One of the nice things about teaching graduate courses in my areas of interest is that I’m able to return again and again to texts that are striking, challenging, insightful, and inspirational. This is true with both primary and secondary sources. Teaching not only affords me the opportunity to return to the texts for my own sake, but to also share these materials with others.
In the normal course of class preparation this week, I was rereading a chapter from the Notre Dame theologian Lawrence Cunningham’s book, Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life and was struck by an insightful paragraph near the end of the book. Cunningham who, among other things, is a scholar of spirituality (including 0f two areas which we share in common: Thomas Merton and the Franciscan tradition), approaches Francis through the lens of a “historical quest” in this book. This approach is analogous to the famous waves of historical Jesus studies that began in the nineteenth century and continue through this day.
In a chapter dedicated to exploring this “historical Francis” more closely, Cunningham notes the manifold ways Francis has been interpreted and appropriated over the centuries. During the last several decades there have been two common, if incomplete or even mistaken, approaches. On the one hand, Francis is seen as a naïve lover of the environment (and effect of what I frequently and jokingly refer to as the “birdbath industrial complex”). This is the romantic view of a proto-hippie who dances in the field, communes with nature, and sings with birds.
On the other hand, Francis has been recast as a twentieth-century communist, who strives to bring about a utopian reality by his actions. Modern communist theorists and European leaders have even pointed to Francis of Assisi as a model for the ideal activist in this cause.
Neither of these depictions, along with many others, does Francis of Assisi justice. Cunningham writes:
He was neither a lover of nature nor a utopian (although some of his followers, the Spiritual Franciscans, may well have been). He was simply a little Umbrian touched by the mysterious power of grace who had a revolutionary idea: to live the life of the Christ of the gospels as closely and as literally has he could. In that sense, Francis was a radical fundamentalist. Francis performed the Gospel so perfectly that he became the saint whom we recognize so well today (138-9).
Francis’s agenda is so simple that it is often overlooked, even among his followers and admirers. Francis’s only desire was—as the Franciscan theologian Regis Armstrong, OFM Cap., often says and to which I completely concur—to live more fully his baptismal vocation of following the Gospel.
Cunningham’s point is that Francis’s motto or motivation wasn’t to establish a kind of superficial hippie nature commune or a political structure loosely based on Marxist ideals but ultimately dictatorial as we saw in the twentieth century. Francis’s entire motivation was to live radically, that is “return to the root” of the Gospel. In this sense, Francis “performed the Gospel life” as Cunningham notes.
May Francis’s example continue to inspire us to live that life anew. May we not mistake Francis’s commitment to the Gospel for our own projection of modern interests or political strategies. In truth, the Gospel life challenges us to resist all sorts of injustice—the injustice of communism and the injustice of capitalism, for example. The Gospel life calls us to deeper relationship—relationship with God, with one another, and with all creation.