Franciscan Spirituality: Two Parts

Love of Animals and Creation

When people think of Franciscan Spirituality they think either of love of animals/creation or being a peacemaker. Go to any garden store and in the midst of the statues of gnomes and Buddha’s you will find a statute of St Francis surrounded by birds and other animals. Most people are familiar with the Peace Prayer of St Francis either as a hymn or as a prayer.

A spirituality that loves animals is easy to follow. I love my cats.... dogs...birds, animals. So I am just like St. Francis. On the other hand the Peace Prayer of St Francis is much more challenging.

The Peacemaker

On the other hand the Peace Prayer of St Francis is much more challenging:

Of these two popular understandings of Franciscan Spirituality, peacemaking is closer to the truth. To be instruments of peace is an important part of Franciscan Spirituality. To strive to understand rather than be understood; to love rather than be loved, to give rather than to receive and to pardon are all aspects of Franciscan spirituality.

Perhaps a more encompassing image would be "Person of the Gospel".

The Gospel

Franciscan Spirituality is centred on the Gospel. The Friars, Poor Clare nuns, Sisters and Brothers of the Third Order and Secular Franciscans all profess to live the Gospel.

Article 4 of the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order states:

The rule and life of the Secular Franciscans is this: to observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people. Christ, the gift of the Father's love, is the way to him, the truth into which the Holy Spirit leads us, and the life which he has come to give abundantly.

Secular Franciscans should devote themselves especially to careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and life to the gospel

From the earliest days of the Franciscan movement the word ‘penance’ had a special meaning. When the first friars went forth to preach in Italy and were asked who or what they were? They answered simply that they were “penitents” from the town of Assisi. By these words they expressed that the whole purpose of their life was to live in penance.

What does that mean? The word ‘penance’ has several meanings. What Francis meant by it is, the biblical understanding of a total turning to God. This is what Jesus was referring to when he said: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Repent means change. Change, for the kingdom of God is at hand. Penance means change or conversion.

The Leper

So what major changes did Francis have to undergo. It concerns the commandment to love your neighbour as your self. This is easier if you like your neighbour. But what if your neighbour is unlovable? For Francis this was the leper. How could he strive to live out this commandment and yet despise the leper? God lead him to love and care for the leper.

This is what Francis wrote in his Testament:

The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body; and afterward I lingered a little and left the world.

Thomas of Celano, the first biographer of St Francis, tells us that Francis could not stand the sight of a leper. Even if he saw the leprosarium in the distance he would hold his nose and ride in the other direction. All that changed one day. As he rode down the path deep in thought when suddenly, a leper appeared before him begging alms. Francis nevertheless got down from his horse and kissed the leper. When his kiss was returned, Francis was filled with joy. As he rode off, he turned around for a last wave, and saw that the leper had disappeared. He always looked upon it as a test from God.

The Sultan

Six years before his death, Francis goes to the Egypt to meet the Sultan, the leader of the enemies of the Cross of Christ. We might say he goes to meet enemy number one. Francis goes to live out the command of Jesus that we are to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. In Francis own writing he recalls that Jesus called his betrayer, Judas – a friend. And that Jesus prayed for those who put him to death, asking the Father to forgive them. If Jesus did this then so must he. So Francis goes to Egypt to meet his enemy, to make his enemy his friend. Amazingly he does just that.

Francis went to Egypt where the forces of Christendom faced the forces of the Muslems at the port city of Damiatta. After asking the Christian commander to stop the fighting, which the commander refused to do, Francis and a companiom, Brother Illuminatus, set out, unarmed to see the Sultan of Egypt, Malik-al-Kamil. The men of the Sultan’s army captured Francis and his companion and dragged them, beaten and exhausted, before the Sultan.

St. Bonaventure, in his Major Life of St. Francis, described the event, “The Sultan asked them by whom and why and in what capacity they had been sent, and how they got there; but Francis replied that they had been sent by God, not by men, to show him and his subjects the way of salvation and proclaim the truth of the Gospel message. When the sultan saw his enthusiasm and courage, he listened to him willingly and pressed him to stay with him.”

In the encounter between them, both Francis and the Sultan were changed. When Francis finally left to return to Italy, the Sultan showered him with many gifts and treasures. Because he had no interest in worldly wealth, Francis refused them all, except one special gift: an ivory horn used by the muezzin to call the faithful to prayer. On his return, Francis used it to call people for prayer or for preaching.

A Dwelling Place

An important aspect of Franciscan Spirituality is to make room for God in our lives. In the Early Rule of 1221 for the Friars, Francis wrote these words:

“Within our hearts we must make a home and dwelling place for God our Lord, the almighty Father, the Son and Holy Spirit. God is always near us, and in prayer we consciously think of God, we place ourselves in his presence. Francis tells us it is the opposite. We must make a presence - a home for God in our hearts so that we may carry him with us always."

There is an interesting reflection on making a home, a dwelling place for God.

Luke 11:24-26 When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest; and finding none he says, `I will return to my house from which I came.' And when he comes he finds it swept and put in order. Then he goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.

Francis reminds us that It is not good enough to just banish evil thoughts and habits, “to hate ones body with its vice” as he says in his Letter to all the Faithful. It isn’t sufficient to just clean one’s house. We must also fill the void with God who is the source of all that is good and upright. We must make a home and dwelling place for God.

Franciscan Spirituality is centred on three key mysteries of our Faith. These mysteries Francis meditated on frequently. They are the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery and the Eucharist. We might say the crib, the cross and the Mass.

The Three Mysteries

Lets first look at the Incarnation. St Francis is responsible for the popularity of Christmas Midnight Mass and Nativities scenes in Churches and homes. St Francis of Assisi was so taken by the mystery of the Incarnation that he wanted to present it anew in a living Nativity scene, He is perhaps the first to have a live nativity scene with animals and people playing the part of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and wise men. This happened near the town of Greccio three years before his death. St. Bonaventure in his Life of St. Francis of Assisi tells the story the best:

“He wanted to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis. Then he preached to the people about the nativity of the poor and humble King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem. A certain valiant soldier, Master John of Greccio, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvellously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep. This vision of the devout soldier is credible”.

Francis by means of the nativity wanted all to see the poverty of Jesus and the humility of God who comes to us as a baby born in a humble stable. Even today nativities scenes and pageants still touch the hearts of all who see them

The Paschal Mystery. We adore You, O Christ and we praise you, because by your cross You have redeemed the world.” Most of us will recognize this pray as part of the Stations of the Cross. It actual is a shorten form of a prayer by St. Francis. We find it in his Testament. “The Lord gave me such faith in churches that I would simply pray and speak in this way: we adore You, Lord Jesus Christ, in all Your Churches throughout the world, and we bless You, for through Your holy Cross You have redeemed the world.” When Francis meditated on the Cross: "His whole soul seemed to melt away; and so deeply was the memory of Christ's Passion impressed on his heart, that it pierced even to the marrow of his bones. From that hour, whenever he thought of the Passion of Christ he could scarcely restrain his tears and sighs."

Celano relates, "From that hour he was pierced with compassion for the Crucified Saviour, so that for the rest of his life he bore in his heart the holy wounds, which later were also impressed upon his body. The sufferings of Christ were ever before his eyes, and filled them with ever-flowing tears."

Two years before his death after a retreat of many weeks meditating on the love of Christ in the Passion Francis was mark with the sacred wounds of Christ the stigmata. Christ appeared to him as a six wing saraph. Francis through his daily meditations on the cross was able to live out the words of St. Paul “ May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6,14). Franciscan spirituality encourages us to do the same.

Eucharist is amazing how often Francis mentioned the Eucharist in his letters. Whether he was writing to Rulers, the Friars or the brothers and sisters of penance he encouraged all to receive the Eucharist. In the Rule of 1221 Francis tells the friars: “let them receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ with great humility and veneration, calling to mind what the Lord Himself says:He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life and do this in memory of me.”

Near the end of his life, when he was unable to attend the General Chapter he sent these words to the friars. “I conjure you all, brothers, kissing your feet and with the charity of which I am capable, to show all reverence and honour possible to the most holy body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom the things that are in heaven and the things that are on earth are pacified and reconciled to almighty God”. St Francis in his own time encouraged people to have a greater devotion and understanding of the Eucharist in these short few words. "Every fiber of the heart of Francis was aglow with love for the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. He considered it an unpardonable negligence not to attend Mass each day whenever possible. If he could not make it to Mass due to illness he would have the Gospel of the day read to him. If I can not be present at Mass, I adore the Body of Christ in adoration and with the eyes of the soul".

I think each of us can understand the humility of God both in the Incarnation in the Passion. “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on the cross” (Phil 2:8). What is most interesting is that Francis adds the Eucharist to his mediations on the humility of God. Francis was profoundly struck by the humility of Jesus who, for love of humanity, deigned to be with us under the appearance of bread and wine. He wrote in the 1st Admonition: “Behold, each day He humbles Himself as when he came from the royal throne into the Virgin’s womb; each day He Himself comes to us, appearing humbly; each day He comes down from the bosom of the Father upon the altar in the hands of a priest. As He revealed Himself to the holy apostles in true flesh, so He reveals Himself to us now in sacred bread. And as they saw only His flesh by an insight of their flesh, yet believed that He was God as they contemplated Him with their spiritual eyes, let us, as we see bread and wine with our bodily eyes, see and firmly believe that they are His most holy Body and Blood living and true.

For Francis the Eucharist is the continuation in time of the mystery of Christ, begun at the Incarnation, reaching climax at the Paschal Mystery and continuing in the Eucharist – the crib, the cross, and the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the poverty of Christ continued in time. In his Letter to a Chapter, we see that the Eucharist symbolized for Francis the complete self-giving of Christ.

"Let the whole of mankind tremble, the whole world shake and the heavens exult when Christ, the Son of the living God, is [present] on the altar in the hands of a priest. O admirable heights and sublime lowliness! O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! That the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under the little form of Bread! Look, brothers, at the humility of God and pour out your heart before Him! Humble yourselves, as well, that you may be exalted by Him. Therefore hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves so that He who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally".

Francis wanted to die at the Portiuncula, the little church of St Mary of the Angel, the little portion of heaven. He wanted to give up the breath of life where he had first experienced the breath of Grace. As he lay dying he asked that the Gospel of John chapter 13 be read. We hear this Gospel every Holy Thursday. It is about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you”. (John 13:12-15)

As he was dying he told the friars who were present: “I have done my part, may Christ teach you to do yours”.

“The Exhortation of our Blessed Father Francis”

O most beloved Friars and Sons forever blessed,

hear me; hear the voice of your father.

Great things we have promised;

Greater have been promised us.

Let us observe the former:

Let us aspire to the latter.

Pleasure is slight; glory, infinite.

Many are called; few are chosen; retribution for all.

Brethren, while we have time, let us do good.