Meditations on the ministry of St. Francis
As an artist, an iconographer, and farmer, it has always bothered me that most artistic
images of St. Francis of Assisi depict him as sweetly bucolic, praying before rose covered
crosses and preaching to the birdies when, in fact, his whole life consisted of constantly
violating the rules of his day. Why? Because he believed in the Gospels so intensely that
he thought that Jesus’ mandate to love was a higher law than all the combined rules of
society, culture, or of religion. And he also did his level best to follow the example of
Jesus regardless of the personal cost. Francis was a radical and a rule breaker of the first
Rules probably originated to help insure the connectedness of a tribe or society. To
connect one had to be accepted, and the measure of acceptance was to follow the rules.
Therefore, Rule #1 is to “follow the rules.’ This rule is universal and ancient. In the
Judeo-Christian tradition it dates back to Eden. Adam and Eve lost both acceptance and
connection for a rule violation. Rule #2 would seem to be “don’t question the rules”.
Questioning the rules in most societies, cultures, and religions seems to cause the same
loss of connection and acceptance as breaking Rule #1.
Rule #3 is “if rules conflict, the higher rule prevails.” This is probably a holdover from
the days of kings, but this concept was important in Francis’ day and is still reflected in
our own court system and our contemporary culture. How many levels of courts do we
have in the United States? How many cases hinge on the interpretation of a rule? Even
the outcome of sporting events can be decided by a rule!
With this line of thinking so deeply ingrained in our psyches, it should come as no
surprise that the way most of us try to connect with God follows the exact same model:
Connection with God (salvation) is perceived as a personal responsibility requiring great
knowledge (learning all the rules) and great discipline (following the rules). Yes, we are
told of God’s grace and God’s love, but those are many times regarded as intellectual
concepts with very little bearing on how we live out our lives. Like the Pharisees of
Jesus’ time we tend to worship the rules.
century Assisi and even more so today, even the Church itself seems to be hung up
on the rules. If you look at the “hot” agenda items at almost any General Convention of
the Episcopal Church over the past hundred or so years, you will see mostly arguments
over the rules—particularly rules regarding acceptance and inclusion: Should we have
human slavery? Do women have souls? Can we revise the BCP? Can women be
priests? bishops? Can a divorced person re-marry? Can a gay priest be a bishop?
Both Jesus and Francis dealt with the same kinds of issues, all of which can be boiled
down to one question: Can people we don’t like or who don’t agree with us be thrown
out of the garden?
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