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Discovering Anew

Franciscan Way: Part One

Discovering Anew
Sunday, September 29, 2019

St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) was a master of making room for the new and letting go of that which was tired or empty. His first biographer described Francis as always hopeful, always new, always beginning again. [1] Much of Francis’ genius was that he was ready for absolute “newness” from God, and therefore, could also trust fresh and new attitudes in himself. His God was not tired, and so he was never tired. His God was not old, so Francis remained forever young.

In these two weeks of Daily Meditations, I want to share with you one of the most attractive, appealing, and accessible of all frames and doorways to the divine. It is called the Franciscan way after the man who first exemplified it, Francesco di Bernardone, born in Assisi, Italy.

There are always new vocabularies, fresh symbols, new frames and styles, but Francis must have known, at least intuitively, that there is only one enduring spiritual insight and everything else follows from it: The visible world is an active doorway to the invisible world, and the invisible world is much larger than the visible. I would call this mystical insight “the mystery of incarnation,” or the essential union of the material and the spiritual worlds, or simply “Christ.” [2]

Our outer world and its inner significance must come together for there to be any wholeness—and holiness. The result is deep joy and a resounding sense of coherent beauty. What was personified in the body of Jesus was a manifestation of this one universal truth: Matter is, and has always been, the hiding place for Spirit, forever offering itself to be discovered anew. Perhaps this is exactly what Jesus means when he says, “I am the gate” (John 10:7). Francis and his female companion, Clare (1194–1253), carried this mystery to its full and lovely conclusion. Or, more rightly, they were fully carried by the mystery. They somehow knew that the beyond was not really beyond, but in the depths of here.

One way to understand Francis and Clare is by reading their lives from what has emerged through their imitators and followers—those who discovered and rediscovered what can only be called radical simplification. Here I am thinking of people like Thérèse of Lisieux, Charles de Foucauld, Dorothy Day, Seraphim of Sarov, Nicholas von der Flüe, Mother Teresa, and, most recently, Pope Francis—to name a few Christian examples. The way of Francis of Assisi cannot be contained inside of formal Franciscanism simply because it is nothing more than the Gospel itself—in very distilled and honest form.

[1] Thomas of Celano, “First Life of St. Francis,” book 2, VI.103. See St. Francis of Assisi: Omnibus of Sources, ed. Marion Habig (Franciscan Media: 2008), 318.

[2] Immediately after I wrote this paragraph, I opened to this telling passage, which I took as confirmation of this “one spiritual truth” in Francis: “Often, without moving his lips, he would meditate within himself. He drew external things within himself, and they would lift his spirit to even higher things.” Thomas of Celano, “Second Life of St. Francis,” book 2, LXI.95, St. Francis of Assisi: Omnibus of Sources, 440.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), xii-xiv, xvi.

Image credit: Scenes from the life of Saint Francis: 2. Renunciation of Worldly Goods (detail), Giotto di Bondone, 1325, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: “My son,” the bishop said to Francis of Assisi, “have confidence in the Lord and act courageously. God will be your help and will abundantly provide you with whatever is necessary.”
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