People have this image of a mystic as someone who goes off into the wilderness to be with God. You have to cross a desert or climb a mountain to find the old wise man who will teach you the meaning of life. We have this idea because it was the way of things for so long. Mystics left society with all of its distractions and temptations. In the west, mysticism was confined to the monasteries. Monks and nuns lived apart from society in walled fortresses.
This is what was so different about St. Francis. He and his followers didn’t abandon society for the monastery. They stayed in the cities with the people. They lived and worked with the people. They lived by Francis’s statement “preach always, and when necessary use words.” They taught by example. They didn’t worry about teaching theology or academia as so many monks did at the time. They were not monks at all, but friars. Someone who mixes with everyday people. Who meets them where they are. They took the same vows as monks. Chastity, obedience, and poverty. They had a special love for poverty. They lived as the poorest of the poor. They lived with them. They did not think orthodoxy was in a disciplined life and proper liturgy, but in lifestyle. They lived a holy life out in the streets of the city for everyone to see.
This radical lifestyle has been a battle to maintain. Before St. Francis died his order was buying land and building monasteries. They even kicked him out! But it has never died. Along side the men and women who took the vows, Francis founded another order who did not. They were ordinary people with families and property, but who continued to live in the spirit of St. Francis’s teaching. He called them the Brothers of Penance. Today we are called Secular Franciscans. Secular in that we live and work in the world, attempting to bring holiness into everything we do. We don’t live in poverty, but we embrace simplicity. We have things, but we aren’t attached to them. We treat everyone as our neighbors, and try to treat our neighbors as we would want someone to treat us.