Return to simplicity: Francis, Dominic and the friars

Few figures in the Western church have been so popular as Francis of Assisi (1181-1226); yet the real Francis, underneath the romances and legends, is probably almost as unknown as his contemporary, Dominic Guzman (cl 170-1221). For most people, Francis is the great nature-lover who preached to the birds and who tamed wolves, and the chivalrous champion of his ‘Lady Poverty'. And if Dominic is thought of at all, it is perhaps most commonly as an Inquisitor. In fact Francis really was a lover of nature and of poverty, though the heart of his message lies elsewhere. But Dominic was definitely not an Inquisitor, as the office did not even exist until some ten years after his death.

The truth about these two saints and the Orders they founded is both less glamorous and more important than the myths. Between them, they brought to the church something which was desperately needed in the early thirteenth century. Many people longed for a more straightforward, evangelical way of life. Francis and Dominic showed that it was possible to do justice to this widespread desire, while remaining within the unity of the church.

As C. S. Lewis remarked. ‘There was nothing which medieval people liked better, or did better, than sorting out and tidying up'. And one of the things which they had, seemingly, sorted out and tidied up by the early thirteenth century was religious life. From the ninth century onwards the monks had been tidied up under the Rule of St Benedict, from the eleventh century onwards the orders of clergy had been tidied up under the Rule of St Augustine, and ever more effective steps were being taken to ensure that everyone who wanted to be set apart for a religious life would fit into some recognizable legal slot. Individuals seeking a way of expressing their fervour independently of the official categories were generally treated as dangerous, if not heretical. In spite of Pope Innocent Ill’s attempts to find a place in the church for new, more simple, religious movements, the Lateran council in 1215 decreed that no new religious foundations were to be made except on the basis of an existing Rule.

Yet plainly something was lacking. A considerable number of people were disaffected with the official church, and had fallen an easy prey to separatist and ‘heretical preachers. The generally low level of Christian education, even among the clergy, left people very vulnerable to strange doctrines. The longing for spiritual life, which held the potential for a great evangelical revival, looked like being wasted on the fringe of the church or outside the church entirely.

With the powerful backing of successive popes, particularly Innocent III and Gregory IX, Francis and Dominic were able to establish within the church official Orders which could, in different ways, cater for the demand fora style of religious life less encumbered with monastic proprieties. The attractiveness of their Orders can be seen from such statistics as we have for their early growth. We hear of there being more than 5,000 Franciscans at a General Chapter within Francis’ own lifetime, and in the middle of the century there were some 1,250 Franciscans in England alone. And in 1223 there were 120 Dominicans in Paris, only six years after the foundation of the community there, while in mid-century it has been calculated that there were about 13,000 Dominicans altogether, and 20,000 by the end of the century.

Wandering preachers

The novelty of these two Orders can be seen from the reaction of more traditionally-minded churchmen. Jacques de Vitry, who was not unsympathetic, remarks that the life of the Franciscans ‘seems very dangerous to me, because not only mature men, but even young, immature men, who ought to be constrained and tested for some time within the discipline of the convent, are sent out throughout the world in pairs'. And of Dominic we read: ‘He used to travel round and send out his first brethren, even though he had only a few and they were indifferently educated and mostly young.

Some religious of the Cistercian Order were amazed at this, and particularly at the confident way he sent such young friars out to preach. They set themselves to watch these young men, to see if they could find fault with anything they did or said.'

For centuries monasticism had been seen as enshrining at least symbolically the perfection of the kingdom of heaven in the perfection of its structures and observances; the elaborate discipline of regular life was meant to be a protection against the frailty and blindness of individuals. The monastic enclosure separated its community from the temptations of the world. The regulated, constantly supervised, balanced, undistracted life of the cloister would, at least, keep people out of mischief, and provided a uniquely safe opportunity to grow into habits of goodness and piety. Recruits were carefully tested before being permitted to take their vow, and only mature men were allowed to adopt a more independent life, whether as hermits or as preachers.

Francis’ and Dominic’s friars largely abandoned all these precautions. It was the boast of the Franciscans - a boast echoed in horror by Matthew Paris, the English Benedictine chronicler - that the whole world was their cloister. And, at least at first, both Orders accepted all recruits indiscriminately, without any time of probation. As soon as they arrived they were liable to be sent out into the world.

The essential model for both Orders was Jesus wandering round with nowhere to lay his head, and the apostles sent out by him to travel round as bearers of the gospel, trusting to whatever hospitality they might find on the road. To some monks who wanted to persuade him to join their Order, a Dominican novice retorted: ‘When I read that the Lord Jesus Christ was, not a white monk or a black monk, but a poor preacher, I want rather to follow in his footsteps than in those of anyone else.'

The radical and uncompromising following of Jesus Christ was almost an obsession with Francis. The crucial discovery of his own vocation occurred one day in 1208 when, at Mass, he heard the Gospel from Matthew 10, where our Lord sends out his apostles without money or provisions to preach the kingdom. Francis exclaimed, ‘That’s what I want!', and immediately set himself to follow the gospel literally. He was presumably aware that many of those who pretended to take the gospel seriously ended up victims simply to their own whims, so, once he had begun to attract followers, he went to Rome on his own initiative to seek the pope’s approval for his way of life, and he volunteered a promise of obedience to the pope. But, in spite of his complete loyalty to the institutional church, he resisted all attempts to make him adopt an existing Rule. He is quoted as saying, ‘My brothers! God has called me by the way of simplicity and has shown me the way of simplicity. I do not want you to name any Rule to me, not that of Augustine or that of Bernard or that of Benedict. The Lord told me that he wanted me to be a new kind of fool in the world'. Instead of the security and respectability of the monks and clergy, Francis wanted to take the risk of simply following the gospel. His Rule was not meant to be anything other than the gospel, and he argued that any dilution of it would mean a diluting of the gospel. Before he died, he tried to oblige his followers to observe the Rule exactly as it stood, without commentaries or interpretations. In his own eyes, the Lord had spoken, and all that remained was to obey him.

The literalism of Francis can be seen in his unwillingness to bind his friars to any kind of dietary laws, such as were customary in other Orders. They were to observe the fasts of the universal church, but otherwise they were to follow the gospel precept to eat whatever was set before them. He is also credited with a very literal understanding of the commandment to take no thought for the morrow: he would not even allow the cook to soak the vegetables overnight!

But the following of Jesus had, for Francis, one essential focal point. ‘1, little brother Francis,’ he wrote, ‘want to follow the life and poverty of our most high Lord, Jesus Christ, and of his most holy mother, and to persevere in it to the end.'

Later Franciscans saw the essential poverty as renouncing property, but Francis himself saw it far more as renouncing self-will. The renunciation of property was only part of the much more drastic programme of self-renunciation. Francis wanted himself and his friars to be ‘Minors', smallfry; they were to give up all the normal ways by which we protect our own interests and desires. They were to be obedient not just to their superiors, not just to one another, but to ‘every human creature', and even to wild beasts. Francis himself went even further, and wanted to be obedient to everything. On one occasion the roof caught fire, and Francis picked up an old skin which he used as a blanket and walked out; later he came back and apologized for stealing the skin from brother Fire!

True happiness

Francis certainly had a lively appreciation of all God’s creatures, and saw God reflected in all of them. But the key to his relationship with nature is found in his desire to be totally unprotected against anything. He wanted to take God’s providence literally, as well as his words. Whatever befalls us in this world is God’s gift to us, and it is a sign of self-will to take anything amiss.

The poverty of his Friars Minor is meant to put them entirely at the mercy of people and of circumstances. They are to keep out of any position which would enable them to pull strings. They are to beg for their food, or to earn it by doing casual jobs, but, Francis insists, only jobs which do not make them superior to anybody else. And because property gives you rights and so protects you against life, Francis wanted his friars to own nothing. At first, he and his companions literally had no place of their own in which to live. Soon enough they began to acquire homes of their own, but Francis was adamant that such homes must never be regarded as their private property. Anyone had the right to turn them out, and anyone who wanted to come in must be welcome, burglars being specifically included in the invitation.

This radical exposure to the chances of life, to Providence, was not just a Romantic dream. The friar, unprotected against life, must be prepared to share in the lot of Jesus Christ, who was given over into the hands of men. The way of total faith in this world is no other than the way of the cross.

Francis expressed his ideas vividly in a statement which he dictated to one of his earliest associates, brother Leo. ‘What is true happiness? Suppose a messenger comes and says that all the Masters of the University of Paris have joined the Order:

that is not true happiness. Suppose all the prelates from beyond the Alps, all the archbishops and bishops, have joined the Order; and the King of France and the King of England too. That is not true happiness. Suppose my brethren have gone to the unbelievers and converted them all to the faith; suppose I have such grace from God that I heal the sick and work many miracles: I tell you, true happiness is not in any of these. So what is true happiness? I am coming back from Perugia, and arrive here late at night. It is the muddy time of winter, and so cold that drops of cold water have frozen all round the edge of my tunic and keep striking my legs, making them bleed. All muddy and cold and covered with ice, I arrive at the door. After I have knocked and shouted for a long time, the brother comes and asks, “Who is it?” I reply, “Brother Francis". He says, “Go away, this is no time for travelling. You shall not come in.” I plead with him, but he answers, “Go away. You are an ignorant simpleton. You’re not coming in here. We have quite enough good men here already, and we don’t need you". Again I stand at the door and say, “For the love of God, let me come in just for this night". And he says “I won’t. Go to the Croziers and ask there". I tell you, if I am patient then and not upset, that is where true happiness lies, and true virtue and the salvation of my soul.'

It was not clear to Francis or to anyone else how such a simple vision could be institutionalized in a religious Order. Francis relied more and more on other people to organize his followers, and he witnessed, with a mixture of resignation and resentment, the compromises which were necessary to save the Order from chaos. The disagreements about how the Order should develop were not the least of Francis’ crosses. Broken in health, nearly blind, reverenced but also in some ways ignored by his followers, Francis received the final sign of his identification with the passion of his Lord two years before his death, when his own flesh was stamped with the marks of the crucifixion.

However difficult the legacy which they inherited from him, his followers recognized in Francis a model of the Christ-like life. Though they became increasingly settled and convent-based, and their poverty became rather a legal fiction, their boast was still that their poverty and their obedience were more stringent and more radical than those of any others devoted to the religious life. And though they became learned clerics, engaged in academic and apostolic works like many another, their essential claim was still that it was their imitation of the life of the apostles which qualified them for the job of the apostles. However muted their practice became, by comparison with that of Francis, they did not forget the dream, the foolishness maybe, of their holy founder.

Poverty and theology

Dominic was a very different kind of man, and he founded a very different kind of Order. From childhood onwards he was educated for the church, and the decisive factor in his vocation was his sensitivity to the needs of others. As a student in Spain he attracted attention by selling his much-needed books to feed the poor. As a canon (one of the order of clergy) at Osma, so we are told. God gave him a special grace to weep for sinners and sufferers, and he longed to imitate Jesus’ self-offering by spending himself utterly in winning souls for Jesus.

At Osma he led a secluded, contemplative life. But in 1203 he accompanied his bishop, Diego ofAzevedo, on a royal embassy to Northern Germany, and on the way they passed through Toulouse, one of the centres of the heretics known as ‘Cuthars'. They discovered that their landlord was a heretic, so Dominic sat up all night with him and converted him to the true faith.

Two years later they made the journey again, and this time they probably met the Archbishop of Lund, Andrew Sunesen, who was planning a missionary drive along the Baltic coast. Diego apparently wanted to resign his see to join this mission, but the pope sent him back to his diocese.

On the way back from Rome, in the early spring of 1206, they chanced to meet the three Cistercian monks whom the pope had placed in charge of his preaching campaign against the heretics in the south of France. The monks were disheartened by failure, and were thinking of abandoning their mission, but Diego suggested that instead they should change their tactics. The heretics were so successful because they gave the impression of being much closer than the official clergy to the simplicity and austerity of the original apostles. Orthodox Christians needed to respond in the same style. By volunteering to lead the way himself, Diego persuaded the missionaries to abandon the dignity and security which went with their official position, and to set off on foot, preaching the gospel and begging their bread from door to door, exactly as the apostles did in the beginning.

Diego could not remain there long, as he had to return to his diocese. After eighteen months of commuting between the two places, he died at the end of 1207. Other preachers came and went, but Dominic never looked back.

This was the beginning of Dominic’s true vocation as a preacher, and, after he had attracted a few followers who were prepared to commit themselves to him, he was able to found his Order of Preachers, first as a diocesan institute in Toulouse, then, in 1216, as an international Order recognized by the pope. To satisfy the requirements of the Lateran Council hean( his brethren had to adopt an existing Rule and, not surprisingly, they opted for the Rule of St Augustine, the Rule of the ‘canons', or clergy; but the preaching friars were nonetheless a very different kind of Order from the canons.

The highest value in their life was given to the spiritual need of others. The Order was officially declared to exist specifically ‘to be useful to the souls of our neighbours'. The traditional monastic observances which the friars retained took second place to their mission in the world. Within their communities they extended i an unprecedented way the principle of ‘dispensation’ - special permission to break the Rule for particular reasons. Dispensations were no longer unavoidabi concessions to individual weaknesses, bu a concession to the job which the Order he to do. The routine of the convent must never be allowed to interfere with preaching or with that life of study which necessarily went along with it. And, of course, many of the friars spent a considerable amount of time outside theii convents, wandering round in pairs, preaching.

From the point of view of traditional monasticism, the Dominicans were taking an enormous risk, in exposing themselves like this to the temptations and distractions of the world. But the job was too urgent to wait until the friars felt themselves to be secure. Monastic prudence and even, to some extent, intellectual and spiritual training, were replaced by an immense confidence in God. CH

By Simon Tugwell

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #9 in 1984]

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