The roots of heart religion – Francis of Assisi

Gemälde von Bonaventura Berlinghieri: Der hl. ...

Francis in a medieval dollhouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the fifth part of the tour of medieval heart religion from the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows the first part here, which looks at Origen and Augustine, the second part here, on Gregory the Great, the third part here, on Anselm of Canterbury, and the fourth part here, on Bernard of Clairvaux.

Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226)

Francis of Assisi, on top of all his other distinctions, gave the affective tradition a great boost in the 13th century. The sheer ubiquity of the evangelizing, teaching movement he started ensured that anything he emphasized would deeply penetrate the Christian culture of that century, and many centuries to come. 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.[1]

No influence shaped popular devotion in the high and late Middle Ages more than the Franciscans. They reached into the psyche of the people, appealing to them directly through art, literature, and impassioned preaching on the homely details of the Nativity and the stark and gritty narrative of the Passion. Tears, for Francis as for Julian and the English mystics, were a gift from God, cleansing and cathartic – a worthy daily discipline for those who “keep watch over the perfection of their life.”[2]

Humility, simplicity, poverty, and prayer were his movement’s principal themes. Francis conceived each of these as a hedge against pride—no unique concern in his time, as this was the “capital sin,” from which so many other sins flowed. Unique to Francis was only the intensity of his passion for his Lord. This had those two symbiotic sides we have already encountered in medieval spirituality: the ascetic and the affective. Francis experienced, and acted extravagantly upon, an overwhelming passion for the person of Jesus. In his biography of the “little poor man,” G. K. Chesterton insisted that Francis’s religion “was not a thing like a theory but a thing like a love-affair.”[3] Following the tradition of the chivalrous knights and troubadours of his day, this love spurred him to extravagant deeds for his Beloved. His life, said Chesterton, was one long “riot of rash vows.”[4]

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.’”[5] 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. And this Imitatio Christi (imitation of Christ) became the crux of Franciscan discipleship.

What may strike many modern readers as odd is the combination of this intense joy with an equally intense penitential mindset. Francis practiced ascetic disciplines so severe that biographers agree their effect on his body shortened his life considerably.

The very fact that the monks, the friars, and the burgeoning ranks of their lay fellow-travelers [his “third order” of laypeople eventually numbered in the millions, including the great Dante himself] gave themselves up to such mortifications of the flesh indicated “something actual and solid in the thing for which they sold themselves,” as Chesterton argued. “They gave up all pleasures for one pleasure of spiritual ecstasy. They may have been mad; but it looks as if there really were such a pleasure. . . The frantic severity of these men may, of course, show that they were eccentric people who loved unhappiness for its own sake. But it seems more in accordance with commonsense to suppose that they had really found the secret of some actual power or experience which was, like wine, a terrible consolation and a lonely joy.”[6]

This dynamic is expressed well by Francis:

let us desire nothing else,
let us want nothing else,
let nothing else please us and cause us delight except our
Creator, Redeemer, and Saviour,
the only true God,
Who is the fullness of good,
All good, every good, the true and supreme good,
Who alone is good,
Merciful, gentle, delightful, and sweet,
Who alone is holy,
Just, true, holy, and upright,
Who alone is kind, innocent, clean,
From whom, through whom, and in whom
Is all pardon, all grace, all glory
Of all penitents and just ones,
Of all the blessed rejoicing together in heaven.

Chesterton once more: “Say, if you think so, that he was a lunatic loving an imaginary person; but an imaginary person, not an imaginary idea. And for the modern reader the clue to the asceticism and all the rest can best be found in the stories of lovers when they seemed to be rather like lunatics. Tell it as the tale of one of the Troubadours, and the wild things he would do for his lady, and the whole of the modern puzzle disappears. In such a romance there would be no contradiction between the poet gathering flowers in the sun and enduring a freezing vigil in the snow, between his praising all earthly and bodily beauty and then refusing to eat, between his glorifying gold and purple and perversely going in rags, between his showing pathetically a hunger for a happy life and a thirst for a heroic death. All these riddles would easily be resolved in the simplicity of any noble love; only this was so noble a love that nine men out of ten have hardly even heard of it.”[7]

How all of this passion came to focus on the humanity, as conduit to the divinity, of Christ is well illustrated in Francis’s invention of the “living nativity” in a cave in Greccio, Italy, near his hometown of Assisi. Just days before Christmas, in 1223, Francis gathered animals and hay and had them transported to the cave, “so that a scene could be prepared to show the people of the town and his own brothers the physical conditions of the birth of Jesus.” There were the ox, the ass, the manger. And the Franciscans and townsfolk gathered with torches, singing together, as a priest said Mass over that very manger. Francis, who always had a flair for the dramatic, sang and preached in his usual impassioned manner. And his friend Thomas of Celano relates that “it seemed as if the infant Jesus, long forgotten in the hearts of the people, came to life that night. And all of creation, the trees and stones of the surrounding mountainside, echoed the praises sung by the people.”[8] This same intense devotion to the humanity of Christ would lead them to a vivid devotion to the Passion of Christ.

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

[2] “The Little Flowers” & the Life of St. Francis with the ‘Mirror of Perfection.’ Ed. and tr. Thomas Okey. New York, n.d., p. 333.

[3] Chesterton, St. Francis, 14 – 16.

[4] “His life was one riot of rash vows; of rash vows that turned out right.” Chesterton, Francis of Assisi, 33.

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

[6] Chesterton, 376.

[7] Chesterton, Francis, 7-8.

[8] William J. Short’s Poverty and Joy: The Franciscan Tradition in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series, ed. Philip Sheldrake (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 41.

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