Before talking specifically about Franciscan mysticism, the meaning of the word mysticism needs to be clarified. The word has been used in so many different ways that it tends to lead to mystification more than what we called in philosophy class a “clear confused concept” (clear enough but not arrogantly certain). As its Greek root form mu (closed eyes or lips)implies, mysticism is pointing to something that is somehow hidden and cannot be easily seen or talked about.
A mystic reveals that which is hidden to most of us, yet it is also invariably what we also hope and imagine to be true! True mystics seldom if ever bring bad news. It seems Reality, at its hidden and deepest levels, is always very good—better than most of us can imagine!
I use the word mysticism in a very traditional and classic sense. It is not pointing to something esoteric and unavailable to the masses, but it does point to something that is only available to those who go beyond the surface and exterior, those who experience the inner grace and connectivity of all things. As Jesus, Paul, and Bonaventure each said in their own way, mysticism is often foolishness to the educated and obvious to the simple.
I emphasize connectivity because that unteachable gift is what I always see in true mystics, and this is what makes them different from other people; it is also a quality that makes them seem rare. Mystics know and enjoy the connected core of reality that is hidden to those who do not desire it or search for it. “What you seek is what you get” (Matthew 7:7-8). Joy is intrinsic to mysticism; when deep joy is not present in your life, you might well be “religious,” but you are definitely not a mystic.
Ironically, authentic mystics would be the first to say that they did not seek this intuition at all. What seems secret to the rest of us is somehow both totally given and utterly apparent to them. They could not seek it because they did not know it was there in the first place! One does not know, however, in reading the lives of mystics, if some enlightened seeking came first or some unmerited giving came first. All you know, and all they know, is that they are inside of an immense and wonderful secret, which seems to be hidden from or denied by most of the rest of us.
Mystics look out from a different pair of eyes that see the grace in all things and the deep connection between all things. In lesser mystics, only the connection between some or most things is seen (for example, those who can only see the inner connection between other Christians or other Catholics and cannot extend that to the outsider or the “sinner,” as we see in Jesus). There are a lot of “mini mystics” floating around, but they are often problematic because half of the truth can often fool us for the full truth.
Franciscan mysticism is a subset of mysticism. Though it overlaps with aspects of non-Christian mysticism—such as nature mysticism, Islamic Sufi mysticism (ecstasy and joy), Hindu mysticism (unitive consciousness itself and asceticism), and Buddhism (non-violence and simplicity)—Franciscan mysticism has a unique place in the world through its Christocentric lens.
Franciscan mysticism is not primarily about Francis of Assisi. It is about God. In fact, when it fixates on Francis too long it invariably becomes sentimental, cheap, and harmless. Franciscan mysticism(a subset of Franciscan spirituality) is about an intuition of Jesus as the Incarnate and Cosmic Christ. Francis discovered and so powerfully loved this mystery in Jesus that he eventually became a living image of Christ. A “cloud of witnesses” of that same brilliant intuition—Clare, Brothers Giles and Juniper, Angela of Foligno, Jacapone da Todi, Anthony, Bonaventure, Catherine of Genoa, John Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon, Elizabeth of Hungary, Louis IX of France, and Junipero Serra—continued Francis’ particular mysticism. Most true Franciscans are unknown to history, but just lived gratefully and fully human lives that were spiritual in a way that did not look very spiritual. That’s the secret!
What we see again and again is a joyful and unitive consciousness that intuits and experiences what Duns Scotus called “the univocity of being.” By this Duns Scotus meant that we can speak with one consistent and true voice about a rock, a tree, an animal, a human, an angel, and God! They all participate in the identical and same state of Being to varying degrees. Deus est Ens, he said: “God is Being itself.” This eliminates any clear distinction between the sacred and the profane, because Christ existed in matter from all eternity (Colossians 1:15-20, Ephesians 1:3-11), ever since God decided to materialize and reveal who God is through creation. It is summarized on our Franciscan coat of arms by the Latin phrase Deus Meus et Omnia: “My God and All things!”
We are the first generation which knows that this Christ was revealed approximately 14.5 billion years ago. The human incarnation of that mystery, probably given when consciousness was capable of widespread presence, encounter, and love happened only 2,000 years ago with the birth of Jesus. As Christians we believe that the Jesus story is the universe story and the universe story coalesces and manifests in one man who is fully human and fully divine at the same time, and thus fully prepared to tell us to “follow” him! Jesus is the microcosm of the macrocosm for us. He is the holon of the whole. If you get him, you get it all! The medium is indeed the message. The personal Jesus became the doorway to the universal intuition and cosmic love affair.
It was the unique person of Jesus that Francis and Clare fell in love with, precisely in his incarnate and humble state, identifying with the excluded and little ones, “the least of the brothers and sisters.” The bias toward the edge and the bottom has always been at the heart of Franciscan mysticism, explaining its perennial identification with poverty and suffering. Big truth is hard to find at the top and secure center of nations, groups, and institutions. The alternative orthodoxy has to choose a kind of voluntary displacement or it gets sucked into conformity, “churchliness,” and far too easy answers. (We Franciscans have often made that mistake when we ourselves did not go to the mystical level and instead accommodated the small system. I call it “Birdbath Franciscanism.”)
The cosmic vision, personalized in Jesus, was an intuition that Francis and many of his followers lived and experienced, but most of them did not formulate it in theological words or clear concepts as much as in lifestyles. Usually they picked it up by osmosis, through the Gospel and Franciscan lineage, and were often “clear confused concepts” of something that they partly knew and partly just believed was good, positive, and wonderful! Followers of Francis and Clare bore “fruit that remained” and they invariably believed in original blessing much more than original sin.
Scroll down to Betsy Porter’s marvelous icon depicted below. The Christ Mystery stands holding heaven and earth together, uniting human and divine, physical and spiritual, rooted in things and yet connecting to an infinity of stars. The Cosmic Christ makes all things one, just as Jesus promised and prayed for (John 17:21-24). Franciscan mysticism is not about Francis at all, but about a universal notion of the Christ and therefore of all reality. In the Office for the Feast of St. Francis on October fourth, Francis is referred to as the vir catholicus, the truly catholic man! He pushes seeing to the absolute edge by always including those whom other systems might too easily exclude—the leper, the non-Christian, the Muslim, the poor, the hated. When it loses that edgy position, it might be mini-mysticism or even church mysticism, but it is never Franciscan mysticism. Francis knew that only love is big enough to handle and hold truth. Truth which is not loving, joyful, and inclusive is never the Great Truth.
“Franciscan Mysticism: A Cosmic Vision” by Fr. Richard Rohr, Radical Grace, Volume 25, No. 1, is reprinted by permission of the Center for Action and Contemplation.