Monday, 28 February 2011

Franciscan Spirituality: the art of living

THE QUESTING HEART: I have often found that people have a general sense of the life of St Francis of Assisi. They like alot what they hear... especially the bit about his love for creation. Franciscan spirituality has been jokingly described as “fresh air and frolics in the forest!” In truth the Franciscan vision is somewhat more substantial. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) is a much loved saint, and not just within Christian circles, but the depth of his spiritual vision is frequently not grasped. He described himself as “ignorant and uneducated” but his intuitative understanding of the heart of the Gospel and his wholehearted embrace of it brought him to a profound wisdom in the art of living. This core vision was developed by the saints, philosophers, theologians, and the countless ‘ordinary’ men and women who have walked the Franciscan way during these past 800 years.

Like a many-faceted diamond giving off different colours and hues as it is turned in the light, so the unsearchable riches of God encountered in Christ are reflected in the great variety of Christian approaches to the spiritual way. Each spirituality has its own tone and unique flavour, with its own particular emphases. I hope in ths blog to share a taste of the Franciscan contribution to the quest of the human heart for what will refresh our soul and give light to our path. I hope to provide glimpses of the Franciscan journey, in the hope that once glimpsed the reader might be drawn to proceed further on the way.

In a striking manner Francis’ own story of struggle and search, of grace and transformation is seen as foundational for the whole movement. His life of ongoing response to the Spirit in joy and generosity became the paradigm for those who looked to him in their own following of the footprints of Christ. Franciscan spirituality work draws from the writings of the saint and the many early ‘parables’ that speak of him - stories that explain us to ourselves. But it also enriched by the lives and writings of the great number of men and women who make up the Franciscan family, beginning with Clare of Assisi, Francis' friend and faithful disciple.

At its heart, the origin of the Franciscan movement is a rediscovery and revitalisation of the Christian experience. G.K. Chesterton said that some people have just enough religion to make themselves miserable. The Franciscan story is soaked in the language of thanksgiving, and resounds with a joyful song of delight in God. The experience of God’s astonishing love and humble self-giving lead to gratitude, gladness and generosity in the service of others. At its best the Franciscan vision inspires trust that love in the fullest form accompanies us, giving assurance in our ability to travel to the deeper places. It teaches us that we are not what we can conquer but what is given to us. Like creation, salvation is a gift we receive not something we achieve.

This vision is cosmic. The universe and all creatures reflect God, speak of God, reveal God’s goodness. Indeed, creation and our lives are pregnant with God! This leads to a celebration of what has been called ‘a spirituality of relationships’. There is a distinctive familial understanding of the world of creation – all are brothers and sisters in a cosmic family.

Loved by God, we share that love. The most quoted passage in Francis’ writings is not any of the famous hard sayings of the Gospel about poverty or renunciation. Seven times Francis cites the ‘golden rule of human relationships: ‘Whatever you would wish a person to do you to do, do you also to them’ (Matthew 7:12). The emphasis is not on particular practices but on what will deepen the heart and bless life. In his guidance he goes straight to the Gospel. Love, humility, meekness, forgiveness, mutual service and courtesy are exalted to priority while programmes of ascetical exercises are lacking.