May 2011 – Letters from Assisi V

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

May 2011

Dear Friend of Saint Francis,

May is often called in Catholic devotional literature the “month of Mary.” Luke’s gospel contains the most frequently cited passage in reference to our Blessed Mother, known as the Magnificat (1:46-55.) This hymn, sometimes recited, is her response to her cousin Elizabeth’s greeting (“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” It glorifies God, thanking him for choosing her to bear his Son. The canticle is often incorporated in evening prayer.

Its tone is admirable, reflecting humility and gratitude for herself and for all of humanity: “The Mighty One has done great things for me … he has filled the hungry with good things.” It is a bold obedience, despite evident risks, to the declaration of God’s angel Gabriel: “The Lord is with you … you will conceive and carry in your womb a son.” Mary, a virgin, is perplexed. Gabriel provides details. He reassures her, “Be not afraid.” Mary answers with wisdom and courage beyond her age, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary is an example to each of us, invited as we are to be in relationship with Jesus, to carry in our hearts the Word of God, to “ponder what sort of greeting this might be.” In meditation, her faith, hope and love sustain our fragile virtue and encourage us to enter into a period of gestation with a view to delivering the Word to those that Jesus served and healed while on earth: “the lowly,” those who are oppressed, imprisoned, naked and hungry in any way.

During an off-season visit to Lourdes, I discovered another aspect of Mary from a book that I read on the way, and from mediations that I was able to enter into as I spent three separate periods alone in the grotto where she appeared to a 14-year-old Basque peasant, Bernadette Soubirous. The grotto itself is a symbol of interiority, of the cavity in each human heart, of shadow and light. As she stood in one of its niches, I imagine that, in some ways, Bernadette reminded Mary of herself at the time of the Annunciation and Visitation, almost two millennia earlier. Once again, she would deliver Jesus to a world much in need of his truth and love.

Simply put, Mary is the icon of original innocence. Without engaging here the question of original sin underlying the negative predispositions of the human spirit, or the particular woundedness that affects each of us, I believe that there lies at the core of our being a unique word of God that gives us life, and that it remains virginal despite the scarring of our physical, emotional and spiritual lives. Mary’s “immaculate” conception reminds us of that hopeful reality.

It is what the sick come to find, through their infirmities, often even beyond their suffering, to touch the immaculate, that point of infancy, of truth where everything is reborn, everything blossoms, where there is nothing left but life in its original burst. (My translation)
Philippe Mac Leod, D’eau et de lumière : Lourdes, une spiritualité de la transparence

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Santa Maria degli Angeli, dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels, the poor little church just down the hill from the medieval walled city of Assisi, is the mother church of the Franciscan Order. Today, it stands within the municipality.

The tiny frescoed structure, now dwarfed by the magnificent basilica that shrouds it, was given to the early brotherhood after it outgrew its first home at Rivertorto. Yet, the simplicity and prayerfulness that were the foundation stones upon which Saint Francis built a movement of literal obedience to the life and sayings of Christ, as reported in the Gospel, transcend the majesty of these newer surroundings.

This church was given around 1208 to Saint Francis by the Benedictines of Monte Subasio. It was in bad condition, laying abandoned in an oak forest. He died, in his cell, not fifteen yards from the church, at sunset on Saturday, 3 October 1226.

La Porziuncola, as he called it (Little Portion) is now decorated by artists from different periods. On the façade, above the entrance, is a fresco depicting Saint Francis receiving from Christ and the Virgin the indulgence, known as the “Pardon of Assisi.” At the back, above the entrance, is a fresco of the crucifixion that was damaged during the construction of the basilica. The 15th century door is decorated with floral motifs. On top of La Porziuncola stands a small gothic belfry.

The interior is austere and simple. Some of the rough, squared stones, taken from Mount Subasio, were put in place by the saint himself while repairing this little church. It is decorated in a simple Gothic style with frescoes from the 14th and the 15th century. But the masterpiece is the six-part fresco in the apse: The Annunciation; Saint Francis throwing himself into the thorny brambles; Saint Francis accompanied by two angels; the apparition of the Christ and the Virgin, accompanied by 60 angels, with Saint Francis offering roses; Saint Francis imploring pope Honorius III for confirmation of the indulgence; and Saint Francis promulgating the indulgence, accompanied by the bishops of Umbria.

I sat quietly on one of the seats along the wall. Gradually I squinted as I did as a child when I wanted my surroundings to disappear. In my imagination, I would see the hand of the poverello on the stones that he set to repair the crumbling walls; I heard the first brothers raise their joyful voices in celebration of the psalms.

I sat in a pew along its grey outer wall, allowing my imagination to picture the woods and the thousands that gathered in 1217 at the Chapter of the Mats, so called because those that came from a distance made shelters with straw mats. I imagined them discerning the mission for their exploding numbers, including their missionary apostolate.

I was moved at the sight of the modest Cappella del Transito, which was built over the infirmary in which Saint Francis praised God with his last breath. I always marvelled at his fearless embrace of death, as he had embraced a leper at the beginning of his religious conversion: “Praised be you, my Lord, through our sister bodily death.” The poverty and confident joy of his new life is summarised here.

He loved this spot more than any other in the world. It was here he began his religious life in a very small way; it is here he came to a happy end. When he was dying, he commended this spot above all others to the friars, because it was most dear to the Blessed Virgin.
Saint Bonaventure, Life of Saint Francis

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Because Saint Francis chose La Porziuncola to be the cradle of the Franciscan Order, it can be said also that it stands at the heart of the spirituality that bears his name. If this is so, then a special attachment to the mother of Jesus is at the heart as well. The link is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that it is Mary who gave us Jesus as brother. He prayed before each hour of the Breviary, “Holy Virgin Mary, there is none like unto you born in the world among women, daughter and handmaid of the most high King, the heavenly Father! Mother of our most holy Lord Jesus Christ, spouse of the Holy Spirit, pray for us with Saint Michael the Archangel and all the virtues of heaven and all the saints , to your most holy, beloved Son, our Lord and Master. Amen.”

The brotherhood of Jesus is a rich and central image in the tapestry of God’s love. It is the result of important insights regarding creation and humanity; the nature of God and the nature of people created in his image; of inherent dignity of being a child of God, a child so loved as to be given a perfect spiritual mother, a devoted woman conceived full of grace.

Our Holy Mother is also remembered for a key sentence uttered quietly in the public event that inaugurated the public ministry of Jesus. The simple words that she addressed to the wedding servants at Cana echo into the ears of anyone who professes to be a follower of Christ: “Do whatever he tells you.” On faith alone, obedience transformed water into wine.

For Saint Francis, the Blessed Mother was the protector of the order. She would watch over it just as she had watched over the newborn child Jesus, and as she had stood by him when as an adult he hung dying from a cross. His attachment to the human and divine aspects of the mysteries of Incarnation and Redemption are known to us. Less familiar is the attention paid by him to Mary in these scenes.

To Francis, Portiuncula was a royal castle, like that other one at Bethlehem, for poverty was the badge of the noble children of God. He said, “Poverty is a royal virtue, because it shone so brightly in the King and Queen.” (Celano)
Leonard Foley & Jovian Weigel, The Third Order Vocation

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May the love of Saint Francis for our Blessed Mother inspire you to draw closer to Jesus in the concrete reality of his earthly and eternal life. May she reveal to your heart the tenderness of his mercy and the wisdom of his teaching. May these give you Peace and Joy that the world cannot give.


richard Boileau

crib and cross Franciscan Ministries