How St. Francis divides his time

May 15th, 2019

In recent semesters I've been ending my undergraduate introductory theology courses with a section in which students think about the center and scope of Christian spirituality and ethics by meeting a few saints: Augustine, Francis of Assisi and Dorothy Day. My thought is that, rather than doing a hurried section on moral theology in the abstract, to rather invite students to think theologically about spirituality and ethics in relation to several folks whose lives have been radically transformed by Jesus Christ.

The way we meet St. Francis is by studying some significant chunks of St. Bonaventure's major Life of St. Francis. One is thus granted two things indivisibly: an acquaintance with the alacrity, joy, and suffering love of St. Francis himself, as well as a dose of St. Bonaventure's own Christ-centered (and distinctively Franciscan) spiritual theology and ethics.

I always find myself inspired by how Bonaventure describes the way Francis divides his time.

Bonaventure writes:

The angelic man Francis
had made it his habit
never to relax in his pursuit of the good.
Rather, like the heavenly spirits on Jacob's ladder
he either ascended to God
or descended to his neighbor.
For he had wisely learned
so to divide the time given to him for merit
that he expended part of it in working for his neighbor's benefit
and devoted the other part
to the peaceful ecstasy of contemplation.
Therefore when in his compassion he had worked
for the salvation of others,
he would then leave behind the restlessness of the crowds
and seek out hidden places
of quiet and solitude,
where he could spend his time more freely
with the Lord
and cleanse himself of any dust
that might have adhered to him
from his involvement with men.*

Francis divides his time between work for the benefit of others and the devout ecstasy of contemplation. Both of these are a single "pursuit of the good." "The Good", in Bonaventure's theology, is a quite-high name of God. Bonaventure uses the biblical figure of Jacob's ladder (cf. the last verse of John 1) to capture the positive feedback loop between love of God and love of neighbor. Francis spiritually ascends the Christ-ladder, raising up his soul to God in contemplation; otherwise he descends in compassing for others. In both ways, he pursues the Good; in both ways he imitates Jesus Christ himself.

Reading these words, this year in particular, they flew into my consciousness making a sort of intervention. I'd been focusing on academic work in such a way that it took up my mental attention even when I wasn't doing it. That meant I wasn't truly enjoying, in a leisure-soaked, truly en-joy-ing way, either my family life or prayer or, truth be told, my studies and teaching. I was reminded that our word school comes from the Latin word associated with "leisure." Thinking in a contracted and driven way about work, the work was being done in a spirit of scarcity and necessity, rather than in a space of freedom and gratitude.

I know I'm not the only one who's been there, whatever one's line of work may be.

Realizing the spirit in which I was operating led me to write one of those five minute reprioritizations of life in the five minutes before class one morning. The most important aspect of it is my commitment to ground my soul in the leisure of contemplation of God and enjoyment of my wife and kids, and to pursue work from that posture of divine groundedness, gratitude and joy.

The high level theological provocateurs, Paul J. Griffiths and David Bentley Hart, recently fired back and forth over just this issue. (Read the exchange here and here.) Griffiths, elegantly astringent as ever, argues against leisure on behalf of ora et labora, prayer and work; Hart comes to leisure's defense, pleading the wine-bibbing, work-light ethos of the New Testament Christians. In addition to all the other considerable merits of these authors and this exchange, those among my readers who serve as United Methodist pastors (or pastors in any tradition) might find much to ponder in relation to the way pastoral ministry is thought about, framed and pursued. That's to say, insofar as Hart's right about the New Testament, the health of certain aspects of Wesley's own ethos and example (which still lives in Methodists, you might have noticed) is called into question.

As Teresa of Avila teaches, one may have both Mary and Martha — the archetypal contemplative life and the archetypal active life — present and integrated in oneself. One's life is then a gift floating, free and blessed, on the sea of the divine eternity.

Bonaventure: The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1978), 303.

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