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Conserving the Core

An Introduction to Francis of Assisi

Conserving the Core
Thursday, May 21, 2015

Both Jesus and Francis did not let the old get in the way of the new, but like all religious geniuses, revealed what the old was saying all along. I find much wisdom in what the contemporary faith seeker Christian Wiman writes: “Faith itself sometimes needs to be stripped of its social and historical encrustations and returned to its first, churchless incarnation in the human heart.”

Francis both named and exemplified that first churchless incarnation of faith in the human heart, but then he somehow also knew that it was the half-knowing organized Church that passed this shared mystery on to him and preserved it for future generations. He had the humility and patience to know that whatever is true is always a shared truth, and only institutions, for all their weaknesses, make this widely shareable, historical, and communal. Francis understood the humility (kenosis) and the patience of incarnation. Even a little bit of the truth is more than enough for a saint.

Precisely because both Jesus and Francis were “conservatives” in the true sense of the term, they conserved what was worth conserving—the core, the transformative life of the Gospel—and did not let accidentals get in the way, which are the very things false conservatives usually idolize. They then ended up looking quite “progressive,” radical, and even dangerous to the status quo. This is, of course, the constant and consistent biblical pattern, from Abraham to Moses to Jeremiah to Job to John the Baptist to Mary and Joseph. With courage and wisdom, great seers invariably end up saying something like Jesus did: “The Law says, and I also say. . . .” (Matthew 5:20-48).

Francis’ holiness, like all holiness, was unique and never a copy or mere imitation. In his “Testament,” he says, “No one told me what I ought to do,” and then, at the very end of his life, he says, “I have done what was mine to do, now you must do what is yours to do.” What permission, freedom, and space he thus gave to his followers! Bonaventure echoed that understanding of unique and intimate vocation when he taught: “We are each loved by God in a particular and incomparable way, as in the case of a bride and bridegroom.” Francis and Clare knew that the love God has for each soul is unique and made to order, which is why any “saved” person always feels beloved, chosen, and even “God’s favorite” like so many in the Bible. Divine intimacy is always and precisely particular and made to order—and thus “intimate.”

Gateway to Silence:
I must do what is mine to do.

Adapted from Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, pp. xx-xviii 

Image credit: Scenes from the Life of Francis of Assisi: 5. Confirmation of the Rule (fresco detail), 1325, Giotto di Bondone, Santa Croce, Florence, Italy.

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