Saint Francis and the Error in Fundamentals

My friend and I are reading as a daily devotion Matthew Fox’s Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations. The selections are short and the meditations with accompanying questions encourage thought without requiring a day’s worth of contemplation and consternation. 

Today’s selection called up the moment of history when Saint Francis of Assisi stood before Pope Innocent III and stated, “I do not come here with a new rule; my only rule is the gospel.” It’s interesting how from an early time in our history, Christians have sought to return to the roots of the faith. We have critiqued the current state of the church in various eras by expressing a desire to get back to what Christ originally intended. This is, after all, the determination that drives every fundamentalist movement: How do we dig down once again to the fundamentals and cast off the false ornamentation added to the faith by the church over the years?

Jesus taught in parables and through his actions; a beautiful way of communicating truth but not the clearest, most concise way of getting his point across. As early as Paul we have apostles and teachers saying to us, “Well, what Christ REALLY meant was…”

What if our error is in wanting to return in the first place? What if there aren’t fundamentals to excavate but truths out there to discover by forward motion? I’m not convinced there ever was a moment when any one Christian or group of Christians understood the full scope of Christ’s teachings, most especially those sitting in his presence 2000 years ago. After all, Jesus repeatedly pointed out his followers’ lack of understanding as well as inability to comprehend.

So why do we keep wanting to go back? Shouldn’t our journey be forward?

Paul describes the church as the body of Christ – the Christian community being a living breathing entity that grows and matures, makes mistakes and learns. If that’s the case, why do we want to go back in time? I wouldn’t put my life today in the hands of 14-year-old me. I loved my younger self but I know a little more now than I did then. I’d take some of her enthusiasm and passion and even some of her naivete and innocence. But I wouldn’t hand over the keys to the kingdom to her. I wouldn’t even trust the mom version of me from five years ago to parent my children of this moment!

Why would we, then, think it’s a good idea to place our faith of today in the hands of earlier Christians? I don’t want a medieval doctor tending to my modern ailments. I’ll keep my antibiotics and antiseptics, thank you very much, and leave the blood letting to history. Our first president died of a throat infection that would have easily been cleared up with a solid round of penicillin or some other such easily obtained and cheap medication of today.

My faith of yesterday was beautiful and essential but lacked the depth of the one I enjoy today. The idea I had of who Christ is and how the Spirit breathes in my life is wholly different from that which I anticipated years ago. The wisdom prophets of our time add to the story of how Christ moves in the world and they are not excavating some truth of the past. Can we truly say we believe in the power of the Holy Spirit if we’re telling her she must be wrong in her modern revelations? That somehow her movement today is corrupt in comparison to that which she shared with Christians in any previous era?

I don’t want to move backwards. I don’t want to entrust my faith to someone who had no sense of my modern challenges. I mean, honestly, most of the theologians of history would faint at the sight of me in my collar, to say nothing of their reaction to my being fully vested behind an altar, saying the words of institution. 

They have something to say about my life and I can learn from their wisdom, but they don’t have everything to say about it. They don’t have some special secret key that dissolved in the passage of time, requiring us to timewarp back 100, 200, 1000, 2000 years to grasp it again in hopes of this time getting it right. 

By both Luke and Matthew’s accounts, Jesus encouraged us to “consider the lilies of the field.” I doubt the lilies worry much about how lilies four or fifteen seasons ago bloomed and whether or not they, therefore, are doing it properly according to lily canon. No. They bloom and shine their faces in the sun, bringing joy to the world in their own time.

I read Francis and Paul, Hildegard and Julian, Borg and Brown with interest and curiosity. Along with Mary Oliver, they have much to teach me. But I also look in the faces of my kids, at the hummingbirds bickering over the feeder, to the tomorrows to come with as much interest and curiosity. The Spirit is in it all, whispering truths about the divine and all that she touches, knowing all the while I cannot comprehend but the slightest fraction of it all.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Katie says:

    So beautiful! We make spirituality so difficult to comprehend but really it can be simple, “consider the lilies, the birds in the air” Be here in this present moment and be grateful. Have you heard the Peter Mayer song, Holy Now? Thanks for your insights, Mary!
    By the way, I sent your book to my friends in St Pete. Barry is a retired bishop from Missouri and his wife, Mary introduced me to my Hospice career. They loved the book!


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