St Francis of Assisi: Redefining discipleship

I am fascinated by Francis.

Francis of Assisi (1181/2 – 1226) was, I think, a man in many ways well ahead of his time. Being human, he was not without his oddities and peccadilloes. But he drank deeply from the sorts of spiritual wells that have more recently animated the charismatic movement.

He took monasticism to its next logical step in living what Weber would later call a “worldly asceticism”: his model of Imitatio Christi understood as a vigorous and peripatetic service to the world transformed medieval religious life. The Franciscans and Dominicans both lived it out for centuries after his death, though often in ways that would have made poor Francis’s hair curl.

He recognized with laser clarity the toxicity of wealth and the heroic measures necessary to save oneself from pride.

What a saint was Francis! Still today I am challenged every time I read of his life.

All of this I was beginning to discover in 1994, at age 31, as I moved on from both my Christian tutelage in the charismatic movement and my secular vocation in corporate communications to the full-time study of church history

The first step was Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, an evangelical school in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. And the first course I took at that school was a long-distance, correspondence-style affair with a man who would become a beloved mentor: Dr. Garth Rosell.

The course was “Church history to the Reformation,” and in the final paper, I explored Francis of Assisi’s distinctive brand of Christian discipleship.

I would change some things were I to rewrite this today (as I will likely do as i absorb parts of it into my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants). I had not yet become confident enough of my own historical judgment to be weaned of the habit of over-quoting. I had not learned enough about Benedictine monasticism to disagree (as I do now) with Rosalind Brooke’s harsh judgment on the life of the cloister.

But I have read a lot about Francis since, and I don’t see much in this early paper that would need revision. By the way, if you want to know more about Francis and the Franciscans, I’d recommend you read Sabatier’s classic biography of Francis, the Little Flowers, and also William Short’s brief book for the Orbis Traditions of Christian Spirituality series, Poverty and Joy: The Franciscan Tradition.

Oh, and . . . Dr. Rosell gave me an “A” 🙂

Saint Francis: Redefining Discipleship

Let all of us wherever we are, in every place, at every hour, at every time of day, everyday and continually believe truly and humbly and keep in [our] heart, and love, honor, adore, serve, praise and bless, glorify and exalt, magnify and give thanks to the most high and supreme eternal God, Trinity and Unity, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Creator of all, Savior of all who believe in Him and hope in Him and love Him, Who is without beginning and without end, unchangeable, invisible, indescribable, ineffable, incomprehensible, unfathomable, blessed, worthy of praise, glorious, exalted on high, sublime, most high, gentle, lovable, delectable and totally desirable above all else forever. Amen.[1]

Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) brought to his age a paradigm shift in Christian discipleship. This intense, passionate saint redefined by his very lifestyle how a Christian should ideally live—and in the process challenged certain presuppositions of the monastic model which had predominated for centuries.

Francis’ “new way” is best expressed not in terms of doctrine, nor even in the Franciscan rule as it survives today, but in the living example of one of the most compelling figures of Christian history—a man who was challenged by the Holy Spirit to step out and be different, and took the challenge wholeheartedly.

The resulting flame of one life sold out to God lit up the thirteenth century like a rocket. His holy example inflamed prince and pauper alike to join him, and soon his brotherhood was spreading like a sanctified brush-fire.

…by the latter part of the thirteenth century almost every town of any size had its community of Friars Minor. Within fifty years of the saint’s death there were over fifty such communities in England alone, and more than five hundred in Italy.[2]

In short, the first thing we notice about Francis’s new kind of discipleship is that it was evidently more “caught” than taught.

For my part I want…never to have any other privilege…than to do reverence to everybody and by obedience to the holy rule to convert everybody by example more than by word.[3]

But what did this “example”—this “new approach to discipleship”—really look like?  What made Francis’ way of life so compelling in his day?

To answer this question properly, we need to first look at the state of the church in that day. As nature abhors a vacuum, perhaps too the kingdom of God—and there was a decided moral and spiritual vacuum to be filled when Francis stepped onto the scene at the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The decrepit church buildings he labored in his youth to repair were an apt “figure” of the spiritual condition of the church of his time. According to the Fourth Lateran Council (1215),

Many priests have lived luxuriously. They have passed the time in drunken revels, neglecting religious rites. When they have been at Mass, they have chatted about commercial affairs. They have left churches and tabernacles in an indecent state, sold posts and sacraments.…[4]

This unholy disrepair of God’s church was all too evident. Not surprisingly then, Francis was not the only would-be reformer seeking to address the situation.

…numerous other groups…were proliferating about the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, some determinedly orthodox, others as determinedly heretical.…They were part…of a widespread upsurge of religious sentiment which…emphasized the spiritual value of voluntary poverty and manifested an imperative need to preach. They arose in the same milieu as the Waldensians and the Humiliati, and…were associated with such in the minds of some who came across them in the early days.[5]

One thing that distinguished Francis from these other reformers was that he did not come, as had for example the Albigensians and Waldensians, with a judgment upon the established church. That judgment he left to God, preferring instead to live such an example in the face of corruption that the church would be purified from within.

…harvesting souls…can be gained better by peace than by discord with the clergy.…If you act like children of peace, you will win both clergy and people for the Lord, and the Lord regards that as more acceptable than winning the people only to the scandal of the clergy. Cover up their lapses, supply their various shortcomings, and when you have done so, be the humbler for it.[6]

What else was unique about the Franciscans? A number of aspects are typically taken as the core of Francis’s style of discipleship which, although certainly strong elements, were not essentially distinctive in his time.

The first demand of discipleship to Francis was renunciation: surrender of anything which competes with Jesus in one’s life. As repentance to salvation, so renunciation to vocation. In an Italy (and a Europe) burgeoning with wealth and fleshly comforts, this was certainly a timely emphasis. But in a Europe long accustomed to the ascetic disciplines of the monks, renunciation was not a particularly new or radical element of discipleship. The Franciscans’ only distinctiveness here was that, while the monks dwelt in the cloistered “sanctification machines” of the monasteries, the friars now lived out their renunciation in the midst of the world.

Let us take thought of our vocation. God in his mercy has called us to it not so much for our sake as for the sake of the many. So, let us go out into the world and admonish everybody by example as well as word to do penance and be mindful of God’s commandments.[7]

Integrally related to the theme of renunciation were the four disciplines of humility, simplicity, poverty, and prayer. Among these humility, not poverty, was preeminent for Francis (notwithstanding a tendency among modern commentators to focus more strongly on the latter).

As in the monastic tradition, all four of these disciplines were conceived primarily as hedges against pride. Unique to Francis was perhaps only the intensity of passion for his Lord which motivated him to fear and loathe the pride he saw within him. So great was Francis’s love for his Lord that his fear of allowing pride to separate him from God on many occasions caused him to humiliate himself either privately or publicly:

Often, when he was honored by all, he suffered the deepest sorrow, and rejecting the favor of men, he would see to it that he would be rebuked by someone. He would call some brother to him, saying to him, ‘In obedience, I say to you, revile me harshly and speak the truth against the lies of these others.’  And when that brother, though unwilling, would say he was a boor, a hired servant, a worthless being, Francis, smiling and applauding very much, would reply, ‘May the Lord bless you, for you have spoken most truly; it is becoming that the son of Peter of Bernardone should hear such things.’[8]

Poverty, which is often taken to be the touchstone of Francis’s approach to discipleship, was likewise not an emphasis unique to the saint.

By the eleventh and twelfth centuries, new tides of devotion led Christians to yearn for the “perfect life”—a life that would mirror Christ’s and not compromise God’s perfect will. The Cistercian monastic movement underlined the importance of poverty; Bernard of Clairvaux considered possessions an intolerable distraction from the love of God.[9]

Again the only novelty in Francis’s approach to poverty was the intensity of motivation with which he pursued it. He was motivated at least partially by a strong personal sensitivity to the injustices of the capitalist juggernaut gathering speed around him—even in his own home. Francis was the son of a rich merchant in an increasingly urban, trade-centered Europe, where

…the townsfolk who prospered did so mostly by trade or usury, both of which were at best morally ambiguous.…the wealth of the towns was the result of greed and exploitation, the gap between rich and poor was gross, and there was no way the judgment of God could be evaded.…Evangelical poverty explicitly presented itself as an act of penitence and as the divine verdict against the neglect of Christ’s poor.[10]

Francis’s movement was certainly not one of mere activism or a social gospel, however. Prayer, for Francis, was at the center of a disciple’s work:

Those are my knights of the Round Table, who keep hidden in remote, desert places the more earnestly to spend their time in prayer and meditation, deploring their sins and the sins of others, plain of life and humble of manner; whose holiness is known to God, but at times unknown to their brothers and to the people. When the souls of these men are presented to the Lord by the angels, the Lord will show them the fruit and wages of their labors in the many souls saved by their example, prayers and tears, and he will say to them, ‘My beloved children, look, so and so many souls have been saved through your prayers, tears, and example. Because you have been faithful over a few things I will place you over many things’.[11]

This is not, of course, mere rhetoric. At one point in his career, Francis almost decided to retreat and spend the rest of his life in prayer, rather than continuing to travel and preach. It took the testimony of two of his close friends to encourage him that the Lord wanted him to go out and affect others by personal contact, and that many would be saved thereby.

In the discipline of prayer we have come almost to the heart of Francis’s “new way.”  But we are still not quite there. For Francis, the heart of discipleship was not in renunciation, humility, simplicity, poverty, or even prayer. It was rather in the motive for which these disciplines were undertaken. The wellspring of Francis’s own discipleship was an overwhelming passion for the person of his Lord. It was this passion for communion with Jesus which propelled Francis into leadership of a new religious order, and it was this passion that drove Francis and the whole movement forward:

A man will not roll in the snow for a stream of tendency by which all things fulfil the law of their being. He will not go without food in the name of something, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness…He will do these things when he is in love.…To this great mystic his religion was not a thing like a theory but a thing like a love-affair.[12]

From the beginning of his calling, as he roamed the streets begging alms for stones with which to repair the broken-down St. Damian’s church,

[Francis] was…so completely absorbed by this new life, so certain of his vocation and so much aware of the divine compulsion, that he went about as if in an ecstasy of joy. The chroniclers speak of him at this time as ‘one drunk with the Spirit,’ or as if driven forward by ‘a very intoxication of the divine love.’[13]

Out of this intense, mystical experience of communion with the person of Christ was birthed in Francis a burning desire to follow in the very footsteps of his Lord. It is in this concept of the “Imitatio Christi” (imitation of Christ) that we come to the true motivation of Francis himself, and therefore the crux of Franciscan discipleship. Here too we find the key difference between Francis and the Benedictine tradition that had birthed earlier renewal attempts. Because of his passionate focus on the person of Jesus, Francis was leery of any attempt to reduce the love relationship he so vividly experienced to a set of detailed prescriptive regulations, addressing every exigency and circumstance of life.[14]

When finally forced by the burgeoning of a cadre of followers to present to the pope a written “way of life” as the basis for a new order, Francis penned a brief, unstructured rule, consisting primarily of over one hundred gospel verses. It was in fact less a rule in the traditional Benedictine sense than a collection of the radical sayings of Francis’s Lord, intended to draw the would-be disciple forth into deeper communion with God.

There was a primitivism in Francis’s approach: a “back to Jesus” impulse that sought to break out of the almost legalistic accretions of the monastic tradition. As a wise Cardinal pointed out when Francis presented this first rule to Pope Innocent III, to deny that this rule was possible to follow, saying it was too hard for man, would have been to deny the humanity of Christ, since the “rule” was fundamentally what Christ modeled and taught in his own, fully human life.

We may add that to disown Francis’s simple rule would also have been to disown, in a sense, the very apostles from whom the church had sprung. In fact, Francis’s own perception may well have been that this apostolic lifestyle had already been disowned in the monastic tradition (certainly as that tradition had become corrupted by his day).

…the life of a Benedictine monk and the life of an apostle, shall we say, were obviously very different. The freedom and discretion allowed to the apostles has been replaced by a host of external regulations. Some of these indeed seem actually to contradict the Gospels. Christ said to the apostles, ‘Eat what is set before you,’ yet the monk must observe a whole series of fasts; the apostles traveled widely, yet the monk must never leave his monastery; and so on. Detailed practical guidance on the right course from day to day, such as is found in St. Benedict’s rule, can safeguard a high standard of conduct and give a feeling of security, but it provides but limited opportunities for moral growth.[15]

For moral growth we may also read “growth in communion with God.”  In contrast with the strict institutionalism previously deemed necessary to get close to God, Francis promoted a discipleship characterized by this kind of apostolic exercise of freedom—a more “relational” discipleship.

Brooke comes close to pinpointing the root of Francis’s distaste for rules and regulations when she describes this freer, more relational style of discipleship as an imitation of Christ’s own style of teaching:

Christ did not come to make the way easier or even to make it plain. He provided no large-scale chart mapping the whole road which his followers would consult.…This life can be lived: it cannot be stated in terms of abstract principles.…the application of even such apparently simple teaching as the Sermon on the Mount to a given situation is by no means always self-evident. We are left to work it out for ourselves, to try to understand the mind of Christ, to imagine what he himself would have done.[16]

What Brooke does not go on to say is that in leaving room for each disciple to work out their salvation in their own way, Francis was actually acknowledging the guiding role of Christ himself, through his Spirit. There are evidences that this is in fact very consciously what Francis was doing. Used to walking closely with his Lord and living under the teaching of His spirit, he was loathe to harden into legalism the life which he knew operated out of divine, moment-by-moment, day-by-day grace.

We get a taste of Francis’s strong pneumatology (an element of his life and teaching being gladly reappropriated by Catholic charismatics today), in the following prayer:

Almighty, eternal, just and merciful God, grant us in our misery [the grace] to do for You alone what we know You want us to do and always to desire what pleases You.

Thus, inwardly cleansed, interiorly enlightened, and inflamed by the fire of the Holy Spirit, may we be able to follow in the footprints of Your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

And, by Your grace alone, may we make our way to You, Most High, Who live and rule in perfect Trinity and simple Unity, and are glorified, God all-powerful, forever and ever. Amen.[17]

“The words ‘by Your grace alone,’” notes one commentator, “are significant in understanding the dynamism of the Holy Spirit, which was behind the drive, the unquenchable desire of Francis to be Christ-like. It was the Spirit of a son always eager to please his Father and always receptive to the gifts the Father would give.”[18]

Although “discipleship according to Francis” clearly required a human response of obedience (quite rigorous obedience), it was just as clearly initiated, agented, directed, even “orchestrated” by the Spirit of Christ—sometimes through Scripture; sometimes directly, in visions, impressions, and the inner voice. In fact, Francis saw the Holy Spirit as so masterful in the dynamic of discipleship that he referred to the third person of the trinity as “Minister General” of his own order, and repeatedly refused to take arrogate to himself that order’s leadership. Instead he yielded to the wishes of the brothers, as best expressing the will of the Spirit.

It may seem paradoxical to attribute this kind of free-flowing, individualistic religious style to a man whose extreme asceticism finally killed him in his mid-40’s. We need to remind ourselves, however, that Francis’s own high level of asceticism was motivated not by an imagined legal necessity, but by a passion for the person of Jesus, and a desire to identify with him in every possible way. Steeped in Scripture as he was, he appears to have known that there is no scripture enjoining direct, point-by-point imitation of Christ in all his sufferings. Yet he chose this path out of passionate love for his saviour.

It is true that Francis seems to have gone beyond what the gospels warrant in imitating his Lord. His belief that he needed almost to redo what only Jesus could do—even to the redemptive act of martyrdom—was an overwhelming personal compulsion. It can not be biblically supported as a model for all Christians. In Francis’s defense, we can only say that his extreme Imitatio Christi was born of his times—times when martyrs were still venerated, and a glorious death in the cause of Christ assured “plenary indulgence,” or forgiveness for all sins.

Although in his own imitation of Christ Francis seems to have gone beyond obedience to unwarranted sacrifice, he did not enforce the extremes of his own approach on the other brothers. He demonstrated this flexibility in many ways during his life. For example, despite the extreme ascetic demands he placed on his own body, he counseled the brothers to be aware of their own individual physical needs, and often encouraged one or another of them to eat when in fasting they had gone beyond what their bodies could endure.

More importantly, Francis acknowledged that the Lord’s direction for one disciple might not be His direction for another. His last words “I have done my duty, may Christ teach you yours” reflect his expectation that discipleship would involve a different road for different people—not a cut-and-dried ascetic legalism.

That the Christian world was not perhaps at Francis’s time ready to cut loose from the point-by-point direction of a Benedictine rule is clear by the rapid accretion of rules and regulations—against his will, and even in his lifetime—on the Franciscan lifestyle. The eventual Franciscan definition of discipleship, I think it fair to say, was not Francis’s direction. What it gained in organizational effectiveness it lost in Francis’s childlike confidence that in each new situation Christ would make a way through his Spirit, and that in hardened rules there was much that impeded, rather than aiding, the spiritual life of the disciple.

Francis’s definition of discipleship was one both of radical christocentrism and of radical individualism. It was ahead of its time—not be seen again on so grand a scale until the time of John Wyclif.


Armstrong, Regis J. and Ignatius C. Brady. Francis and Clare: the complete works. New York: Paulist Press, 1982.

Brooke, Rosalind B. The Coming of the Friars. New York: Barnes & Noble (Harper & Row), 1975.

Chesterton, G. K. St. Francis of Assisi. London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 1926.

Daniel, E. Randolph. The Franciscan Concept of Mission in the High Middle Ages. Lexington:  Unversity Press of Kentucky, 1975.

Meyer, James, ed. The Words of Saint Francis—An Anthology. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1952.

Moorman, John R. H. Saint Francis of Assisi. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1950.

[1] Hymn concluding Francis’s Earlier Rule, in William S. Stafford, “The Case for Downward Mobility,” Christian History, 42, Vol. XII, no. 2: 32.

[2] John R. H. Moorman, Saint Francis of Assisi (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1950), 65.

[3] Francis, “Mirror of Perfection,” in James Meyer, ed., The Words of Saint Francis—An Anthology (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1952), 177.

[4] “Francis’s Troubled World,” Christian History, 42, Vol. XII, No. 2: 29.

[5] Rosalind B. Brooke, The Coming of the Friars (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1975), 106.

[6] Celano, Second Life, in Meyer, 174.

[7] “Legend of the Three Companions,” in Meyer 172-3.

[8] Celano, First Life, in “Snapshots of a Saint,” Christian History, 42, Vol. XII, No. 2: 19.

[9] William Stafford, “A Time to Be Poor,” Christian History, 42, Vol. XII, No. 2: 32.

[10] Ibid, 32.

[11] Francis, “Mirror of Perfection,” Meyer, 111.

[12] Chesterton, 14-16.

[13] Moorman, 21. Moorman also notes that Francis would often weep for hours at a time while considering the Passion of his Lord.

[14] This distrust of written rules extended itself to education in general.  However, Francis was not “anti-intellectual” on principle. He merely feared anything that might stand in the way of the kind of communion he himself had experienced with his Lord. Illustrative of this is the account of Francis giving Saint Anthony of Padua permission to teach the friars theology, as long as it did not “extinguish the habit of prayer.”  He did not want thought to supersede relationship.

[15] Brooke, 34. (My emphasis.)

[16] Ibid, 36.

[17] Francis, A Letter to the Entire Order, in Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, Francis and Clare: the complete works (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 13.

[18] Ibid, 14.


4 responses to “St Francis of Assisi: Redefining discipleship

  1. Thanks for this post, Chris! St Francis is a fascinating study.

  2. Chris,

    Thanks for sharing this article about St. Francis of Assisi. Few people has approached St Francis from the perspective of his discipleship. Most look at him from the perspective of his spirituality.

    I find Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 black and white movie “The Flowers of St. Francis” especially illuminating.

  3. Thanks for posting, Chris. I really enjoyed this!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s