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On teaching Francis & Clare

Jun 23, 2023

How to teach a course on Francis & Clare of Assisi?1 The 101 class offered by the Department of Theology & Franciscan Studies at St. Bonaventure University is titled “The Way of Francis & Clare.” This course aims to introduce students to the Franciscan roots that underlie the mission & values of SBU by a semester-long study of the lives & writings of Francis & Clare.

Teaching such a course is not without its challenges. The twenty-first century United States seems worlds apart from thirteenth-century Italy, & we cannot understand Francis & Clare without understanding their world. Francis & Clare are themselves very strange people—strange not only for their preference of poverty to riches & asceticism to comfort, but also for their reasons for those preferences. & given the gap that yawns between our day & theirs, it’s not always immediately clear why people today should care about this pair of strange medieval Christians.

Or, so it would seem. While I do want my teaching to preserve the strangeness of Francis & Clare, lest we domesticate them to the Francis of the birdbath, their lives & situations are not always so remote from our own. Allow me to describe, in broad strokes, my approach in teaching “The Way of Francis & Clare.” The course, & my remarks today, unfold across three movements. First, we must pay attention to Francis & Clare’s own context; second, we must pay attention to Francis & Clare’s words & deeds; third, we must pay attention to our own context, words, & deeds.

We first pay attention to Francis & Clare’s own context.

We have to begin with the world into which Francis & Clare were born. That world includes some theological ideas that medieval Christians took for granted & that find peculiar expression in Francis & Clare’s lives & writings: ideas like creation, sin, the kingdom of God, the incompatibility of living for God & living for money, the redeeming suffering & death of Jesus, martyrdom & monasticism. But Francis & Clare’s world was not just religious but also economic, social, & cultural, & these factors played as much a role in shaping Francis & Clare as did their religion.2 They witnessed a growing disparity in wealth between the haves & have-nots; they lived through rapid urbanization & a spiritual crisis brought about by this new form of isolated living; they were grieved at the marginalization of the sick & the poor from community life.

Only with some sense of this context can we begin to understand the meaning of Francis & Clare’s words & gestures. In setting this context, too, students can begin to draw connections between Francis & Clare’s world & our own. Wealth & income inequality are not, after all, unfamiliar phenomena to us today; neither is social isolation brought about by new technologies & societal circumstances.

Second, we pay attention to Francis & Clare’s own words & deeds,

especially how these words & deeds respond to their particular historical & cultural moment. We begin by looking at ‘penance’, for this is the decisive impulse of Francis’s life. As he reflects on his life in his Testament Francis narrates his own religious conversion with these words: “The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see those suffering leprosy. & the Lord himself led me among them, & I showed mercy to them.” This penitential orientation, which entails rejecting whatever alienates & dehumanizes the human fraternity & instead practicing compassion & mercy for all God’s creatures, is the defining feature of Francis’s outlook & behavior.3 Here the benefit of knowing Francis’s context begins to show forth: without understanding how Assisi stigmatized & marginalized those with leprosy, it is impossible to understand with any depth the significance of Francis’s life of penance.

Poverty is another major theme in this part of the course; here again contextualizing Francis & Clare helps illuminate this supremely countercultural practice.4 Francis & Clare refuse to handle money not just out of gospel fidelity or trust in God, but as a gesture responding directly to the violence wrought by an emerging money economy.5 Their embrace of poverty is something of a protest: against the ascendancy of the transactional over the personal in human relationship, & against the evaluation of persons (or, more distressingly for Francis & Clare, the de-valuation of persons) based on economic status.6

We consider other themes in Francis & Clare’s lives & writings, too—fraternal living & universal kinship,7 peacemaking,8 prayer & contemplation,9 to name a few. Students particularly enjoy discussing how Francis & Clare each navigate church authorities, in often unexpectedly subversive ways.10

Third, we pay attention to our own context, words, & deeds.

The hope here is that students will read the “signs of the times,” as it were, in light of the lives & values of Francis & Clare. My sections of “The Way of Francis & Clare” tend to focus on the moral & spiritual challenge posed by climate change; I have found this issue is rarely far from students’ minds, & Francis & Clare offer some particularly apt resources to engage this issue.

Consider, for example, ideas of fraternity & kinship. What obligations do we humans have to the natural world, if nonhuman creatures are sister & brother to us as Francis sang? How have humans failed in that obligation, particularly in the wake of the industrial revolution & the widespread environmental degradation of our day? If God is praised through all God’s creatures, what does the loss of biodiversity mean for creation’s capacity to reflect the depths of God’s goodness & beauty? How should human beings who enjoy some degree of privilege respond with mercy & compassion to the cry of the earth & the cry of the poor? We ask these & related questions in light of our study of Francis & Clare.

The goal of “The Way of Francis & Clare” is not just to know a little bit about the personalities behind the mission & values of SBU; the goal is also to consider how Francis & Clare continue to speak to people of good will today, urging us to patterns of life that prefer mercy to cruelty, compassion to apathy, generosity to wealth, justice to oppression. Whether they are heard today depends as much on the students as it does the instructor, but if we cannot hear Francis & Clare in their own day we certainly cannot hear them in ours.

  1. These remarks were delivered at the 2023 Association of Franciscan Colleges & Universities Symposium, on a panel titled Illuminating Franciscan Sources in the Classroom: Francis, Clare, & Beyond↩︎

  2. Dominic Monti, ofm, offers a helpful overview of these factors in his Francis & His Brothers: A Popular History of the Franciscan Friars (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2009). ↩︎

  3. On Francis’s understanding of penance, see Michael F. Cusato, ofm, “To Do Penance / Facere Poenitentiam,” The Cord 57, no. 1 (2007): 3–24. ↩︎

  4. William Short, ofm, in his Poverty & Joy: The Franciscan Tradition (Orbis Books, 1999) helps explain Francis’s practice of poverty & Clare’s role as the “first interpreter” of Francis. This book is a helpful resource also because it considers not only Francis & Clare as founders of the Franciscan tradition but also as that tradition is received in subsequent generations of Franciscans. ↩︎

  5. David Flood, ofm, helps explain some features of this money economy & how it was used to oppress & further impoverish the already impoverished in “Franciscans & Money,” Haversack 4, no. 2 (1980): 12–21. ↩︎

  6. See again Cusato, “To Do Penance,” 13–15, 16–18. ↩︎

  7. See Marie Dennis, et al., St. Francis & the Foolishness of God (Orbis Books, 2015), 39–59; & André Vauchez, “Francis, Nature, & the World,” in Francis of Assisi: The Life & Afterlife of a Medieval Saint (translated by Michael Cusato; Yale University Press, 2012). ↩︎

  8. Steven J. McMichael, ofm, “Francis & the Encounter with the Sultan (1219),” in The Cambridge Companion to Francis of Assisi, ed. Michael J. P. Robson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 127–42. ↩︎

  9. Short, Poverty & Joy, 81–92; & Dennis, et al., St. Francis & the Foolishness of God, 147–69. ↩︎

  10. Beth Lynn, osc, “Clare of Assisi & Conscientious Objection,” The Cord 48, no. 4 (1998): 191–200. ↩︎