Contemplation and Prayer VI©
Dear Friend of Saint Francis,
Essentially, contemplative prayer is an awareness of God that is intuitive. The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality states that it is “the presence of God (is) apprehended not by thought but by love.” Many things can serve as catalyst for contemplative prayer. We tend to think spontaneously of striking scenery and grace-filled events as classic triggers. One of the most fruitful is praying with scripture.
Saint Francis has often been described as a mystic, which is another way of saying that his religious insights were the result of contemplation. He saw God in creation. He saw God in the poor. And he saw God in the wisdom of the Gospel to which he dedicated his life. The Gospel for Saint Francis would be the alpha and the omega of his spirituality.
The Gospel had a special significance for Saint Anthony, too. He approached it with a heart that was open to more than its literal meaning. In it, he saw the overflowing self-communication of Love.
We find evidence of God reaching out to humanity throughout the bible. He made himself accessible so that we could enter into a meaningful relationship of mutual faith, hope and love. Jesus is the ultimate rapprochement between God and us. Because of the Incarnation, through our human experience, we can touch the heart of God.
There is nothing more awesome than that. This is precisely what struck Saint Francis to the core of his being. Quoting the Gospel in the words of John, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Until that moment a care-free youth, Saint Francis would never exhaust the meaning of that verse. He would devote his life to responding with his entire being with such singular and uncompromising focus that he even became at times the object of derision.
God is manifest in countless acts of love. The Gospel is first and foremost a story of love. It presents poetically yet concretely the heights, depths and lengths of God’s love for each and every one of us.
So, in religious life, Saint Francis would make time to preach the good news of this uncommon, healing and liberating love. He called anyone who would listen to reform their lives away from fear and the illusion of earthly prestige and power, and shift their attention to counter-intuitive truths: that the last shall be first; that life is secured only by letting go of it; and that love can only be held by giving it away.
Saint Francis’ original intention was to live the Gospel before announcing it, to be an imitator of Christ before being a preacher, to accomplish works of penance before proclaiming them to others.
(Servus Gieben, Preaching in the Franciscan Order)
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Praying with scripture was the source of the evangelism of Saint Francis. Various passages, especially from the Gospels, arrested his attention, fed his imagination and nourished the discernment that would lead to life-changing decisions. For example, Bonaventure tells us that Saint Francis was profoundly affected by three passages: “If you will be perfect, sell all that you have, and give to the poor;” “Take nothing on your journey;” and “if anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
For Saint Francis, Jesus was not only the perfect expression of God’s love but the exemplar of what it means to be fully human according to the mind of God. He was obedient to the words of Jesus but perhaps more remarkably he was attentive to the actions of Jesus. Scripture seared in his mind and heart critical moments in the life of Jesus: his birth and death in poverty; his praying and moving about as an itinerant preacher; his embrace of those most marginalized by the elite of society; his rejection of hypocrisy in piety; and even his unwillingness to limit his response to God’s immense love with lukewarm spirituality.
Saint Francis often retreated to solitary places in order to contemplate the fullness of God’s love and his own relationship to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He did this, in part, by focusing on the wonders of creation but mostly by meditating on the Gospel passages that he would hear in Liturgy. We have reason to believe that he had a brilliant memory to recall key verses, especially as these related to the deepest longings of his heart.
Secular Franciscans should devote themselves especially to careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and life to the gospel.
(The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order, Article 4)
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Whereas the contemplation of the Gospel led Saint Francis to literal imitation of Jesus Christ, it led Saint Anthony (Feast, June 13) to an even deeper exploration of these narratives as poetic images, a sort of divine code with richer meaning than what the story would suggest. A good example is the parable. A parable operates on many different levels, each one valid in its own right.
Saint Anthony explains this method himself in the general prologue to his Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, of which I bought a copy while in Padua two years ago. Each Sunday commentary is explained allegorically, morally and anagogically. At the risk of boring you, allow me explain these terms.
Essentially, an allegory is a prolonged metaphor. It is the literary device by which a deeper meaning is vaguely hidden behind a more obvious one. In the case of scripture, especially with Jesus’ use of parables, it is the use of commonplace stories to reveal a truth much more difficult to understand. Saint Anthony regarded much of the bible in this way. What was hidden behind the stories was for him more important than the narratives themselves.
Paul Spilsbury, the scholar who has recently translated Saint Anthony’s Sermons for the first time in their entirety into English, explains that “in practice, allegory refers to the Christological or ecclesiological significance of the text.” In other words, Saint Anthony uses the allegory to paint a picture of how the Church must help the faithful to live as one body in Christ as represented by the Church.
He adds that Saint Anthony’s presentation is moral inasmuch as he outlines the exigencies of Christian living. In concrete terms, what does it mean to conform our lives to that of Jesus?
And finally, we mean that Saint Anthony preached anagogically in that he spoke of the eschatological significance of biblical texts; in other words, what did Jesus’ teachings have to do with death, immortality and a final judgement?
Like Saint Francis, Saint Anthony often referred to the Gospel. But Saint Anthony was wary of taking the Gospel in isolation. He typically compared or “concorded” them with texts drawn from the Old Testament. He also related these evangelical accounts to the Epistles. In fact, it is said that Saint Anthony’s preaching was carried forward on a four-wheeled chariot, with the four wheels being the Gospel, his knowledge of history, Epistle and the Introit chant that would precede the readings at Mass.
Church Fathers were often quoted by Saint Anthony as well, especially Saint Augustine and Saint Gregory. As he was trained as an Augustinian friar when he lived in Portugal, we also find quotations from Saint Bernard as well as Pope Innocent III, the Pope of his youth and a man hugely influential in his day.
The content of his preaching is unmistakably Franciscan. His love of Franciscan values is evident in every crafted phrase. Like Saint Francis, he contemplates the wonder of Creation. Where Saint Francis wrote the Canticle of Creation, Saint Anthony used the book of creation to illustrate his teaching, writes Spilsbury. Only, as his education is more advanced, he turns to Aristotle and other writers to give examples.
Another scholar, Daniel Lesnick, points out that the early Franciscans spoke clearly and credibly to the culture of their day. They preached mainly to the rising class of artisans and workers and to the new urban society. The aim of their preaching was to move the faithful to action. Franciscan preaching was not scholastic as was the trend of the time, especially among the Dominicans and learned preachers, but rather vulgarized and accessible as it was in the days of Jesus.
Saint Francis offered his listener wisdom of a faith lived and a living witness to Christ in human life. This tradition is clearly present in the sermons of (Saint Anthony.)
(Vincent Cushing, Preaching Wisdom to a postmodern People)
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May the Lord bless you to receive his holy Word preached with intelligence and integrity.
Crib and Cross