Depth and Breadth

Franciscan Spirituality: Week 1

Depth and Breadth
Sunday, June 4, 2017

One reason so many people have lost heart today is that we feel both confused and powerless. The forces against us are overwhelming: consumerism, racism, militarism, individualism, patriarchy, the corporate juggernaut. These “powers and principalities” seem to be fully in control. We feel helpless to choose our own lives, much less a common life, or to see any overarching meaning. The world is so complex, and we are so small. What can we do but let the waves of history carry us and try to keep afloat somehow?

But maybe we can at least look for some patterns, or for those who found the patterns. Let’s turn to a thirteenth-century Italian who has one of the longest bibliographies of anyone in history: Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). His simple wisdom has attracted many cultures and religions and continues to resonate eight hundred years later.

Saint Francis stepped out into a world being recast by the emerging market economy. He lived amid a decaying old order in which his father was greedily buying up the small farms of debtors, moving quickly into the new entrepreneurial class. The Church seems to have been largely out of touch with the masses. But Francis trusted a deeper voice and a bigger truth. He sought one clear center—the Incarnate Jesus—and moved out from there.

Francis understood everything from this personalized reference point. He followed Jesus in at least three clear ways. First, Francis delved into the prayer depths of his own tradition, as opposed to mere repetition of tired formulas. Second, he sought direction in the mirror of creation, as opposed to mental and fabricated ideas or ideals. Third, and most radically, he looked to the underside of his society, to the suffering, for an understanding of how God transforms us. In other words, Francis found both depth and breadth—and a process to keep him there.

The depth was an inner life where all shadow, mystery, and paradox were confronted, accepted, and forgiven—and God was encountered. The breadth was the ordinary and sacred world itself.

Francis showed us the process for staying at the center: entering into the world of human powerlessness. In imitation of Jesus, he chose “poverty” as his honest and truthful lens for seeing everything. Francis set out to read reality through the eyes and authority of those who have “suffered and been rejected”—and, with Jesus, come out resurrected. This is the “privileged seeing” of those who have been initiated by life. It is the true baptism of “fire and Spirit” with which, Jesus says, we must all be baptized (see Mark 10:39).

For Francis, the true “I” first had to be discovered and realigned (the prayer journey into the True Self). He then had to experience himself situated inside of a meaning-filled cosmos (a sacramental universe). Francis prayed, “Who are you, God? And who am I?” Finally, he had to be poor (to be able to read reality from the side of powerlessness). He realized that experiencing reality from the side of money, success, and power is to leave yourself out of sympathy with 99% of the people who have ever lived.

Gateway to Silence:
Who are you, God? And who am I?

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr with John Feister, Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (St. Anthony Messenger Press: 2001), 3-5.

Image credit: Saint Francis of Assisi Is Wed to Lady Poverty (detail), Fresco attributed to Giotto di Bondone, c. 1330, Basilica di San Francesco (lower level, over the altar), Assisi, Italy.
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