Francis’ emphasis on action, practice, and lifestyle was revolutionary for its time, just as it is now. It is the foundation of Franciscan alternative orthodoxy. For Francis and Clare, Jesus became someone to actually imitate and not just to collectively worship. Believe it or not, this has hardly ever been the norm or practice of most Christians. We preferred Sunday morning worship services and arguing about how to conduct them or prohibiting each other from attending “heretical” church services. God must just cry.
The Franciscan School found a way to be both very traditional and very revolutionary at the same time by emphasizing practice over theory, or orthopraxy over orthodoxy. In general, the Franciscan tradition taught that love and action are more important than intellect or speculative truth. Love is the highest category for the Franciscan School (the goal), and we believe that authentic love is not possible without true inner freedom (contemplative practice helps with this), nor will love be real or tested unless we somehow live close to the disadvantaged (the method), who frankly teach us that we know very little about love.
Orthodoxy teaches us the theoretical importance of love; orthopraxy helps us learn how to love. To be honest, even my Franciscan seminary training did not teach me how to love. It taught me how to obey and conform, but not how to love. I’m still trying to learn how to love every day of my life. As we endeavor to put love into action, we come to realize that on our own, we are unable to obey Jesus’ command to “Love one another as I have loved you.” To love as Jesus loves, we must be connected to the Source of love. Franciscanism found that connection in solitude, silence, and some form of contemplative prayer. Contemplation quiets the monkey mind and teaches us emotional sobriety and psychological freedom from our addictions and attachments. Otherwise, most talk of “change of life” is largely an illusion and a pretense.
Early on, Francis found himself so attracted to contemplation, to living out in the caves and in nature, that he was not sure if he should dedicate his life to prayer or to action. So he asked Sister Clare and Brother Sylvester to spend some time in prayer about it and then come back and tell him what they thought he should do. After a few weeks, they both came back. Francis knelt down and put his arms out, prepared to do whatever they told him. They both, in perfect agreement, without having talked to one another, said Francis should not be solely a contemplative; nor should he only be active in ministry. Francis was to go back and forth between the two (much as Jesus did). Francis jumped up with great excitement and immediately went on the road with this new permission and freedom.
Before Francis, the “secular” priests worked with the people in the parishes and were considered “active.” Those who belonged to religious orders went off to monasteries and prayed. Francis found a way to do both. Thus Franciscans were called friars instead of monks. Francis took prayer on the road; in fact, prayer is what enabled him to sustain his life of love and service to others over the long haul, without becoming cynical or angry. Francis didn’t want a stable form of monastic life; he wanted us to mix with the world and to find God amidst its pain, confusion, and disorder. For me, that is still the greatest art form–to “dance while standing still”! So you see that 30 years ago, when I founded the Center for Action and Contemplation, I was just being a good Franciscan.
–by Fr Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation