Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
I have been blessed to know Jesus, among other ways, through the Gospel of Saint Luke and through the life of Saint Francis. At the deepest level, these are linked. As well, they are tied inexorably to my own pilgrimage. Allow me to explain.
My return to the Roman Catholic Church occurred, after an absence of fifteen years, through a seemingly chance viewing in 1983 of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, the film directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Despite its now-dated flower-child style, the romanticised biography of the little poor man of Assisi struck several chords in my heart, mind and unconscious. I remember being awestruck, inhaling every scene. It was, for me, an epiphany.
The film drove me to books about this enigmatic figure that seemed to call out to me, or maybe I should say to my deepest, long layered-over identity. I was incapable of resistance, despite years of rationalizing away doctrine and even faith.
It was then that I began to attend weekday masses as the local church, St. Ignatius of Loyola parish, the odd architecture that I had then known irreverently as “mounting armadillos”. I attended weekdays, careful to avoid the notice of neighbours or the commitment of Sunday service. I preferred the anonymity of a sparsely filled church.
Saint Francis pointed to the Gospels as a map that would lead to meaning and happiness. His life was a witness to the veracity of Luke’s Gospel, most notably, beginning with the Crib of the Incarnation and ending with the Cross of the Resurrection. Midway between the alpha and the omega, we find chapter 10, the warrant of Christian discipleship.
Chapter 10 opens with Jesus sending seventy-two disciples ahead of him, two by two, “like lambs into the midst of wolves,” and instructing them to travel lightly, without concern for privilege, power or possessions: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.” Saint Francis took this admonition to heart. As a disciple of his beloved Jesus, he chose poverty in order to live by the evangelical counsel contained in this passage. He understood to the necessity of not operating in the world alone but in fraternity, two or more friars mobilized to preach the good news in a world thirsting for justice and peace, and hungering for truth and love.
Jesus then thanks the Father “because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” Saint Francis did not oppose the use of reason, as some might suggest, but he understood its limits and favoured an intuitive kind of knowing, based on humility, obedience and authentic love.
We then read about the parable of the Good Samaritan, ending with these words, “Go and do likewise.” The Gospel passage is a parable but it describes aptly the ministry of Saint Francis. By his own account, The Testament, his spiritual transformation resulted from loving care of lepers. This was so foundational in his experience of conversion and to the charism of early Franciscans that, according to one writer, leprosaria served as the first novitiates of the order. Saint Francis embodied the preferential option for the poor, those wounded in their body, their mind or their soul.
Finally, we find Jesus visiting Martha and Mary, and learn that “the better part” of life is to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to what he is saying. This familiar story about Martha fussing over details related to hospitality and Mary resting in contemplative union with Jesus makes two points, one about focus and the other about balance. Saint Francis’ own life demonstrates the value for balance between action without which faith is dead (cf. James 2: 14-26) and the necessity of rooting works in the love of God. It is said that Saint Francis divided his time equally between solitude and prayer, and preaching and serving the poor. And, like Jesus, he prayed before all significant activities.
Luke’s Gospel focuses on the role of Jesus to “preach the Good News to the poor,” and shows concern for all kinds of poverty. It opens with the birth, childhood, baptism and temptations of Jesus, all of which are directed to his public ministry: to proclaim liberty to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and liberation from oppression. This is the core message of Saint Francis. This is precisely his understanding of poverty; by its voluntary application, oppression is crushed and people are set free to look upon others lovingly in justice and peace. His regard for Jesus is based on his appreciation for the gift of this understanding and the grace that makes virtue and freedom possible.
Luke’s Gospel emphasizes joy. We see that from the outset: Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, her song of praise, Zachariah’s words to his son John the Baptist, the attendance of the poor shepherds at the birth of Jesus are all enveloped in supernatural joy. Joy marked the life of Saint Francis. It is probably the feature of his life that most people remember, yet it is a strange joy, an exuberance that is not diminished by suffering; a consolation that makes possible the great personal sacrifices that he accepts in order to grasp ultimate meaning for his life.
Luke’s Gospel reminds us of the need to pray. Chapter 11 is devoted to his teaching his disciples how to pray. The perfect master that he is, he also models what he teaches. Saint Luke records nine prayers of Jesus. Saint Francis wished to devote his life to prayer. It was on the advice of others that he balanced prayer with acts of charity and public preaching. Life without prayer would have been insufferable for him: It was his daily nourishment and joy, the “portion” that Mary had taken at the feet of Jesus. (From this he named the mother church of the Order, “Little Portion,” La Portiuncula.) By prayer, he entered into intimate conversation with God. His identify became so fused with that of Jesus that his prayer would be crowned with the wounds of Jesus, the Stigmata.
Luke’s Gospel expands our awareness of God’s forgiveness of sins. Saint Francis must be understood as a penitent, part of a major movement dating back to the 3rd century which took on anti-ecclesiastical aspects around the time of Saint Francis’ life. The lengths to which God had gone to communicate his love and life fill Saint Francis with unfathomable awe. This helps to explain the fervour of his conversion and the intensity of his prophetic life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.
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The Gospel of Luke is a letter. It is addressed to Theophilus, lover of God. My reflections in 2011 will also be in the form of letters to Friends of Saint Francis on the basis of meditation in Assisi the year in which the Catholic lectionary centred on Luke’s account of the life of Jesus. Letters from Assisi: A Franciscan Journey is a collection of thoughts on the Gospel of Saint Luke that are shaped by landmarks in the religious story of Saint Francis and informed by my own faith journey. These will be released in monthly instalments throughout the year. I dare to share them because they may resonate with the reader’s own spiritual narrative.
These reflections are based on a trip in October 2010, and another years earlier, to the places associated with the spirit of Saint Francis. They are the fruit of much fascination with the passion of Saint Francis as well as with the most “Franciscan” gospel. The combination proved powerful as I allowed the waters of both to converge on the estuary of my own life.
Geography matters. Surroundings shape character: the forests and towns; the hills and valleys. Climate and geology affect the DNA. People and politics all serve to mould a person into a type of receptacle that God can then fill with his holy breath, if we let him. I had to touch, smell, hear, taste and see the goodness of the Lord as Saint Francis had, inasmuch as history would allow, visited many places between Rome and Venice, covering almost 1,500 kilometres, to mark the passage of a mysterious man who gave his life to learning how different God’s ways are from our ways.
I covered a lot of the ground that Saint Francis covered, save for his trips to the Holy Land and Egypt. Throughout, I asked myself what drove him to take the radical steps that he did to imitate Christ. I also wondering what, if anything, this had to do with me. What I came to realize is that he saw Christ’s ways as those of peace and joy. And that no earthly strategy could suffice in bringing about a world of peace and a life of joy. Only God’s ways are the ways of meaning and happiness.
The chance discovery of a small Franciscan convent at Fontecolombo, halfway to Assisi from Rome, on the steep hills overlooking the gorgeous Rieti Valley, was for me the most surprising experience. Fontecolombo is the place most often frequented by Saint Francis in the last years of his life. There was no one around. Only the birds could be heard.
I was moved to tears in the grotto that contains only a cross made of two sticks, leaning against a recess in the steep limestone cliff. I felt strongly the prayerful presence of the poverello. I wondered, what instigated his radical conversion? I think it was an intuition that true joy is only to be found in the life of Christ, in God’s ways.
What makes places like this special? They are enduring reminders that God’s way is the way of freedom, communion and love. Indeed, what is most appealing about the life of Saint Francis is the fact that we all crave freedom from fear; we seek communion, rather than the stress of fragmentation and alienation; and want love that is patient and kind.
I come here curious where Francis sighed
And villagers sang the birth of our Saviour.
A healing memory.
Excerpt from my poem Reborn in Riety, 2010
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As you enter the holy season of Advent, may the Lord bless you and keep you. May He show His face to you and be merciful to you. May He turn His countenance to you and give you peace.
crib and cross Franciscan Ministries