Skip to main content
Center for Action and Contemplation
The Franciscan Way
The Franciscan Way

An Alternative Orthodoxy

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Richard Rohr explains that Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) paid attention to different things than the Catholic Church of his time. Eventually, his prophetic witness and emphasis became an “alternative orthodoxy” through the Franciscan tradition. Richard begins: 

In the Legend of Perugia, one of the earliest accounts of his life, Francis offers this instruction to the first friars: “You only know as much as you do.” [1] His emphasis on action, practice, and lifestyle was foundational and revolutionary for its time and remains at the heart of Franciscan alternative orthodoxy. For Francis and Clare, Jesus became someone to actually follow and imitate.   

Up to this point, most of Christian spirituality was based in desert asceticism, monastic discipline, theories of prayer, or academic theology, which itself was often based in “correct belief” or liturgical texts, but not in a kind of practical Christianity that could be lived in the streets of the world. Francis emphasized an imitation and love of the humanity of Jesus, and not just the worshiping of his divinity. That is a major shift.  

Throughout history, the Franciscan School has typically been a minority position inside of the Roman Catholic and larger Christian tradition, yet it has never been condemned or considered heretical—in fact, quite the opposite. It simply emphasized different teachings of Jesus, new perspectives and behaviors, and focused on the full and final implications of the incarnation of God in Christ. For Franciscans, the incarnation was not just about Jesus but was manifested everywhere. As Francis said, “The whole world is our cloister!” [2]  

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. His Christ was cosmic while also deeply personal, his cathedral was creation itself, and he preferred the bottom of society to the top. He invariably emphasized inclusion of the seeming outsider over any club of insiders, and he was much more a mystic than a moralist. In general, Francis preferred ego poverty to private perfection, because Jesus “became poor for our sake, so that we might become rich out of his poverty” (2 Corinthians 8:9).  

I sincerely think Francis found a Third Way, which is the creative and courageous role of a prophet and a mystic. He basically repeated what all prophets say: that the message and the medium for the message have to be the same thing. And Francis emphasized the medium itself, instead of continuing to clarify or contain the mere verbal message; this tends to be the “priestly” job, one which Francis never wanted for himself.  

Both Francis and Clare saw orthopraxy (“correct practice”) as a necessary parallel, and maybe even precedent, to verbal orthodoxy (“correct teaching”) and not an optional add-on or a possible implication. “Why aren’t you doing what you say you believe?” the prophet invariably asks.  


[1] Paraphrase of “A person is only as learned as his actions show; and a religious is only as good a preacher as his actions show.” See The Assisi Compilation, 105, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, The Founder (New York: New City Press, 2000), 210. This collection of early Franciscan texts includes the Legend of Perugia.  

[2] The Sacred Exchange between Saint Francis and Lady Poverty, no. 63, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, The Saint (New York: New City Press, 2001), 552. 

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2014), 81–84, 86, 87. 

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Izzy Spitz, Chemistry of Self 3 (detail), digital oil pastels. Izzy Spitz, momentary peace (detail), digital oil pastels. Taylor Wilson, Transfiguration (detail), cyanotype. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image

Amidst our life complexities, we stop, we breath, we look for the pockets of peace. 

Story from Our Community:  

I come from a conservative Christian background—I am the son of a pastor, a former youth pastor and a founder of a Christian nonprofit. When I stumbled onto CAC in a Facebook post, I felt an immediate connection. My spirit said, “yes.” I recognized so many of my own private insights written down and given voice in CAC content. I couldn’t stop listening—and agreeing. I now listen to multiple podcasts, read Richard Rohr’s books, and I have enrolled in two CAC classes. My heart and life have been changed forever. Some people in my family support my evolving faith, while others are quite concerned. I am so glad to have finally been introduced to this “alternative” way. Thanks for what you do. —Greg A. 

Navigate by Date

This year’s theme

A candle being lit

Radical Resilience

We live in a world on fire. This year the Daily Meditations will explore contemplation as a way to build Radical Resilience so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or burning out. The path ahead may be challenging, but we can walk it together.

The archives

Explore the Daily Meditations

Explore past meditations and annual themes by browsing the Daily Meditations archive. Explore by topic or use the search bar to find wisdom from specific teachers.

Join our email community

Sign-up to receive the Daily Meditations, featuring reflections on the wisdom and practices of the Christian contemplative tradition.

Hidden Fields

Find out about upcoming courses, registration dates, and new online courses.
Our theme this year is Radical Resilience. How do we tend our inner flame so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or out? Meditations are emailed every day of the week, including the Weekly Summary on Saturday. Each week builds on previous topics, but you can join at any time.
In a world of fault lines and fractures, how do we expand our sense of self to include love, healing, and forgiveness—not just for ourselves or those like us, but for all? This monthly email features wisdom and stories from the emerging Christian contemplative movement. Join spiritual seekers from around the world and discover your place in the Great Story Line connecting us all in the One Great Life. Conspirare. Breathe with us.