30 May 2009

Francis on the Holy Spirit

Before turning to the Holy Spirit in the thought of Francis, I should note that the role of the Spirit in later Franciscan spirituality and theology is crucially important. According to some early traditions, Francis considered the Holy Spirit to be the true Minister General of the order. The lives of Francis show him being caught up in the Spirit in prayer and ecstasy. Some of the spiritual Franciscans became heretical followers of Joachim of Fiore. These Franciscans taught that a third age of the Spirit was coming when the hierarchical Church and its structures and sacraments would pass away (like the State under communism?). Franciscan theologians like Bonaventure wrote treatises on the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

In Franciscan spirituality, the role of the Father as overflowing font of goodness and love and source of "every good and perfect gift" (James chapter 1) is obvious enough. The Our Father is a central prayer, even in the writings of Francis himself.

So too, the role of the Son is clear enough. The poor, humble, suffering Christ is the one in whose steps we are to follow. The incarnation is central. So too is the passion, as well as the holy nativity as an example of humility and poverty. So lastly are the example of table fellowship with marginal people and the evangelical counsels and radical demands of the Kingdom.

But it would be a mistake to neglect the role of the Holy Spirit, openness to his/her leading and spontaneity. The Franciscan movement can be seen as a form of thirteenth century charismatic revival, with all the risks this entails. As William Short, OFM, has written, the Franciscan movement is at once radical and obedient. That is one reason why Francis had to insist that the brothers and sisters live as Catholics, so that liberty did not become license and the movement did not disintegrate through heresy and schism. This is a tension that is at the heart of any Christian movement, and indeed of the Church itself.

Many of the references to the Holy Spirit in the writings of Francis himself are nothing particularly distinctive. He blesses or prays in the Name of the Trinity. He cites Pauline and Johannine texts about the Spirit and uses them in ways that are common enough. For example, he cites Paul's teaching about the members of our body being temples of the Holy Spirit to warn against the dangers of fornication.

Other passages are more interesting. Perhaps the most important of these is found in both versions of the exhortation to the brothers and sisters of penance. I will cite the earlier version (also known as the first version of the letter to the faithful):
All those who love the Lord with their whole heart, with their whole soul and mind, with their whole strength and love their neighbors as themselves, who hate their bodies with their vices and sins, who receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and produce worthy fruits of penance. O how happy and blessed are these men and women while they do such things and persevere in doing them, because the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon them and make Its home and dwelling place among them, and they are children of the heavenly Father Whose works they do, and they are spouses, brothers, and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We are spouses when the faithful soul is joined by the Holy Spirit to our Lord Jesus Christ. We are brothers to Him, when we do the will of the Father who is in heaven. We are mothers when we carry Him in our heart and body through a divine love and a pure and sincere conscience and give birth to him through a holy activity which must shine as an example before others.
Three things fascinate me about this passage. First, the Blessed Virgin Mary is the clear paradigm for our union with the Lord. She too, in her Son, is a child of the Father. And in a distinctive way, she is the spouse of the Spirit, who carries Jesus in her heart and body. Francis confirms this in the antiphon he composed for his Office of the Passion:
Holy Virgin Mary,
among the women born into the world,
there is no one like you,
Daughter and servant
of the most high and supreme King
and of the Father in heaven,
Mother of our most holy Lord Jesus Christ,
Spouse of the Holy Spirit...
Second, the Holy Spirit is the principle of our union with the Lord Jesus. We are spouses "when the Holy Spirit joins us to the Lord Jesus Christ." The underlying Trinitarian grammar is found in Romans 8 and parallel passages in Paul. As the Spirit cries "Abba, Father," we are conformed to the image of God's Son and drawn into Christ, so that his prayer becomes our prayer, the groan of the Spirit within us. Francis expresses our being in Christ in a particularly intimate Marian and maternal way: "we are mothers when we carry Him in our heart and body..." And this brings me to the third point about the Spirit. I believe that Francis knows that the Spirit, as our spouse, is the One he is talking about when he notes the manner of this spiritual motherhood of ours. We carry Christ in our hearts and bodies "through a divine love and a pure and sincere conscience," and we "give birth through a holy activity which must shine as an example before others." It is no accident that Francis slides between being a spouse of Jesus Christ (through the Holy Spirit) and calling Mary the spouse of the Holy Spirit. Similar slippage is seen in Paul, and it sometimes called his binitarianism. Being in Christ and being in the Spirit are convertible terms. The Holy Spirit is the same Spirit that rested on Jesus, and he/she is the one who makes Jesus present in the world and contemporary to every age. Love, or charity, is a name of the Holy Spirit. In Romans 5:5, which Augustine loved to cite against the Pelagians, we are told that the love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that is given to us. For Francis, this is a birth of the Word in the soul, but without the baggage that comes with it in Eckhart. Moreover, the Holy Spirit, as in Wesley's great hymn, "Love divine all loves excelling," is the one who sanctifies and finishes the new creation, transfiguring it with divine love. For Francis, the soul united to Christ in the Spirit bears fruit in a holy activity. That activity is doing penance and living the Gospel.

Other interesting passages in Francis connect the Holy Spirit to fundamental Franciscan themes of discipleship and humility. For the former, see the prayer that concludes the letter to the entire order: "Inwardly cleansed, interiorly enlightened and inflamed by the fire of the Holy Spirit, may we be able to follow in the footsteps of your beloved Son..." For the latter, see Admonition 12: "A servant of God can be known to have the Spirit of the Lord in this way: if, when the Lord performs some good through him, his flesh does not therefore exalt itself, because it is always opposed to every good. Instead he regards himself the more worthless and esteems himself less than others."

I don't think that any of this belongs to us Franciscans. We are not supposed to consider anything our own, not even the spiritual riches of our tradition. And the point has always been to attempt to live the Gospel. Francis wanted to have no other rule than the words of the Holy Gospel. In other words, the point is following Jesus, and Francis is a lens that helps us do that. He may have much to say to those for whom other lenses, traditions, and saints are more fundamental. As I've already noted, much of what he provides is a particularly powerful set of symbols for thinking about the fundamental trinitarian grammar of life in Christ, such as that found in Romans 8. Those who follow in the footprints of Jesus, who do penance and participate in the sacraments, will find themselves spouses, brothers/sisters, and mothers of Jesus. And we will, due to a goodness that ours by gift and not by right, begin to shine with a holy activity that comes from God's infused gift of charity.

Come Holy Spirit, sweet living charity, Lord God. Come, we pray, and fill us with the fire of your love. Unite us now and always to Jesus our brother, that we may exalt his Father and ours, and shine with your holy activity.

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