Monday, August 30, 2010

Laypeople Join Francis of Assisi and his Revival: Third Order Franciscans

As multitudes heard the preaching of Francis and the Little Brothers, young and old, men and women, married and single, came to Christ. Single and widowed men were free to join the Friars Minor—the “Little Brothers.” Single and widowed women joined the Poor Clares, although their houses were fewer and less accessible to women across Europe.

But what was to be done with those who were married? They wanted to remain committed husbands and wives, and they wanted to provide for their children.

Middle Way
Several years before he died, Francis made provision for those who were not able to join the Little Brothers (referred to as the First Order) or the Poor Clares (Second Order). This Third Order was for laypeople who wanted to maintain their lives in the world—holding jobs and raising families—while following a spiritual life as much as possible.

Such a middle way between the religious life of monks/nuns/friars and the secular life of ordinary people is part of the genius of the New Monasticism of the Middle Ages. The Beguines of northern Europe provided opportunity for laywomen, initially including married housewives as well as the single maids and widows. In the Alpine regions of southern France and northern Italy, the Waldensian movement sought to include whole families as well as the men who traveled about preaching two-by-two.

Above all the Humiliati in the regions of northern Italy around Milan provided three opportunities for people to join their spiritual renewal movement. For those going into “full-time ministry,” as it were, they could take vows and become an Augustinian canon. Or one could live in a single sisters’ household or a single brothers’ household, remaining laypeople. Or, the third option—especially for married men and women—was to remain as part of the family and live out one’s spiritual growth while living at home and maintaining a job. This option was referred to at the “Third Order” and was confirmed by papal rule in 1201. Undoubtedly Francis and Cardinal Ugolino, who helped provide structure and protection for the Franciscans, knew of these developments taking place several hundred miles to the north. It is likely that Francis fashioned his rule for the Third Order with this model in the back of his mind.

Movement of Laypeople
Thus, Francis’ Third Order was not the first of its kind; however, it soon became the most popular and most influential movement of laypeople seen since the Early Church.

The Third Order commitment was similar to what we have today as “accountability groups” or other small groups for spiritual formation. They dedicated themselves to prayer, some fasting, and meeting together each month.

Just a few of the best known figures who sought spiritual growth by becoming part of the Third Order Franciscans are: the writers Dante and Petrarch, the artist Giotto who painted the scenes of Francis’ life in the Basilica of St. Francis, explorers Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama. A number of the popes, as well as King Louis IX (St. Louis) of France and Elizabeth of Hungary and Thomas More of England were significant political figures who led spiritual lives as Franciscan tertieries.

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Recommended Reading: The Road to Peace in Assisi by Bret Thoman

Bret Thoman brings Francis and Clare of Assisi to life. In his little book, The Road to Peace in Assisi, he introduces these two towering Christian figures as he portrays the major events of their lives. In an easy-to-read fashion, he presents their simple lives and profound spirituality.

Each chapter explores a key location in or around Assisi, describing the events that took place there and fleshing out the spiritual principles that we can learn from it. The book provides photos of these significant sites, offering a fresh approach to Francis and Clare’s lives and making their lives memorable.

The Road to Peace in Assisi
is not simply another biography. It takes the reader on a pilgrimage. Whether the reader is traveling in Italy or seating in a comfortable chair at home, he or she will be led on a fascinating exploration—both of Assisi and the spiritual renewal that Francis and Clare began in Europe.

This work also provides excellent background of the social hierarchy and political struggles in Italy during the time of Francis and Clare. As readers understand the class structure of the Assisi, they gain a fresh appreciation of Francis and Clare's radical call to return to the gospel. Such a call included service to the poor, the lower class and especially the sick and leprous. As readers grasp the horrible reality of leprosy in the thirteenth century, they cannot help but admire the work of Francis among those considered highly contagious.

Having lived with his family for a year in Assisi, the author is intimately acquainted with the city and the Italian culture. Mr. Thoman has led scores of pilgrimages in Assisi and surrounding cities. In addition, he and his wife are members of the Secular Franciscan Order, living out the spiritual principles presented in his book.

I highly recommend The Road to Peace in Assisi. It is a wonderful read for newcomers to Francis and Clare, as well as those who are well acquainted with these two significant reformers in the church.

Thoman, Bret. The Road to Peace in Assisi: Following Francis and Clare in the Footsteps of the Lesser Christ. Phoenix, AZ: Tau-Publishing, 2010.

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Clare of Assisi and the Beguines: Solidarity with the Poor and Needy

Little- known Beguinage

Outside Assisi Italy

Now privately owned

Clare’s stay at the Benedictine convent was short—perhaps only several weeks. While she appreciated the committed life of the nuns, she wanted to follow Francis’ pattern rather than that of the Old Monasticism. Traditional monasticism in the Middle Ages maintained the class distinctions of the world. Daughters of nobility lived lives of relative leisure in the Benedictine convents. They came in with sizeable dowries from their families—along with a maid or two to wait on them—which situated them with a lifestyle they were used to. Maintaining their own room, or suite of rooms, they would never need to work a day of their lives; instead, they dedicated their time to corporate worship, study, reading and personal prayer.

It was a comfortable existence, especially pleasing to those who desired to ready and study, learn Scripture and pursue a life of contemplative prayer. However, their maids, coming from the lower classes, would spend their days cooking, cleaning and doing all the manual work for them. Likewise the convent’s fields were cultivated by the sweat of the peasants who worked the land.

No Special Privileges
Clare had problems with this inequity. Perhaps her stay at the convent of San Paolo delle Abbadesse opened her eyes to the reality of the worldly stratification that had edged into the Church because she entered not as nobility but as a commoner. Because she took vows against her parents’ desire, Clare came into the convent with no dowry. Without her inheritance to finance her stay, she was assigned to manual work with the women of lower status.

Like Francis and others in the New Monasticism, Clare envisioned a community of believers who lived life on a level playing field. She wanted to set aside the stratification of the world in order to relate to other women, sister-to-sister, instead of mistress-to-servant.

In addition, Clare disliked the total enclosure from the outside world that the Benedictine convent entailed. She wanted to be involved in hands-on ministry like Francis. Again, the movements of the New Monasticism engaged in active ministry—the evangelical life—rather than simply pulling apart from the world. While Clare deeply desired to maintain a life of prayer, she also hoped to invest her time in ministry to the poor and needy.

Thus, after a brief abode in the convent, Clare transferred to a household of Beguines living just outside the town of Assisi. Like the Beguines of northern Europe (see Deep Wells blogs on the Beguines), these laywomen had formed their own small community where they could grow together spiritually.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, “Beguine” was a generic term used for laywomen who formed their own Christian communities. Rather than a large, centralized movement, the Beguines were simply dedicated women who formed independent households all over Europe. They came mostly from the growing middle class in the emerging cities of the Later Middle Ages. Although we do not know specifics about the Beguine community where Clare stayed, most Beguines engaged in active ministry to the poor, sick and especially the lepers.

Visiting the Beguine House
The Beguine house where Clare went in 1212 still stands today just above the town of Assisi. For some years it was inhabited by Beguines and then passed into the hands of the nuns. Since around 1500, however, it has been owned privately. While much of the house has been rebuilt over the centuries, two rooms—pictured above—have the original walls intact.

On our pilgrimage to Assisi in April, we had the phenomenal opportunity of visiting the very house where Clare stayed. Bret Thoman, the leader of our pilgrimage, lived with his wife and family for some time in Assisi and discovered many out-of-the-way places like this. (See link to During our visit he took our group to the house, and the family who currently own the estate graciously allowed us to tour the parts of the manor house that were original to Clare’s day.

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Recommended Classic: Sacrament of the Present Moment by Jean-Pierre de Caussade

God is hidden in the mundane and painful of daily life, as well as the Holy Spirit’s leading in the present moment. Such is the theme of Jean-Pierre de Caussade in his classic, Sacrament of the Present Moment. The author invites us to “recognize God in the most trivial, the most grievous and the most mortifying things that happen” and to embrace “everything equally with delight and rejoicing, and welcome with open arms what others dread and avoid” (63).

De Caussade encourages us not to seek God in phenomenal spiritual experiences or acclaimed Christian ministry because the Almighty is found in the most ordinary events of our lives, “in the peace of solitude, in prayer, in submission, is suffering, in succor given to another, and in flight from idle talk and worldly affairs” (19). Spiritual formation is not about the spectacular or the heroic, rather “God reveals himself to the humble in small things” (3).

Because the Lord works in our lives through the challenges of everyday life—of the present moment, no matter what it looks like—spiritual maturity is available to all believers. In order to grow, we “have only to carry out faithfully the simple duties of a Christian and of [our] condition, humbly to accept the suffering involved and to submit without question to the demands of Providence in everything that is to be done and suffered” (4).

“Sanctification consists of enduring moment by moment all the trials and tribulations it brings, as though they were clouds behind which God lay concealed,” writes de Caussade. “The only condition necessary for this state of self-surrender is the present moment in which the soul, light as a feather, fluid as water, innocent as a child, responds to every movement of grace like a floating balloon” (21-22).

This masterpiece by de Caussade is actually a collection of his sermon notes that were later compiled and published after his death in 1751. It comes into English with a variety of titles, including The Abandonment to Divine Providence and The Joy of Full Surrender. It is the same book—although rendered somewhat differently. I love the translation cited here by Kitty Muggeridge.

Works Cited
Sacrament of the Present Moment, translated by Kitty Muggeridge (New York: HarperCollins, 1982), ISBN: 978-0-06-061811-7.

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

Friday, August 6, 2010

Clare of Assisi: Radical Pursuit of Christ

The year was 1212 and the young woman Clare was eighteen years old. In Italian her name was Chiara—“light”—and from childhood she had sought the true light of following Christ. Coming from a noble family situated atop the hill of Assisi, Clare had been promised in marriage to the son of nobility—a financially advantageous arrangements for both parties.

Clare, however, did not want to marry. Instead she wanted to dedicate her life to Christ and serve him with every moment of her day. In particular, she wanted to follow Francis’ model of tending the needy and living in community where social distinctions were discarded. Francis’ example of the Evangelical Life had been noticed by people from all strata of society. The poor and lepers received aid—and genuine love—from Francis and the other Little Brothers. Wealthy merchants were challenged to use their growing income to help those in need instead of simply satisfying their own comforts. Nobility likewise saw a model of humility and the willingness to lay down one’s station in life. Like Bernard of Quintavalle, other well-to-do nobles and merchants soon began to join Francis’ little movement.

Because Clare was from the upper class, she would not have had any regular interaction with Francis from the merchant stratus of the town, and she would not have been able to venture down to the marshlands where he and the brothers lived. However, all of Assisi had heard of his work among the lepers. Moreover, Clare had listened to the small, brown-robed friar preach upon a number of occasions as the cathedral of San Rufino.

Clare wanted to live the same kind of lifestyle—and she had a plan. On Palm Sunday of 1212 she and her maid snuck out of her parents’ wealthy home and stole their way down the hill below Assisi to the small chapel of the Portiuncula. There Francis shaved her head as a sign of her commitment to the life of a nun. (See above photo of the mural portraying Francis consecrating Clare.)

Several brothers then whisked the two women away to the Benedictine convent of San Paolo delle Abbadesse. There they would be safe from any family members who might want to retrieve the young noblewoman and force her into marriage.

Such hostile retrieval of women from becoming nuns was not uncommon in the Middle Ages. Especially if an advantageous marriage was already lined up for them, noble families often kept their daughters from pursuing a spiritual life. However, Clare was beyond their grasp at the convent of San Paolo because of the papal protection that it provided. She would spend the next several weeks there in safety.

Cost—and Reward—of Following Christ

Clare understood the cost of following Christ. She was willing to make the radical commitment of placing him before all human relationships. Such a dedication of one’s life is precisely what our Lord said it would take to follow him:

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:30, NIV).

As Clare left behind her most cherished treasures, she gave herself fully to Christ. In time, she also received the persecution spoken about in this passage. However, she also received the many blessings that our Lord promised—a new home, many sisters and a wonderful, abundant life in Jesus!

2010 © Glenn E. Myers