September 28, 2010

Friars of the Primitive Observance

Since I've been back here in Boston I have begun to meet some of the brothers of the Franciscans of the Primitive Observance. The student friars among them attend St. John's Seminary, which shares a campus and a library with the Boston College School of Theology & Ministry which I am supposed to be attending. On my first visit to the school back in the spring I ran into one of them on the train and we had a delightful conversation about Franciscan and Capuchin topics. I call them our 'grandchildren;' the Primitive Observance is a reform that emerged out of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (the CFR), who themselves came to exist when some friars broke away from my province of the Capuchins just over twenty years ago.

Meeting these brothers makes me reflect on some of the basic dynamics of the Franciscan charism. Apart from their somewhat more rugged appearance and untrimmed beads ("manly, austere...and despised" as the Capuchin Constitutions of 1536 puts it), I realize that these friars are not so different from me, even though their religious lives are two reforms removed from mine. The Franciscan Rule almost seems to make such reforms and divisions inevitable; it seems sometimes to contain within itself the seeds of Franciscan fractiousness. It is not a moderate rule, as is said of that of St. Benedict, nor endlessly applicable, as is sometimes said of that of St. Augustine. Our Rule is stark and demanding, on the one hand leaving little room to interpret things away, but on the other hand imbued with a power to catch hearts and minds on fire with a desire to live it. No money. It may not even be touched. No property, neither individually or corporately. Two or three extended fasts a year. It's a radical imitation of the poverty of God himself in Christ, and it attracts radical hearts.

But as we have known from even the first years of the Franciscan movement, it is a hard Rule to put into practice 'without gloss' as Francis himself asked of us in his Testament, with anything but a very small group of brothers or sisters. And so comes the fractiousness of the Franciscan movement. There have always been brothers and sisters who break away from larger and more routinized communities out of a desire to follow the Rule more purely and strictly, attracted by the radical life the Rule describes and a desire to fulfill what seems like the command of Francis himself that we live it "without gloss." Some of these breaks turn into the great reform movements of the Order, like the Observants and the Capuchins. Most, like Mia Wallace's pilot for Fox Force Five, "become nothing."

Though this seems to be one of the creative drives of the Franciscan movement through history, it doesn't make such reforms and schisms any easier or any less personal for those who go through them. Communities and friendships get wounded. Generations go missing from provincial families. Nevertheless, though it is painful and wounding, in some sense to be Franciscan has to include an affirmation of the thrust toward creative reform that has served to renew the movement through its history.


Rachel Gray said...

It's interesting to read about the different rules, especially this sentence: "Our Rule is stark and demanding, on the one hand leaving little room to interpret things away, but on the other hand imbued with a power to catch hearts and minds on fire with a desire to live it." Kind of like the Gospel!

Trudy Shaw (tgshaw) aka secondarycreations on Etsy said...

It was partly for reasons like this that Teresa of Avila set the rule that none of her houses should have over 12 or 13 (I forget which) members. More than that and they were to start a new house. She believed that if a community gets larger than that there are bound to be factions. Houses of OCD nuns are now allowed to have, I think, 21 members, but some still prefer to keep to Teresa's limit. Of course, that's different from Franciscan friars in that the houses are basically autonomous and, unless a new house is being founded, a woman normally stays in one community for life.

Greg said...

Would love to hear more about the divisions (reforms) within the Order.

I personally have been both horrified and delighted by Franciscans. (Your writings are definitely in the delightful category.)

The horrors I will not mention other than to note I have been subject to fanciful musings in which there is justification for the dreadful and sinful excesses of the Inquisition.

The newer reforms are intriguing.

I wonder if austerity's appeal, the humility and poverty of Francis, is a periodic response to weaknesses within the Church.

Just as the Pope dreamed of the little man, Francis, holding up the falling Church in his time, I wonder if Benedict, who has a love for Franciscans, dreams now of humble and devoted Franciscans coming, once again, to the aid of the overall Church.