April 2005 – On Franciscan Foundations II

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

April 2005

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

The election of Pope Benedict XVI caused me to dust off a book written almost 50 years ago, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure by Joseph Ratzinger.

In its final chapter, he offers the spirituality of Saint Francis as the culmination, not the negation, of theological studies. Recalling an expression used about himself by Saint Francis, he wrote, “One day the form of life of St. Francis will become the universal form of the Church – the simplex et idiota will triumph over the greatest scholars, and the Church of the final age will breathe the spirit of his spirit.”

(There is ample indication to suggest that Saint Francis was neither simple-minded nor ignorant. While his schooling was not advanced, he was astute in observation, sound in judgment and able in communication. But this self-understanding of simplex et idiota suited him by reflecting his humility and simplicity, and by giving him sufficient freedom to avoid confrontation while operating creatively and authentically but always in fidelity to Christ and his Church.)

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Saint Francis’ spirituality began with an experience of both the religion and the daily life of a merchant and then a penitent in late medieval Italy. It proceeded through changes caused by contradictions that he noticed in his life and the world in which he lived, and concluded as a series of decisions that would echo through to our own century and land.

For the little man often called the poverello, spirituality indeed consisted of consciously striving to integrate his life in terms not of self-absorption but of self-transcendence toward the ultimate value, which is God. For Saint Francis, human experience was the starting point of his moral, religious and intellectual conversion. Indeed, specific spiritual traditions are initially embodied in people rather than doctrine and grow out of life rather than from abstract ideas, but perhaps no more radically by anyone than this man who struggled to make sense of the collision between the secular and the religious worlds.

Saint Francis’ life was marked by zealous and uncompromising dedication to the need to integrate all that he thought and that he did.

Of the various definitions of Franciscan spirituality available, I favor this one: To live the Gospel according to the spirit of Saint Francis in communion with Christ poor and crucified, in the love of God, in brother/sisterhood with all people and all creation, participating in the life and mission of the Church, in continual conversion, in a life of prayer – liturgical, person, communal –, as instruments of peace. (Leonard Foley, Jovian Weigel and Patti Normile,To Live as Francis Lived: A Guide for Secular Franciscans)

This articulation of Franciscan spirituality seems to summarize the principal elements contained in the vast collection of literature about his spiritual theology and the legacy of the tradition that he spawned. In many ways, it is too broad, since it does not adequately reveal the great attention Saint Francis focused on living like Jesus according to the Gospel, but it does aptly situate his insights regarding creation, community and the church to which he was faithful, even when its behavior seemed at variance with his understanding of Gospel values.

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To live the Gospel: In his Testament, Saint Francis recounted the basis on which his fraternal life was established. He claimed to have received the command to embrace the Gospel as a virtual rule of life from no less an authority than God himself: “When God gave me some friars, there was no one to tell me what I should do, but the Most High himself made it clear to me that I must live the life of the Gospel.” (Testament)

In communion with Christ poor and crucified: While Saint Francis’ spirituality was very clearly Trinitarian, we are most often drawn to his association with Jesus. His peace was Christ’s; his joy, the Lord’s infinite love for everyone. But it was the texture of that union with Christ that so appealed to his contemporaries as it does to us today. For Saint Francis, Jesus’ humanity was palpable. That made the love of the Father who so loved the world that he sent his only son (Jn. 3:16) a matter of personal relationship and affection. That made the gift of his Son’s birth into abject poverty such an incomprehensible act of unconditional love that he would marvel at it at Greccio three years before his death. It made the Son’s passion and death on the cross an unfathomable act of compassionate concern for the salvation of so undeserving a creature as he thought himself to be. Saint Francis’ union with Christ had become so complete as to enable him to find satisfaction only in the poverty and cross of his Saviour: “I, little brother Francis, wish to live according to the life and poverty of our most High Lord Jesus Christ…and to persevere in this to the last.” (Saint Francis’ Last Will Written for Saint Clare and her Sisters)

In the love of God: It is worth noting here that what marked Saint Francis’ spirituality in a searing way was his passionate love of God, granting equal attention to God the Father, creator of all things and source of all good; to the Son, both Lord and brother to the mightiest and the least of all creatures; and to God’s Holy Spirit of Love and Truth.

In brotherhood and sisterhood with all humanity and all creation: His Canticle to the Creatures is evidence of an amazing insight that would transform Saint Francis’ worldview. It is at once as soothing as a sonnet and as disturbing as a clap of thunder, urging us to transform our own self-understanding in relation to God and all things created by God: “When Francis referred to Brother wolf or Sister water, he was not just using a clever rhetorical strategy. He means those titles quite literally. The implications are quite extraordinary for one who takes his brotherhood seriously.” (Cook Francis) At the same time, it should be noted that despite all of the care and concern that he exhibited toward the smallest of God’s creatures, Saint Francis’ interest in them stemmed principally from the fact that they represented moral qualities and teachings, and they also helped lead (him) to a greater understanding and experience of the Father he shared with them.

Participating in the life and mission of the Church: In his Testament, Saint Francis wrote, “And the Lord gave me such faith in churches that I would pray with simplicity in this way and say: ‘We adore you, Lord Jesus Christ, in all your churches throughout the whole world and we bless you because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.’” (Cook, Francis) It is also evident from his various writings that he was preoccupied by the need to maintain orthodoxy in the practice of the new movement’s charism. Note has been made elsewhere of how, for instance, documents of the Fourth Lateran Council influenced the formulation of his rule.

In continual conversion: The eminent Franciscan scholar, Kajatan Esser, has ably demonstrated that all of Franciscan spirituality comes from the idea of penance or metanoia. It is a process more than an event, a process that is ongoing. In this regard, Saint Francis’ active participation in the penitential movement reminds us of Lonergan’s insight into the nature of not only religious conversion but intellectual and moral conversion as well. To become a penitent was to accept that metanoia is fundamentally a way of life.

In a life of prayer: After his conversion, Saint Francis’ natural inclination seems to have been oriented toward the contemplative life: “He cultivated the contemplative life in his own soul by…periodic retreats to hermitages.” (Dacian Bluma, Franciscan Life of Prayer) Prayer was so foundational for Saint Francis that he struggled for a time with the question of whether he should pursue a life of prayer exclusively or in combination with apostolic action. He came to understand his vocation to be one of prayer in action. Referring to the return of the early friars from Rome where they had received verbal approval of their fledgling community, Celano noted that, “It was his custom to divide the time given him to merit grace and, as seemed best, to spend some of it to benefit his neighbors and use the rest in the blessed solitude of contemplation.” Celano concluded that Saint Francis’ life was itself a prayer.

As instruments of peace: Saint Francis wrote in his Testament, “The Lord revealed a greeting to me that we should say: ‘May the Lord give you peace.’” It is clear from these and other words, as it is from his actions and from the fruits of those efforts, that peacemaking was an integral part of his apostolate. It is an association that is often made today and one that is simply expressed in the motto of secular Franciscans: Peace and Goodness.

His authentic quest for the practical meaning of Gospel values led Saint Francis onto new horizons, preparing him for the next leg of the journey wherein clear statements of his beliefs could be phrased and proclaimed, leading ultimately to the communications that would bring about the conversion of others.

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May the Lord of all peace and goodness bless you and grant you to live the Gospel according to the spirit of Saint Francis in communion with Christ poor and crucified, in the love of God, in brother/sisterhood with all people and all creation, participating in the life and mission of the Church, in continual conversion, in a life of prayer, and as instruments of peace.