Saturday, January 7, 2012

Franciscan Studies

For the first four months of our postulancy, our instruction has focused mainly on catechesis, liturgy, prayer, and spirituality. In the context of these subjects we have learned some history about Francis of Assisi, the founder of our religious movement. Now, throughout the second half of the postulancy program, we will study Francis more directly, using the primary sources that consist of his own writings and the writings of his followers from the 13th century. We will continue to study the Catechism of the Catholic Church, church history, and other subjects, but now the center of gravity in our studies is the person of Francis of Assisi himself.

Where does the Francis enthusiast begin, when the bibliography for this holy man is longer than that of every other saint -- the longest of any person in all of history, save perhaps for Lincoln and Jesus? Until the end of the 20th Century, the standard reference in English for primary sources on the life of Francis was the Omnibus of Sources, edited by one Marion A. Habig. This text has now been superseded by Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, a three-volume edition of primary sources, first published from 1999 to 2001. In addition to presenting the classic texts in new translations with helpful annotations, it introduced to a wider English-speaking audience texts previously unavailable or inaccessible to all except scholars versed in Latin and the early Romance languages. Texts formerly deemed insignificant have been given greater prominence, too.

It is the Early Documents series that we will be working with this winter and spring, and it will remain our foundational reference throughout formation.

For the remainder of this year, we will be examining in detail select episodes in the life of Francis in chronological order. Guiding our exploration is a beginner's workbook by Capuchin Fr. Bill Hugo, Studying the Life of Francis of Assisi (2nd ed.). Thank goodness for this text. First, it gives the uninitiated an accessible introduction to the historical-critical method. Second, it offers a synopsis of the most historically significant early documents. Third, it provides a series of exercises corresponding to the major incidents in the life of Francis, designed to make you think critically about the subject and the sources. Finally, it provides handy citations of the sources from Early Documents that recount the episodes we are studying. Left to our own devices, we postulants would get lost in these three volumes, which in all run to 2,350 pages!

I have been waiting a long time to reach this point. It will be a privilege to have the time and space to sit down with the primary sources and flex the muscles under my thinking cap. I will do this so that my faith, braced by reason, may be more authentically like the faith of Francis. This is not a disinterested quest for the historical Francis. Like Jesus, the faithful see Francis through thick layers of myth. This is not a bad thing provided the myths are luminous and transparent, not dark and opaque. Where Christianity, a quintessentially historical religion, is concerned, I believe that bad myth tends to be constructed out of bad history. And while good history alone is no substitute for and no guarantee of good myth, it is also true that good myths will turn rotten without nourishment in true testimony. If I aspire to walk in the footsteps of Francis, and if I aspire to walk like Francis, then I should want to know the saint's history truly, so that I may see him more truly with the sense of faith, and thus in hope imitate his love.

Your humble and mostly faithful correspondent hopes to share some insights from his studies now and again! Keep checking the blog for dispatches from the friary classroom.

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