Contemplation and Prayer III ©
Dear Friend of Saint Francis,
The Franciscan Crown is not something that sits on the head. It is a very human mantra that rises from the heart like incense to a realm beyond time and space. It is a ladder that leads, bead by bead, to the contemplation of a reality that eludes the mundane mind.
The Franciscan Crown is in fact a rosary—also known as the seraphic rosary—that consists of seven decades, rather than the usual five. It recalls the special joys of the Virgin Mary: the annunciation, the visitation, the birth of our Lord, the adoration of the magi, finding Jesus in the temple, the resurrection of our Lord, and the assumption of our Blessed Mother and her coronation in heaven.
According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, the Franciscan Crown dates back to 1422. Evidently, a young novice who had that year been received into the Franciscan Order had, previous to his reception, been accustomed to adorn a statue of the Blessed Virgin with a wreath of fresh and beautiful flowers as a mark of his piety and devotion. The Blessed Virgin instructed him how, by reciting daily a rosary of seven decades in honour of her seven joys, he might weave a crown that would be more pleasing to her than the material wreath of flowers.
In 1905 Pope Pius X, in response to the petition of the Procurator General of the Friars Minor, enriched the Franciscan Crown with several indulgences.
One should not be surprised that the Franciscan tradition so uniquely celebrates the joys of Mary’s life. Too often, the tradition is cast in austere tones. While it is true that the cross is held high, it is even truer that the Resurrection is raised as the balm that would soothe the sting of death. So it is with the life of the mother of our Saviour. The joys would outshine her agonies. Each joy would crown a gracious achievement.
The Annunciation reminds us of the blessings that are rooted in faithfulness to something more valuable than personal satisfaction. Saying yes to God for Mary was saying no to fear and the limits of our own desires. Hearing and heeding the call of God to assume a particular responsibility, regardless of risk, revealed to her the fullness of her being and the consolation that would offset every piercing of the heart.
The Visitation reminds me of the gift of fraternal living. The support that two people give to each other in doing God’s work is of incalculable value. It brings joy to the heart to share ordinary experiences in order that they may bear extraordinary fruit. This sacred event also reminds us that what we do is only part of a plan. Mary and Elizabeth would carry in their womb holy persons who would share in the mission of salvation.
The birth of our Lord is a glorious event of immense significance in Franciscan spirituality. Saint Francis was deeply moved by the knowledge that God so loved the world that he would send his only Son into the cold night of our humanity. The creation of a Nativity scene at Greccio in 1223 would attest to his impassioned devotion to the Incarnation that, while still a mystery, was a very concrete reality for the saint.
The Nativity would echo the gift of joy to all of humanity represented by two very different groups. First, the shepherds came from nearby fields; they were simple and poor people. But the adoration of the Magi reminds that God loves even those who would come by a different way. The metaphor is striking.
Saint Francis urged his brothers to espouse radical poverty, humility and simplicity. As a result, some falsely assume that he was anti-intellectual. I prefer to think of him as Jesus conversing with learned people, on his own terms, speaking insightfully without pretence. But Jesus’ encounter would result in the anguish of his parents who did not know where he was. They rejoiced in finding him in the temple just as Saint Francis rejoiced in finding Jesus at San Damiano. Learning turned out to be far less important than relationship.
The resurrection of our Lord is the summit of our faith’s journey. Saint Francis never lost sight of this, even as he focused so much reverence on the birth and death of Jesus.
The assumption of our Blessed Mother and her coronation in heaven is the zenith of joy for the man who added to our understanding of Christianity the human dimension of salvation. In using ordinary people to bring us to the Light, God is glorified as are the persons who collaborate authentically in this spiritual endeavour.
The Salutation to the Blessed Virgin Mary that was written by Saint Francis provides a glimpse into his joy in the heavenly coronation of the one who would make the Lord our brother. He begins, “Hail, O Lady, holy Queen, Mary, holy Mother of God: You are the virgin made church.” His regard for her virtue and privilege is remarkable. As comment Regis Armstrong and Ignatius Brady in their publication of The Complete Works of Francis and Clare, Saint Francis “clearly perceives and presents the Virgin Mary as the model for every Christian who responds to the virtuous presence of God in his life.”
Mary leads us to discover the secret of Christian joy, reminding us that Christianity is, first and foremost, evangelization, “good news”, which has as its heart and its whole content the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, the one Savior of the world.
(Blessed John Paul II)
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Some people will tell you that the rosary must be prayed with full awareness of each word in each prayer. I am not of that opinion. I believe that the rosary releases its fragrance once we have allowed it to lift us beyond the precise words, repeatedly recited, into a deeper awareness of their meaning.
The power of the tradition is its capacity to connect us with the Father, whose presence we praise, whose kingdom we hunger for, whose will unlocks the best of who we were created to be in this life and in the next. It is a complete communion in which we can unselfishly ask for what we need to carry out his mission every day in the fullest love that includes forgiveness and protection from evil.
The rosary incites us to enter into a visceral understanding of ourselves as filled with grace by our Father who is above but also inside us in Spirit and Truth, and that our work done in the name of Christ is blessed. Through the rosary, we are consoled by the knowledge that all the saints pray for us who are weak and often misguided so that we can accept the challenges of each day with confidence and on the last day we will see clearly what we only now see dimly.
In effect, the rosary is a contemplative prayer. It enables the eyes of the heart to gaze into mysteries not otherwise intelligible. For instance, it allows us to marvel at divine grace as it envelops creation, to contemplate the face of Christ through the eyes of Mary, to observe Jesus in all the phases of his earthly life and to see him gloriously enthroned at the right hand of the Father.
As well, the rosary is a prayer of gratefulness. It has the potential of carrying those who pray it beyond mere thanksgiving to transform the heart into the beauty it contemplates. Brother David Steindl adds, “Rosary prayer, in its outward form, is really the repetition of a Christian mantra. This connects those who pray the rosary with all their sisters and brothers in other traditions who also use mantra prayer. In fact, other traditions often use strings of beads. The Christian rosary itself may be patterned after Moslem prayer beads which crusaders brought back from the Middle East.”
With the beloved mother looking for her beloved Son, do not cease searching until you have found him.
(Saint Bonaventure, The Tree of Life)
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In addition to developing the Marian devotion known as the Franciscan Crown, the Franciscans are credited with adding the final words, the intercessory part, to the Hail Mary: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” The first words of the prayer, of course, are taken from the Annunciation to Mary by the angel Gabriel, as recalled in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel.
As the glorious Virgin of virgins carries Christ materially in her body, you too, by following in his footsteps, especially those of poverty and humility, can, without any doubt, always carry him spiritually in your body.
(Saint Clare of Assisi, The Third Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague)
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May God’s infinite goodness be the focus of your thoughts, the oxygen of your body and the beat of your heart. May He bless you with the gifts of his goodness in all that you do.
Crib and Cross