I have been pondering the distinctive features of Franciscan spirituality recently. Benedictine spirituality has lectio divina and, of course, Ignatian spirituality has the Examen and the Spiritual Exercises. What is it about Franciscan spirituality that makes it distinctively Franciscan?
The first thing to come to mind is that Franciscans are concerned for the well-being of God’s good creation (particularly since Francis was proclaimed patron saint of ecology). Franciscans also tend to take life less seriously than the followers of some other Christian traditions. Since creation is seen as good, it is something to be enjoyed (although that doesn’t exclude self-discipline).
More fundamental to the Franciscan tradition (but perhaps rather neglected in recent decades) is an emphasis on building up the Church. This is rooted in Francis’s own experience: his vision of Christ on the cross, calling him to ‘build my church’ (which, at first, he took very literally indeed). So the Franciscan way will include encouraging our fellow Christian to grow in the faith, but on a larger scale it will also include working for the unity and the (continual) reform of the Church.
But there is also something unashamedly personal and relational about the Franciscan way. If you pick up a book on Franciscan spirituality you will not find a set of techniques enabling you to live the Principles of the Order. Instead, typically, you will be introduced to Franciscan principles and ideals by way of anecdotes from the lives of Franciscan saints (from Francis himself to the contemporary Franciscans).
I have very slowly come to realize that Franciscan spirituality is learned by example – from the great Franciscan saints of the past, from our First and Second Order brothers and sisters, but most importantly from each other with all our flaws and shortcomings. This is important because modern society is obsessed with technique and the impact of that obsession on spiritual traditions has tended to depersonalize them (think of all those books on how to pray/meditate in ten easy steps).