August 2007 – On Contemplation

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

August 2007

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

Because the feast of Saint Clare of Assisi occurs during this month (Aug. 11), our attention is directed to the relationship between contemplation and the spirituality of Saint Francis. Indeed, while it might be tempting to suggest that action and contemplation are what distinguish the charisms of Saint Francis and Saint Clare, such a conclusion would be more than simplistic; it would be patently erroneous. Thomas Merton, commenting on the contemplative life of the first friars, wrote,

The eremitical spirit has always had a place in Franciscan life, but it is not the spirit of monasticism or of total, definitive separation from the world. The eremiticism of Saint Francis and his followers is deeply evangelical and remains always open to the world, while recognizing the need to maintain a certain distance and perspective, a freedom that keeps one from being submerged in active cares and devoured by the claims of exhausting work. (Article in The Francis Book, ed. Roy Gasnick)

It is equally true that the Poor Ladies of Assisi, guided by the wisdom and conviction of their foundress, carried the world into their hermitage, the enclosure of San Damiano. Perhaps the best evidence of this is the rule given to Saint Clare by the poverello. It links the life of the sisters to that of the brothers through the Gospels.

Because by divine inspiration you have made yourselves daughters and servants of the Most High King, the heavenly Father, and have espoused yourselves to the Holy Spirit, choosing to live according to the perfection of the holy Gospel, I resolve and promise for myself and for my brothers to always have that same loving care and solicitude for you as [I have] for them. (Form of Life of Clare of Assisi, Chapter VI, 3-4)

For Clare, religious life…is the fulfillment of the life of a man or a woman. Seclusion for her is really openness to the world; isolation is the fullness of spiritual communion. Within this paradoxal Gospel perspective, the little space of San Damiano contains the whole world; the tiny enclosure holds, within itself, infinite space.
– Marco Bartoli, Clare of Assisi

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If one thinks about the compassionate nature of Franciscanism, a contemplative attitude toward people is surely essential for authentic ministry in the spirit of Saint Francis. Contemplative presence becomes the natural bridge between prayer and action.

Michael Blastic OFM Conv. contributes a number of critical insights regarding what he terms “attentive compassion” in Handbook of Spirituality for Ministers and in Franciscan Leadership in Ministry: “The discipline of contemplation and compassion in the Franciscan tradition both demands and fosters attentiveness to what is happening in the world, in people’s lives as they unfold.” This is exciting ground because it provides a practical foundation for the meaningful union of prayer and action. Observation of what is happening in the world is only effective inasmuch as it is a contemplative gazing into the action of the Holy Spirit while ministry is only efficient inasmuch as it is a loving response to the unfolding reality of people’s lives, as though they were icons of Jesus Christ. These were regarded as encounters with God, as was the pivotal encounter with the leper that led to the conversion of Saint Francis, as he would himself claim in his spiritual Testament.

This tradition of ministry is rooted in the lives of Saint Francis and Saint Clare who so very obviously shared their time between prayer (with eyes fixed upon the wonders of creation and upon Christ’s humanity—mortified and rejected—as mirrors of God’s love) and action (with hands reaching out to those who are beautiful in God’s eyes but despised and treated as worthless in this world.) The connections and interplay between contemplation and compassion are therefore rich. In The Legend of the Three Companions, we read that Saint Francis sent the friars “to suffer everything humbly and patiently.” Blastic explains that this means “the friars were not sent our so much to ‘do’ something for others, but rather, they were sent to ‘receive’ from others, to bear the pain of others, to listen to the story of others, and in receiving from them to connect their lives to the story of the gospel, of which the life of the friars attempted to exemplify the ‘form.’”

The spirituality of Saint Clare reflects that of Saint Francis in this regard: “The mirror which Clare invites Agnes to gaze into is the cross of San Damiano, the cross that spoke to Francis and commissioned him to rebuild a dilapidated church”, in effect, to minister to a broken world. The tortured body of Christ summarizes all of the misery of the human condition. Rather than flee from it, as it had been his previous nature, Saint Francis embraced its poverty, as did his soul’s mate, Saint Clare. This embrace, as evidenced by the stigmata, permanently marked him.

A contemplative attitude that appreciates the beauty of creation, including God’s children, and accepts the fragility and pain of the human condition creates a worldview that changes the perspective from which we view one another. The confined spaces of the enclosure at San Damiano would have made it impossible to escape the harsh reality of human brokenness. Saint Clare invited her sisters to see the likeness of Christ in their own frailty and fragility as well as that of those with whom they shared this prayerful place. Blastic writes, “The enclosure does not cut the sisters off from the world or shut the world out. Nor does the enclosure focus the attention of the sisters on the spiritual realm of the divine as opposed to the earthy realm of the natural. Rather, the enclosures mean to foster real authentic humanity—its purpose is to protect humanness, its dignity, value and worth.”

Blastic points to certain pastoral implications of the Franciscan tradition of contemplation and compassion. For instance, he emphasizes, “One does not wait for people to come to be ministered to but rather one moves toward people where they are to be found.” Also, “The discipline of contemplation and compassion in the Franciscan tradition both demands and fosters attentiveness to what is happening in the world, in people’s lives as they unfold.” He affirms, and I agree, that “corporate witness to the value of contemplation and compassion in ministry can have a powerful impact on society.”

My sense is that these are not optional principles. Other approaches are less promising and potentially harmful. Certainly, there is a long history of disappointing results from ministry that either rests only on a foundation of contemplation or compassion or neither. Approaches that are patronizing, doctrinally driven or inclined to impose solutions are bound to be less effective than ones that affirm, respect and embrace the reality as it is presented, welcome it lovingly, and foster healing and growth from within. These are bound to provide more satisfying and durable results.

In effect, contemplation in ministry is nothing more than following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, whose caring attentiveness and welcoming presence to sinful, distressed and marginalized people was the key to conversion, healing and personal freedom; love, peace and joy. The uniqueness of the Franciscan tradition regarding ministry is not what it does but how it’s done; it’s style, “the grace of their engagement with the world.”

When the soul is in harmony with conscience
It takes joy in the love of its neighbour.
Then without doubt it is true love,
Then we can call it charity.
– Jacopone of Todi, The Three Stages of Divine Love

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Images of Saint Clare often picture her with a monstrance (a vessel in which the consecrated Host—body of Christ—is exposed for adoration). This recalls her special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament through which she contemplated Christ crucified, the object of her deepest affection. The Eucharist, being the pinnacle of all the sacred mysteries and the concrete presence of God’s love among us, focuses and nourishes the contemplative life. The Eucharist, therefore, transforms the enclosure into an infinite space of spiritual communion with the whole world.

In this, Saint Clare was a perfect sister to the poverello who saw in the Eucharist the sacrament of God’s humbling ministry toward suffering humanity.

See, daily he humbles himself as when he came from the royal throne into the womb of the Virgin; daily he comes to us in humble form; daily he comes down from the bosom of the Father upon the altar in the hands of the priest…So, as we see bread and wine with our bodily eyes, we too are to see and firmly believe them to be his most holy body and blood living and true.
– Francis of Assisi, Admonitions

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May your gaze always be fixed upon what Love has created. May your mind always be consumed by what Faith has transformed. And may your heart be inflamed with Hope for what is to be done.



crib and cross Franciscan Ministries