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THE SYMBOLIC SPIRITUALITY OF ST. FRANCIS The purpose of this article is to set forth what the writer considers to be the essence of the spirituality of St. Francis: the symbolic vision. This type of spirituality is characterized by its sacramental, mediatory view of the cosmic and human orders. The uniqueness of Francis lay in the extent to which he was personally, fervently, totaUy involved in this symbolic universe. The symbols in this spirituality do not merely convey divine meaning and purpose, but the divine itself. It has in common with the "theistic" view the qualities Hick delineates: the primary religious perception, or basic act of religious interpretation ... (is) an apprehension of the divine presence within the believer's human experience... a "divine-human encounter," a mediated meeting with the living God.1 However, in the spirituality of Francis, the emphasis is not on the uniformity or constant availability of this divine presence. Faith may well be a "total interpretation" given to life as a whole, but this interpretation only becomes actualized within the bounds of specific religious models of an experiential nature. One never experiences life as a whole, but only the quality of life given in different situations , interpreted according to different models. The variety of these religious experiential models is due to: the vastness and incomprehensibility of the Sacred, from which the experience emanates; and the complexity of man and of the human situation in which the revelation is made.2 We can broadly divide the major modes of religious hierophany in Francis' vision according to the locus of the symbols: the cosmic and the human orders. We shall be concerned in this article primarily with the latter, but shall refer to the former in the course of the 1 John Hick, Faith and Knowledge (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1966), 115. 2 Ewert Cousins, "Models and the Future of Theology," in Robley Whitson, The Coming Convergence of World Religions (Paramus: Newman Press 1971), 193. Symbolic Spirituality of St. Francis193 article. Because of this complexity of the human order, it has always been a special task of the Semitic religious traditions, i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to point out the workings of the divine within the historical order. Francis makes a unique contribution to this tradition by virtue of the fact that he combines the mythic-poetic sense with the historical-critical sense. He combines the "ethical monotheism " of the prophetic tradition with the ritual theism of the priestly tradition. He is able to unite what seems at first glance to be rather opposite modes of religious perception and experience. He is able to do it because of his Christocentrism. For Francis the presence of the divine in the human order becomes revelatory in accordance with an exemplary pattern: the birth, life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. The profane situation becomes sacred when it is experienced in accordance with Francis' primary models functioning in the light of the patterns given to man by God in the Christ-event. The degree to which it is revelatory, and hence takes on new significance, varies depending on its correspondence with the sacred patterns established in the time of the gospels. These expressive and interpretive patterns have an influence on the experiential models. For example, the beggar standing before you suddenly transfers the significance level of economic and ethical patterns to the level of gospel patterns. The situation becomes sacred, the divine is manifest in the human. As the divine was present in its fullness in the poverty and emptiness of Jesus Christ, so it is present to you in the beggar. The beggar is the symbol, the mediator of the divine. The divine fullnes now comes into your heart through the encounter; and, filled with joy, you embrace him and give him your coat. It is not an economic or even ethical concern that motivates you, but the divine itself working through the experiential model of fullness-emptiness in accordance with the pattern of the gospel. It is this experience of the divine fullness mediated through the human, (or cosmic), emptiness that is one of the primary models of Francis. There is a fullness in all of life, but...


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pp. 192-205
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