was very young, Francis seemed to realize the intrinsic connection between violence and our preoccupation with money, possessions, and empty status symbols. He felt the only way to get out of the world of violence, competition, and hatred was to live a simple life—a life that did not appropriate anything to itself, sine proprio as he put it, but a life lived in constant presence to what was right in front of him, which was nature itself, an always present doorway to the divine. Seeing what was right in front of him also awakened Francis to the immense amount of suffering in the world. Francis did not shield himself from that suffering or deny the dark, negative side of himself and the world. Instead he did a pre-emptive dive right into “the tears of things,” without judgment, rancor, or cynicism.
For Francis, death belonged to life; death did not threaten life. And so he freely chose what most of us run from: poverty, failure, humiliation, and the search for human respect. He first worked with the lepers on the plain below Assisi, and there he “found what was once hateful to me became sweetness and life.” We all learn the mystery of ourselves at the price of our own innocence. Francis did not try to remain “innocent” (the word means “unwounded”). He did not run from life’s wounding, because he saw that in Jesus it became the way to resurrection and universal life.
There are two major approaches to spirituality and to conversion. We can try to exclude and triumph over the negative parts, the shadow parts, the “inferior parts” (1 Corinthians 12:22), as Paul calls them. This leads us to a kind of heroic spirituality based on willpower and the achievement of some sort of supposed perfection. But if you are honest, what you are really doing is pretending—and excluding the dark side that you do not want to look at, or the people you do not want to deal with. The way of Francis included and integrated the negative—forgiving and accepting the imperfection and woundedness of life. He agreed with Paul that the supposed inferior or weakest are, in fact, “the most indispensable.”
Gateway to Silence:
I must do what is mine to do.
Adapted from The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis, discs 1 and 5 (CD)