Theology and ‘The Spirit of Prayer and Devotion’
Francis of Assisi gave the first theologian of the Order of Friars Minor, St. Anthony of Padua, permission to teach theology to the other friars around the year 1223. The letter that Francis writes to Anthony is brief and highlights Francis’s central focus: the brothers are to work and can do anything that isn’t morally unsound nor interferes with a brother’s ‘spirit of prayer and devotion,’ which should always be the primary goal of the friars.
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.
This is, in some sense, a significant turn both for Francis personally and for the Order more generally. The Franciscan friars, unlike their Dominican cousins who were schooled from the beginning because of their clerical mission, were supposed to be content to do what it is they were called to do by virtue of the gifts of the Spirit. If you had a trade, do that trade; if you were a priest, continue to be a priest. What distinguished the Friars Minor was the way one did any of those things: namely, without monetary compensation, within community, in chastity and in prayer.
In the Early Rule Francis made a point of directing those brothers who had not been educated to be content with the level of their schooling and, out of holy poverty, not desire to receive more education. As the Order became more clericalized and structured, responding as it did to papal ministerial requests, the pressure to instruct the brothers rose — hence Anthony’s request to Francis for permission to teach the other brothers.
If Francis had responded differently, the names Anthony of Padua, Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, Peter John Olivi, William of Ockham and others would likely never have been known to us. Theology became a central part of the Franciscan tradition and its storied history.
That’s one thing. Yet, the desire to contribute to theology today has fallen under the shadow of what has developed in recent days concerning the constructive systematic theology of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ. As the days have gone by and I continue to follow the conversation I was privileged to be a part of from the beginning, the words of Francis to Anthony have arisen in my thoughts: “do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion.”
Whereas Francis’s words have generally been interpreted as a governor to those who bear the name ‘theologian,’ a reminder of the priority of prayer and community over study and work, I wonder if they might also be interpreted as a mandate for theologians. This instruction means that one has to speak out in good conscience at times when one observes injustice or manipulation in the discipline of theology. To do otherwise or to sit by silently might likewise threaten to “extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion.”
I know this was the case for me this week, as I presume it is the case for so many students and teachers of theology. To not join in the conversation, raising critical — but, I hope, always respectful — questions about an apparently flawed analysis would have been to interfere with my own sense of relationship with God; my prayer and devotion to the Lord would have been compromised.
This is in part why I believe theology is such an important area for Franciscans to be present today. What drives our approach to the discipline, ultimately, is how it relates to our lives of prayer, devotion and community. This is not to suggest that others aren’t likewise compelled, but only to highlight the particular vocation with which Franciscan theologians have been entrusted by our Father Francis himself.
For me, there is an intrinsic connection between the study and practice of theology and the way in which I must protect and foster the Spirit of prayer and devotion in my religious life. To do otherwise is to deny who it is I am called to be.