Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
May the Lord give you Peace!
Saints make us uncomfortable, so we isolate them by claiming them to be superhuman. But in reality, saints struggled with the basic stuff of life like the rest of us. Their distinction is not renunciation of their identity but rather their fidelity to it. Therefore, they ought to serve as constant reminders that our own authenticity is to be found not in our false self but in relationship with God.
Each month in 2010, we will look upon a Franciscan saint whose life is made beautiful by faith, hope and love. We can profit, not by imitation, but from their inspiration to find meaning and joy in our relations to God and others.
We begin the year by turning our attention to the challenging figure of Blessed Angela of Foligno (1248-1309), a secular Franciscan who was told by Saint Francis in a vision, “You are the only one born of me.” Beatified in 1693, her feast day was on January 4.
Like the poverello, Bl. Angela was born into wealth and privilege. She belonged to one of the leading families of Foligno, an ancient Umbrian city on the Topino River that had been an important communication route even before the days of the Roman Empire. Both in her youth and during the initial years as a wife and mother, she found pleasure in worldliness.
Not long before the age of 40, however, Bl. Angela prayed for relief from her growing dissatisfaction with the direction of her life. It was in the sacrament of penance, in the presence of a confessor to whom Saint Francis had guided her, that she found the inspiration to transform her life. The means would soon become apparent. Her husband and three sons would succumb to the plague and she would find consolation in prayer.
Soon enough, she would give away her property and join the Third Order of Saint Francis. Though her conversion was gradual, a key turning point was her pilgrimage to Assisi. She went because she wanted “to feel more strongly Christ’s presence, be faithful to the Third Order Rule she had just professed and to become and remain to the end truly poor.” The result led to a growth in intimacy with the crucified Christ, the suffering God-man and ultimately in the Trinitarian life.
Her contemplation of the mystery of God’s unfathomable love led to mystical experiences along a spiritual journey that would be described in Memorial and Instructions. Her ministry to the poor would include begging for food and alleviating the suffering of sick people. Prayer would remain her constant companion and her spiritual progress would inspire others.
Even if at times I can still experience outwardly some little sadness and joy, nonetheless there is in my soul a chamber in which no joy, sadness, or enjoyment from any virtue, or delight over anything that can be named, enters. This is where the All Good, which is not any particular good, resides, and it is so much the All Good that there is no other good.
– Bl. Angela of Foligno, Instructions
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During a pilgrimage to Assisi, only 10 miles from Foligno, she experienced her first vision. A number of mystical experiences would follow. To some, her actions seemed extravagant. Even her spiritual director was sceptical at first. But soon scepticism would dissipate and Bl. Angela would be urged to record these events.
Her memorial and instructions paint a picture of great mystical visions that are both poetic and incisive, touching as they do the core of Christian faith. Major themes emerge from her writings, most notably the passionate love of the Crucified, the suffering God-Man. In this regard, of particular interest is her instruction on prayer. We find in the third Instruction the triad of Christ’s suffering, prayer and poverty, in which prayer plays a pivotal role.
Evidently, prayer for divine guidance is vital: “No one can be saved without divine light. Divine light causes us to begin to make progress, and leads us to the summit of perfection.” Moreover, Bl. Angela understood prayer to be the medium by which we come to know not only God but also ourselves: “The purpose of prayer is nothing other than to manifest God and self. And this manifestation of God and self leads to a state of perfect and true humility.”
By virtue of humility, our vision of ourselves in relation to God teaches us about the human condition in general and our own life specifically. The key is contemplation of what she calls the Book of Life—the life of Jesus Christ: “Thus they will be filled with its blessed teaching—which does not puff anyone up—and will find there every doctrine they and others need.” Later she emphasises that “if you wish to be superillumined and taught, read this Book of Life.”
This image of a book calls to mind the image of a mirror, as used by Cistercians in the 12th century and Franciscans in the 13th, especially in the way Saint Clare refers to humility as the mirror’s frame, suspended from the wood of the cross. Contemplation of Christ Crucified also connects with the familiar words of Jean Vanier. He told an interviewer, “When you start living with people with disabilities, you begin to discover a whole lot of things about yourself…To be human is that capacity to love which is the phenomenal reality that we can give life to people; we can transform people by our attentiveness, by our love, and they can transform us. It is a whole question of giving life and receiving life, but also to discover how broken we are.”
Insightfully, the servant of God teaches three necessary kinds of prayer: “Through its ineffable wisdom it has ordained than one does not attain mental prayer unless one has first passed through bodily prayer, and likewise, one does not attain supernatural prayer unless one has first assed through bodily and mental prayer.” This message is important for anyone experiencing difficulties in prayer. The body both predisposes us to effective prayer and is often the only medium by which God’s response is audible. We tend to rationalize what the mind receives and deny the heart but cannot so easily dismiss the ill-ease and even the illness of the body. The prayer of the mind makes us conscious of the operations of the intellect in order to eliminate inappropriate content, in order to make us receptive to the revelation of Truth.
The third Instruction then offers as outstanding examples of prayer Jesus and Mary. Jesus taught us to how to pray: “The Son of God, Jesus Christ in his human nature, himself gave us the example of the wonders of prayer and the need to persevere in it. He taught us to pray in many ways through word and deed… (The glorious Virgin, mother of Jesus Christ, God and man) taught us to pray by example of her own host holy prayer. While she prayed, divine light abounded in her more fully and made her consecrate her virginity, and even her while body and soul, more glorious to God. In this same divine light she was granted the most perfect manifestation of who God is and who she was.”
It is through prayer, then, that one will be given the most powerful light to see God and self.
– Bl. Angela of Foligno, Instructions
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By 1298, Bl. Angela was a leading figure in the reform of the Order of Friars Minor but called for restraint in the face of excesses advocated by some who were dissatisfied with the evolution of the order founded almost a century before. Nonetheless, like the reformers, she cautioned against deviations from the path of spiritual poverty in all aspects of private and public life. This applied notably to preaching. Such simplicity, she argued, would allow the emergence of the Holy Spirit in power: “I do not want you to be like those who preach only with words of learning and dryly report the deeds of saints, but rather speak about them with the same divine savour as they had performed these deeds.”
According to Paul Lachance, her influence was not only felt directly by the friars in her community that regarded her as their spiritual mother but also by a wide variety of people that we would regard as paragons of the Catholic tradition. Among these are Saints Theresa of Avila, Francis of Sales and Alphonsus Liguori.
Dorothy Day often quoted Bl. Angela’s statement that praying when one doesn’t feel like it, that is forced prayers, is especially pleasing to God. Thomas Merton wrote, “This is the great truth about her life: In her passion, instead of being sort of locked up behind doors and left in a closet, becomes completely devoted to God. Passion gets completely caught up in her love for God and in the giving of herself to God.”
By today’s standards, her writing is archaic and concerns mystical phenomena that strain credulity in the modern mind. But it would be a pity to disregard its genuine insight. Few people have been as surprised by Joy, to borrow the phrase popularized by CS Lewis, and even fewer have touched the source of the Joy so directly. Even though her love for Christ seems boundless, her heart was penetrated by grace so powerful that one might say that it was not entirely mediated by him. We may say that Bl. Angela entered in an unrestricted way the entire mystery of the divine Trinity itself.
Anyone who is prepared to digest it slowly can profit from reading Memorial and Instructions. Its language is simple and direct, even if it refers to experiences to which we cannot easily relate. Her loving remembrance of visions and subsequent counsels tease our appetite, according to the Franciscan charism, for knowing God in order that we may better love and serve him.
What Angela understood of Francis’ life and teachings is…the path that he traced for her and others to follow consisted of his total conformity to the life and teachings of the God-Man Jesus Christ by way of “the ineffable light of the truest poverty.”
– Paul Lachance, “Introduction,” Angela of Foligno: Complete Works
Also author of Angela of Foligno: Passionate Mystic of the Double Abyss
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May “the superabundant one,” “the queen of the explorers of the beyond,” “the bedded, swooning saint” fill your heart with a deeper desire to journey ever closer to the sublime source of all goodness and joy.
Fraternally in joy and hope
crib and cross Franciscan Ministries