New Friars: The Unofficial Guide

When I wrote The New Friars (now two years since the first draft was submitted and a year since the first copy rolled off the press) I was enthralled with the qualities which consistently cropped up in missionizing monastic movements, despite the fact that their origins hearken back to different centuries on different continents within different historic Christian traditions. I worked hard to sift and distill the energizing fundamentals of the Moravians, Jesuits, Franciscans, Celtic monks and the Nestorians, while comparing them with the emerging movement of young, pseudo-friars who today are fanning out into the impoverished places of our world with the same sort of reckless abandon.

I ended up deciding on five radioactive elements which all these movements have in common - namely, that they are enamored with being incarnational, committed to a communal lifestyle and bent on observing highest levels of Christian devotion, all the while doing mission on society's margins. It seemed like these five things pulsed through veins of the ancient missionizing monks and nuns of old, and have begun to bear themselves out in the emerging "orders" of today.

What I did not write about were the quirky things that seemed to consistently show up in the historic orders - little idiosyncrasies that kept coming up up on my radar. Things like their penchant for music ... the Moravians even organized their communities by choirs. Or the fact that each of these movements had powerful tendencies toward mysticism- their members wracked at times by mystical encounters with the divine. All of them had obsessions with scholarship, and, of course, dabbled in asceticism, embracing bizarre extremes of denial of self-flagellation. But the oddest commonality in these movements was an almost morbid interest in the wounds of Christ.

The Moravians would speak and sing about kissing the wounds of Jesus, and several sources confirm the appearance of the stigmata (the nail prints and spear hole) on the body of St. Francis. I'm sure the founders of these historic orders would all have venerated Mel Gibson's, The Passion of the Christ, making it required viewing for their adherents. What is it about the physical mortification of Jesus that so fired their devotional imagination?

Paul speaks in a few places about sharing in the sufferings of Christ (Rom. 8:17, 2 Cor. 1:5, Phil. 3:10) and in at least two passages he seems to speak of a physical connection to Jesus' torture. Colossians 1:24 says, "...I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church." and in Galatians 6:17, Paul confides that he bears in his body the marks of Jesus.

Now, I am not about to undertake the practice of the Celtic abbess, Ite, who kept a stag-beetle under her clothes to gnaw at her flesh, but I do wonder if in this age of comfort-at-all-costs we miss something of freedom and fearlessness that comes when one is able to bear up under physical pain. Missiologist and Gordon College professor, Paul Borthwick says he doesn't think he'd mind being killed for Christ ... but being tortured and then killed, well, that's another story. Without getting masochistic about it, nor to drift into Buddhist philosophy or asceticism, is there a readiness in our practice of the faith to embrace physical suffering?

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