Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
Saint Francis serves for many as a clear, although challenging, example of faithful Christian discipleship. Many people are attracted to his spirituality, judging from the impressive array of new books that continue to appear year after year. Most people focus on his small collection of writings and, to a greater degree, on often romanticised ideas of his religious values and personal priorities. Few would imitate his lifestyle. Even fewer have lived the charism of poverty and the practice of mendicancy as authentically as Saint Benedict Joseph Labre (1748-1783).
Saint Benedict was a serious boy, inclined to solitude but not, it is noted by at least one biographer, lacking in joy. The firstborn of 15 children in a middle-class family, he lived and was educated in the diocese of Boulogne, France.
At the age of 16, he decided to dedicate his life to God. At first, he experienced a series of disappointments. The Trappists refused him because of his age; the Carthusians because of ill health; and other religious communities for reasons that are not clear. He then decided to set out and live as a permanent pilgrim. Leaving his native town of Amettes, he lived by begging and eating discarded food. His aim was to visit churches and shrines, which he did by covering several countries in Europe over a period of many years. As this was his true vocation, he was filled with great peace.
A rosary about his neck, another between his fingers, a crucifix lay upon his breast. In a small bag he carried a New Testament, a breviary, a copy of the Imitation of Christ. Dressed in rags and unwashed, he was avoided, although this seemed to suit his solitary nature. People would offer him alms, which he sometimes gave to those he felt were more in need that he was. Because of his appearance and apparent disregard for what mattered to others, he was mocked and rebuked by some. But he was admired by others, even seen as a living saint. His confessor thought him to be educated in theology. But when asked, he responded in characteristic humility: “I am only a poor ignorant beggar.”
Eventually, he settled in Rome, spending his nights sleeping in the Coliseum and his days in the city’s numerous churches. But asceticism had already taken its toll. Increasingly frail, Saint Benedict collapsed on the steps of a church and was carried to a nearby house. He died April 16, 1783. His reputation as a saint spread across Europe almost immediately, although he was only canonized a century later.
I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.
1 Corinthians 1: 19
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Saint Benedict was apparently concerned about neither the fashions nor the judgements of society but only his relationship with God. Living without property, his only security was fellowship with the poor and the crucified Christ. Early in his sojourn, he visited Assisi. As he already lived in the image of Saint Francis, he was received into the Confraternity of the Cord and known as a “cordbearer,” a term referring to the coarse cord worn by Saint Francis of Assisi. The society of cordbearers had been established in 1585 by the Franciscan Pope Sixtus V. As a result of his favour and that of subsequent popes, members enjoyed certain privileges, as witness the string of chapels found in various parts of Europe.
Cordbearers were assumed to recite daily prayers, be temperate and pure, and wear the cord, which would remind them of their bond to God and his commandments. (The word “cordbearer” was sometimes applied to all Franciscans, religious and secular. In Paris, the French word “cordelier” was even associated after the French Revolution by Danton, Desmoulins and Marat with a group of oenophiles, adopting their name from “Le couvent des Cordeliers.”)
In religious life, the cord bears three knots, symbolizing the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. In a manner of speaking, cordbearers too were marked by these signs. Secular Franciscans are called to simplicity, modesty in dress and lifestyle. In the case of married people, fidelity rather than abstinence is the chosen form of chastity. The cord serves as a reminder of obedience inasmuch as it recalls that Jesus warned Saint Peter, “When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (John 21: 20)
Franciscan spirituality is inevitably lived differently in practice from one historical period to another but there is something essential of its charism that endures. For my part, three words incarnate the spirit of religious vows, namely simplicity, gratitude and generosity. These are watchwords for my life. Simplicity is a more contemporary expression of poverty but its demands are no less challenging. The poet T.S. Eliot wrote that it costs “nothing less than everything.” It is actualized only in the most radical form of detachment.
The Franciscan intuition has prized poverty as one of the most challenging virtues. In many ways, its merit is counter-intuitive. How can pruning something make it grow? But mysteriously, it does. There is plenty of evidence of this in the spiritual life. The best evidence is the other remarkable quality of Franciscan life: joy. How can voluntary poverty and true joy co-exist? Yet they do.
Like chastity, gratitude is a quality of living that reserves everything for its intended purpose. Gratitude grows consciousness and discourages abuse. Gratitude enables us to focus on what is true and valuable. It is the heart of prayer. In effect, it is only possible when simplicity orders what is needed and liberates us of insatiable appetites. Gratitude causes the heart to overflow. The sense of abundance that stems from gratitude produces generosity, which makes obedience possible. Attentiveness to others requires graciousness and a willingness to govern our selfish instincts.
The friars should be glad to live among social outcasts, among the poor and helpless, the sick and the lepers, and those who beg by the wayside.
Saint Francis, The Rule of 1221
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Dorothy Day was a worldly, fun-loving journalist living in New York. She would probably have never known God had it not been for the rude eruption of Peter Maurine in her life. Due to a combination of goading and inspiration, she opened a soup kitchen to help alleviate suffering and despair during the Great Depression. Then, she founded the Catholic Worker, at first a newspaper that preached the social gospel on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised, then a lay movement with houses of hospitality to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and finally farming communes to foster the emergence of a communitarian economy.
Peter understood the necessity of sharing. He was born into a peasant Languedoc family of 23 children. At the age of 32, he sailed to the United States where he spent the next 20 years moving from one labour job to another, breaking rocks, building roads, all the while dreaming of the realization of gospel values in economics and politics.
Filled with the spirit of the Beatitudes, Peter spent the last years of his life stripped of what he valued most, his mind. Severely disabled by a stroke, he was unable to think clearly, dress or feed himself. Dorothy was inspired by his gracious acceptance of this condition. As he was often confused, she placed on his lapel a note that read “I am Peter Maurin, founder of the Catholic Worker movement.”
Dorothy always credited Peter with the inspiration for her life after she met him in 1932. One wonders what would have come of her life, not to mention to the millions of people who have been served by her followers ever since had it not been for this disturbing vagabond, this philosophizing fool for Christ, so well-cast in the movie Entertaining Angels, as the image of Saint Francis and Saint Benedict Joseph Labre. The question could reasonably be asked as well, did the presence of the latter in the days of political foment leading to the French Revolution inspire people to act in Europe as Dorothy did generations later, an ocean away?
There stands still today in south-central Montreal a house of hospitality established in 1952 as part of the Catholic Worker network. Benedict Labre House originally served the residents of a working-class neighbourhood that was predominantly Irish. Now its reach extends to a wider and more diverse population.
The world would become better off if people tried to become better. And people would become better if they stopped trying to become better off.
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May the good Lord conform you life to that of Christ. May he cause you to loosen your hold on passing things, ever to aspire to what is eternal. May he grant you to experience peace and joy in your true vocation.
Fraternally in joy and hope
crib and cross Franciscan Ministries