St. Francis of Assisi is rightly understood as a great “exoteric” servant of Christ. His blatant mortifications, humble sacrifice, and tremendous love-for-the-other maintained the effect of “out holy-ing” (cf. Romans 12:10) those who brought low the witness of the Church.
In the public consciousness of our time, the figure of Francis communicates sanctity and service, while Christianity more broadly seems to communicate scandal, hypocrisy, and prejudice. Moralistic pontificating cannot drown out the cries of the abused, downcast, and disenfranchised. Perhaps a return to this great saint’s lifestyle is needed to revivify the reputation of the Faith.
Sarah Coakley’s thesis summarizes the mission well. “Only a revived, purged—and lived—form of ‘ascetic’ life” is a final chance at credibility; only an “authentically ‘ascetic’ life will be demanding enough to command the respect of a post-Christian world saturated and sated by the commodification of desire.”
Paradoxically, the overflow of this “exoteric” witness can only come from a deep well of interior spirituality. This is the role and purpose of “ascesis,” of walking the Purgative, Illuminative, and Unitive way. This is how the spiritual masters were formed—not through platform-building, influence-spreading, or book-dealing. Quiet solitude, purposeful self-examination, and a desire for humility (no matter the cost) are those things which draw people to the Way of Christ.
Practically speaking, “those who are faithful in the small things will be faithful in the greater things.” So then, what is my prayer life like? How often to I visit the confessional? How often do I purposefully mortify my wrong desires (at the very least) and even my personal preferences for the sake of “ascesis”? Do I truly listen? Does the surplus I have belong to the poor? Am I most concerned with doing good and being right (but without love, which profits nothing)? Is my focus on honor, reputation, credentials, or respect? It’s through the daily work of this first step of purgation that we may grow into the “hierarchic person,” as St. Francis was.
According to St. Bonaventure, the hierarchic person is one whose being is centered upon “the very first Beginning from Whom all enlightenment flows” and who fulfills a contemplative, evangelistic, and penitential calling. This is perhaps our greatest calling—it is not as though our wisdom or counsel are the primary causes which point others to the Divine. Would we rest our evangelistic and kerygmatic confidence upon argument or rhetoric? Or would we rather be like St. Paul, in whom God’s strength was glorified in his weakness, and for whom suffering was joined to Christ’s sacrifice for the sake of the Church? Asceticism opens this door, in the imitation of St. Paul and St. Francis as they imitated our Lord.