Theology and the Priority of Prayer
There are times when theology can just be work.
Toward the end of Francis of Assisi’s life there was an increasing need among the early brothers for some sort of formal education. The friars were preaching and responding to the pastoral needs of people throughout Europe, a ministry that required some grounding in the theology of the church. Anthony of Padua, a learned man and well-known preacher, was invited by some of his brother friars to help instruct them in doctrine, scripture, canon law, and theology.
Anthony knew that Francis was not generally a fan of what we might anachronistically call “higher education” for the brothers. His concern was that education was often a means for distinction, a sense of superiority, and a means toward lording over others. Sometime after 1223 Anthony wrote to Francis to seek his blessing to accept the task that his brother friars had placed upon him. And Francis, it seems, changed his mind. The Poverello wrote to Anthony:
Brother Francis sends greetings to Brother Anthony, my Bishop. I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers providing that, as is contained in the Rule, you “do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion” during study of this kind.
On one hand it could seem as though Francis did indeed change his mind, now granting an exception for the study of theology within the community. Yet, it might also be seen as Francis’s simple return to the Rule itself, which he cites in this note. In the Rule Francis talks about how the brothers are to work, provided what they do is not intrinsically sinful (no friar should be an assassin, for example) and that whatever the brothers do does not “extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion.”
In other words, Francis ultimately recognized the validity of study in general and of theology more specifically as a form of work compatible with what had become the “Franciscan way of life.” But, just as was true for those friars primarily engaged in ordained sacramental ministry or those friars who worked in leper hospices, friars who were students and professors of theology were to always keep prayer their priority.
There is a great lesson for us today in the wisdom of a brief eight-hundred-year-old letter from one of the world’s most famous Christians to another of the world’s most famous Christians: whatever we do should take second place to how we live. If we find that our work is interfering with the priority of prayer and the spirit of devotion, perhaps we need to reevaluate what it is we are doing, or at least how we are going about doing it.
Do we consider the relationship between our work and our spiritual lives? Do we recognize that we are all called to prioritize the “Spirit of prayer and devotion?”
An interesting thing about the mendicant orders, especially the Franciscans, is that their way of life is modeled in such a way as to foster life with and among ordinary people. Perhaps this is why the Franciscans have remained so popular, even to this day. The wisdom of not letting one’s work or one’s ambition or one’s personal desires or even one’s will to do good for others get in the way of recalling that all things come from and should return to God is a message not only for women and men in professed religious life, but for all Christians and all people of good will.
What if we lived in such a way that our prayer was our priority, that we allowed our whole lives to reflect a spirit of prayer and devotion?
Returning to Francis’s blessing and caution to Anthony, I am grateful for what these two brothers of mine in religious life and faith have passed on to us. As someone who studies theology and whose work is often of an academic nature, the reminder to maintain my spirit of prayer and devotion as priority is key. My attitude toward this work of theology can also, however, reflect that spirit of prayer and devotion. And that is what St. Bonaventure meant in his understanding of the discipline of theology, an understanding captured succinctly in the title of Greg LaNave’s book about the nature of Bonaventure’s theology: “Through Holiness to Wisdom.”
There are times when theology can just be work. And there are other times when theology, like all work, can be the path towards holiness and wisdom.