Today we’ll explore reforms in the later part of the Middle Ages. In particular, we’ll take a look at two monastic orders known to history as the “mendicant” (or begging) orders.
Wedding Lady Poverty: The Franciscans
By the end of the Middle Ages, the growth of trade, cities, and money use had increased the gap between rich and poor. New forms of ministry were called for in order to meet rising urban needs. Around this time a man named Francis was born in an Italian town called Assisi. Actually, his real name was Giovanni, but his mother was French and he liked to sing French troubadour songs. So, his friends dubbed him “Francesco,” or little Frenchman. Today he is known to us as Francis of Assisi.
One day his friends noticed that he was in an exceptionally good mood. They asked him why he was so happy. “Because I have married,” he answered. When they asked who, his reply was “Lady Poverty.” Later, after hearing Matthew 10:7–10 in which Jesus sends His disciples out in pairs to preach the gospel, Francis decided to combine preaching along with poverty and moved into urban centers. In 1209 he wrote his Rule, based largely on Jesus’ advice to the rich young ruler, and he got permission from Pope Innocent III to establish a new monastic order. They called themselves Friars Minor (Lesser Brothers); today we call them Franciscans. Saint Clare, a spiritual sister of Francis, founded a similar order for women known as “Poor Clares.” In a time when many were using church offices to pursue power and possession, the Franciscans and Poor Clares modeled a life of humble simplicity dedicated to sharing the gospel.
Back to the Books: The Dominicans
Just a decade after Francis received approval for his order, a Spaniard named Dominic also founded a new order in southern France. In addition to meeting the needs of townspeople through poverty and preaching, Dominicans also emphasized education as a weapon against heresy. Francis had been skeptical of study, convinced that books and learning would increase the desire for possessions and power. But to Dominicans, study was a way to safeguard God’s truth. For this reason, they partnered with rising universities. They also produced some of the church’s greatest theologians, one of whom — Thomas Aquinas — we will study later this series.
“The skillful preaching promoted by the Dominicans and the practical godliness of the Franciscans both had a great impact” in the church in the Middle Ages, says scholar Mark Noll. Above all, their poverty in an age when the church’s relation with political power was at its ugliest serves as “a timeless reminder that political Christianity is only partial Christianity. “For them, unless the gospel was being lived out authentically and preached faithfully, positions of authority were of no value.
The life of Francis challenges us to rethink our relationship with material possessions much in the same way Jesus did when He reminded us, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). If someone were to take a look at what you own and what you buy, what would they conclude about your heart? The Dominicans remind us of the role that good reading, thinking, and teaching can play in equipping us to pass on the truth of the gospel. If someone were to take a look at the books, movies, and articles you consume, what would they conclude about your knowledge of the gospel? Does the church today need (or already have) a “timeless reminder” like the Franciscans and Dominicans?
How might your relationship with stuff and literature need to change?
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