OUR SECULAR FRANCISCAN RULE
"They should always have this writing with them together with The Rule and in the Chapters (Assemblies) they hold, when they read The Rule they should read these words also''
The Testament of St. Francis
These words bring two things to mind. Firstly, when we come together we ought to read the Rule, secondly, we ought to read the Testament in conjunction with the Rule.
Lying on his deathbed, Francis entertained the dream that his Rule and Testament, the two documents that held so much of his blood, sweat and tears would always mean something special to his followers. He visualised that the men and women who would follow him for all ages would come together in small groups from time to time to sit down and listen together to his words, to be bonded in one and carried in spirit to the time and place where the new vision that the Lord revealed to him would unfold as a story.
The Rule for Francis was the crystallisation of this story and a shrine of his great vision and experience, not just a piece of legislation. That is why in his Rule of 1221 he wrote "kissing their feet I beg them all to love observe, and treasure this Rule." For Francis to observe the Rule was not enough; it had to be loved and treasured as well. What Francis wanted was not obedient servants, but brothers and sisters who are sharers of his vision.
What he meant by love and treasure he had described in an earlier passage where he wrote "In the Name of the Lord I beg all my brothers to learn the sense and purpose of all that is written down in this way of life for the salvation of our souls and to call it to mind again and again". To learn the meaning of the text of the Rule was the first and most obvious thing, but there was another part, and this was that he wanted it to be read and "called to mind again and again". How many of us have really done this? How many of us when we come together as brothers and sisters, really understand Francis' call to us "to love, observe and treasure this Rule" and "to call it to mind again and again"?
We often spend out time looking and working on many aspects of our Franciscan and ecclesial vision, which is good, but we must realise that the basis of how we live our Franciscan and Christian lives is based on our Rule, which in turn is based on the Gospels and the teaching of Christ handed down through the Magisterium of the Church.
Francis was not just a legalist who would have meant by the Rule .... Just the official and final Regula Bullata. The Rule for him was a summary of his way of life, therefore all the earlier rules and all that subsequently lead to the final document were part of it. It also had a context, and this was part of his story.
As Francis approached his death, lying for days on end on that bed, he realized how important was that story. Frame by frame, as if it were in a series of pictures, it all passed before his eyes, beginning with that first scene when he was 22 and still in "sin", progressing with his sojourn with the lepers, repairing the Churches, the coming of his brothers, their groping to establish a new way of life, the arrival of Clare at S. Maria degli Angeli, the poor ladies at San Damiano, the following of the lay people who wanted to live like him: all these happenings, and with them all the hand of the Lord guiding and supporting through.
He lived them all through again and again in his mind, and saw how irreplaceable were stories. No explanations or analyses could capture the soul of the vision that was too mobile and too hazy to be captured in anything but story. So just a few days before the end of his life, with his strength and his voice failing, Francis called for Thomas and dictated his last will and Testament.
In it, with the intuition of a dying man, he told his story went back over the whole adventure and picked out the key moments and turning points - the lepers, the churches. the Eucharist, the Brothers, community, prayer, poverty, work, his reverence for priests and for God's Word - he strung all these up on the Lord's initiative.... "the Lord led me .... The Lord gave me .... The Lord showed me" and then rounded them off with a few words of encouragement and counsel.
Looking into the past he recalled the wonders the Lord had done for him, narrated a story, and looking into the future, he admonished and counselled his Friars and followers - he projected a dream - our dream. This double vision of looking back and then forward in the final presentation of his vision shows how, intuitively, Francis grasped the dynamic aspect of his vocation and charism. It is this dynamism that he has left us and we are blessed to be able to choose as our way that timeless vocation of St. Francis of Assisi. Let us in our efforts to live the secular life to the full remember another statement Francis made on his deathbed - almost a perfect summary of his testament."My brothers, I have done my part: may Christ teach you to do yours." Francis has asked us to place side by side his Rule and Testament and read them in community. Perhaps we could renew a very old tradition - when we come together in community let us read and listen to, not only the Rule and Testament, but stories from the life of Francis, which is why Celano and Bonaventure wrote their Legenda.
Peter Keogh SFO