Dancing Standing Still
Monday, February 3, 2020
The Franciscans found a way to be both very traditional and very revolutionary at the same time. By emphasizing practice over theory, or orthopraxy over orthodoxy, the Franciscan tradition taught that love and action are more important than intellect or speculative truth. Love is the highest category for the Franciscan School, and we believe that authentic love is not possible without true inner freedom, nor will love be real or tested unless we somehow live close to the disadvantaged, who frankly teach us how little we know about love.
Love is the goal; contemplative practice and solidarity with suffering are the path. Orthodoxy teaches us the theoretical importance of love; orthopraxy helps us learn how to love, which is much more difficult. To be honest, even my Franciscan seminary training was far better at teaching me how to obey and conform than how to love. I’m still trying to learn how to love every day of my life.
As we endeavor to put love into action, we come to realize that, on our own, we are unable to obey Jesus’ command to “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). To love as Jesus loves, we must be connected to the Source of love. Franciscanism found that connection in solitude, silence, and some form of contemplative prayer, all of which quiet the monkey mind and teach us emotional sobriety and psychological freedom from our addictions and attachments. Otherwise, most talk of “repentance” or “change of life” is largely an illusion and pretense.
Early on, Francis found himself so attracted to contemplation, and to living out in the caves and in nature, that he was not sure if he should dedicate his life to prayer or to action. So he asked Sister Clare and Brother Sylvester to spend some time in prayer about it and then tell him what they thought he should do. When they came back after a few weeks, Francis was prepared to do whatever they told him. They both, in perfect agreement, without having talked to one another, said Francis should not be solely a contemplative, nor should he only be active in ministry. Francis was to go back and forth between the two as Jesus did. Francis jumped up with great excitement and immediately went on the road with this new permission and freedom.
Before Francis, the “secular” priests worked with the people in the parishes and were considered “active.” Those who belonged to religious orders went off to monasteries to be “contemplative” and pray. Francis found a way to do both and took his prayer on the road. (That’s why Franciscans are called friars instead of monks.) In fact, prayer is what enabled him to sustain his life of love and service to others over the long haul, without becoming cynical or angry. Francis didn’t want a stable form of monastic life; he wanted us to mix with the world and to find God amidst its pain, confusion, and disorder.  For me, that is still the greatest art form—to dance while standing still!
 I wrote my Bachelor’s thesis on this theme in 1966.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 81, 87, 98;
Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014).