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History of Religious Life
St. Francis of Assisi and the
Witness to Evangelical Poverty - Part 3

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The Institute on Religious Life and the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence of Chicago, bring you the third and last tape in a series of conferences given by Father John A. Hardon on the subject, Saint Francis of Assisi and the Witness to Evangelical Poverty.

History of Franciscan Theology

Fr.Hardon: As I mentioned earlier there's so much to talk about in speaking on Francis that I thought we'd take one more chart, the analysis of Franciscan theology, and then, stop there, otherwise we never go onto the others. By Franciscan theology we mean of course the reflection on the faith as has been done over the centuries by the great masters of theology in the Franciscan order. So Franciscan theology is the theology of the Franciscans, but who have been true to the spirit of Saint Francis. The four great names always after Saint Francis, that may be said to be the founders of Franciscan theology, are Alexander of Hales, who are the earliest, blessed Raymond Lily, Saint Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus. Among these four, St. Bonaventure of course towers above everyone as most faithfully reflecting the mind of his own master, St. Francis. Why is it important to know Franciscan theology and not just what we have so far seen as Franciscan spirituality, especially his poverty? The reason is the theology spans in this case seven centuries,1221 the date of the first rule of Francis that is over 700 years since that rule was drafted. There have been many great minds, saints, men and women, the Franciscan calendar just the list of all the blessed and saints fills a book, each one of whom added his or her own nuance and perspective. Secondly, it's one thing to hear about something concretely, it's something else to have the reflection on that. Theology is the reflection of the faith.

Francis’ insight into the person of Christ, especially Christ’s humility to be shown by my practice of poverty is a concrete, personal, and sensibly perceptible experience. The theology reflects on that experience, analyzes it and makes it intelligible, not only for practicing but for understanding and I think one of the greatest needs in religious communities today is not just more exhortations but a clearer and deeper understanding. The theology reflecting on the spirit of St. Francis is rich, and as I mentioned to you when we began this course my first exposure for years was to St. Francis long before I discovered Ignatius. My mother was a Franciscan tertiary and without getting me in, she did the next best thing. And I just hope she's pleased with what I'm doing. While she was a small woman she had a very clear idea of when I was doing something wrong. In any case, while I am teaching theology, all the theology I've taught for 25 years has been colored by St. Francis.

Foundations of Franciscan Theology

First, the basis of Franciscan theology is St. Augustine. Francis was no great literature, he was literate of course, he was a profoundly intelligent man. He was no student of St. Augustine but without having studied Augustine he imbibed the spirit of Augustine, which has especially three features: first, in Francis as in Augustine there was a preoccupation with God's sovereignty with God's running this world, God's in charge have no doubt this is God's world, as Augustine that's Francis. Augustine couldn't have given another name to his greatest work except "The City of God". And second, in Augustine as in Francis a profound awareness of human sinfulness. Now Augustine on this level had experiences that Francis knew not of, Augustine had drunk deeply of the chalice of sin. He was a sinner and a real one. When Augustine wrote about sin he wrote from experience. Francis, unlike Augustine was no great sinner, if you read Francis' own writings you'd think he was worse than Judas. But Francis has much to teach us because while Augustine understood sin in a way that Francis never could and he was the better for it, but Francis had an awareness of man's sinfulness and of the least deviation from the will of God especially interior deviation. I don't know of any great saint whose conscience was so sensitized to God's will as that of Francis, as a result of which he really meant it when he said he was the greatest sinner on earth, he meant it, he really was, in his own eyes, he really was! And thirdly and logically, if I am such a sinner then I need grace I need grace to be forgiven my sins, I need grace to expiate my sins, I need grace to avoid sin. And this is the incredible awareness of man's total helplessness and of God's power that Francis revealed to the world. Second, volunteerism, the word itself is technical as we shall see when we look at Saint Dominic and a Dominican spirituality. It may be characterized as intellectualism, not Francis. For Francis though of course he recognized that man is a composite of mind and will of intellect and volition, of a capacity for knowledge and a capacity for love, but with Francis all the weight was on the side of the will, the affections, of love. Never to the exclusion of the intellect but certainly emphasizes the role of the will. What are the implications? First, the primacy of the will. For Francis it matters little frankly, how much I know about God. It matters a lot how much I love God. Now, part of my love of God will be that I will want to know more about God but even there it's only that I might love him more. Moreover, surprisingly for a man who so stressed the absolute need of grace, Francis was terrifyingly aware of the power of human freedom. So I need grace, so I do, but even the Almighty as incredible as it may seem, even the Almighty can not save me, let alone sanctify me unless I want to. I hold in my hands my own destiny. Then Francis stressed the freedom of the will by freedom of course he meant first and most importantly internal freedom. That as I have so often said we can be in prison without being behind bars, in other words freedom from our passions, freedom from unruly desires, freedom from inordinate fears. Freedom from myself, free from that part of me that would enslave the better part of me. And why be free? In order that I might love God more , but freedom of the will also in that I will be beholden to no one. This as we saw earlier was one of the main reasons for his insistence on poverty. All I know and I know it, that rich people are not free people. They have at least one terrifying fear and that is of losing their wealth. Third, and we need not dwell on this except to state it. Primacy of poverty and the pursuit of holiness. As you can see, not only in the time that I spent on poverty and the raising of the volume that I noticed that I occasionally did in speaking on the subject, there is no question that unless we look to our poverty the pursuit of holiness is the pursuit of a dream.

The Prominence of the Blessed Virgin

First, Francis himself had a very tender personal devotion to our Lady, no doubt one reason was, that he was so aware of Christ's humanity. He was the one , as you know, who gave the modern world its great devotion to Christmas and not just the Christmas crib, but Christmas. And one reason be it said, remember these two dates, oh, I can use this board, let me...(writing on the board) . Two dates that we should keep in mind, the major heresy of the fourth Lateran Council condemned in 1215, was the heresy of Albigensianism. The heresy that seduced something upwards of a thousand major cities in Europe. It seems to have been a large part of Europe, in fact, the highest peak of holiness reached by the Perfecti among the Albigenses was to die of starvation by self inflicted suicide. In other words, now that's not easy to commit suicide. I don't suggest trying it (laughter), I'm just saying, it's a painful process to starve yourself. Talk about being misguided. We miss or would miss one of the principal thrusts of Francis and why God raised a man like Him (Fr. Hardon drinking water,) "as you can see I'm no Albigensian". Francis' stress on Christ's poverty was that we are to use this world's goods but use them according to the will of God, but his stress on our Lady was to make sure that no one made any mistake that God became, GOD became man, and was born of a woman, that God had a mother in order to emphasize for all times what the church wants us to be so clear in believing that God took on real human flesh and that as a consequence that humanity of Christ is adorable, that humanity of Christ is imitable, that humanity of Christ is lovable and that when I love Jesus I am loving God , though the one I love from all external evidence is a human being. When Francis talked about Christ for example, I'm sure you've read it as much you've read of the omnibus. But, he would tell his followers, and he would be lost in ecstasy at the bright sun overhead to think of it, "The same sun that is warming us warmed Jesus. The water that we're drinking is the water that God took, the food we eat, the earth we walk on the air we breathe was breathed by God." You can see why he has great devotion to our Lady, it was to make clear to all who inherited his spirit that the God they are worshiping is a God who is a man, being born as the rest of us are, of a woman.

Union with God through Meditation, Prayer and Contemplation.

With all the far-flung and breathtaking apostolic achievements that rose in the Franciscan tradition no matter what their community may have been, have achieved in seven centuries, might obscure the main purpose that Francis had in, well, leading people to Christ. The main purpose was that they might by following Christ the via, might learn Christ the veritas and possess Christ the vita. Christ therefore is the way, is the way to the possession of Christ and the only way we can speak of possessing Christ is possessing Him as Augustine said preceding Francis, possessing Him with the two arms of our spirit, the arms of the mind and the heart or the intellect and the will. Now the means towards this possession of God were and Francis emphasized this as few other founders of religious institutes did, through meditation, prayer and contemplation. What's the difference? I'm now using Francis' vocabulary. Meditation is thinking, thinking about God, prayer is asking God, invoking God and contemplation is looking at God whom I love. So meditation is using the intellect, not much, but using it. Prayer is asking God and contemplation then is, as the word implies, looking at, beholding the Love whom I love. Christian perfection for Francis was contemplative love, and by now centuries of theology have excavated the meaning of that. This as we shall see is not quite the language of St. Ignatius, for Ignatius who was not a soldier for nothing, and of course when Ignatius fought our principle enemies would be who? Who would you think? The world, the flesh and the devil, so if Ignatius were to define Christian perfection, Christian perfection is victory over the world, flesh and the devil. Now Francis would not deny that, but Francis was no soldier, not at least in Ignatius' sense. For Francis we become as perfect as we grow in contemplative prayer. A great deal of what is now being written out embodied in so many volumes can be seen very clearly once you realize what some of these things meant for the men, in this case Francis, or women as later on in the case of St. Teresa of Avila. Some of the deepest problems in theology can be resolved once you see how these people understood them. You are as perfect as you love God. That's it.

Stress on the Mystical Over Acquired Knowledge.

In Franciscan theology therefore they did not deny nor do the Franciscans today who write in their tradition, deny that there is a great deal we can and should learn by study and dint of our own human effort to know God in His mind and will better than we do. But, in the Franciscan tradition the principal source is not study but prayer.

If I come to know God, because notice when we say contemplative love (writing on the board) this of course has to do with the mind, this has to do with the will. I love with the will and I contemplate with the mind and because we're all rational beings, we cannot love what we don't know. The question before the house therefore is, where do I get this knowledge? In the Franciscan tradition the primary source of this knowledge is not human effort but divine grace, ok? Now that doesn't mean that a person can say well, I won't open a book or I won't study. God is God, he's got all kinds of grace, I'm sitting, waiting, let Him pour it in. What do you do if he won't pour it in? So we must do something, but in terms of what the principle source of that knowledge is-- it is grace. Grace infused, mystical knowledge.

Faith as Light and Understanding

Next feature, faith as light and understanding. Let me tell you , these dozen or so features that I've listed here are not just casually picked out of , well, the hat that needs to be repaired that I'm embarrassed wearing. These are the result of years of reflection on Franciscan theology. It is quite possible to look on faith as mainly mystery, where we believe in humility, accepting on God's word what we don't understand. Is that true? It sure is, you name the mystery and it's a mystery. There are many things, deep things that we just don't comprehend. But, that's not Francis, he would not deny that you cannot comprehend the Trinity or the Incarnation or the Real Presence. He would say of course, of course you cannot, but that's not what I want my followers to think about. I want them to think about what they can understand. For Francis faith is light. Francis did not coin this definition, but he could have. A mystery is not something we do not understand at all, a mystery is something we do not understand entirely, it's not something we know nothing about, it is something about which we don't know everything, but we can know plenty. All I can tell you, that single perspective can change your life, as I have been telling, especially contemplatives, when I preach to them or give them retreats. I tell them, if you're going to spend the 8, 10, or 12 hours a day in prayer you better have something on your mind. Otherwise you're going to be thinking in circles or you're going to be thinking about yourselves and that's not meditation, that's Zen Buddhism. By the way, if you haven't heard of a good homemade definition of Zen- you are teachers, you know I teach Zen Buddhism to appropriate audiences. Zen Buddhism is meditation on the self, honest, honest. I'm sure it's a delightful enterprise for some people, but that's not Christian meditation. Right? So I must know God better than I know Him now if I'm going to love Him the way I should . Faith gives me light, insight, penetration, stages as purification, illumination and perfection. Francis had no doubt that in the spiritual life there is such a thing as beginning and though many of his followers were already fairly well advanced in virtue, nevertheless, he realized that all of us required to be purified, then enlightened and then perfection. For the contemplative, love comes only after I have especially been purified of my self love. Now, we've all heard that ‘tirade’, purification, illumination and perfection. Let me tell you something though, you read Francis and especially those great minds like Bonaventure for example, who knew Francis well and analyzed him in a way that Francis could never have done himself . There is a great deal of illusion possible in the religious life. There is all kinds of pseudo mysticism. All sorts of alleged sanctity because and how important it is to say this now a days. For example for the rage for Pentecostalism how this needs to be said. The genuine Christian perfection, the contemplative love which in Francis's vocabulary was sanctity, must, and there is no substitute, must pass through the stage of purification. And you do not ask for example Fr. O'Conner, one of the leading Catholic Pentecostals in the nation. In his book, a good man, a good, good Catholic, he said "for too long we thought with John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila that to become a mystic you must first be an ascetic. That to reach the gifts of prayer they experienced, you must go through the long process of purification. Well, after four centuries we've learned better." No, Fr. O'Conner we have not learned better and Francis long before the modern instant mysticism became the vogue, tells us you either go through these stages or what you think is perfection, what you think is mysticism, is not. God, Francis will tell us, enters only a purified soul and that means suffering, self surrender and sacrifice.

Grace is divine indwelling of the Holy Spirit and with this I think I should finish because I'm looking at the clock over there, 12 minutes to - . Divine grace can be variously understood as we know in theology. In our 700 years of Franciscan theology this is the one feature of divine grace that we can thank the Franciscans for giving us, the stress on grace as the uncreated spirit of God dwelling in the soul of man. Now, we know the same word grace well, it's spelled the same way, can mean and does mean both God and the gift of God. Both are grace. But the one of course is the creator Himself and the other is His Creation. What then is divine grace? Well, you have to distinguish in what sense do you mean? What is supernatural grace? That's the gift. What is actual grace? That's a gift. Supernatural grace is the permanent abiding gift that we have when we are in God's friendship. Actual grace is the transient, periodic and constant inspiration and illumination that God gives us that's a grace, it's a gift. Supernatural grace is a creature, actual grace is a creature. Ah, but in the Franciscan theological tradition the only reason we got sanctifying grace or receive actual graces is because God the author of grace first abides in the human soul. For Francis one of the favorite passages in the gospels is the promise of Christ at the last supper, "if you keep my word my Father will love you and we will come and make our home in your soul." And finally Christ, and this is almost fundamental to Franciscan spirituality, Christ is the God whom we are to imitate. Now, the word imitation has a variety of meanings, some that are totally irrelevant to our discussion, but when God became man He did not obviously cease to be God, so it is God plus man who then is Christ. What we directly imitate is Christ the man but in as much as in the exemplarization of creation is at its highest in the humanity of Christ, the most perfect creation which most perfectly exemplifies, manifests, shows, depicts, illustrates, makes knowable the divinity in the human nature of Christ, so that by imitating Him we are necessarily imitating the God who became man. It is in this sense that Christ called himself the way, it is his humanity that is the via, the way to His divinity which is the life, then we possess by going as it were through Christ the man to Christ who is God and with that I think reluctantly we will leave St. Francis and now pick up St. Dominic.

Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life

Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
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Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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