July-August 2005 – On Franciscan Communication

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

July-August 2005

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

Broadly speaking, the way Saint Francis communicated his own spirituality is a testament that takes many forms. This letter focuses on how he lived and preached, his use of drama and some of his writings.

Honest and zealous communication could no more be detached from how he lived than the act of flying could be detached from the birds to which he preached and it would appear that he understood that very well. Saint Francis the apostolic man and Saint Francis the mystic were not two sides or phases…they were fused. So imperative was the need to integrate the form of life he had chosen and the prayer that expressed its value with the content of his apostolic action that he directed his brothers to preach with their very lives. They were to be not only witnesses but also evidence of the “good news,” and not only to human beings but to all Creation.

His most critical decisions would have less to do with whether or how to preach but how to live in order to preach authentically. Preaching the Gospel would have to mean being the good news to others – much as Jesus had been in His own time – as he proclaimed the words contained in the accounts of the evangelists. Like the apostles, Saint Francis preached a message that was simple: Repent and believe in the good news.

“Dear Brothers, let us consider our vocation, and how God, in His great mercy,
called us not only for our salvation but for that of many, and to this end we are to go through the world exhorting all men and women by our example as well as by our words to do penance for their sins, and to live keeping in mind the commandments of God…Do not be afraid to preach penance even though we appear ignorant and
of no account. Put your trust in God who overcame the world; hope steadfastly in Him who, by the Holy Spirit, speaks through you to exhort all to be converted to
Him and to observe His commandments.”

The Legend of Three Companions

Saint Bonaventure carefully noted the insight Saint Francis developed after struggling with the underlying question, which he put to those he loved and trusted. As reported in the Major Life by Saint Bonaventure, Saint Francis is said to have asked: “What do you think, brothers, what do you judge better? That I should spend my time in prayer or that I should go about preaching?” He had Brother Masseo put the question to his trusted friends Brother Sylvester and Sister Clare, asking whether he should “preach sometimes or…devote (him)self only to prayer.” Brother Masseo came back with this answer: “(Christ) wants you to go about the world preaching, because God did not call you for yourself alone but also for the salvation of others.” The insight Saint Francis received was that preaching is a vital part of apostolic action because Jesus had done so, since “the only begotten Son of God, who is the highest wisdom, came down from the bosom of the Father for the sake of souls in order to instruct the world with His example and to speak the word of salvation to men.”

While his apostolic action took many forms, perhaps his need for balance between prayer and action was most clearly manifested in his preaching. For a time, he struggled with the stress that the juxtaposition of the two inevitably imposed. But that stress was soon transformed into a singular opportunity to conform his life more fully to Christ, the supreme model of harmony between prayer and action, and, despite the great spiritual leaders who arose during the first millennium, one could argue that such an equilibrium had been rarely achieved.

“If a significant change occurred in Christendom about the relationship between active and contemplative dimensions of life, it is probably to be traced to Francis of Assisi.…(He) would go into the woods to pray alone but also rebuilt crumbling churches(…) As he ministered to lepers and began to preach, he also continued to withdraw for prayer as well as borrow the liturgical prayer of the older monastic orders.”
– William Cook, Francis of Assisi: The Way of Poverty and Humility

In effect, contemplation and apostolic action were not for him competitive realities but absolutely complementary necessities. According to Thomas Merton, “solitude opens out to the world and bears fruit in preaching…The eremitism of Saint Francis and his followers is deeply evangelical and remains always open to the world, while recognizing the need to maintain a certain distance and perspective.”

The preaching of Saint Francis was both Trinitarian and Christocentric. The latter can be asserted in two ways. First, his preaching touched not on abstract theological ideas but on the sacredness and wonder of creation as a mirror of God the Creator. Secondly, he focused on events in Christ’s life on earth as much as he did on His teachings. This relentless reference to Jesus as the Word made man was the natural consequence of prayer and fraternal life centered on the humanity of Jesus. To fully apprehend this focus on the person of Christ in preaching as well as other forms of Franciscan communication, we must take a step back to examine its interior expression, namely prayer. In the realm of mystical prayer, Saint Francis was a major innovator, with his religious experience dramatically shaping the future of Western Christianity.

“Up to Francis’ time, most Christian prayer had been primarily “soul” mysticism
(an interior, NeoPlatonic, world-transcending prayer) or nature mysticism, which sought contact with God through creation. Francis synthesized the two with contemporary themes in theology, especially a devotion to the humanity of Christ ushered in by Bernard of Clairvaux. Francis did this by celebrating concrete details of the life of Jesus, infusing them with spiritual energy and meaning.”

– Keith Warner, The Franciscans: A Family History

The preaching of Saint Francis was not only centered on Jesus, it was concise. In the Rule of 1223, Chapter Nine, we find these words, “Moreover, I advise and admonish the friars that in their preaching, their words should be examined and chaste. They should aim only at the advantage and spiritual good of their listeners, telling them briefly about vice and virtue, punishment and glory, because our Lord Himself kept His words short on earth.” At the same time, his preaching was multifaceted. Today we might even call it multimedia. He preached not only with words, but also with deeds, with drama and with art.

If Saint Francis saw in Jesus the exemplar of authenticity, someone who did what He preached and preached what He did, then he could expect nothing less of himself and his brothers. His dearest wish was that no one could accuse them of hypocrisy. They were penitents preaching penance. “(His) original intention was to live the Gospel before announcing it, to be an imitator of Christ before being a preacher, to accomplish works of penance (facere poenitentiam) before proclaiming them to others (praedicare poenitentiam).” (Servus Gieben, Preaching in the Franciscan Order) “Francis did not employ the modus praedicandi, i.e., the accustomed technique of priests, but rather the modus concionandi, the technique used to address civic assemblies.” (Raoul Manselli, St. Francis of Assisi) This emphasis on personal testimony to his form of life and the faith that underpinned it gave rise to an uncommon style of preaching.

“Francis’ way of preaching was no more like the common rhetoric of the moral exhortation or the doctrinal sermon than it was like the old genre of the homily. Technically, his preaching comes much closer to the popular discourse or harangue, which was used in the local town hall or on a square of the Italian commune by the podesta or his opponents. This kind of popular rhetoric was called contio in opposition to the more learned and clerical sermon.”
– Gieben, Preaching

Although we have no record of any sermons delivered by Saint Francis, we do have this firsthand account of his preaching at Bologna in 1222, which underscored the power of his preaching. Men and women flocked to him. It was a question of who would at least touch the fringe of his clothing or who would tear off a piece of his poor habit. According to Celano, “His word was like a burning fire.”

“I saw Saint Francis preach in the public square in front of the public palace…His discourses did not belong to the great genre of sacred eloquence, rather they were harangues. In reality, throughout his discourse he spoke of the duty of putting an end to hatreds and of arranging a new treaty of peace…God conferred so much power in his words that they brought back peace in many a seigniorial family torn apart until then by old, cruel, and furious hatreds.”
– Gieben, Preaching

In effect, Saint Francis preached as though he were a captain exhorting his troops to steel their courage for the battle ahead. But instead of a battle against a human enemy, they needed to gird themselves against evil and its ally, complacency. His goal was to rally his fellow countrymen to undertake conversion and campaign for peace with the same vigor that would be needed to wage a war. His arresting appearance, demeanor and clothing were also part of his style. He used these purposefully to accentuate the dramatic tone he sought to create.

If his style was unlike anything in standard sermons, so was his content. According to Franciscan scholar David Flood, his Early Rule, which was started in 1209, “is without a doubt the most important document for our knowledge of the early life and the originality of the Friars Minor.” In it, we find two chapters that deal explicitly with preaching, and both are evidently influenced by the decisions of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. The Council had imposed stringent rules about who had the authority to preach because of concerns about the preaching of heretics. But, the preaching the Council had in mind dealt with questions of faith and morality, with doctrinal and moral sermons, and not with the simple exhortation the friars might offer as they traveled about among country folk and citizens. To be on the safe side, this regula non bulata also included a sample sermon: “And whenever it may please them, all my brothers can proclaim this or a like exhortation and praise among all the people with the blessing of God…”

In the Later Rule, solemnly approved by Pope Honorius III in 1223, Chapter Nine is dedicated to preaching. From the first sentence on, it appears that the Order is conscious of its apostolic mission, which does not depend on the authority of a bishop, though such authority must be respected. As though to avoid controversy regarding doctrine, the article made it clear that the friars’ sermons should concern morality and the practice of Christian life.

Early biographers recount Saint Francis preaching to birds on the road to Bevagna as being a pivotal event in his life. Certainly, it is one of the most colorful. Here, we venture out of the realm of verifiable historical fact. While accounts of his preaching to birds are often repeated, embellishments are varied and questionable. But they do give eloquent witness to his loving regard for Creation, whether human or not, animate or inanimate, to the core of the message he conveyed, and to the attentive response that his preaching elicited, a proposition that is surely well founded.

An integral part of the mission that Saint Francis embraced was the building and preservation of the harmony he found in Creation and incorporating that into the brotherhood of humanity. His self-understanding was as an instrument of the peace that God intended for the people He created in the image of the Holy Trinity. Insofar as Christ entered human history in order to bring to an anguished world a peace that is not of this world, Saint Francis was prepared to serve that purpose, which summarizes all of the others, for it is the ultimate harvest of sowing faith, hope, love, forgiveness, light and joy: “Whenever they came to a town or village or castle or house, they spoke the words of peace, comforting to all, and exhorted men and women to love and fear the Creator of heaven and earth, and to observe His commands.” (The Legend of the Three Companions)

In essence, peace was for Saint Francis the litmus test of Gospel living, and the fruit of love: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9) This implied for him far more than simple self-restraint or episodic moments of respite in an otherwise hostile world. Its active ingredients were understood to be respect and compassion. It called for the humility to serve as lesser brothers and sisters in the spirit of Christ and for self-emptying. Indeed, the deliberate dedication of one’s life to peacemaking represented for Saint Francis a type of kenosis. Martyrdom appears in many forms in Franciscan life and communications: “Some are martyred in Morocco; some like Giles, embrace what he calls the ‘martyrdom of contemplation’; some, like Saint Francis and Saint Bonaventure, are martyred in community; some like Clare receive the martyrdom of illness and struggle with the Church; others, by creative work in the world. All are martyred in the cause of peace, searching dominantly for the presence of Christ and a way to make that presence effective.” (Joseph P. Chinnici, The Lord Give You Peace)

Despite reservations about his ability and worthiness to preach, Saint Francis was ready to be regarded as a fool for Christ, poor in ability, in order to accept the evangelical challenge to preach repentance and adopt Gospel values. Given his emphasis on building community, he could no more refrain from urging others to repent and believe in the Gospel than he could from doing so himself, for this was the basic meaning of his faith.

In essence, preaching the Gospel for Saint Francis was inseparable from living the Gospel life. There would be no Gospel to live without the incarnate Word, and the incarnate Word would have no meaning if it were not communicated. The two were complementary, perhaps even indistinguishable.

It is for that reason that we must look upon Saint Francis’ physical presentation of himself and his message as a deliberate form of communication. There is no doubt that he had an intuitive sense of dramatic style and an astute appreciation of the impact of theatrical devices. One cannot consider his dress and gestures without seeing an intention to create an effect. Similarly, one cannot fail to appreciate the far-reaching impact of so grand a gesture as his foolhardy journey across the frontiers of a holy war to embrace a Moslem prince or his dramatic re-enactment of the Lord’s Nativity, not with gold and incense, but with an ox and an ass.

To teach by example, as Saint Francis evidently did, “requires an injection of self into one’s social context.” (Hester Gelber, A Theatre of Virtue: The Exemplary World of St. Francis of Assisi) But his injection of self was more than mere example. The extreme nature of his behavior – having himself dragged naked through the streets like a criminal for having eaten a little meat while ill – led Bonaventure in the Legenda maior to caution against viewing his actions as exemplary.

“The onlookers were amazed at the extraordinary spectacle and…they were deeply moved, but they made no secret of the fact that they thought his humility was rather to be admired than imitated. His action certainly seems to have been intended rather as an omen reminiscent of the prophet Isaiah than as an example.”
– Hester Gelber, A Theatre of Virtue: The Exemplary World of St. Francis of Assisi

Clearly, Saint Francis communicated in a dramatic way. To get a glimpse into the effect he and his first followers had on the citizens of Assisi and surrounding communities, we must think not in terms of the cautious and sober presentation of the Gospel that we find in most churches today, but “…as if the friars were a kind of medieval combination of charismatic enthusiasm and the street wisdom of the Salvation Army. In such a context we may begin to imagine how the theatrical impulse…may have appealed to Francis of Assisi and his medieval followers.” (David Jeffrey, St. Francis and Medieval Theatre)

For us who view this behavior from afar, his dramatic presentation of Gospel truths poses a problem in understanding how measured Saint Francis might have been and how suitable his communication would be for our own time. There is no question that he had a monumental impact on people in his day, largely due to his keen abilities in communication, but his use of dramatic gestures to create a desired effect must be evaluated in light of the price he paid for that effect:

“Francis of Assisi was an effective teacher who intentionally illustrated the life of virtue in his own way of living. He was a teacher in the sense that the Hebrew prophets, Socrates or Gandhi were teachers. He was a performance artist for whom drama functioned pedagogically. His life was not meant to be an example to his followers; sometimes it was a dramatic lesson, meant to be watched, not imitated. All drama is inherently a distortion of reality because it focuses the attention on one aspect of reality. Francis’ dramatized life distorts the importance of poverty, but this is a distortion from which we may be able to learn if we are able to imaginatively identify with Francis. For Francis, asceticism was a form of obedience, and obedience a mode of knowledge.”
– Smit, The Aesthetic Pedagogy of Francis of Assisi

In recent years, the writings of Saint Francis have been painstakingly scrutinized and critically analyzed with the result that many studies have revealed important information regarding his intentions, all of which helps us to better understand his spirituality and make sound judgments about its meaning for us. Twenty-eight documents are attributed to him, some very brief indeed, such as his first, The Prayer Before the Crucifix, but these stand out in this corpus to reveal his system of beliefs: The Earlier Rule, also known as regula non bullata or The Rule Without a Papal Seal, probably written in stages between 1209-10 and 1221, The Admonitions (dating uncertain), which Kajetan Esser called “The Franciscan Sermon on the Mount” and The Testament, dictated near the end of his life in 1226.

So strong is the link from the mind and heart of Saint Francis to the Early Rule that Franciscan scholar David Flood declared: “The history of Francis’ origins has no more eloquent witness than the text of (this) rule.” It is believed that its writing began at the inception of the Order, since that is what The Testament suggested, but that it did not take the form that we have received until after September 22, 1220, since the Second Chapter makes reference to a Bull of that date. A form of this Rule had likely been approved by Innocent III in 1215. Some studies propose earlier dates, as far back as 1209 or 1210
No doubt the Early Rule emanated from Saint Francis’ own heart, but there is also no doubt that it was developed over time as a result of discussions held during the gathering of the first brothers. Passages of The Legend of the Three Companions and The Second Life of Saint Francis by Celano speak of the work done on the Rule.

The text that we know today includes negative insertions, elaborations and clarifications, and elements that reflect the influence of the Fourth Lateran Council. These particular passages may not be rooted in the spontaneous thinking of Saint Francis, but they do reflect his evolved thinking and deep concern that the Rule be a useful guide for the conduct of growing numbers of adherents. Certain beliefs would have to be systematized for the good of the Order.

The Early Rule, which we explored in the previous edition, chronicled not only the systematic development of early Franciscans but also “the development of the movement’s linguistic culture.” (Flood) As well, The Admonitionspresented a lexicon that is key to the proper understanding of Saint Francis’ intended message. He adopted words that had a special resonance for his culture, particularly relating to evangelical living (operibus praedicent), working (opera Domini) and good things (bona). To understand the mind of Saint Francis, we must become deeply steeped with the language he used and the purpose for which he communicated:

“Franciscan culture is the meaning intrinsic to Franciscan practices. It did not begin with the scriptural passages quoted in Chapter One of the Early Rule; it began with their practical interpretation. (We have no Gospel. We only have interpretations of the Gospel).…Francis wanted his brothers to involve themselves in what they all had said and done up to that moment, well reported in the Early Rule. Such involvement was an integral part of Franciscan life. And Francis gave his brothers a brace of admonitions (XX and XXI) to help them do it.”
– David Flood

The term “admonition” can be a bit misleading. Saint Francis used it as a gentle counsel or exhortation, not as a dire warning although he did believe these statements to reflect a true understanding of God’s will. Judging by the epithets used by leading Franciscan authors, it is virtually impossible to exaggerate the significance of The Admonitions in capturing the essence of the spirituality of Saint Francis. Esser called it “the Magna Charter of a life in the Christian spirit of brotherhood.” Others have used similarly lofty expressions, such as the “Franciscan Sermon on the Mount” and a “Mirror of Perfection.”

Although his systematics as expressed in The Admonitions are oftentimes innovative and insightful, the ideas they contain are not always new. For instance, scholars have found traces of Augustine, Pseudo-Bernard – there seems to be little doubt that Cistercians influenced the thinking of Saint Francis and the nascent brotherhood to some degree or other. Cistercians were invited to oversee the proper conduct of chapter meetings, and the early brothers and sisters heard Cistercian preachers as well – Godfrey of Amont, and Godfrey of Auxerre in the first four admonitions. Rather, Saint Francis’ originality can be found principally in his systematization of insights both new and borrowed.

But it is The Testament that most concerns us now as we conclude our study of Saint Francis’ communication and the long journey that led to it. In fact, at least two documents can be generally called “testaments,” one being Chapter 22 of his Early Rule, as previously indicated, and the message that Saint Francis appears to have dictated near the end of his life. Before we begin an appreciation of it as authentic and effective communication, we must bear in mind Flood’s caution that “we do not know how the text reached its final shape, nor do we know how it began circulating among the brothers. It belonged to the nature of the text, that as his parting words Saint Francis exercised no control over its final shape and publication.” (David Flood)

Saint Francis seems to have intended The Testament to be read in tandem with The Rule: “His words exemplify the brothers’ relationship to the Rule as we find it in Chapter Twenty-Four of the Early Rule.” But, although this latterTestament was clearly rooted in memories of the Order’s origins and the ideas expressed in the Early Rule, “from the first lines of The Testament on, Saint Francis has in mind the text of 1223. By recalling history and administering a few stern corrections, he integrates a text of compromise (a canonical regula) into Franciscan life.” (Flood) Saint Francis must have felt the dangers of division, as already some brothers were inclined toward the original charism and others toward later developments, a danger he was powerless to prevent as discussions aboutThe Rule reached an impasse at the general chapter of 1230, only four years after his death, which Pope Gregory IX tried to lift with a collection of glosses. In fact, Saint Francis had tried to impose unity by giving legal force to The Testament, which was crafted as a worthy and masterful attempt to bridge differences, but he lacked the canonical authority to do so.

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May the summer season be a restful and reinvigorating time for you. May this be for you a time for enjoying the magnificence of God’s wonder-filled communication to us through His holy Creation. May you live in the peace and joy of God’s promise for His people.