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New Ways

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Alternative Orthodoxy: Week 1

New Ways
Sunday, February 7, 2016

The “alternative orthodoxy” of Francis of Assisi is of crucial importance in our age, just as it was in his own time. Above all, Francis loved God and wanted to imitate Jesus in very practical ways. In other words, it was action and lifestyle itself that mattered much more 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!” [1]

Jesus’ first recorded word in at least two Gospels is unfortunately translated with the moralistic, churchy word repent. The word quite literally means change or even more precisely “Change your minds!” (Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:17). Given that, it is quite strange that the religion founded in Jesus’ name has been very resistant to change and has tended to love and protect the past and the status quo much more than the positive and hopeful futures that could be brought about by people agreeing to change. Maybe that is why our earth is so depleted and our politics are so pathetic. We have not taught a spirituality of actual change or growth, which is what an alternative orthodoxy always asks of you.

Francis didn’t bother questioning any of the mainline Christian doctrines. He was not personally oppositional, nor was he an intellectual. He just took the imitation of Christ absolutely seriously and tried to live the way that Jesus lived! This is such a simple and obvious agenda that I think we had to find a way to avoid it. The civil religion we have today doesn’t demand changes to our lifestyle or familiar habits. The best way to avoid actually changing is to go into your head and endlessly argue about what “changing” means. Human minds love to argue, oppose, critique, judge, evaluate, and adjust—it gives our little minds a job. Academics, politicians, and seminary professors love to stay right there and rarely hit the streets of the incarnate or suffering world as Jesus clearly did. What else are the healing stories about?

Franciscan alternative orthodoxy doesn’t bother fighting popes, bishops, Scriptures, or dogmas. It just quietly but firmly pays attention to different things—like simplicity, humility, non-violence, contemplation, solitude and silence, earth care, nature and other creatures, and the “least of the brothers and sisters.” These are our true teachers. The Rule of Saint Francis—which Rome demanded Francis develop—was often thought of as “Tips for the Road” and hardly a rule at all. Like Jesus, Francis taught his disciples while walking from place to place and finding ways to serve, to observe, and to love in the world that was right in front of them.

Frankly, this is exactly what Pope Francis is doing for the whole church right now, and this is not making some cardinals, priests, and lay people very happy, especially those who live in their heads, always clarifying doctrinal and moral positions, as if God needed them to do that. Pope Francis is formally a Jesuit; but he is really a Franciscan—in his entire style, message, and emphasis. (Apologies to my many wonderful Jesuit friends!)

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis writes, “In the heart of this world, the Lord of life, who loves us so much, is always present. He does not abandon us, he does not leave us alone, for he has united himself definitively to our earth, and his love constantly impels us to find new ways forward. Praise be to him!” [2, emphasis mine] I believe the Franciscan worldview with its alternative orthodoxy can help us “find new ways forward” and stop being so afraid of change.

To be afraid of change is to be afraid of growing up. Change and growth are finally the same thing. Unfortunately, the church has trained many people in not growing up.

Gateway to Silence:
Love with your whole heart, soul, mind, and body.

[1] “The Legend of Perugia,” Saint Francis of Assisi: Omnibus of Sources (Franciscan Press: 1991), 74.

[2] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Returning to Essentials: Teaching an Alternative Orthodoxy (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2015), CD, MP3 download;
and The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis (Sounds True: 2010), CD.

Image Credit: St. Francis receiving the Stigmata (detail), by Giotto de Bondone from the Legend of St. Francis, 1297-1300. San Francesco, Upper Church, Assisi, Italy.
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