December 2004 – On the Discernment of St. Francis

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

December 2004

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the good Lord give you Peace!

We know that Francis was subjected to a number of social, political and ecclesiastical influences as he grew up and tried to understand the meaning of Gospel values in general and for his life in particular. So we may ask the question, what did Francis intentionally choose to carry forward from his understanding of religious experience? How did this choice shape his decisions about the course of his life?

In a way, we can argue that he selected wisely from the best features of two different worlds, the old and the new. Indeed, the path his spirituality would follow or, if you will, his sense of the true continuity or history and development of Gospel meaning, would begin at the crossroads of knighthood and brotherhood, of knightly duty and the post-feudal freedoms exercised for the good of all. In effect, Francis redefined for a new age the higher values of chivalry.

Knighthood was the ideal of his youth and, in some respects at least, the lens through which we can better understand the decision he would later take in the course of his conversion. In his youth, he sought fame, honor and privilege, not through wealth, but through worthy deeds. Through his conversion, he sought to dedicate himself and sacrifice himself in the best tradition of chivalry to Lady Poverty, in defense of Christ-centered values and with noble regard for the dignity of humanity and creation. His manner would be courtly, more that of a combative and privileged knight, than that of a troubadour, minstrel, or fool for Christ.

For this reason, it was natural for him to distance himself from the style of the nouveau riche, like his father, whose designs were, in his view, less noble and capable of less magnificence and whose manners were less coherent with Gospel values as he understood them.

Though it was the flowering of a previous era, chivalry’s day was only beginning to dawn during his time. The young Francis of Assisi had spent many an hour listening to troubadour poetry and had yearned to become a knight. With singular insightfulness, he would migrate from the externally imposed duties of feudalism to the internally and voluntarily self-imposed duties of knighthood to higher Christian values and ideals.

Brotherhood, meanwhile, would integrate Gospel values with the newfound freedoms that hard-working individuals were seeking. Francis could relate to the cry of those groups that sought the common good – not according to restricted forms of living, but according to the liberating model that Jesus provided. Clearly, this would have huge implications for his decisions on religion – particularly on how he would view evangelical movements – and his place in a hierarchical church. The convergence of knighthood and brotherhood was not an original ideal.

This was the time during which great legends emerged, including the Arthurian, with its hallmark round table, serving as a sharp contrast to the elongated rectangular table with a clear head and a clear seating arrangement, that marked the ascending and descending power structures that prevailed. The round table heralded an era of fraternity among honorable men that shared a common fidelity to an ideal rather than a lord. While we have no direct evidence that Francis was familiar with this story in particular, the fact that stories of Arthur and his knights had traveled as far as Italy is evidenced by the Arthurian carvings on the north doorway of Modena Cathedral made in the early 12th century.

Cortesia with God involved a magnanimous, self-denying effusion and bounty, a form of condescending love to those both just and unjust, chosen and unchosen. This it merits being “the sister of charity.” God’s cortisia, his largesse and special consideration for creation, allows humanity to take freely and with self-respect from God’s bounty, whether it be in gaining provision directly from creation, or in honorably requesting others to share their excess from the divine bountifulness.
This is a chivalric justification of the medieval belief that almsgiving reflected well upon both the donor and the receiver, as well as being a legitimating of the proper human use of creation.
– Roger Sorrell, St. Francis of Assisi and Nature

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Conveniently, the convergence of knighthood and brotherhood implicitly recognized differences in status while promoting horizontal relationships of mutual respect. Francis saw it working between three levels of the cosmic hierarchy: between God and humanity, among humans, and between humankind and the rest of creation.

Later in his life, the blending of these two traditions would be wonderfully expressed in the famous legend of Francis’ Sermon to the Birds, the first and most dramatic incident that illustrated the deeply productive effect of the interaction of aesthetic and evangelical ideals in his attitude toward creation. Near the end of his life, long after his conversion and the radical appropriation of the traditions of knighthood and brotherhood, Francis would illustrate his understanding of how the two sets of values merge in his awesomely mystical yet amazingly concrete Canticle of the Creatures.

Most High, all-powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, and the honor, and all blessing.
To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
And no human is worthy to mention Your name.
Praised by You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
Especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day and through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor;
And bears a likeness of You, Most High One.
Praised be You, My Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
In heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful.

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According to the editors of a recent edition of early documents, “Chronologically, there are three stages to consider in the development of this poetic praise of God, each of which reveals a side of Francis’ vision of God, creation, and the human soul. Francis’ companions tells us of the composition of the first part of this piece, verses 1-9, in which the saint sings the praises of creation in glorifying God. While suffering immensely from his physical infirmities, he announced: ‘I wish to compose a new hymn about the Lord’s creatures, of which we make daily use, without which we cannot live, and with which the human race greatly offends its Creator.’

“A short while later, after hearing of a quarrel that had broken out between the civil and religious authorities of Assisi, Francis asked the brothers to go before them singing these verses, but added two more, verses 10-11. He composed the final verses 12-13 on his deathbed. Verse 14 may well be a refrain used after each verse of the entire Canticle.” (Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, Ed. R. Armstrong, W. Hellmann and W. Short)

Praised be you, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love,
And bear infirmity and tribulation,
Blessed are those who endure in peace
For by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
From whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will.
For the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks
And serve Him with great humility.

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Being a man of integrity, Francis would transform into action his rational judgment about the experience of religion that he had come to understand in the context of his immediate surroundings. Having been reasonable in judgment, he would have been responsible in deciding how to change his life in a fashion that would be consistent with his new outlook.

May our Heavenly Father grant you the Wisdom to understand the meaning of Gospel Truth for your own life. May His Holy Son lead you along the path of Faith, Hope and Love in your Judgment of how to apply these truths in daily living. And may Their Holy Spirit grant you the Grace to act on these with Courage and Joy.