Spirituality For Today
Siena College is a learning community advancing the ideals of a liberal arts education rooted in its identity as a Franciscan Catholic institution.
I’m eager to share highlights from Build with Living Stones: a study offering Franciscan views of life and work.
Build With Living Stones is part of an ongoing process of exchange among members of the Franciscan family from six continents. This provides for a creative meshing of the best in current theology, research and pastoral practice, by drawing from the rich and relevant spirituality of Franciscan life.
Using an adult-education model, the Build With Living Stones handbook – with its vibrant source material, useful contexts and references for further study -- could be used for group or individual settings, college/university curriculum, etc.
The Unit 1 Introduction is useful whether you’ve been a scholar for years and enjoy a new approach to teaching, or if you’re new to Franciscan spirituality.
Each month, we’ll post a fresh brief excerpt from the handbook right here.
I hope the "appetizers" prompt you to explore more deeply the wonderful inspirations of Francis and Clare of Assisi, as the Franciscan family anticipates with gratitude its 800th anniversary.
Fr. Kevin J. Mullen, OFM
President of Siena College
Build With Living Stones
Unit 1 highlights
Francis, Clare and the Franciscan Family
From the Sources
Francis was not an educated man; he knew how to read and write, but not much else. He did not have an instantly recognizable family name…nor was he good looking. Clearly, it was nearly his education, background or personal beauty that attracted so many people. So what was it?
Brother Masseo repeated his thoughts to Francis himself. When Francis heard them, he rejoiced. "If none of these things matter," he cried, "then it is God Himself who attracts them; it is because of Him that all these people follow me."
(Based on Fioretti, 10)
Francis and Clare had an incarnational faith firmly grounded in the enfleshment of the Word into the world. Sharing a common calling, God "gave" them countless brothers and sisters (cf.Test 14).
Today, too, there are those who have committed themselves to one of the four Rules of Franciscan Life and still others who share the vision of these two Saints without a public profession.
The words Clare left for her sisters are relevant to all of these:
"Among the gifts we received and daily continue to receive from the Father of Mercies, our Benefactor, is our calling, for which we must accept our deepest thanks to our glorious God. Therefore, the Apostle wrote: "Know your calling!" The Son of Man has been designated the Way which our blessed Father Francis, His true lover and imitator, has shown and taught us by word and example (TestCl 1ff).
The lives and example of Francis and Clare have had a marvelous and far-reaching effect, providing a unique and energizing way to live the Gospel.
Francis worked out such a way of life for himself without any intention of attracting followers. However, brothers were then "given (to) him" (cf.Test 14). Later, through Clare’s commitment, women joined the movement. In addition, there were others who, while not desiring a vowed commitment, wanted to live in the spirit of Francis and Clare.
This, then, is the origin of those who are inspired to travel the Franciscan way, uniting into one common family…we recognize that the "true Franciscan way" necessarily admits of diversity and pluralism.
The Franciscan movement’s seeds are historically obvious in other evangelical movements of the times.
When Francis spoke of his new life, he used the word penance. Logically enough, then, the original name of his band of followers was the penitents of Assisi. Clare also saw herself as a penitent. For them, it was synonymous with living according to the Gospel, denoting a total commitment to God and Jesus Christ.
The medieval concept of penance shaped religious awareness in the 12th and 13th centuries. It emphasized separation from the rest of society in order to live in a special relationship with God.
Yet the emphasis of the Franciscan way is above all a positive one: witness to a God who became human and who makes human beings more fully themselves. The sociopolitical situation in Assisi played a decisive role in the way Francis and Clare developed this positive emphasis.
In his Testament, Francis divides his life into two distinct phases: his "life in sin" and his "life of penance."
To understand the fascination Francis exerted on so many people, we need to examine his "life in sin." This phrase is primarily understood to express a general state of sinfulness, a reliance on society’s values along with relationships that were untouched by the Gospel.
In the world into which Francis was born, countless people suffered poverty and misery. The worst lot fell to the lepers, who were forced to live outside town boundaries. It was the leper who became the immediate source of Francis’s conversion. He recognized that Assisi was essentially a "culture without compassion," so he distanced himself from this world to develop his alternative "culture of compassion" rooted in the Gospel (cf.Test 1-5), discovering the crucified in the lepers and the poor. It is this culture that the contemporary Franciscan movement seeks to continue and strengthen.
At first, Francis remained alone. But a culture cannot be developed alone. Others joined him in this alternative way of living. Witness Thomas of Celano (1C 36ff), writing in 1225:
"Men ran, women also ran, clerics hurried, and religious rushed to see and hear the holy one of God, who seemed to everyone a person of another age. People of all ages and both sexes hurried to behold the wonders which the Lord worked anew in the world through his servant...."
Writing in a letter in 1216, Jacques de Vitry provides an eyewitness account from outside the Franciscan movement:
"A great number of men and women…renounced all their possessions and left the world for the love of Christ…Those who have heard them say to their friends: ‘Come along!’ and so one group brings another."
Clare of Assisi is the second founding figure of this new spiritual outlook. The 19th century Franciscan scholar Sabatier rightly observed that "the figure of Clare is not merely a reproduction of Francis…She had a clear sense of the shape of her own spirituality before she ever came in contact with Francis."
Clare’s family was a member of the maiores (nobility). Once Clare was established at San Damiano convent, her two blood sisters, her mother, and another relative all followed her there. Francis wrote a rule which Clare eventually adopted into the text of her own Rule:
"When Blessed Francis saw that we had no fear of poverty, hard work, suffering, shame, or contempt of the world, but that instead we regarded such things as great delights, moved by compassion he wrote for us the following form of life: ‘Since by divine inspiration you have made yourselves daughters and servants of the most high King, and have taken the Holy Spirit as your spouse, choosing to live according to the perfection of the Holy Gospel, I resolve and promise for myself and for my brothers always to have that same loving care and special solicitude for you as I have for them.’ " (RCI 6.2)
Clare struggled to establish her claim to the Franciscan way of life that emphasized poverty, thus rejecting the Church’s law that women’s communities had to have material possessions and endowments. Clare prevailed and wrote her own Rule, approved by the Pope shortly before her death. Thus she became the first woman in history to have written a Rule for an order of women.
Francis and Clare’s personalities attracted people from all walks of life and social strata who wanted to share their evangelical vision and live it in their daily lives. The picture, then, is that of a many-faceted community who found their identity, meaning, and individuality through their encounter with these Saints.
While Francis wanted to reach out to them personally, he was not able to do so. Instead, he wrote two letters to all the faithful. These letters are still available to us, and challenge us to pursue the Gospel.
In addition to the early Franciscan documents
Bartoli, Marco. Clare of Assisi. Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1993
Robson, Michael. St. Francis of Assisi: The Legend and the Life. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 2000.
Short, William. The Franciscans. Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1990.
Highlights from Build With Living Stones used with permission c The Franciscan Institute, which provides coordination of various regional programs as well as preparatory workshops for teachers and facilitators.
Order the complete Build With Living Stones handbook from Franciscan Institute Publications.