Franciscan Mysticism

Experience

Franciscan Mysticism
Thursday, January 26, 2017

As I shared yesterday, mysticism is experiential knowledge of spiritual things. Franciscan mysticism is a trustworthy and simple—though not necessarily easy—path precisely because it refuses to be mystified by doctrinal abstractions, moralism, or false asceticism (although some Franciscans have gone this route). Franciscanism is truly a sidewalk spirituality for the streets of the world, a path highly possible and attractive for all would-be seekers. You don’t need to be celibate, isolated from others, highly educated, or in any way “superior” to your neighbor. In fact, it is much better if you are none of these.

A celibate hermit can still have a dualistic mind (which is the usual way of seeing everything in binary splits as good or bad, with me or against me) and live a tortured inner life—and thus torture others too. Meanwhile, farmers, janitors, mothers, and bus drivers with nondual hearts and minds can enlighten others without talking “religiously” at all. Think of Nelson Mandela, Mary Oliver, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Wendell Berry.

St. Francis cut to the essentials and avoided what had been, and continues to be, a preoccupation with non-essentials. Even Thomas Aquinas said that the actual precepts Jesus taught were “very few.” But the diversionary temptations have been many. In the Franciscan worldview, separation from the world is the monastic temptation, asceticism is the temptation of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, moralism or celibacy is the Catholic temptation, intellectualizing is the seminary temptation, privatized Gospel and inerrant “belief” is the Protestant temptation, and the most common temptation for all of us is to use belonging to the right group and practicing its proper rituals as a substitute for any personal or life-changing encounter with the Divine.

How Francis managed to largely avoid these common temptations is at the heart of his spiritual genius. Further, he was able to do so while belonging to groups that he loved. Francis was not a modern individualist. He knew that some kind of base camp is the only testing ground for faith, hope, and charity. We need living communities to keep us accountable, growing, and honest.

I don’t know that we Franciscans have always followed Francis very well in avoiding these temptations. And of course, not everyone in the groups I’ve just mentioned surrendered to the temptations. I point out these diversionary paths to help us clarify the essential issue, not to criticize monks, Protestants, or academics. Francis maneuvered his way through the non-essentials largely by intuition and the Holy Spirit. Much of his genius was that he did this by trusting his own inner experience, the very thing Catholics were normally discouraged from doing. In his “Testament,” Francis said, “There was no one to tell me what I should do, but the most High Himself revealed to me.” [1] He learned this courage from both Jesus and Paul, who said approximately the exact same thing. Yet most of us were soundly warned against such “presumption.”

Gateway to Silence:
Awaken me to Love this day.

References:
[1] Francis of Assisi, “Testament,” St. Francis of Assisi: Omnibus of Sources, ed. Marion Habig (Franciscan Media: 2009), 68.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 4-6.

Image credit: Stigmatizzazionedi San Francesco (fresco detail), 1297-1300, Legend of St. Francis, Giotto di Bondone, Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Italy.
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