Remembering Rich Mullins: Disciple of St. Francis

In this season of All Saints and All Souls, it’s a good thing to remember those who have had a large influence on our spiritual lives. Today, I’m especially grateful for one such person.

On September 19, 1997, I was fourteen-years-old. In the midst of that crisis of hormones we call puberty and at the beginning of a crisis of faith (which would eventually land me in the Catholic Church), I learned that Rich Mullins, writer of the popular songs “Awesome God” and “Sing Your Praise to the Lord”, had been killed in a tragic car accident. The news broke over the Christian radio station. And in that moment, it kind of broke me too.

My dad worked in Christian radio during much of my childhood, and we didn’t listen to secular music in our home. As the clouds of adolescence gathered, I began to wonder about life’s big questions: God, truth, faith, and the purpose and meaning of life. I was drawn immediately to Rich’s profound lyrics and the clarity and beauty with which he expressed Christian truth.

As I began to listen to him more and more, I was seized all the more by his extraordinary life, a life marked by reckless abandon to God and irrepressible Christian joy, which are nothing less than the pen and paper God uses to write the life of a saint.

A sign of contradiction to the Evangelical subculture of which he was a part and which he had to some degree helped construct, Rich Mullins’ ecumenism was bold. It muddled the boundary between Catholicism, on the one hand, with its sacramental worldview replete with the scent of incense, images and statues of saints, the flesh of Christ cloaked under the appearance of wheat and wine, and on the other hand (for all that is good in it), the anti-liturgical and iconoclastic tendencies of Evangelical Christianity. At forty-years-old, he embraced celibacy, in marked contrast to the wider Protestant tendency to ignore this very biblical, very living option for following Jesus with apostolic sandals.

Rich approached his Christian vocation like a monk (or better: the mendicants about whom he sings in “Land of My Sojourn”) with attention to the ironically named (in the American context) evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. To live this poverty of spirit, he literally sold his possessions, picked up a degree in music education, and moved to a Navajo reservation to serve its people and to teach in their schools. And he was fervently devoted to St. Francis of Assisi. You know, as a Catholic might be.

Rich Mullins
Rich Mullins

His Franciscan tendencies were what struck me most. They were alien to my Evangelical mind as much as they were foreign to my lived experience of Christianity in a non-denominational church. Becoming poor, giving up marriage, images of Mary on album art, fondness for the liturgical, a belief in the Real Presence: these aren’t exactly staples of the Evangelical theological diet. To me though, they sounded with a “ring of truth.” Without even realizing it, I began to incline my ears more and more toward anything that sounded even sotto voce Catholic.

I admired Rich Mullins for the authenticity of his Christian faith much like a son admires a father. And I felt a kinship to him like one has toward a mentor or spiritual director. But of course we didn’t know each other. Only vaguely do I remember meeting him as a child when he performed at a church where my dad’s radio station had helped sponsor a concert.

I can remember him barefoot on the stage with his guitar. I wanted to be like him. And he wanted to be like St. Francis. This dispelled any objection I had to Catholicism’s fostering devotion to saints or encouraging their intercession. In no way did Rich’s devotion to St. Francis detract from his Christianity. It invigorated and vivified it. It made his love for Christ stronger and quite frankly (pardon the pun) more Christ-like. It’s merely the syllogistic logic of devotion to the saints.

I felt Rich Mullin’s loss deeply. In that paradoxical way that marks so much of Christian truth, Rich became more alive through death. This echoes through the prayer of St. Francis, “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” As time went on, I began to feel a connection to Rich that was much deeper than the loss. I have to wonder whether this was because he was praying for me, as I’m sure St. Francis interceded for him.

Rich Mullins had one foot in the Catholic Church toward the end of his life. Tragically, his death came before he could step through the door with both feet: only three days before he had planned to enter into full communion.

The storms of youth always bring a heavy rain of curiosity and some discontent. But for me, Rich Mullin’s music was the thunder that followed the flashes of truth that kept striking me as I strolled along the path to Church. Thankfully for my parents, my adolescent rebellion consisted pretty much entirely in my conversion to Catholicism. I guess I just spent too much time hanging out with the wrong crowd: namely, St. Frank and his kid brother, Rich Mullins.

Click here for information on Rich Mullin’s musical based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Plains

Click here for more on Rich Mullin’s Catholic tendencies