Wednesday, May 30, 2012

"Similar but Different" Franciscan Formation #2

     In Donald Spoto"s book, The Reluctant Saint, he speaks of the historical context in which            St Francis lived.  "Ordinary or extraordinary, every life is simultaneously enriched and limited by historical circumstances; it is, therefore, impossible to comprehend the achievement and struggles...of any life without reference to the context of its immediate past...if St Francis had been completely dissociated from the world of his time (13th century Italy), he could never have had so profound an influence upon it." (1)   European history of the 12th and 13th centuries is filled with swirling and dynamic social change.  The continent had begun to arouse from the ignorant and impoverished years of feudal social structure of the preceding Dark Ages.  Both Francis and Clare were favored by living in the city of Assisi which was actively involved in this progressive stream of consciousness and both were born to families of economic and social privilege.  With such opportunities available to them, they could have enjoyed an expanding lifestyle of independence and wealth.
     We, 21st century secular Franciscans, inhabit a world swirling with conflict and change very similar to that which Francis experienced.  Our society wrestles with progress which challenges the status quo of governmental and religious authority, social value and morals, economic systems and a cascade of expanding information and scientific findings in the midst of a shrinking planet of human globalization.  But in all such periods of human history, the revelation of God's love and purpose toward the whole creation has sought to be heard and be acknowledged in the lifestyle of each person.  Francis and Clare discovered that "voice of God" for their lives and, in their response, we may discover ways to respond to the Divine Presence in each of our lives.
     Francis would not have wished that those who follow his Christian lifestyle be known by the designation of "Franciscan".  Yet we call ourselves "secular Franciscans" because we utilize examples from his life to help "flesh-out" a manner of living which reflects the teachings of Jesus Christ.  We seek to follow the Gospel pattern of love and ministry which can be expressed in our 21st century social context.  Francis' ultimate desire was to fully experience Jesus in his life and ministry.  As followers of Jesus, this also should be our greatest desire and the foundation upon which our lives are built.
     Upon reading the stories about Francis, it becomes obvious that the saint was a little man with a large and open heart; one filled with love and compassion for all creation around him.  Yet, we also discover that he was a man of great "extremes" in behavior who could be very strict about the virtue of his actions and those of the brothers who followed him.  Some of these examples of "extreme" behavior by Francis were triggered by his 13th century understanding of the world and its people, while some were conditioned by the accepted teachings and structure of his Roman Catholic Church.  When we read about the lives of Francis and Clare, we need to remember that social and informational context in which they lived.  It is very different from that which we currently experience. 
     And this leads me to the final thought which should always be kept in mind by modern secular Franciscans.  Toward the end of Francis' life, he indicated to his followers that he had a very important "last teaching" for them.  At that time Francis could tell them that he had lived and struggled with every fiber of his being to experience and express to others "that fullness of the presence of Jesus Christ" in his life.  Now, as death was soon to close his earthly ministry, he wanted his followers to realize that it was "their time" to run a similar life course...their time and opportunity to fully experience and express the Gospel lifestyle to "their world".  And such is true for those of us modern secular Franciscans.  Our challenge and struggle is NOT to replicate that early Franciscan lifestyle but rather to take Francis' example and weld it with our understanding of Jesus' teaching ministry so that this can be manifested in our 21st century social environment.  This is how Francis and Clare may continue to speak to our modern world by the manner in which we, modern secular Franciscans, live and love.
(1)Spoto,Donald; The Reluctant Saint, Penguin Compass Press 2001, p.13.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Formation of a Secular Franciscan #1

     One of the earlier accounts (1) about St Francis tells  of his receipt of men who came to him and asked to join the little band of itinerant brothers.  It seems that he accepted each of them as if each person was a "gift from God".  In fact, steps for their education and formation as Franciscans were simple...observe the community's worship and prayer schedule and do the neccessary manual work in a spirit of joy and love.  Oh, and nobody would have called themselves "Franciscan".  No, they all were simply brothers..."lesser brothers". 
     Francis was their guide and mentor on this spiritual journey and he had one life goal which was to live-out the full experience of Jesus.  He wanted to be poor, like Jesus;  to be simply dressed, like Jesus;  to walk the roads in a preaching ministry, like Jesus;  to become ever-more intimate with the Heavenly Father, like Jesus;  and to suffer the hardships which were the life story of our Savior.  Therefore, if this band of men could have given themselves a name, it probably would have been something like:  "simple people striving to live more completely the Gospel lifestyle of which Jesus Christ is the example".  There in a nutshell is a working definition of a modern secular Franciscan!
     However such a simple entrance into the brotherhood didn't last long nor was it well tolerated by higher church authorities who wanted a formal process to educate, regulate and form these brothers into a community.  Francis never gave indication that he was attracted to the idea of "organization" with process and rules.  But that was the accepted pattern for all other religious communities.  So in time, the Pope urged a formal period of noviate training for all newly arrived brothers and, if they followed the accepted procedure and practice, they were allowed to make a formal profession of desire to leave their old lifestyle and become a "lesser brother".  This involved promises or vows to the brotherhood and church whereby they agreed to live in community in a status of poverty, celibacy and obedience to the brotherhood's leaders and church.
     In those first few years of the brotherhood, Francis was also approached by many village people who wanted to participate in this religious community but were hindered by being married, having families, job responsibility, etc.  He recognized the sincerity of their desire to "humbly live-out this Gospel pattern of life" and also the actual limitations imposed by their status in life which prevented their joining the early Franciscan brotherhood.  These secular persons were called "lay penitents".  Some time in the period 1210 - 1215, Francis dictated a letter to them which gave direction to their special lifestyle.  (2)  This is the origin of the religious movement which has become known as the "Secular Franciscans". 
     Although we sisters and brothers at the Cathedral of Hope UCC, Dallas, are not part of the Roman Catholic Secular Franciscan Order, like them we also vow to create a lifestyle which is more intensely and faithfully dedicated to our baptismal committment to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.  And to glorify God in all aspects of our life activity...humbly doing all things in love and respect for all of humanity and creation.  In order to succeed in this spiritual path, it requires not just the original committment but also "practiced steps" to inform and develop this style of living.  This process of education and growth is called Franciscan formation.
     The first step in this formation program must begin with our relationship with God which is represented by our baptismal committment as Christians to love and obey our Lord Jesus Christ.  This decision by each secular Franciscan is foundational because all that we aspire  to  be and do  is related to this relationship with Jesus and obedience to his command..."Come and follow me"  (To do and be like Jesus).   (3)   This can not be over-emphasized!
     Those of us at the Cathedral of Hope UCC, Dallas, have created a basis for this spiritual process.  It consists of two elements.  The first is an understanding of that which we plan to promise to do as secular Franciscans.  This is defined in a series of vows to which we ascribe.  Second, There is a program of study in Christian spiritual practices and Franciscan history-experience which give example to help "flesh-out" the meaning of these vows.
     These vows were created by the local Franciscan community to best represent all that is "good and valuable" in Franciscan history/life and yet stated in words which have meaning for secular Franciscans in the 21st century.  At this web site they will be studied and elaborated upon in  the context of historical Franciscan life. 
     Here are the vows committed by each Cathedral of Hope secular Franciscan.  "Each of us wishes to express a desire to live a life which draws us ever-closer to Jesus Christ and to better express God's purpose for the creation in acts of love and ministry.
     We vow to live a life of SIMPLICITY, always conscious of our level of consumption, in balance and moderation to our actual needs, and will do this in continual THANKSGIVING to God.
     We vow to commit ourselves to a disciplined life of SPIRITUAL GROWTH which includes quiet times of PRAYER, SOLITUDE and STUDY in order to listen to God's voice.
     Since the very essence of God is LOVE, we vow to open our hearts to that divine river of compassion with the hope that it will spread to everyone in our lives.
     In recognition that God has created each of us as an important part of the web of life, we vow to live in HARMONY and be PEACE-MAKERS with all creation.
     In all of these activities we vow to work with our fellow secular Franciscans in a GENTLE manner which will release all of our God-given talents to MINISTER to the physical and spiritual needs of others;  following in the way of the HUMBLE servant, Jesus Christ."
      May God's guidance and blessings be yours as we together journey on this spiritual path.
                                   Donald Luke

(1)  "The Life of St Francis" Chapter X by Thomas Celano,   Francis of Assisi, The Early Documents vol.1,  eds. Armstrong, Hellmann and Short,  New City Press, NYC  1999, p.202
(2)  "Letter to the Faithful" by St Francis
(3)  Mark 1;17.