April 2003 – On the Relevance of St. Francis

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

April 2003

Dear Friends of St. Francis…

May the good Lord give you Peace!

As some of you know, I have been a bit overwhelmed in the writing department lately with more guest preaching and preparing papers in an accelerated process to obtain my Masters Degree in Theology. As a result I have been negligent in attending to my ongoing commitment to producing these letters for those interested in the spirituality of Saint Francis. For that I beg your forgiveness.

This month, I gave a talk to professed Franciscans that generated numerous requests for copies, which I did not have on hand. As penance, I have prepared this adapted version and share it with all of you to make amends for my negligence.

Let us begin for up until now we have done nothing.
– Francis of Assisi

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When I was professed 15 years ago, I thought I could not love Francis more. After all, he was responsible for my return to a regular practice of the Catholic faith. When I walked the hills around Assisi 10 years ago and felt the spirit of the poverello on the pathways and smaller sanctuaries less frequented by tourists, I loved him even more. Five years ago, when I resolved to anchor all my preaching in Franciscan spirituality, I was sure then that I could not love him more deeply. And when I took the decision to write my thesis about Francis five months ago, I was sure that my love now towered well above the timid attachment I had previously felt.

The difference each time, of course, had to do with getting to know Francis better. To know him is to love him. Most Christians and people of other religions…and even many atheists will tell you that. But as I have come to know him for who he really was…historically, stripped of devotional clichés…my respect for him has grown exponentially.

I take no credit for this discovery. To a great extent, the credit belongs to a Jesuit, Bernard Lonergan, whose method for theology exposed me to the need and the tools for understanding something as elusive as spirituality…historically. The effect has been my discovery of a man who is a million times more impressive than the figure we find at garden centers, surrounded with birds and admired by fawns.

The real Francis is much more impressive because he is an authentic man who found the courage to devote his whole life to the single pursuit of meaning…ultimate meaning. He was no hypocrite who would profess a faith and not live it. He was no simpleton who would settle for a superficial understanding of what our faith means. He was a man whose whole life was devoted to a relentless quest…for the things we all would like to find…purpose, peace and, yes, joy.

What he found on this journey is disarmingly simple. He made something new of what was already as old as Christianity itself, namely following Christ…not from a distance…and not just certain aspects of His life…but faithfully looking at each word and each gesture reported in Gospel accounts for concrete signs of how to share the glory of the risen Lord, who so loved us that He gave up His life…so that our own lives might have meaning. I guess Francis figured if he was going to call himself a Christian, he had to believe that Christ’s life was somehow relevant to his own.

His decision to follow Jesus only came about in adulthood, after a series of setbacks: imprisonment, illness, and an aborted military adventure. He lost interest in what had seemed so promising before. His religious, moral and intellectual conversion was a long, difficult and confusing process, one that unsettled every part of his life. His assumptions shaken, he found a new direction in his encounters with Jesus in lepers and in the crucifix of San Damiano.

As a result, his spirituality became explicitly Christ-centered…with the Gospel as its foundation. In his Testament he would later write, “No one showed me what I should do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the form of the Holy Gospel.”

Francis then chose poverty…not for its own sake, but rather because in it he saw Jesus, and in Jesus, the incomparable generosity of God’s love. In poverty, Francis found the language with which to express his deep love for the Lord. To embrace poverty willingly and even joyfully amounted to being as intimate with Jesus as one could. He counseled his close friend Leo to follow Jesus in the same way: “In whatever way it seems best to you to please the Lord God and to follow His footprints and His poverty, do this with the blessing of God and my obedience.”

Just as he spoke to Leo, sisters and brothers, he speaks to us today in the Pauline Rule that Secular Franciscans have used for the past 25 years. Reading the Rule and meditating on its meaning is like turning a loving ear to the advice Francis gave to Leo.

Two articles of the Rule that underpin the life of Secular Franciscans merit special attention here: Article 4 and Article 12. Both are taken from the second version of his “Letter to the Faithful,” also called the “Later Admonition and Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance,” which was probably written around the year 1220, after his return from the Holy Land. This would explain his interest in keeping his followers on the narrow path, avoiding the religious or theological errors that were prevalent during the early 13th century.

Article 4 calls all Secular Franciscans “to observe the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of Saint Francis…who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people… Secular Franciscans should (therefore) devote themselves especially to careful reading of the Gospel, going from Gospel to life and life to Gospel.” This can be called the strategy for Franciscan living. It sets the stage for a whole way of life. By it, we are admonished to follow Francis who followed Christ in the manner that is revealed in the Gospel. It is as though he asked himself in each new circumstance: What would Jesus do?…and always he found the answer in Scripture.

Article 12, on the other hand, is more of a tactical way of conforming to the goal of Article 4. It obliges us “to acquire purity of heart. Because of the vocation (we) have embraced, (we) should set (our)selves free to love God and (our) brothers and sisters.” The operative words here are “purity of heart,” and they can only be understood in light of Article 11, which refers to “the Beatitudes.” That reference includes these words: “They should strive to purify their hearts from every tendency and yearning for possession and power.” So while Article 12 calls on us to love others with a pure heart, Article 11 holds the key to purifying our hearts as an essential precondition.

Clearly, Francis viewed “possession and power” as serious impediments to loving God as well as our earthly brothers and sisters. Just as clearly, he saw these as barriers to the freedom needed to love. So for Francis, evangelical poverty was not about deprivation, but about freedom…freedom and availability. Freedom can be seen here as freedom from fear, which limits the scope of our loving action. It can be seen as freedom from sin, which limits the sincerity of our love. And it can be seen as freedom from deceit or illusion. Illusion is the child of fear. Truth is the child of freedom. As John the Evangelist, “The truth will make you free.”

Being Franciscan in spirit is not easy; it’s very demanding…and no one knew that better than Saint Francis, for he understood that on this journey toward ultimate meaning, there are no shortcuts. Each step in vital…each one transforms us. Sometimes I hear Secular Franciscans say that they are grateful not to be of the first or second orders because that would be even tougher, but I don’t think that’s true. I think that to live authentically in the spirit of Saint Francis, with families and jobs in tow in the midst of so much selfishness and ambition, requires much courage, perseverance and wisdom. To be Franciscan is to believe with both conviction and joy that the effort is worthwhile.

William Short of the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California recently wrote these words in a book on Franciscanism today: “Following this example, living sine proprio, without anything of one’s own, today implies the refusal to arrogate to one’s self what belongs to all, because all belongs to the Creator. Everything is gift; nothing is ‘property.’ The Gospel mandate to ‘sell and give to the poor’, which Francis and Clare followed, far from being meaningless, is as urgent in our own day as it was in theirs.” The practice of poverty has changed, but the moral imperative of placing people ahead of property is timeless.

To follow Francis is not to imitate him. In fact, Francis did not imitate Jesus entirely. In effect, Francis did masterfully what Lonergan said is the right process for good theology: first by appropriating a tradition historically and then mediating between it and the contemporary culture authentically. That’s what Francis did in relation to Jesus, and that’s what we’re called to do in relation to Francis, a historic man whose sanctity transcends all time…a holy man who taught us what it means to believe in the good news and to love with a pure heart.

How gloriously he appeared in innocence of life, in simplicity of words,
in purity of heart, in love of God, in fraternal charity,
in enthusiastic obedience, in angelic appearance.

– Celano, Vita Prima

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Sisters and brothers, may you be blessed with passionate love for our Lord who revealed to us the path out of darkness. May you be faithful to the precepts of His most holy Gospel. And may you live in the light of His love with a pure heart.