They may have only those books
which are necessary for their religious exercises.
~ The Rule of St. Francis (1221)
I’m just beginning the earliest stages of formation in the Secular Franciscan Order (OFS), and I had an orientation meeting with Sr. Agnes Marie recently. She walked me and Ray, a fellow newbie, through the process – the different stages of formation, from Inquiry to Candidacy to Profession – and gave us some books. A pile of books, really: A formation manual, a volume of prayers and rituals, and a book entitled, To Live as Francis Lived: A Guide for Secular Franciscans. I’d also dusted off my old Breviary and brought it along – the OFS community prays the Divine Office together when they meet – and had tracked down my copy of the Franciscan Omnibus of Sources as well.
A whole shelf-full of tomes – to follow the poor man of Assisi? Don’t get me wrong: As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as too many books – which you’d see right away if you visited our home. Still, it seemed ironic that I’d so much stuff would be required to walk in the way of one who required so little.
It reminds me of a scene in The Mission (1986) – do you know that film? Directed by Roland Joffé, it’s a moving tale of courage and conversion that takes place in the jungles of 18th-century Paraguay. There, the Jesuits have established elaborate mission centers (“Reductions”) where the indigenous Guaraní have the opportunity to learn about Christ and become acclimated to European cultural ways.
To our modern ears, that sounds uncomfortably like Western paternalism and imperial conquest, but there’s more to the story – and it’s based on historical events. The real Jesuit Reductions were certainly oriented to evangelization, but they were also a hedge against oppression. At the time, there was no consensus in Europe regarding slavery, and that extended to the colonies. Thus, the Guaraní and other tribal groups were at risk of enslavement depending on where they dwelled: The Portuguese permitted the practice in their territories, but it was forbidden in Spanish colonies – which is where the Jesuits located their Reductions.
At one point, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), a reformed mercenary and slave trader, seeks reconciliation with the Guaraní he’d been persecuting as well as with God. After a profound redemption, Mendoza asks Fr. Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) how he can demonstrate his gratitude. Mind you, Fr. Gabriel is a Jesuit priest, someone well familiar with libraries and intense study, so you’d expect at least a couple books in response – maybe a treatise on forgiveness and then a copy of The Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius.
But, no. The Jesuit pushes a small Bible across the table to Mendoza, and says, “Read this.” As the scene progresses, you hear a voiceover of De Niro reading St. Paul’s “Love” passage in I Corinthians 13 (from a modified King James Version):
Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.
At the same time, on the screen, De Niro’s character interacts with the Guaraní – conversing with them, laughing and smiling with them. It’s stirring depiction of redemptive love in action.
There’s lots more to be said about this film (by all means, see it if you haven’t!), but the message of this particular scene is clear: The essence of the Faith is found in Sacred Scripture – it’s the one indispensable book. “Ignorance of the Scriptures,” wrote St. Jerome, “is ignorance of Christ” (DV #25), and there’s no doubt that St. Francis would’ve concurred – his own revolutionary conversion was precipitated by hearing the Gospel proclaimed to him afresh.
What’s true for Francis is true for his followers. In a 1956 address, Pope Pius XII called the Secular Franciscans a “school of Christian perfection,” which makes so much sense. We want to become saints ourselves, and the Secular Franciscan Order is like an ongoing seminar in which we study and imitate the way of sanctification that Francis himself followed. And, like any school, this one has required reading – actually, a single text. Here’s how the authors of To Live as Francis Lived put it:
The textbook of that school is the Gospel, the inspired faith-vision written down by the Church in the New Testament. This is primary. Any additions such as the Rule and Constitution are merely attempts to make some practical suggestions about carrying out the gospel in the circumstances of the twenty-first century.
There’s a stark parallel to this in The Imitation of Christ with regards to those who prefer pilgrimages to prayer. Thomas à Kempis editorializes that those who constantly flit around shrines and holy places might be missing out on what will truly benefit their souls:
Often in looking at those memorials men are moved by curiosity and novelty, and very little fruit of amendment is borne away, especially when there is so much careless trifling and so little true contrition. But here in the Sacrament of the Altar, Thou art present altogether, My God, the Man Christ Jesus; where also abundant fruit of eternal life is given to every one soever that receiveth Thee worthily and devoutly.
Why exhaust ourselves making pilgrimages if we’re not already attending to the Real Presence awaiting us in the churches right where we live? Similarly, there’s no point in reading erudite studies on Christology and thick books of theological reflection if we’re not first putting in our time with meeting Him in the written Word itself.
There’s no question that Sr. Agnes knows this – and lives it! Giving us baby Franciscans a pile of books wasn’t meant to frame the formation process as a course of study – by no means! The history and theology, bylaws and ceremony are important, but only supplemental. What is truly needful is an openness to the Holy Spirit and an eagerness for Christ – whom we encounter in Word and Sacrament. St. Francis himself pointed the way, and that Way is laid out for us in Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels. They’re our essential reference, and they’re entitled to a reserved spot on the top of our “to-read” stacks.