+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Every time I read the Primitive Rule of 1209 from our brown book, Walking in the Footsteps of Christ, I love reading the small comments and backstories preceding all the various Rules. Accompanying the Primitive Rule is a note, explaining the significance of the Rule in the history of the Society of Saint Francis. The Primitive Rule, writes the editor, helps us understand the, “authentic vision and witness of Saint Francis” (Walking in the Footsteps of Christ, p. 2).
The authentic vision and witness of Saint Francis.
Today, I want to briefly reflect on this particular statement--that the Rule of 1209 is the authentic vision of St. Francis--and how, through our active service to the Church and the People of God, we make known the authentic vision of the saint from Assisi.
At first glance, the brevity and eclectic grouping of instructions and Biblical quotations makes one question how this can be considered a serious rule at all. Although it is called a “Rule”, it has only a handful of such, compared to, say, the more thorough 1221 and 1223 Rules. Almost a third of the text is pulled straight from the Bible. Finally, compared to the influential Rule of St. Benedict, the Primitive Rule of St Francis is embarrassingly short. This reconstruction of Francis’ Rule contains a mere 12 points, which, even if we called them chapters, is still dwarfed in comparison to the over 70 chapters found in Benedict’s Rule. How is it then that this compact, Bible-heavy, little rule contains the authentic vision and witness of one of the most popular and researched saints of the past 200 years?
Although light in its details, the conciseness of the Primitive Rule reveals the core message of Francis and his early followers. In less than two sentences, the Rule sets out the primary mission of Francis’ new fraternity. By his own admission, Francis says, “The Rule and life of these brothers is this...to follow the teaching and footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ” (§2). For Francis, the scriptures were the portal through which one came to know Christ and make Christ known. Just as the Son of Man ministered and preached in towns and villages throughout Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, so Francis and his followers must minister to those outside our own places as well. Christ, after all, is not simply some moral philosopher or academic confined to a tower or his study. Instead, Christ is the active Word of the Father, who commanded Francis into action. “Go rebuild My house,” said Christ to Francis, “as you see, it is all being destroyed.” (Thomas of Celano, The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul). From its beginning, Francis’ community would be one engaged with the world, not retreating from it. “When the brothers go through the world, let them ‘take nothing’ for ‘the journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money’” (§8). Francis presumes the brothers will be working and active in the world, following the humility and poverty of our Lord Jesus Christ (§5). For Francis, the Scriptures are not merely for study or reflection, but a tool, helping us to both know and make known Christ and His holy Gospel.
As a servant of the Most High, Francis and his followers help fulfill the basic mission of the Church, which, we believe is to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 855). Although we can’t seriously expect modern-day Anglican Franciscans to pledge their obedience to the Pope and his successors as Francis commands us (§1), we ought to see ourselves as servants of the entire Church, of the People of God, the community of the New Covenant, of which Jesus Christ is the Head (BCP, p. 854). The Church Militant, here on Earth, are our employers while we are their employees. We work for them, not them for us. Our commitments are to serve them, to help restore them to unity with God and each other in Christ. We provide them with the best spiritual seed we can provide--our preaching, teaching, spiritual direction, art, counseling--so that they may bear forth the good which endures forever. Father Joseph once wrote in a 4-part Good Friday sermon that his job that day as a preacher was to “unveil...the loving thoughts of the Heart of Jesus” (Father Joseph, Wells of Salvation, p. 3). Later, he said, “[Christ] came to give us a more abundant life. He established the Church which was to be the focus of this life, the medium of salvation, the re-incarnation, as if were, of Himself, the means whereby He would be made present to the world after His death and resurrection" (Wells of Salvation, p. 10). As sons of that same Church--as her servants--our filial responsibility lies in making known the loving Heart of Jesus, of the universal call to holiness, available to all, free to all, and possible for all. Then, having reoriented themselves to God, returning once again to the Author of All Life, as Francis concludes his Rule, “they shall be in the kingdom of heaven” §11.
Even though Francis superseded this Primitive Rule thirteen years after it was first written, and even though this version we have in our possession is a reconstruction of a now-lost original, it is this Primitive Rule that captures the authentic Francis. This is the authentic Francis before he became the walking saint; before he became our “holy father Francis”; before he became the patron saint of animals, archaeologists, ecology, and Italy; before he became commercialized and used to sell birdbaths and religious trinkets. This is the authentic rule of a man who sought only to follow Christ and in turn, found a following of people like you and me who sought to do the same.
Address to SSF Americas Zoom Chapter
October 14, 2020
Brother James Nathaniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in learning how to invite Br James or one of the Franciscan brothers to your parish for a retreat, mission, quiet day, or to preach on a Sunday, please contact us with the email address provided above.