The story has been told and retold. An earnest young man, intent on escaping the confusion of the world around him, seeks a secluded place to pray, hoping to receive divine guidance. And while praying, he receives a remarkable revelation from God– a commission, really, to restore the church.
I’m referring, of course, to Francis of Assisi. Sensing the futility of the world of businessmen (like his father), of troubadours (whom he had admired), and of soldiers (he had been one), Francis retired to the old church at San Damiano to pray. As he was praying, he heard a voice emanating from the crucifix that said, three times,“Francis, go and repair my church, which as you see is all in ruins.”
Francis understood this instruction to refer to the crumbling building in which he was praying, and so in the ensuing days he worked to physically repair that structure. But he gradually was led to understand that the commission was a more expansive one. And thus he came to organize the Franciscan order of friars that, accompanied by numerous miracles and heavenly visitations, spread throughout the world, preaching the Gospel and setting an example of sanctity, simplicity, and humility. And of praise: “All creatures of our God and King/ Lift up your voice . . . .”
Some elements of the St. Francis story as it has been passed down clearly have a legendary feel to them. (The famous story of the wolf of Gubbio, for example.) And skeptics would of course scoff at all of the reports of heavenly visitations. But for those who believe in the possibility of such visitations, it would seem arbitrary just to dismiss all of these accounts out of hand. Wouldn’t it? Why couldn’t the Lord and other celestial visitors appear to a humble, dedicated young man who was intent on doing God’s will?
And if we believe this story, or at least its essentials (and parts of it– the stigmata, for example– are hard to dismiss even as a matter of ordinary history), then wouldn’t it be an apt description to say that Francis was called of God to . . . restore the church?
To restore what church? What is “the church”? Francis initially thought the term referred to one particular building. Through reflection and further visions, he came to realize that the term– and his vocation– encompassed much more than this. So then would we say that “the church” referred to the Roman Catholic Church? Catholics might naturally understand the story in that way. But might this not still be too narrow an interpretation?
Suppose that instead of understanding “church” to refer to some particular physical structure (like the Church at San Damiano), or even to some particular corporate or institutional structure (like the Roman Catholic Church), we were to understand “church” to refer to the body of believers who have dedicated themselves to trying to follow Christ. To what Paul sometimes describes as “the body of Christ.” Sometimes those believers– two or three or more– meet together in a particular building, remembering His promise that where two or three would gather together in His name He would be there in the midst of them. Sometimes they are led to organize themselves into one or another institutional structure. But the body of Christ, we might say, is not confined to such physical or institutional structures. And in various forms it has spread through every land and to every people, as the scriptures prophesied. That is at least one way to think of “the church.”
And sometimes the church has needed restoring. “Restore” in this sense would carry the meaning it often does in ordinary speech– not rebuild from scratch, or from the ground up, but rather renovate or repair or rescue from decline or deterioration. We “restore” a great painting by cleaning off the dust and grime that has accumulated over the years. We “restore” a historic mansion or cathedral– or we perform a “restoration” on it– by fixing its sagging roof or its collapsing walls or its broken-out windows.
This sort of restoration is done even though the painting or the building itself has been there all along and may even have been in continuous use. It never disappeared or ceased to function, but it does sometimes need restoring. Restoration in this sense is not a one-time or once-and-for-all thing, but rather something that has to happen periodically– or even constantly (as some ancient cathedrals seem to be in a constant process of restoration).
If we were to understand “church” and “restore” in these senses, then we might say that “restoration” is something that happens to “the church” from time to time, as the body of Christ suffers from one or another ailment. For example, we might regard the events described in John 21 as perhaps the first such “restoration” of “the church.” Jesus was no longer with the church in person, or with the body of believers, and Peter and his associates seem not to have understood their calling, and so they determined just to return to their former fishing business. The church looked to be lapsing into inactivity. So the Lord appeared to teach and remind the body that they were to serve each other, spread the Gospel, carry on the work. The “church” was thus “restored.”
This restoration was just the first of many. Another restoration occurred, we might think, in the eleventh century with the Gregorian reforms, as reformist popes struggled (with only partial success) to eliminate corrupting and pernicious practices that had crept into the church– simony, sexual licentiousness among clergy, an intermixing of priesthood and secular power. Francis’s would be another such restoring. Martin Luther’s attack on indulgences perhaps another. John Wesley’s bringing of the Christian message to the people in the streets and fields perhaps still another. And so forth. Like a venerable cathedral, the church has needed– and received– constant quiet restorations and occasional more dramatic and drastic restorations.
“Restoration” and “church” are of course crucial concepts for followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have not typically thought of those concepts in the ways I have suggested here. By “restoration,” we have in mind the work initiated by Joseph Smith– another earnest young man who sought divine guidance. By “church” we have thought of the Church. Still, we live in a time in which Heaven knows the church is desperately in need of some restoration work. And surely both the church and the Church are facing some fundamental, even epochal challenges. Moreover, the Church seems to be in the process of adjusting its stance toward the church, or toward the body of believers who constitute Christianity. So perhaps some rethinking of restoration and church may be in order.