Franciscan saintliness

How do we understand the role of saints in relation to the key idea of the Middle Way – i.e. to avoid metaphysics? After all, these people had very real virtues that many people testify to, yet they were steeped in metaphysics. Aren’t they a counter-example to the thesis that avoiding metaphysics is morally and spiritually preferable? I don’t think so, but to explain why will require a bit of exploration of an example. For my example I have chosen St. Francis, as I read his biography (by Adrian House) a little while ago.Sassetta_-_The_Stigmatisation_of_St_Francis_-_WGA20862

St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) is a figure that it is easy to admire, or at least respect. He wasn’t a grisly martyr or a captain of the inquisition, but rather he was renowned for his humility, tranquillity and wisdom. As an alternative to the corrupt monastic orders of his day, he created a new brotherhood and sisterhood – the Franciscans and the Poor Clares. He also had intense religious experiences, and courageously tried to bring peace to Egypt during a Crusade by crossing the enemy lines and speaking directly to the Sultan that the Christians were fighting. However, throughout that time he remained completely obedient to the Holy Catholic Church and its metaphysical dogmas.

Didn’t Francis do pretty well on metaphysics? And how could he possibly have “avoided” metaphysics? Francis can here represent a host of other figures, throughout the ages and including the present, in a similar position. The idea that we should consider the influence of metaphysics on such figures to be a bad thing rather than a good thing requires a complete reassessment of our ideas about religion and morality, to an extent that many people find incomprehensible.

It will become comprehensible only when we look a bit more closely and carefully at what is involved in the idea of a person having a metaphysical belief. The idea of committing one’s life to a metaphysical belief is one that has become dominant, not only in religion, but also in some areas of politics, art and beyond: but it is delusory. Somebody who ran their life entirely on the basis of a belief that bore no relationship to experience would not be able to respond to their experience, because they would have no models available to them that were compatible with that experience. Experience throws up all sorts of specific practical challenges that require specific beliefs. All-encompassing metaphysical beliefs are no use for this. Knowing that God is love does not help you identify which mushrooms are poisonous, or even which friends you should trust.

Thus, we can be confident that even the most committed saint does not in fact run their lives on the basis of metaphysical beliefs. Instead, they have a number of models of the world around them that they construct either directly from experience, or from the models given to them by others in the course of their socialisation and education. Included in these models are metaphysical ones. Deeply rooted in a metaphysical belief is the idea of the ultimate importance of that belief: but experience does not bear out such a claim of self-importance.

In the case of St. Francis, then, we would expect his main beliefs to be ones about the practical world in which he lived: for example, the lasting and solid nature of objects such as walls and tables; beliefs about social relationships and of what sorts of behaviour were acceptable and unacceptable in medieval Assisi; or beliefs about the political rule of the Dukes of Spoleto and the negative effects of questioning their power. The fact that Saint Francis also believed strongly in the existence of God, that Jesus was the Son of God, and that the Pope was the representative of God on earth, did indeed have important effects on Francis’s life, but that does not mean that they were the only or even most practically important beliefs that he held.

Let us take St. Francis’s virtues of tranquillity, humility and wisdom, which Francis himself (and presumably most modern Christians) would attribute to his strong belief in God, Christ and the Church. Yet Francis’s actual experiences relating to these things would have come through prayer, in which he may have attained highly integrated states, from a sense of meaningfulness in his whole life, and through encounters with the Church, its clergy and the Pope. When having a religious experience, Francis would have strongly associated this with metaphysical beliefs – but the meaning of this experience was a direct physical one, as we can see from the embodied meaning theory. The experience itself could not have been based on metaphysical ‘truths’, because these ‘truths’ were themselves constructed through metaphor on the basis of prior physical experience. Rather, the metaphysical ‘truths’ were a rationalisation created by the habitual thinking of his society and projected onto his religious experience. Francis’s encounters with God would be encounters with an archetypal symbol of integration in his deepest experience, not a metaphysical belief appealing to concepts. His religious experiences were so physically immediate that he is said to have received the stigmata (marks of Christ’s wounds) and to have walked on burning coals unharmed: whether these happened in a more literal or a more symbolic way we do not know, but if they did happen in a way that others witnessed they can hardly have been the result of a merely abstract metaphysical belief – rather of an experience that possessed his entire being.

So Francis’s virtues would have come, not from his metaphysical beliefs, but from his more basic experience of integration. Temporary experiences of integration, especially when experienced deeply on a regular basis, as they are by some meditators, are a wonderful source of tranquillity, of a kind that could keep Francis content with extreme self-imposed poverty. They are also a source of wisdom, because they provide a wider perspective on experience that can help judgement take into account a wider range of conditions. This experience of integration would also keep the edges of his cognitive models supple and malleable in a way that would enable him to accept correction by others and recognise his own limitations: in other words give him humility.

Francis was a saint not because of, but despite, his metaphysical beliefs. The very fact that he could emerge in the context of medieval Catholicism tells us something of the strengths of that tradition. The virtues of integration were admired, even though there was a good deal of confusion about their source. It was possible, in fact, to believe that metaphysics was good and ordinary physical experience was evil – the exact opposite of what I would argue to be the actual case, and to make that belief stick. But at the same time, people would actually make most of their judgements based on ordinary physical experience – including many of their moral and religious judgements.

How has such a belief been made to stick for so long? I can only suggest that this is because it had an adaptive value in maintaining group loyalty. People maintained their loyalty to the Church in medieval times, and this loyalty helped them to live together with limited conflict, as well as uniting them against enemies that would otherwise have defeated them. There is nothing better than an apparently unquestionable belief for maintaining loyalty and group identity.

However, this apparently positive effect of metaphysics comes at a price. We can see that price illustrated in Francis’s own life. Unable to question the Pope’s authority, he remained at the mercy of papal whims. Deeply committed to the ideal of poverty as an end in itself based on the self-sacrifice of Christ, Francis got into conflict with other early members of his order who wanted a slightly less ascetic lifestyle in which a few more of their needs could be met. Francis had his weaknesses, and we can trace each of these directly to an appeal to metaphysical authority.

More widely, the medieval society in which Francis lived suffered from its obsessive relationship to metaphysics. Conflict was created both internally (e.g. putting down of heresies such as the Cathars) and externally (e.g. the Crusades). The scientific advances that had been made in Classical times were largely forgotten, continued and developed only in the (at that time) slightly less rigid Islamic world. Political rule remained autocratic, society stratified, education and learning extremely limited. New ideas were dangerous and ideological change very slow. The medieval world is a warning to us of what a society dominated by metaphysical commitments might be like. Nevertheless, it was neither unchanging, nor incapable of creating striking innovators like St. Francis.

I hope from this example, the possibility of avoiding metaphysics might become a little clearer. Metaphysics is not a basic set of assumptions that we can’t avoid, as some claim. We do often make such basic assumptions, but it’s our business to question them and hold them provisionally as far as we can. Nor are metaphysical beliefs responsible for our virtues. We do all have them, to a greater or lesser extent, and will not be able to give them up all at once. However, an incremental approach can work in shifting our energies from metaphysical beliefs to non-metaphysical ones.

St. Francis himself may have got about as far as he could in avoiding metaphysics, given that he lived in such a deeply metaphysical society. So part of the effort in avoiding metaphysics may take place at a social and political level. For example, if we were no longer indoctrinated into metaphysical views from early childhood, this would no doubt help us in avoiding them. However, each of us is placed in a situation now in which we have certain metaphysical influences and certain non-metaphysical influences. We need to work with whatever we have, from wherever we start.

But there is no reason today why we should not be inspired by the virtues of Saint Francis. Every time I visit the National Gallery in London I enjoy the paintings of his life by Sassetta, which are all part of the San Sepolcro Altarpiece (one of these illustrated). The saint has a symbolic value for me that I find difficult to explain, beyond a broad understanding in Jungian terms that he is an instance of a Wise Old Man archetype. Somehow seeing fifteenth century depictions of him strikes much deeper than any later depiction could do.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

5 thoughts on “Franciscan saintliness

  1. Yes, I agree, St.Francis, among the ranks of saints, is admired for his humility and kindness, to the people and animals that he lived among, perhaps, because it reflects in us our caring side?
    The day may come, when metaphysical beliefs become obsolete and acknowledged to be what they are, beyond human experience; religious ecstacy for example, is not induced by a metaphysical being, but is generated in the mind.
    Religion will always remain in some form, in fact religion is having a revival in countries like Russia. Idealism has a similar structure to religion I think, under this umbrella we see Liberalism, Communism, Capitalism, Nationalism, Nazism and Humanism, within these ‘isms’ rifts occur, as in religions. The human race is eventually heading for integration, a single inter-connected unit. People are being brought together from many races and religions, by the world wide web, by travel and trade. In commerce, the American dollar is accepted currency everywhere, globalisation is happening, in tandem with it though, the rift between rich and poor is still present. We still need a St.Francis symbol, perhaps in the form of a charitable organisation or a benign State.
    If we think about Humanism, it has several branches, firstly, where the quality of each individual is all important, from this view Human Rights became a movement, secondly, Socialism uses a collective of people to work for the betterment of society and thirdly, there is evolutionary humansim. The Nazis picked up on this, they saw that people not fitting into the Aryan type had to be rooted out , they were not allowed to marry the chosen people, so that their genes would die out.
    What will become of us, which system will succeed? We cannot know, but what we do know, is that we have a responsibilty to the future.

  2. Hi Robert and Norma,

    I agree entirely that we can and should be inspired by the virtues of characters such as St. Francis. For me, this applies to those from any period of history, any society and any religious persuasion and I firmly believe that individuals should be ‘judged’ (for want of a better word) on their individual merits. St. Francis was virtuous by his own actions not because of his religious beliefs or practices, this clearly applies to all religions but also extends to secular life too. An inspirational nurse is thus as a result of their own efforts, not as a natural consequence of being a nurse. Just as there are inspirational nurses there are also those that do not act in ways that one would care to emulate, and so it is with Saints, Priests, Rabbis and all other ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ figures.

    I also agree with Norma that groups and institutions often take the place of figures like St Francis, but I think that there will always be individuals that also fill this role. However, where a saint is declared (by some) to have been in some way perfect (and this being difficult to demonstrate, either way, due to the misting of time), with more recent figures of inspiration we are able to see them as human beings with faults and weaknesses just like the rest of us, yet this (as with religious preference) should not devalue exceptional and honourable thought and action.

    As a quick aside, referring to another post on this site, I also think that all of this applies to religious texts, although I do have some concerns about the use of Genesis – but perhaps I should leave this for the relevant discussion :).


    1. Hello again Rich, do you remember we made first made contact on the SBUK site? I hope you are still finding your studies enjoyable. I feel that I’m taking on a similar course on this site! I find the threads very thought provoking.
      I agree there is much in Genesis that is difficult reading, but I do like ‘let there be light’ when thinking about the big bang, what a great metaphor. In fact, it did cause there to be light throughout the universe.

      1. Hi Norma,
        Of course I remember you from SBUK! I am on my second module in the OU now and it is still great.

        I hope that I did not give the impression that I am against reading the Bible or that it has nothing to offer. I do read it and it clearly has a lot to offer but I have concerns about using it as a basis for moral or ethical teaching, but I will discuss this in more detail in the appropriate thread.


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