St. Francis was virtually always in community and he hardly ever did anything alone. He understood that we are brothers and sisters and we need one another. His experience may run counter to our own, as we (Americans and others of Anglo-Saxon cultures) tend to be highly individualistic. We take great pride in our individualism, which is sometimes referred to as rugged. Often we view groups as a sort of “impediment” which prevents us from doing what we want to do. I remember some years ago when I was a student learning Italian in an international school in Florence, Italy. We were having a classroom discussion on the advantages of public transportation. I recall very vividly one of our fellow US students proudly speak up and declare, “When I drive my own car, I get there when I want to, I leave when I want to, and I do what I want to do.” We experience these “inconveniences” regularly when we accompany English-speaking groups on pilgrimage. One of the most challenging things for us Americans to get used to is the reality that on pilgrimages, we are not alone: we are not on our own time; we have to be respectful of schedules; we have to wait on others who may not be punctual; we have to walk at a certain pace – either slower or faster than what we are used to; and we have to “put up with” others who may have challenging personalities.
However, St. Francis offers us a different perspective: that there is great value in community. His entire life was spent with other people – often in very close quarters. And, as we shall see, he placed great emphasis on community. Similarly, our Secular Franciscan life makes a big deal out of fraternity; in fact, the third chapter of our Rule deals entirely with community.
Have you ever noticed how people light up when they enter into a group of their community members? How do you feel when you arrive at a community gathering? Personally, some of the most peaceful, serene moments of my life are when I am with people in community. For me, community is when I am with my family, with my brothers and sisters from the SFO, other church groups I am involved in, and an ecumenical men’s group I attend. I have experienced some of the most peaceful moments of my spirituality when I am among the religious communities among the friars/nuns in Italy.
If just from a practical perspective, community helps us become better people. When we are in community with other people – who are also sincerely seeking God – they can help us see things about ourselves (defects, sin, etc.) we may not necessarily see; they can challenge us to strive for greater things; they can console us when we are hurt, suffering, or mourning.
Twelve-Step programs are founded on groups; without a group, a 12-step program cannot exist. Any psychologist will tell you that addictions, depression, anxiety, neuroses and many other mental ailments flourish in isolation; however, by sharing honestly in groups they tend to get better. Just by identifying with and sharing with others who have been there and suffered from a similar addiction and understand what the sufferer is going through, the suffering is alleviated.
This concept has roots in Scripture: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves received from God” (2 Cor 1:3-4). In a similar way, this is one of the benefits from the sacrament of Reconciliation – when we share our sins and expose them to the priest, they get better; when we keep them to ourselves, they get worse.
Before we talk about St. Francis, let’s talk about community from a theological perspective. First, I would say that the desire we have to be in community comes directly from God. When we want to be in communion with others, we are actually mirroring divinity. In our Catholic tradition and teaching, we have a well-developed theology of relationship among the three persons of the Trinity. In Trinitarian teaching, we know that God exists as three Persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit -, but has one single divine nature. Yet, even though the Persons are different, there has always existed fullness, communion, and love between the three Persons of the Trinity. Our Scripture describes how the Father sent the Son, who in turn, sent the Holy Spirit (cf. John 14-17). Think about that for a moment: there exists a loving exchange and sharing among the Persons of the Trinity.
Since the Trinity has existed from time eternal, it follows that divine love has existed from all eternity, indeed, before creation. Therefore, when God – who had fullness and completeness within the Trinity-, created people, creatures, and nature, it follows that his creation would mirror such love and fullness, which is divine love. In fact, God bestowed this same love on his creation. This is why humanity reflects the image of God, which is spelled out very clearly in Scripture: “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
Thus, mankind is created in the image of God, and, hence shares in the nature of God, which is a love relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, man’s nature reflects the relationship that exists within the Trinity, and is a relationship of equality, oneness, and love. This communion within the Trinity is what God desires for humankind: he desires people to be in communion with himself (which is a communion between the three Persons). In fact, the reason that the Father sent the Son – Christ – was to reconcile humanity (by salvation and forgiveness from sin) to himself: that through Christ Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit people may be made one with God. The Son renders the person able to receive the relationship that God wishes to establish with humanity.
However, in a similar way, God desires people to share in that relationship also with each other. He wishes for people to generate relationship not only with himself, but toward others and even toward the created world. Thus, as people develop their relationship with the Father though Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the individual’s communion with the Triune God grows, relationship also extends towards one another, and all of creation. In other words, as people grow in the likeness of God, they will reflect more and more God’s love for others. Therefore, transformed in this way, people more and more take on the attributes of God and become more loving, merciful, and kind towards other people. In this, community grows and flourishes. Communion with God, communion with other people, and communion even with the created world.
Now, let’s turn towards St. Francis and look at his relationship toward other people. We mentioned above how Francis always desired to be with other people and he was almost always in the context of community. There were some exceptions, for example, when he prayed alone in the hermitages; however, even there his community was nearby. In fact, even his conversion took place with someone else. The sources tell us that Francis was accompanied by “a companion” who took him into the hills and showed him where the caves were and how to pray.
Now there was in the city of Assisi a man he loved more than all the rest. They were of the same age and the constant intimacy of their mutual love made him bold to share his secrets with him. He often brought him to remote places suitable for talking, asserting that he had found a great and valuable treasure. This man was overjoyed, and since he was so excited about what he heard, he gladly went with him whenever he was summoned. (Thomas of Celano, First Life, Chap. 3, 6)
It is not known who this special person was; his identity is mysteriously concealed. Yet it shows us that Francis “received” much of his conversion through the experience of someone else. Incidentally, the above episode took place after Francis returned home to Assisi after having decided not to go to Apulia to fight in the crusades. It also believed that during this time, the priest at San Damiano acted as a kind of spiritual director or mentor to St. Francis.
A short time after Francis’s conversion, others began joining him. The first was Bernard of Quintavalle; then came Peter Catani and later Giles. Some sources place Peter joining Francis together with Bernard of Quintavalle. The story is told how the three of them were discerning how to follow the Lord together when they opened the Bible three times at random. The Scriptures were: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to (the) poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” ; “Take nothing for the journey.” ; “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” On hearing this, Francis’s new companions immediately went and sold all that they owned, and with great joy gave all to the people of Assisi. In a short period of time many, many men began following Francis in his movement. It is estimated that there were 5,000 men in his order when Francis died in 1226. We also know that women began following Francis’s way, and Clare led what would become the Second Order. And in 1223, Francis wrote a rule for laypersons that would become the Third Order. The fact that so many people began following Francis shows us how strong was his communion with God, which was spreading to others. This is the communion, or community, that God desires for us.
Francis wrote often of the importance of brotherhood and community. In fact, he used the word, “Brother” and related words over 300 times in his writings. Let’s now examine some of Francis’s writings on community. In his Testament, Francis wrote:
And after the Lord gave me brothers, no one showed me what I should do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the form of the Holy Gospel. And I had this written down simply and in a few words and the Lord Pope confirmed it for me. And those who came to receive life gave to the poor everything which they were capable of possessing and they were content with one tunic, patched inside and out, with a cord and short trousers. And we had no desire for anything more. (Testament, 14-17)
Here we see how Francis saw that his companions were a gift from the Lord: “The Lord gave me…” Thus, Francis believed that community was divinely inspired and was a divine gift. In fact, Francis viewed his new community as being based on the “Form of the Holy Gospel.” In other words, Francis viewed the way of life of the brothers as being modeled after that of Jesus and the first disciples. Just as Jesus needed disciples and apostles to spread the Gospel, so did Francis. From this, we might infer that it is not possible to live the Gospel in isolation; it must take place in the context of others.
Let’s now look at how Francis believed the community should be organized. First, it was to be “fraternal”; that is, there was not to be the figure of an “abbot” or a “prior” who would rule over the community much as the worldly lords ruled over their subjects. In fact, in verse 3 of the Rule of 1221, Francis wrote, “And no one should be called Prior, but all generally should be called Friars Minor.” The communities needed to have leaders, but they would be called “guardians” and they were to lead based on service, not rank. In other words, the brothers chosen for leadership were not to be in any way “superior” to the other, but were to make themselves “lesser” – minor in humility and service. Thus, there would be equality within the brotherhood. It did not matter what “rank” one had before entering; within the community, all were equal. In fact, when the brothers gave away and surrendered their possessions upon entering, they also surrendered their social rank. It did not matter whether the men had come from the noble class or had been commoners: within the community, they were equal brothers.
Let’s now look at Francis’s attitudes toward relationships in the context of community. In the Rule of 1223, Francis wrote:
And wherever the brothers may be together or meet [other] brothers, let them give witness that they are members of one family. And let each one confidently make known his need to the other, for, if a mother has such care and love for her son born according to the flesh, should not someone love and care for his brother according to the Spirit even more diligently? And if any of them becomes sick, the other brothers should serve him as they would wish to be served themselves.
Here we see Francis describing the brothers with interesting language; he uses that of a mother caring for her son. It is a tender and gentle image, but powerful in its message: the brothers are to care for one another as a mother cares for her son. They are to share their needs with each other – physically as well as emotionally. The Rule for Hermitages is another example of Francis using familial terms in describing how the brothers are to care for one another. Francis’s imagery of mothers caring for their sons may be a reference to Mary caring for Jesus and the relationships of the first disciples. Certainly he was aware of the relational dimensions of the spiritual life.
In “The First Version of the Letter to the Faithful,” Francis uses more familial terms. He wrote:
They are children of the heavenly Father whose works they do, and they are spouses, brothers, and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are spouses when the faithful soul is joined to our Lord Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. We are brothers to Him when we do the will of the Father Who is in heaven. We are mothers, when we carry Him in our heart and body through divine love and a pure and sincere conscience and [when] we give birth to Him through [His] holy manner of working, which should shine before others as an example. Oh, how glorious it is, how holy and great, to have a Father in heaven! Oh, how holy, consoling, beautiful and wondrous it is to have such a Spouse! Oh how holy and how loving, pleasing, humble, peaceful, sweet, lovable, and desirable above all things to have such a Brother and such a Son: our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave up His life for His sheep and who prayed to the Father …
Here we see Francis describing relationships with more relational terms: filial, maternal, and spousal. He states that when we relate properly to God, our relationship with him is so close that we take on the characteristics of closeness that are normally reserved to those people who are as close to us as parents, children, and spouses. What remains clear and apparent is that Francis believed that one’s relationship with God could be as close and real as that of one’s closest family members.
Most of what we have so far discussed, however, is Francis’s relationship with the brothers in the community known as the First Order. Community for Francis also certainly extended to the Second and Third Orders. We know that Francis had a fondness for Clare and the sisters, even if that relationship was at times strained. We also know that he cared about the laity, for whom he wrote a way of life and formed the Third Order. However, for Francis, community was extended to those he served. In previous lessons, we talked about how Francis always sought always to serve the marginalized; in fact, his life’s work was one of tremendous dedication and service to the lepers and other marginalized. Further, there is community within the larger Christian Church, and we have already spoken about Francis’s commitment to the Catholic Church. Yet, Francis extended his sense of community within the greater human family, and we have also spoken about his relationship to the non-Christian religions, with whom he desired to dialogue and reach through evangelization. For this reason, Pope Francis has often said us in recent speeches: “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.” Pope Francis has often said that the Church that closes within itself is a sick Church, but the Church that goes out, even with sin or weakness is healthy. Finally, there is community of the supernatural: communion with the saints and angels.
Certainly, I am not saying that there are never any challenges or disadvantages to life in community. As anyone who has lived any length of time with others in community knows, dealing with certain fellow members of a monastery, convent, friary, or fraternity can be one of the most challenging parts of religious life. However, precisely in learning to love that “difficult” individual is one of the surest pathways toward sanctification. And, indeed, as I mentioned in the first paragraph of this chapter, there can be advantages to “going it alone.” And certainly there are difficulties when dealing with groups. (We encounter this legitimately and often during our pilgrimages). Further, our American culture, so formed by the frontier mentality in our not-so-long-ago past does indeed highly esteem individualism, as well as the freedom that the new world and seemingly endless space offered. Additionally, there are some who are innately suspicious of institutions or have an aversion to the structure and rules that ensure effective management and healthy groups. Further, legitimate precaution should be taken to guard against “conformism.” It can be a real penance to sacrifice one’s own goals, aspirations, beliefs, values, and even gifts in order to “fit in” with the group. And finally, groups by themselves are not necessarily “healthy” any more than individuals are. Just as we warn our children to wisely choose their friends so as to not get in with the “wrong crowd” so do should discernment be taken in order to choose a group or community well. Yet, despite the challenges or pitfalls of community, I believe the benefits outweigh the challenges.
In conclusion, I think we can draw some observations about the Franciscan concept of community and relationship. Certainly, a foundational characteristic of the Franciscan Order is the communal life. In light of the theology of the Trinity, we can affirm that Francis’s attitudes toward community were Trinitarian. In experiencing the redemptive love of God through the cross of Christ, Francis received the exchange of love that has always existed within the Trinity. That experience of communion with God led him to embrace people as his own brothers and sisters. As Jesus sought out and related to the blind, lepers, Pharisees and tax-collectors, the disciples, his friends like Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, Francis sought to embrace and love those not only within the Franciscan family, but also the lepers and marginalized, civic leaders, non-Christians – indeed all those he met. Yet, community for Francis even led him to embrace all of creation – including animate and inanimate creatures – fraternally. For Francis, living the Christian life in community was to live the Gospel as Jesus commanded (cf. Luke 10). With language that is familial, intimate, and profound, Francis tried to re-create the same loving communities of the early Church. “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32).
Franciscan Faith Challenge for the month: continue to develop your relationship with other people in your Franciscan fraternity as well as other communities you are involved in.
• Scripture says, “The LORD God said: It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him” (Genesis 2:18). Community life is divine and is given to us as a gift. Cherish it.
• Spiritual communities are much like individuals. Just as we individuals have our own personal hang-ups, difficulties, challenges as well as our own gifts, talents, and treasures, so do groups; some groups are healthier than others. Yet, it is important to find groups in which we can be ourselves, be accepted, be challenged and grow.
• Ask yourself what obstacles, if any, stand in the way of your community life. If you have any resentments or hindrances to the communities, take an examen of conscience to remove the blocks you might have.
o Do you struggle with pride in community? Do you put yourself first? Do you approach your community as simple and humble servant?
o Do you ever feel resentments or rancor towards individuals in the community? Maybe toward the way the community functions? Maybe you feel people in leadership aren’t doing their job the way you think they should. Few things can destroy community faster than anger.
• Take some time now to examine your relationship to the groups you are involved in.