The First Friends of God
The Franciscans actually consist of three orders The first order is comprised of friar priests and lay brothers who have sworn to lead a life of prayer, preaching, and penance.
The second order consists of cloistered nuns who belong to the Order of St. Clare and are known as Poor Ladies or Poor Clares.
The third order consists of both religious and laypersons who try to emulate St. Francis’ spirit in teaching, charity and social service. The Franciscans are the largest religious order in the Roman Catholic Church.
Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions, 1999.
Introduction: A BLACK HOLE IN FRANCISCAN MEMORY
All of the world’s spiritual traditions know and cherish the story of how Francis
Bernadone, the spoiled son of a wealthy Italian merchant, one day renounced his family fortune, and returned even his clothes to his father. From that moment on, Francis then followed the example of Jesus who, when he was himself alive, had no place at night to rest his head. Francis’ experiments in gospel homelessness over the next several months led him to gather stones for repairing several chapels that were falling into ruin. He begged for the leftovers from his former neighbors and relatives, accepting a few brothers and forming a community with them. In 1209 they journeyed to Rome to petition Papal approval for their project of living the Gospel “without gloss.” The memories associated with these early days comprise the founding stories of the first order, the Friars Minor, or the Franciscan Friars.
Equally cherished are the memories of how the young Clare Scifi, after listening to the early preaching of Brother Francis and visiting with him, ran away from home one Palm Sunday night. She went to join the Gospel family Brother Francis was forming. Sister Clare’s steadfast resistance through the ensuring Holy Week of the attempts of her family to forcibly dissuade first her and then her sister Agnes from living this way of life comprise the founding stories of the second order, the Poor Ladies of San Damiano, or the Poor Clares.
When one asks however about the founding stories of the third order, the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, the Secular Franciscans, a cloud of unknowing obscures Franciscan collective memory. The founding stories of the brothers and sisters of penance are not familiar to us. Who were these brothers and sisters who knew Brother Francis personally, and interacted with him during his lifetime? When and under what circumstance did they first begin to gather as a community, or consider themselves members of the gospel family of Brother Francis and Sister Clare?
Although one pious tradition names Luchesi and Badonna Modestini as being the first married couple Brother Francis received into his Gospel Community, neither Luchesi nor Badonna is actually mentioned in the Lives of St. Francis written during the first century after his death.
Instead of stories about the ordinary men and women who knew Brother Francis, Secular Franciscans have celebrated the legends of their royal patron saints, King Louis IX of France and Princess Elizabeth of Thuringia. However, neither of these third generation tertiaries ever met Brother Francis for themselves, nor interacted with his highly spontaneous and contradictory nature. This shows, as we shall have reason to remark later in our inquiry.
The founding stories of any human community are the wellsprings from which the group draws strength and purpose year after year, century after century. The Franciscan legends provide a history for their descendents, but in addition they bequeath imaginative possibilities for subsequent generations to ponder. The absence of a third order founding memory is something like a black hole in the universe of Franciscan memory. Physicists from Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawking have described black holes in the physical universe as being “so dense, that no radiation particles can escape them.” Because of this quality the inner identity of a black hole is not only unknown, but unknowable.
In his popular description of the history of physics, A Brief History of Time, Professor Hawking tells the story of how an American research student, Jacob Bekenstein, first suggested that black holes might be emitting some indirect information about themselves after all. Wouldn’t the space immediately surrounding the black hole most likely be of a more elevated temperature, than that of the rest of space, Jacob asked?
That a black hole could emit any information about itself was a contradiction that Stephen says he at first resisted. However, after his own calculations proved that Berkenstein’s idea could be true, Stephen was quick to acknowledge his mistake, and accepted that black holes did emit something informative regarding their inner temperature to the space around them. He then went on to discover how to measure this associated temperature, which was subsequently named “Hawking Radiation” in his honor.
After examining the source texts, this little volume will reflect upon some of the clues regarding what is known about the beginnings of the third order, as offered by Arnaldo Fortini in his excellent biography Francis of Assisi. We find ourselves in search of the indirect temperature that might have permeated those lay friends of Brother Francis who helped him form his lay order.
However, as I am not an historian but a minstrel I have included some fictive chapters, as well as a few ink brush illustrations to engage our imaginations alongside our reasoning powers. Generally speaking, you can be sure, if the characters are actually talking or thinking aloud, I must have made up that part!
May all of these hunches remain flexible — like those of St. Francis and Stephen Hawking — always open to correction, even by a novice of an hour.
1230 was turning out to be another horrible year for His Holiness Pope Gregory IX. To begin with, he was 86 years old which was difficult enough, let alone in an era when most people died, like Brother Francis, in their mid-40’s. When the Sacred College of Cardinals elected him Supreme Pontiff two years ago his first thought was what a shame they waited so long. At this point in life, keeping track of the whole known world seemed to be a nearly overwhelming obligation.
Recently he had begun to notice that his naps were starting to catch up with his naps. And his naps were more and more attractive to him than trying to keeping track of the Mongol Hordes or the Masters of the University of Paris. Or keeping track of the latest perfidy of His Disrespectfulness the Unholy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who thought that because he could command servants in seven languages, his own you-know-what didn’t stink.
Last year, a pack of bullies from the lesser Roman nobility loyal to Frederick the Fragrant had actually driven Gregory out of Rome. And Gregory was the Bishop of Rome. How dare that boy! Now, still exiled in Perugia, His Holiness was hearing of still another outrage. Civic authorities were harassing the “apple of his eye,” the Religious Order for laypersons which he had founded with Brother Francis some ten years ago.
Members of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance were being fined for not serving in the civic militia, or imprisoned if they could not pay the fine. Gregory sat upright. No doubt His Imperial Boyhood was somehow at the bottom of this new trouble. The injustice here is two fold, Gregory thought. In the first place, the members of any nonmilitary religious order were exempt from bearing arms. And in the second place, if he remembered correctly, there was a specific prohibition against carrying arms which Brother Francis insisted be included in the Propositum drawn up to govern this order. However, memory disarray being one of the tiny disadvantages of being eighty, Gregory decided not to push this second point, until he was sure about it.
With a deep sign, His Holiness turned toward his scribe and began dictating an Apostolic Letter to his brother Archbishops and Bishops of Italy. Testifying in the first place to ten years of Papal support for this Third Order of lay men and women, Gregory urged their Lordships to insure that these penitents were not denied their rights as true Religious.
They (the secular authorities) have imposed on them (the Third Order Members) new and greatest charges, taking pleasure to affront and afflict them whom they ought to more honor and cherish as the friends of God.
Wherefore our office of Pastor being to favor such as by such resolutions and sanctity of life become the friends of God… We command your fraternities not to let them be without reason molested in all the aforesaid things.
Twice within his letter, Pope Gregory describes the third order members to his brother bishops as being “the friends of God.” Used by any other Pope, this title might be a simple honorific title, more a politeness than a reality. When we recall that before his papal election, this pope had been Cardinal Hugoline, Protector of the Franciscan Family and friend of Brother Francis, we realize that we should consider carefully his choice of images, simply because he knows that of which he speaks.
In 1216, as the IV Lateran Council came to an end, Pope Innocent III entrusted the care of the growing families of Brother Francis and Brother Dominic into Cardinal Hugoine’s capable hands. The Holy Father had complete confidence in his nephew’s ability to negotiate both the legalese of the Roman Curia and the charism of the Gospel Penitents. Ten years earlier, he and Hugoline had worked as a team to reconcile the Humiliati of Milan back into the good graces of the Church. The Humiliati was also an Order with three branches including Priests, Nuns and Laity. The idea of a having a lay order alongside the first and second Franciscan orders might well have been Cardinal Hugoline’s contribution in the first place. This at least might explain where there is no specific founding story in the earliest legends.
After his death at 99 years of age, Pope Gregory’s anonymous papal biographer distinguished between the former Cardinal Hugoline’s involvements in the creation of each of the three branches within the Franciscan family. While saying that the Cardinal only helped Brother Francis “organize and direct” the First Order, he goes on to assure us that Hugoline actually “established and brought to completion” the Third Order, along with Bro. Francis. By “established,” the biographer means that Hugoline guided them to obtaining papal approval for their Memorial of Life.
Using this same understanding that “to found” a Community means giving them a Rule of Life, his biographer also affirms that Cardinal Hugoline “established and brought to completion” the Order of Poor Ladies as well. This refers to the time when Cardinal Hugoline gave the Rule of Benedict to the sisters at San Damiano, and made Clare an Abbess – against her own will — when he was Papal Legate of Tuscany and Umbria.
Because of his unspecified, but no doubt intimate involvement with the creation of the Third Order, Pope Gregory’s choice of imagery, deserves our serious attention. It conveys a sense of early papal expectation regarding the place of this third order in the context of common Church life. There is a natural emphasis given to the image when the pope repeats it in the same letter.
But how are we to understand in what ways the brothers and sisters are to be friends of God?
One way to approach this would be to consult those common sources we share with Gregory, the Sacred Scriptures. In both the Original and the New Testaments we can see close relationships between God and his friends among the people of Israel, and between Jesus and his friends. These would all be exemplars and models for the Friends of God.
The Friends of Yahweh
Many vivid examples of the friendship between Yahweh and Israel are offered us in the Original Testament. From Adam to Noah to Jacob; from Joseph to Moses to David; from Ruth to Isaiah to Job, we discover a diverse range of inter-relationships uniting divinity and humanity.
Each of these interactions is an original event, a unique and not ever to be repeated event:. Adam in the garden; Noah on the ark; Jacob wrestling with an Angel;
Joseph thrown into a deep well; Moses crossing the Red Sea; David hiding in a mountain cave; Ruth in the wheat field; Isaiah lamenting in exile; Job weeping for his wife and children.
Although the Moment of Blessing at the core of each epiphany is bequeathed to successive generations, the actual encounters themselves share no resemblances. Rather, each of these relationships with divinity is conducted within the privacy of a singular human life. So it is that the Universal Creator walks through the Garden looking for Adam, seeking him as any good friend might, in Adam’s back yard. That is to say, on his turf, or in his personal space, in his own room.
And so it is that his Creator establishes a Covenant with Abraham and Sarah by visiting their tent in the guise of a wandering stranger. This visit allows Abraham and Sarah to offer the shade of their tent, the fruit of their kitchen and their hospitality to their Creator.
The intimate perimeter of one’s home is still honored as a primary sanctuary or dwelling place of God by the children of Abraham in Jerusalem, Rome and Mecca. “Go into your room and pray,” Jesus said. Let your very privacy become a Holy of Holies where Yahweh’s footsteps may brush your reality and partake of your hospitality.
The Friends of Jesus
We recall that Jesus invited his apostles to become his friends as well as his disciples. Yet we know that often they misunderstood what he was trying to tell them. And we also remember that two of them, Peter and Judas, will betray him, although Peter accepts Jesus’ forgiveness and becomes his trusted friend again.
There is in addition to Peter, only one other apostle who is primarily remembered for having been Jesus’ good friend. Tradition has named John as this beloved disciple, or as we might say today, best friend of Jesus. In his final moments on the cross, Jesus turned to this disciple and entrusted his mother Mary into his care.
We are also told in the Gospels that Jesus had a few other close friends, men and women whom he loved and whose company he sought. Neither relatives nor on-the-road companions, Martha, Mary and Lazarus shared a household together in Bethany where Jesus would visit them and sometimes spend the night.
The Gospel of John tells us directly that Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus their brother, and they loved him in return. Certainly this is not the same as saying that everything went smoothly in their relationships.
It was Martha after all who once provoked a direct rebuke from the meek and mild Jesus when she was not pay attention to his words. Not only did Jesus criticize her aloud and in front of others, he went on from there to compare her unfavorably to her own sister, Mary. “Martha, Martha you are busy about many things, but Mary has taken the better part,” he said. Lord only knows just how many personal issues Jesus managed to bruise with his one, cranky remark.
Later on, Lazarus their brother fell sick, and Mary and Martha both sent word to Jesus to come to Bethany heal his dying friend. However Jesus delayed and did not arrive until after Lazarus had already been entombed four days. When he did arrive at the gates of Bethany Martha who had evidently forgiven him his rudeness, ran out to greet him in full faith, “Lord, if you had been here our brother would not have died. Even now I know God will give you whatever you ask.”
Mary however remained pouting indoors with the mourners from Jerusalem and even after Jesus arrived at her front door she pointedly refused to go welcome him. Finally asked for her by name. And she had no choice but to answer.
She then confronted Jesus with the same rebuke Martha had already used, “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.” However Mary, who has not yet learned how to forgive the human Jesus, does not soften her words, as her sister did with a profession of faith. At this point in the story, Jesus has disappointed Mary entirely, and regardless of how things will turn out in the end, this painful moment of confrontation between them leaves even Jesus himself speechless. Instead of answering Mary, he asked the bystanders, “Where have you laid him?”
The very human interactions in these relationships between Jesus and his good friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus, enriches our understanding of the growth of friendship itself, and help us learn to see behind our projections onto one another, accepting one another without gloss.
Probably one of the most important verses in all of the Gospels for coming to understanding the Son of Man without gloss is the stark affirmation that upon hearing about the death of his friend Lazarus, Jesus wept. That is to say, Lazarus’ death was not a charade to him. And did Lazarus himself weep in turn when he realized that he would have to die all over again? How does any friendship survive such tangles?
The Friends of God
When Francis created his Way of Life, he used both examples of relationship –beloved apostles, as well as beloved friends— as models for those who would seek to join him in following in the footsteps of the Gospel. In the First Rule for the Friars, Francis places the invitation of Jesus to his apostles, “Leave your homes, and come follow me.”
In the Rule for Religious Life in Hermitages, he presents instead the Gospel example of Martha and Mary living in their Bethany home. Francis’ choice of these two women as Gospel exemplars for this little Rule is a refreshing counterweight to the more common negative stereotypes at times forwarded by medieval churchmen regarding women as daughters of Eve the Temptress.
Francis’ use of Martha and Mary as models for Gospel Life reintegrates the rest of the Gospel. It is the gospel of two women who were close friends and disciples of Jesus, although not apostles. That Martha and Mary were laywomen in their own home, not nuns in a convent, bridges the chasm separating Lay Life from Religious Life, into which certain monastic enthusiasts had divided the Gospel during the millennium between Jesus and Francis. Or during the Age of the Son, as Abbot Joachim once phrased it.
The grieving parents, a brave yet disillusioned knight; a young single mother; and an old, old crone. These five people were all friends of Saint Francis and among the first members of his order for laypersons. Luchesi and Badonna Modestini, Count Orlando di Chiusi, Lady Jacoba di Settisoli, and Domina Prassesis, into their safe keeping Brother Francis entrusted his dream of living the Gospel in the cloister of the world.
A few stories about these first Third Order Members were preserved in the same Legends of St. Francis that we have just investigated. However, because they are not told as being about third order members per se, but rather as stories about some of the lay friends of Brother Francis, none of their details is connected to the founding of the brothers and sisters of penance. Instead these tales have remained at the far edges of Secular Franciscan self-consciousness for eight hundred years, waiting to contribute their part to the construction of the story we have never really heard.
* * *
The official legends about the lives of men and women declared by the Catholic Church to be Blessed or Saint of God, are inscribed in a calendar of feast days called the Acta Sanctorum, the Acts of the Saints. The Acta Sanctorum records the legend of Blessed Luchesi Modestini, naming him and his wife Badonna as first married couple received by Brother Francis into his growing family.
One of The Little Flowers of St. Francis describes how Count Orlando di Chiusi generously donated Mount La Verna to Brother Francis upon meeting him for the first time.
The cookies Lady Jacoba and her sons baked for the dying Brother Francis are described in John of Perugia’s The Legend of the Three Companions.
Both Thomas Celano and St. Bonaventure testify that Domina Prassedis had a reputation in the Eternal City for being a holy woman recluse long before she and Brother Francis ever met.
THE FIRst friends of god
Luchesi and Badonna Modestini, Count Orlando di Chiusi, Lady Jacoba Settisoli, and Sister’Na Prassedis. The grieving parents, a brave but disillusioned knight, a single mother, an old, old crone. Not only did these men and women know Brother Francis personally, there is evidence in their stories that each of them interacted with his spontaneous and contradictory nature well before 1221 when the Third Order of Penance was officially recognized by the Pope. This one fact leads us to wonder how they might have contributed to the growing consciousness of the new lay movement of their good friend. It is their life stories, along with those of many other unknown men and women, are the founding stories of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance. .
* * *
The Legend of Brother Luchesi describes him as being at the height of great personal fortune when a shift in Sienese politics from Papal to Imperial Rule, over which he had no control whatsoever, drove him to seek exile along with his wife and two young children inside the territory of nearby Florence. He settled his family in a tiny village outside Florence called Poggi-Bonsi. Although the new neighborhood seemed to Badonna more like a rock pile than a real village, she did not complain, and neither did the children. Papa had enough on his mind, as anyone could see.
And by the time the children did complain, it was too late. Beginning with a very great thirst, they grew so weakened by the swamp fever that they could no longer swallow the broth Badonna squeezed drop by drop from a cloth onto their swollen lips.
After their daughters died of malaria, Luchesi and Badonna found themselves at the mercy of the widespread darkness described by Brother Thomas of Celano, which threatened to overwhelm them. This was a darkness of profound grief, the particular sadness of parents whose children die before them.
* * *
Count Orlando di Chiusi was counted “among the greatest of the knights of the Holy Roman Empire” when suddenly he laid down his broadsword, removed his jeweled gloves and placed his bare hands into the hands of Brother Francis making a promise “not to take up lethal weapons or bear them about against anybody.”
Brother Francis accepted this declaration of the conversion in his life by investing Count Orlando with a leather belt and welcoming him into his new Family of the Gospel. We can be certain that Orlando’s overlord, the Emperor Frederick II, was not amused by this decision. Nor was His Eminence, Lord Cardinal Pelagius, Papal Chaplain to the Holy Crusades.
While we may never know just what it was that caused Orlando to change his deepest allegiance from the sword to the gospel, we can’t help but wonder about the effect on him of some of the more prominent events of his day as the Children’s Crusades (1202) or the Christian Crusader sack and pillage of Christian Constantinople (1204). Truly these were days of widespread darkness for anyone dedicated to the chivalry of Knighthood.
* * *
Scarcely three years after her marriage, Lady Jacoba Settisoli lost her husband Graziano in the Fourth Crusade. She now found herself alone living with two sons among powerful in-laws, without her companion, her buffer and teacher and consoler. Jacoba was determined to become both a down-to-earth father and a loving mother for her boys. This resolution helped her begin gathering and refocusing her energy and attention in those first days after the loss of her best friend, despite the widespread darkness which descended upon her self-confidence when she found herself mother and father to two young boys at the tender age of twenty-one.
She does not meet Brother Francis until she is almost thirty, and already a reputable Roman matron, vigorously pursuing a civil suit against the Papal States for some real estate she believes was taken from the inheritance due her sons. Under the influence of Brother Francis, she settles her lawsuit and eventually opens a refuge for persons without night shelter in the roughest part of Rome.
* * *
By the time she first met Brother Francis, Domina Prasesdis already had a reputation for being a Recluse, a Holy Woman. But you know how rumors fly about the reputations of strong women, without men guiding them. She’s a hermitess; no, she’s an herbalist. She’s a mid-wife; no, she’s a fishwife. She’s a saint; no, she’s a witchy woman. She was once a very beautiful maiden who grew tired of human praise and lust, and hid herself from the prying eyes of mankind. No, she may have once been beautiful or she may have not, but it was only after being severely burned in a kitchen fire, that ‘Na Prassedis hid herself from human sight.
Rumors may fly, but the truth, as Thomas Celano and Bonaventure both record it, is that Prassedis communicated with Brother Francis after his death. So maybe she was a bit witchy after all.
* * *
For Brother Francis, the Gospel Life is a way of living in this world as creatures among creatures, once proclaimed by Jesus to all people. This is a way of life created out of one’s voluntary simplicity, poverty and humility. Look at the birds of the air, Jesus said. “Learn from them. Consider the lilies of the field.”
Francis and his brothers took to heart the simplicity of the birds of the air. They migrated across the mountains and the oceans, crossing every known and unknown boundary in the world – like wild geese – crying all the while their praise of the Most High across heaven and earth.
Clare and her sisters took to heart the poverty of the lilies of the field. She and her sisters became rooted in their rocky enclosure, having nothing, lacking nothing, and seeking nothing each day except to welcome God’s gift of daily light, as wildflowers do, and in return offering up to the Most High all the fragrance of their brief lives.
Luchesi, Badonna, Orlando, Jacoba, Prassedis took to heart the rest of the Gospel, the humility of the many other examples Jesus recommended, including the leaven in the dough, the salt of the earth, the tiny mustard seed, the lamp within a household, and the many branches on one vine.
The grieving parents, a brave but disillusioned knight, a young, single mother and an old, old crone. These were five of the first Secular Franciscans, whom Brother Francis called out of a widespread darkness into a new relationship with the Most High. Or, into “Friendship with God,” as Pope Gregory IX, an eyewitness of all their efforts from their beginnings once described them to all the Bishops of Italy.
4. Sister Badonna’s Witness
Inquirer: Tell us about your life before meeting Brother Francis.
Badonna: When Luchesi and I were first married, I was happily absorbed in being a busy and gracious house-mistress. I was so proud of my tall, successful husband and my two beautiful darlings. I was another busy Martha of Bethany, and I confess to you that I would often brush past the needs of others just to put some finishing touches on my entertainments. Often, I couldn’t bother to listen to what my children were really saying, because I was so full inside of my own plans. I have lived to regret that, as perhaps you know. I admit that I was also like Martha in that sometimes I needed someone to scold me.
But then the Great Wheel of Dame Fortune began to list, as it always does. This time it did not come to a stop, even when Luchesi’s livelihood and our position in Sienese Society were betrayed by a simple change of overlords. We fled into exile. But still the Great Wheel kept creaking.
Until at last both of our children were dead of swamp poisoning. Then I myself died for nearly two years. I waited entombed in my grieving body, while another part of me was going about each day in a vacant, routine way. Watching from within the cold marble of my grief, I assure you my gospel was that of the dead Lazarus.
Every morning I watched Luchesi load up the donkey with skins of sweet well water, a couple baskets of bread, and dried bunches of fresh herbs. It was always beyond my understanding why he would not ride the beast, but only walked beside it. As if they were a team. A team of asses. Some days I would think of them like that, a team of asses. But then Luchesi would turn back and wave to me just before the path disappeared into the trees. As they disappeared, a shudder of fear would shatter my confidence for the rest of the day, until they finally returned home with the afternoon shadows.
Luchesi wanted me to come with him to those wayside caves and crumbled down sheds where the wretched people lived. But I could not bear to leave the cottage in those days, nor could I face the sufferings of others just yet. I was too vulnerable, and too exhausted in my once mothering body.
Actually I envied how his grief had led him into being useful for others. My mourning would not allow me even that much comfort. But I don’t remember very much else from those days, and I don’t really need to because it was then that we first met Brother Francis.
Inquirer: In what sense is your life, which is so different from that of Brother Francis and his friars, still a real Gospel life, akin to his?
Badonna: When Brother Francis first dawned in our lives, Luchesi immediately wanted to imitate him. “This is what Jesus really said,” he told me again and again when he first started giving away all our food to the poor. “Consider the birds of the air, look at the lilies of the field,” he would tell me. “That is all we have left to consider, ” I would reply, once I got back the use of my tongue, thanks be, just a little.
Despite Lucheis’s enthusiasm for what he and Francis called the advice of the living Jesus, I never wanted to be like either of them, Jesus or Francis. After all, neither had been a mother, and neither could have been. And, although I say to you now that I owe Brother Francis my life, still I would not be like him for all the alleged tea in Cathay.
Which is not to say that I don’t offer him my deepest affection and sincere gratitude for calling me back out of the widespread darkness that had been assailing me. At first he only listened, and then sometimes we would cry. Gradually he showed me how to submerge my own sorrow into the sorrow of the groaning world; how to leave my Lazarus life for the Wisdom life of Mary
No, my Gospel life now is that of Mary, who did not herself imitate the lifestyle of Jesus, but nonetheless did have a real friendship with him. Neither do I live in imitation of the friar Francis, but rather in a supportive relationship to him and to all that he has helped me understand about my life. No, although Mary had an intimate and complicated friendship with Jesus, as we glimpse after Lazarus’ funeral, she was only Jesus’ friend and disciple, not an apostle.
The location of Mary’s gospel was not out on the open road but within her own being as Jesus’ friend, and within the home she shared with her brother and sister in Bethany. Their home was the place where the Gospel dwelt. She was content in her house in Bethany, as a place where the Gospel was unfolding, as am I content in my garden at Poggibonsi growing vegetables for the broth I send out into the world each morning with Luchesi and the donkey. As once it did for Mary of Bethany, the Gospel happens inside my life and in the bread I bake.
Anyway, it does seem that once Jesus has left his family home in Nazareth, as many Gospel events happen in Bethany as any where else in Palestine, except maybe in Jerusalem. The home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus in Bethany becomes a key Gospel location simply because it is a place where he gathered with his friends and disciples.
Every Gospel writer comments on the importance of this Bethany community to Jesus. In St. John we find the busy Martha and contemplative Mary stories as well as the death of Lazarus. Both St. Mark and St. Matthew offer the important detail that Jesus spent every night of his last week on earth in Bethany with his friends.
In his first, Gospel version of the Ascension story, St. Luke places it in Bethany, rather than on Mount Tabor. It is as if Jesus went out of his way to say goodbye not only to his apostles and immediate family members, but also to his friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Here the document breaks off
7. Luchesi’s Testimony
Luchesi: I do not make comparisons between my life and the lives of other people, my Lord, and especially not with those of saints! But on the other hand I do believe that Brother Francis and I share one, identical Gospel Life together, in the same way that St. Peter and St. John did, although one was married, and the other was not. They both belonged equally to the Gospel –as do Brother Francis, Sister Clare my wife Badonna and I.
Francis’ life and mine are also kin in that they are both good and honest lives. We are both trying our best to live sincerely and deliberately on the most simple, human level. We also share a common desire to be filled with holiness. That is to say, we want to become more blessed every day, as in “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” “Blessed are the pure of heart…”
Further, the two of us want to feel more reverence each and every day for our sister, Mother Earth and her creatures and their Creator. We believe this is the heart of the Gospel Way Jesus lived and taught while living on earth.
And yes I do consider my life as a husband to actually be filled with “Holiness” in its best moments. I do affirm that marriage is a sacrament, a consecrated state of life, even as is religious life. Indeed, marriage is the most ancient of sacraments, created at the foundation of the world when God said, “It is not good that man be alone.” According to the Book of Genesis marriage is a part of the original blessing of creation by God, before sin even came into existence. “And God saw that it was good.” That is a fine description of my marriage to Badonna.
For the sake of honesty I admit that Francis and I share a common challenge with regard to sensual temptations. Yet my marriage vows bind me in exactly the same celibacy as that of Francis toward all women on earth, save only one, my wife. That leaves both he and me with many common opportunities for coveting our neighbor’s wife. In some ways married celibacy may even be a more difficult virtue for married persons than for celibate persons because there are more opportunities available.
Inquirer: Still, the difference between being intimate with one person rather than with none is as great the difference between something and nothing? Do you not agree?
Luchesi: But in our mutual Chastity, he and I have equally weighted responsibilities with regard to my wife. Francis has to be faithful to his celibacy with regard to her, but I also have to be faithful to my sexual chastity as the years pass.
Once she and I have both aged, and our years together have yielded enough harsh words between us; once we’ve lost the fresh bloom of our youth and have both put on several extra pounds; once we have discovered enough repulsive little details about each other; once we have reached the age when other older men are looking at younger girls, and other older women are admiring younger men; then and only then does the virtue of our chastity the fidelity within marriage begin to shine in a more unique way.
With the grace of God at the center of our aging chastity, our love for one another becomes more pure, less selfish and more nurturing over time. Observing the same virtue of personal chastity is required in either a happy marriage or a happy celibate life. Yes, I believe that Francis and I are indeed united in our individual struggles to live a life that integrates a Gospel Chastity.
13. Testimony of Lady Jacoba Settisoli
Inquirer: Please begin by telling us about your life before meeting Brother Francis.
Jacoba: When I was yet a maiden under my father’s roof, I would play a game with my cousins in Palermo in which we imagined aloud various details of our future marriages. One of us would begin, for example, by saying that her husband would certainly be of noble blood. “I will marry a Prince,” she would begin. Then the girl to her left side would repeat what she said, and add one quality to the description. “I will marry a handsome prince”. Then the girl next to her would repeat that and add another quality. “I will marry a handsome prince who is kind.” And so on we would go around the circle, with each girl repeating what she heard and adding one more quality: “I will marry a handsome prince who is also kind, and loves my cooking.”
We would continue on until someone broke the circle either by forgetting the order of the description or by adding a quality so suggestive that the next person couldn’t stop laughing. “I will marry a handsome prince who is also kind and loves my cooking and does not snore, nor do his kisses stink.”
Now I assure you that we knew that these extremely attractive qualities we were imagining could not all exist in one person. It was a game, a passing of time. Oh, I suppose we were learning how to speak aloud about men. But anyway, you can imagine my amazement when several years later in my life I found myself married to a handsome prince, who was also kind, who loved my cooking and did not snore, nor did his kisses stink!
My beloved Graciano Frangipani, was the eldest son and heir of the Barons’ Frangipani di Settisoli, one of Rome’s most aristocratic families. I was astonished and proud to become his wife. Too proud, perhaps. When after three short years of marriage, Graciano was killed overseas, my grief and my anger became as enormous as my former pride had been. Meaning, I was angry at heaven for taking away my friend, my helper and my self-confidence. I was angry at the Vicar of Christ, who was supposed to be the Prince of Peace, His Hypocritical Holiness Pope Innocent who called for the Crusade in the first place. I was angry at my entire Italian family-in-law for encouraging his bravado to uphold their precious family name. I was angry at myself for somehow failing to keep him home, failing to keep him safe beside me. I was even more angry at myself for having taken those three brief years between us for granted. And that is just exactly where I was when I first met Brother Francis of Assisi. Angry, angry, angry.
Inquirer: Why would you think that your daily life, which is so different from that of Brother Francis and his friars, is akin to theirs, a Gospel life?
Jacoba: Francis found the pattern for the friars’ life in the daily lives of Jesus and his apostles. And he helped me find my life pattern in a completely different gospel model altogether, that of Mary of Nazareth, the widow of Joseph and single mother of Jesus and his brothers and sisters.
Mary is only a Jewish maiden when we first meet her in the Gospels and listen with her to the Angel’s message that she was to become a mother. I was a maiden once, and I remembering my anxiety and uncertainty when first the call to marriage came and then my first pregnancy. She became the wife of Joseph, and I too became a wife along with her. Then she became a mother, even as I became a mother. At the death of Joseph, she became a widow, as I was myself made a widow. Then she was a single mother trying to raise her children, even as I am now trying to be both mother and father for my boys. Being a single mother means trying to balance the stern influences of a father along with the tender influences of a mother in raising our children.
I actually began to identify with Mary because of her vulnerability and her mistakes as a mother. A child of her own time and a daughter of her own culture, during her pregnancy, she prayed that God would use he son to “Cast down the mighty from their thrones and exalt the lowly.” However, her son Jesus did not of course become a warrior, but “the Prince of Peace,” who introduced humanity to the new, nonviolent option of forgiving one’s enemies.
The vulnerable Mothering half of me ponders my children’s lives, as Mary once did after Jesus had been lost for three days. The stern Fathering half of me often over-reacts as Mary did when she set out to bring Jesus back home from his first preaching mission because she worried he might be out of his mind.
Based on these early misunderstandings between mother and son, their final moments together at the cross are all the more powerful for me. Here Jesus commends his best friend John into Mary’s care, and with his dying breath affirms his trust in her vocation as a mother. Jesus could have asked anything of her at that time and yet he only chose to ask her to continue to be a mother for his grieving best friend, John.
Along with Mary of Nazareth, I declare my motherhood to be my gospel life, akin to those of Brother Francis and Sister Clare. For as Brother Francis has taught us in his exhortation to those who do penance, “We are indeed the mothers of our Lord when we carry Him in our heart and body through a divine love and a pure and sincere conscience and give birth to him through a holy activity that shines in turn as an example for others.”
i18. Orlando’s Testimony
Inquirer: Before we begin, I have a question forwarded to me by Cardinal Pelagius. He asks, why have you abandoned the sword with which you were once invested as a Knight of the Holy Roman Empire? .
Orlando: Please tell the Lord Cardinal that I did not abandon my sword, your honor, however, it is true that I no longer use it to kill other people. As for the why of it, I remember the Gospel the good Cardinal himself read aloud at my knighting ceremony: “On the night before he was betrayed, after the supper had been eaten, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let those of you who have a sword, bring it with you. Let those of you who have none, sell your cloaks and buy one.”
Yet, for a mysterious reason, later on that same evening, when Peter tried to use his sword to defend them from false arrest, Jesus rebukes him and has Peter put his sword away. Now why on earth, I have been wondering to myself ever since that special day in my life, did Jesus urge the apostles to get swords in the first place if not to use for their own, righteous self-defense?
Well I could not find a reason in my own mind or in any of the other scriptures, no in any of the legends of military history I learned as I grew older. Then one day I heard Brother Francis preaching on the verse in the Prophet Isaiah where he says that in the Reign of God we will convert our swords into ploughshares. Suddenly I knew why Jesus said what he did.
After all, you can only convert something into a ploughshare that is capable of becoming a ploughshare. The material must be strong. You couldn’t use that quill with which you are writing to cut an open trench through the crust of the earth. It would snap.
Please tell the good Cardinal that I did not abandon my sword, nor my courage, nor my strength. I have abandoned only my need to hate my enemy, to demonize and persecute those who oppose me. I have abandoned only that part in me which would “lord it over others,” as Jesus once put it. Instead of using my sword to dominate others so that they will grow my food for me, I am rededicating my sword, the focus of my power, to cultivating my own garden.
Inquirer: I see. How would you now understand this new life of yours as a cultivator of garden to be related to the life of Brother Francis and his companions?
Orlando: Brother Francis taught me to listen to the Gospels, and then to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, by taking his honest advice. But to be frank as I began to listen more carefully to the Sunday Gospels, I heard different voices of Jesus, each representing a distinct point of view.
In the Gospel of Mark, I heard the voice of a Son of Man, who spun folk tales and parables about the Kingdom of God on Earth. But in the Gospel of St. John, I heard a Son of God, philosophizing abstractly about Eternal Life. No doubt the true voice of Jesus was somewhere in between any such extremes, but which voice of Jesus then should I really trust, much less follow? Francis had not told me which of these was the voice of the real Jesus.
One night when I was thinking this over, it came to me that the truest voice of the Lord would be that voice he himself offered to someone who he wanted to understand him. So, whose view of him did Jesus care about the most? Whose world did he believe was closest to his own? Or, to put it another way, whose opinion did Jesus most respect? By whom did he feel really understood?
Immediately I eliminated the views of the religious professionals of his day, the Scribes and the Pharisees whom Jesus called Hypocrites and Vipers. Next to go were his neighbors in Nazareth, who watched him grow up and knew his family members by name. These were the same people who, after first hearing him preach, wanted to drive Jesus off a cliff. He didn’t bother to defend himself, but just slipped away, shaking the dust of Nazareth from his sandals.
Then I ruled-out the point of view of the civic authorities, of Pontius Pilate and King Herod. Even given a chance to defend himself before these men, Jesus chose to remain silent. He did not care about their poor opinion of him.
Being misunderstood was evidently a lifelong truth for Jesus. Even as a teenager he showed a disregard for his parents concern that he had been lost for three days, and responded to their complaint by declaring, “Do you know not that I must be about my father’s business?”
Several years later his situation with his family has not entirely improved, and his mother and brothers come looking for him, just after he begins his preaching ministry. They want to bring him home with them, wondering if he is having a nervous breakdown.
When it comes down to it, not even his closest disciples can be trusted to perceive him correctly. Peter, James and John are most often shown in the Gospels as having misunderstanding him, and needing to be scolded. So, in the end, I asked myself who in the world does Jesus believe even capable of understanding him?
As far as I see, Jesus was only concerned about explaining himself to one person in his life, that is to his mentor, his elder cousin John the Baptist. Only when John sends messengers inquiring about him does Jesus even bother describing his ministry. And what does he say?
Jesus does not relate to his imprisoned cousin the growing number of disciples he has accumulated, nor does he send him a copy of his recently successful Sermon on the Mount. No, when Jesus wants to reassure John about his own work, he sends testimony of his ministry among a wide variety of poor persons, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf and the dead. “Tell John that the poor are having the good news preached to them,” Jesus tells John’s envoys. Then he closes his message with an ironic note, certain to bring a smile to the face of his unconventional cousin, “Fortunate is the one who does not take offense at me!”
So you see, I now understand true voice of Jesus to be that with which he spoke to John. And therefore I follow his attention directly to the advice which John gave those he met: “Those of you with two coats give one away to someone who has none; those of you in authority do not lord it over others; those who are soldiers, do not take things by force, nor threaten others with accusations; those of you who are tax collectors, be content with the fixed rate.”
I notice right away that John does not tell the soldiers who come to him to throw away their swords. But he does ask them to resist the temptation to use them to lord it over others. This then is the Gospel path I understand. Using every bit of my strength, without letting it turn into intimidation of others. And in this crucial way I believe that my life is indeed kin to that of Brother Francis and his brothers.
9. The Rest of the Gospel
In the Gospel stories, Jesus offers opposite sorts of encouragement to those he meets. “Come, follow me,” he invites a few people. These will become his disciples. “Go your way, your faith is saving you” he assures others, those he heals as well as the crowds he sends home after the miracles of feeding them. Depending on one’s place in the story, therefore, a life lived by either premise “Come follow me,” or “Go your way,” could be a Gospel-driven Life.
Even if we had been born at the right time in Galilee and met Jesus himself, most of us would not have been called to become apostles. Only some of us, or rather, very few of us would have been asked to follow Jesus. The rest of us might have been members of a curious crowd or perhaps bystanders drawn into the story as was Zaccheus. A few of us would have also been minor characters seeking relief from suffering for ourselves or for another.
The majority of us would have heard Jesus say “Go your way,” rather than “Come, follow me.” Yet both sorts of advice were honestly given however, and should be honestly accepted when offered. According to one’s place in the story, either response is a type of obedience to the direct advice of the living Jesus. Each way can therefore be a Gospel Life.
Members of the First and Second Franciscan Orders, the Friars Minor and Poor Ladies, accept the invitation to leave all things and follow Jesus, by leaving their families and homes to create Franciscan Communities and Hermitages.
Members of the Third Order, the Friends of God, fulfill the rest of Jesus’ advice throughout the Gospel by going back to their own homes and living there a faith that is saving them, that is to say, a faith that is empowering them with a life worth living.
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Neither legend nor history records many of the founding details of the Third Order. As we saw, there is one founding Legend in the Acta Sacnctorum about Blessed Lucchesio and his wife Badonna, who tradition considers the first tertiary couple. However there are problems with the historicity of this legend, as Luke Wadding and scholars since him have pointed out. It was first written in the late 14th Century by Bartolomew of Tolomei, in order to celebrate the occasion of Luchesi’s beatification. Moorman, p. 45 However, this was already a century after the fact. We notice rather that Luchesi’s name does not appear in the works of Thomas Celano, Brother Leo, or St. Bonaventure.
In the Little Flowers of St. Francis, Brother Ugolino offers a prophecy about the order Francis will one day found for lay persons so that they need not abandon their daily lives in order to live the Gospel along with him. This prophecy of the Third Order is similar to the prophecy regarding the Second Order given by Thomas of Celano who predicted that Poor Ladies would one day come to live at San Damiano which he was in the process of repairing. However, Celano does not help us understand how the Third Order came into being beyond his symbolic hints about Francis’ victory over a widespread darkness which we examined above.
Another problem of SFO Origins is indicated by the large number of different places which claim to be “the real birthplace of the Third Order.” With good reason, Assisi, Rome, Siena, Florence and Poggibonsi all say that the Secular Franciscan Order was born within their walls. These diverse claims appear to cancel each other out, for how could one Order have been born in so many places at the same time?
What if instead we took a deep, imaginative breath and broadened our expectations about how life exists in such a way so as to include mushrooms in our definition. Fungus doesn’t follow the single seed model of plants and animals, but depends instead upon thousands of spores ripening next to each other to create the web or mycelium from which will fruit the individual mushrooms.
Understanding the growth cycle of fungus could provide us with an alternate model for understanding how a social life might grow, other than according to the basic plant and animal single seed model. A spore is not a seed in the sense that one spore does not become a mushroom. It takes hundreds of thousands of spores, all falling to the ground in the same area at the same time, to create the underground webbing which will fruit a new Chanterelle or one of her dusky, delicious cousins.
Might we not similarly imagine that a social movement such as a religious order could begin without one dramatic founding event or even without one founder, but rather with many even hundreds of founding brothers and sisters in various places all merging their littleness into a common rhizome which will eventually become capable of bearing good fruit?
“Daughter, go in peace your faith is saving you.” Jesus may well have learned the advice he once gave to the woman seeking his healing power from his cousin John the Baptizer. John after all was accustomed to sending those he baptized in the River Jordan back to their own homes to pick up the purse and sword of their lives again. He encouraged both tax collectors and soldiers to return to their daily lives but to begin living in voluntarily accord with the reign of God. Working within society, “like leaven in the dough,” as Jesus later would described it, the disciples of John were to realize the Reign of God on earth in their everyday lives. And so we read John’s words to the soldiers and tax collectors,
Those who have two cloaks, give one to the poor.
Do not abuse your authority over others.
Share your food with those who have none.
John’s baptism was of course not the sacrament that Christians know today. It did not represent the profession of a Christian philosophical creed, but announced a human change of heart. His baptism did not prepare one for entering another world, but for the living out the reign of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” John’s listeners returned to their homes and jobs and practiced the advice he had given them when they returned. They observed as well the good sense behind his words by trying to refocus their worldly energies according to his reminder, “Do to no one what you yourself dislike.”
The baptism of John proclaimed the conversion of focusing one’s attention toward living in Justice beside others on earth. His was a baptism of resolution, rather than of initiation, strengthening the penitent’s resolve to live as a son or daughter of Justice back in the world from which they came. This is not a baptismal introduction to the monastic isolation of Qumram. According to Josephus, the baptism of John was offered, “not for the forgiveness of sins, but for purifying the body after the soul had already been cleansed by righteous conduct.” Frederickson, p 97.
This baptism was cousin to the pious devotion of Lay Confession that was still practiced in the days of Brother Francis. We will soon examine this exact devotion.
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After fruiting, adult mushrooms release hundreds of microscopic spores from those feathery gills underneath their wide crowns. These spores fall onto the ground and make their way under the topsoil. Underground, the individual spores loosen their boundaries so that they may combine with other spores in order to create the new, living webbing. By dissolving their edges, the separate spore cells leave their singular lives and create out of their former individuality a new place where the community may be formed. In due season this new community will come to sprout the Golden Crown of the Chanterelle Mushroom, or the shaggy stalk of a Boletus Edgelis or the sweet purple stem of Lactarius Deliciousus.
Not just a seed, nor a single, founding saint, but an actual community of effort and relationships would be necessary to found a Religious Order in this way! No doubt, the words of Brother Francis and his early companions stirred the minds and hearts of hundreds of those who heard them. Some were inspired to join the brothers’ efforts by creating among themselves a socially engaged mycelium that would became, in ten years, a Third or Lay Order of the Gospel.
Assisi. Rome. Siena. Florence. Poggibonsi. Rather than limiting our founding story to any one of these places, we might accept them all, and look instead for traces of an entire generation of founding moments. We might begin looking for clues in the stories of the men and women who joined their lives together in the Gospel in order to bear for the world that savory delicacy which Pope Gregory IX called, “friendship with God.”
The FIrst Friends of God was first published in a limited, memorial edition, in 2000, for the funeral of Dale Gilson SFO. to whom it was dedicated.