Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
May the good Lord give you Peace!
The religious conversion that began at San Damiano was for Saint Francis “a struggle to discern God’s will” for his particular life: “The remainder of his life was spent consciously or unconsciously responding to that command.” The best evidence we have of his desire to have a clear sign of God’s will, in the midst of social turmoil and moral confusion, is the prayer he uttered on that occasion: “Most high, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me, Lord, a correct faith, a certain hope, a perfect charity, sense and knowledge, so that I may carry out Your holy and true command.”
While Saint Francis accords his encounter with lepers a prominent place in his Testament, he has provided no written record of his time at San Damiano. Nonetheless, we can accept that the prominent tradition does reveal a basic truth about Saint Francis’ call to transform the church. The small stone structure at San Damiano was in disrepair, evidently suffering from years of neglect, “threatening to collapse with age”. He repaired it physically, but the great merit of this incident was that this gesture also symbolized the healing that he was to bring to the broader Church community, which was afflicted by numerous corruptions, errors and scandals. While Saint Francis initially understood the divine message to mean a rebuilding of the physical church, his subsequent mission squarely rested on its spiritual renewal.
The story of Saint Francis’ encounter at San Damiano is related principally in four early accounts of his life: Celano’s First Life, thought to be written in 1228; the Legend of Three Companions, 1246; Celano’s Second Life, 1246 or 1247; and Bonaventure’s Major Life, 1260 or 1262. Each embellishes the story a bit more by adding details of questionable accuracy, as the table below clearly illustrates. Yet there is little doubt that something significant happened at San Damiano – something that would affect the course of his religious conversion.
The significance of the story of Saint Francis at San Damiano is that it illustrates the fact that his conversion typically transported him to the ultimate level of consciousness, namely to religious conversion. He experienced the profound and transformational feeling of “being in love in an unrestricted fashion” . We believe that in matters of faith, Saint Francis acted attentively, reasonably, responsibly and decisively. The freedom that he exercised by choosing to spend time at San Damiano gave him the capacity to move toward something positive and meaningful. This was not flight from a world that might have disappointed him but more an intentional act of responding to love with love. Judging from Celano’s account, Saint Francis’ experience of divine love; his experience of value as articulated in the Gospel; and his experience of seeing the church that housed the painted symbol of Christ’s self-emptying love falling into ruin and disgrace combined to provoke him into decisive action.
The “voice” talked about in this familiar story was, at minimum, an insight. If it was not an external and objective experience of divine will, it was at the very least a objectification of his personal experience, which prompted an awakening of his consciousness regarding the role of Church in the expression of God’s love. He can be said to have judged from that moment that God’s house – and later, metaphorically, the faith community of God’s people – could no longer be allowed to fall into disrepair. The historical reality of this voice is the cry for reform that was to be loudly proclaimed through the language of social, political and economic changes already underway and which would be heard more particularly in the religious realm at the Fourth Lateran Council.
Most of legends we read about Saint Francis deal with conversion in some fashion or other, and attribute to it a central importance. Indeed, one may state with confidence that his spirituality cannot be known without a thorough appreciation of his experience and understanding of penance or conversion. Moreover, one cannot situate or appreciate this transformation, essentially or historically, without knowledge of Saint Francis as a 13th century Italian penitent, for this was key to his self-understanding. Indeed, he accorded this pivotal if protracted experience a place of honour in the spiritual testament written near the end of his life, making it his very first reference: “The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way…”
During the early period of his conversion, Saint Francis struggled to discern the will of God. The story of Christ speaking to him from the Crucifix at San Damiano depicts very dramatically the change that operated within him. This resulted in an insight so illuminating that it set him on the course on which he would persevere for the rest of his life, all the while refining what he understood to be Christ’s command. The Prayer before the Crucifix captures the essence of the yearning of the year in which he sought so diligently to find meaning, sensing in his heart that Christ was the gate: “Most high, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me, Lord, a correct faith, a certain hope, a perfect charity, sense and knowledge, so that I may carry out your holy and true command.” Hugo reports, “Many believe that this prayer was once written on cloth hanging in front of San Damiano’s altar and that it may have been inspired by a liturgical prayer.” Regardless of its origin, it suits our saint to a tee. While it may have been on cloth or on paper, it was surely on his heart and on his lips. Moreover, it is clear that with or without the presence of an audible voice, the Byzantine crucifix had an awesome effect on Saint Francis. Gallant and Cirino have established a fascinating link between the minutest details of miniatures contained on the painted figure and his moving “Little Office of the Passion”.
Day after day, as he prayed his Little Office, Francis hears his Hero recall: Holy Father, zeal for your house has devoured me (PsF 5:9). This constant reminder certainly helped him grasp the full scope of the invitation he had heard in the little chapel of San Damiano…The house to be repaired was not only the material building, but the whole Church, and beyond it, all of humanity, and finally, all of creation.
This incident was in effect a development of the conversion underway in his pivotal encounter with lepers. He had come to see these wretched outcasts as Christ-figures. Consequently, “Francis began to pray more and more. And not only did he pray in solitary places, he also prayed in churches.”
As he knelt before a crucifix in the decaying church of San Damiano just beneath the walls of Assisi, he heard Christ speak to him. Saint Francis heard this call not from the image of a Christ who ruled the universe but from a Christ with nails in his hands and feet and a lance wound in his side. That Christ was quite like the leper, who was disfigured and the object of scorn and ridicule.
Repairing disfigured churches became a concrete expression of his consciousness growing from the visible to the invisible by adding the wounds of the crucified mystical body of Christ in his vision. It was in these experiences (encountering lepers and repairing churches) that Saint Francis found the merit of the evangelical life adopted by mendicant friars as distinct from the apostolic life of monks, and of identifying with the Christ who suffered and died because of his unconditional love for us and was raised in glory because of the Father’s absolute love for his Son: “He was serving Christ in helping to rebuild his house, where he was present under the species of bread and wine. It was Christ who was the centre, Christ who was his source of joy. When he imitated Christ, he found joy.”
Shifting from introspection to self-awareness, from personal satisfaction to value and from focus on self to centering on God, the total conversion that resulted from Saint Francis’ frank and diligent journey through a maze of questions and answers and the questions raised by those answers would have left him a confused and perhaps even disillusioned young man had it not been for his willingness to persevere through the next reasonable step, namely to reflect on the foundations of his evolving belief system and, through careful understanding and evaluation of the past, on what he had become by the choices he was making.
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May your reflections upon the life of Saint Francis draw you into closer communion with our Lord and the people that he leads onto your path. May the holy season of Lent be for you a time in which you can better discern the will of God for your life. May He “enlighten the darkness of (your) heart and give (you)…a correct faith, a certain hope, a perfect charity, sense and knowledge, so that (you) may carry out (His) holy and true command.