English 145: “If you had been listening to these stories in 1300, what would you have concluded from them is the way to gain eternal life?”
“The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi” were written in order to share some of the notable works that St Francis performed during his time, and also included several stories of the other brethren in his convent. He was born into a wealthy family, and lived a normal life of the average rich young man, which included setting off to war. But that excursion was cut short when a vision sent him back to Assisi, where he began to feel convicted of his sins and, in order to do penance, he resolved to give up ownership of material things and to enter the line of work I like to term as “evangelistic begging”. He abandoned house and business in order that he might preach about God and spread the word about the life of poverty, and simply relied on the people of the towns he entered to give him sustenance.
His ministry grew to gigantic proportions – He founded the Orders of the Friars Minor, Third Order of St Francis, ands the Order of St Clare. At first, he only had twelve followers – but as he continued to spread the word about the glory of a life in poverty, many more people, often rich, joined the brotherhood. Women were directed to the women’s convent, under the order of St. Clare, one of St. Francis’ earlier converts.
In “The Little Flowers”, he and his disciples are quoted for many speeches and beliefs, most of which used the act of “penance” (which included fasting, praying, wearing uncomfortable garments, etc), and the life of extreme poverty (living in a convent, but when out on the road, relying on the whims of the people for sustenance and shelter), as a ways to become the holiest of men. In the book, there was no concept of Christ’s sacrifice as paying for their sins – instead, the Friars Minor appeared to believe that merely by fasting, praying, discussing holy things, and living a self-abusive life in poverty, would eventually cause them to be regarded as saints and give them access to the Kingdom of heaven.
Many key stories do not discuss the issue of “repentance” – the only specific changes that converts made to their lifestyle was to enter the convent – a structure of man-made rules and traditions. Although the main rule of the Order of St Francis was “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps,” they could not show those who did not wish to give up everything they had, how they could be saved. In the story of the town of Gubbio, the St. Francis established the Third Order of St Francis, a more relaxed order for those who still needed to dwell in one place, and attend business – but it is still not said how these people attained their salvation and there is no mention of Jesus. This concept of “salvation through Christ and Christ alone” is not mentioned in the book.
Reading through the stories, I noticed several recurring themes.
1. The Friars Minor were not to question or even wonder about why St Francis made certain decisions. In fact, the curious thoughts in their minds were considered to be thoughts put there by the devil! (This is a problem, because, if the friars could not understand how the St Fracis made his decisions, then how would they know how to make decisions in the future?)
2. The life of poverty was glorious, and made sinful men holy. (Scripturally speaking, the word “holy” is mistranslated. At it’s root, the Hebrew word actually means “set-apart”. Nowhere in scripture does it state that living a life of poverty would “make you holy” … in contrast, the only lifestyle that God said would “set his people apart from the nations (state reference)” was the lifestyle of following the Law of God. The Israelites lived very different lives from the nations around them and were “set apart”, because of the blessings of obeying the Law.)
3. St Francis , and his closest followers, such as Brothers Ruffino and Bernard, were holy men. St Francis closest followers were considered to be the most holy men since the apostles. (I confess, I have a hard time accepting that these men were equal, or even ‘close’, in holiness set-apartness when compared to the apostles. One fundamental difference between the apostles and the followers of St Francis, was their preaching. The apostles preached Jesus, God, Law, Salvation, Grace, and Love. The Friars Minor preached Penance, Abstinence, Tradition, Poverty, Sainthood, and Passivity.)
An issue resides in the rules of the convent. The Bible only says to avoid certain meats – however, the Fransiscans were not to eat ANY meat. The Bible said not to have a love of money – the Fransiscans abandoned money altogether. The Bible stated not to commit adultery or abominable sexual relations – the Fransiscans set up certain boundaries for biblical marriage itself, saying that those devoted to a husband or wife cannot be fully devoted to Christ and the Church.
The Fransiscan lifestyle may fit some people, but to say “obeying these rules makes you holy” is to side with the Pharisees of old. The traditions of the Friars mirrored the purpose of the trradition of the Phariesses – redefining holiness, in their eyes, a better definition. But holiness needs no new definition – the definition of “set-apartness” will always and forever involve being different from the the nations, in obedience to God’s commands.