February 2011 – Letters from Assisi II

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

February 2011

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

From the beginning, Saint Luke presents Jesus as ordained to a sacred mission of deliverance. Jesus is clearly seen as the Savour of all humanity. The first chapter is filled with prophecies, angelic proclamations and joyful responses. Zechariah declares to his son John the Baptist that his cousin Jesus will “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (1:79) The second chapter delivers on this promise. Jesus is born “a light for revelation to the Gentile and for glory to your people Israel.” (2:32)

This is all consecrated by the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. (Cf. 2:22-38) According to the Ancient Law, “Every first-born male shall be designated as holy to the Lord,” although the allusion confuses the presentation of the first-born son, who by tradition belongs to the Lord because of the destruction of the Egyptian first-born at the Passover, (Ex 13:15) and the ceremony of ritual purification of the mother forty days after giving birth. (Lev.12:1-8)

The infant’s reception confirms that Jesus is no ordinary first-born: He is the long-awaited child that would come “for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Jesus, only weeks old, was received by two persons who represent the link between Judaism and Christianity: Simeon, “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel,” and Anna who “never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.”

What is remarkable about this account for me is that so early in the life of this joyously welcomed infant, there is a sobering note about what his mission would entail. Simeon sighed in gratitude at the sight of the child: “Now you are dismissing your servant in peace,” revealing that he had long awaited this day in hope. He turned to Mary and warned that Jesus “will be opposed…and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Still, it is the joy of God entering our world that I chose to retain. The road of life is strewn with obstacles. Some would focus all of their attention on this; that is the path of darkness. To welcome Jesus into our life is to be guided by “a light for the revelation to the Gentiles.” Living is a choice, renewed daily in hope. Simeon lived in the hope “that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” When he did, he was filled with true joy.

In some ways, the presentation of Jesus as a baby runs parallel to his baptism thirty years later. This time, it is his heavenly father who says, “You are my Son, the Beloved with you I am well pleased.” (3:22) This is a breakthrough moment for Jesus. He grows in wisdom and grace because he is assured of being loved unconditionally. This love would overflow from him, enabling a mission that could not be diminished by death.

Immersed in the river of repentance, despite his innocence; blessed by the Holy Spirit of Truth, Jesus was proclaimed the son of God, after rising from the Jordan as he would three years later from the grave. His life would enter a new phase, a very public ministry of salvation for the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed. The passage from Isaiah to which he referred when speaking in the synagogue soon after, began that day as people heard the voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.
Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World

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Piazza del Vescovado joins the three-story eggshell and rose coloured stone Palazzo de Cardinale, at the corner of Via Sant’Agnese, to Santa Maria Maggiore, which had been the cathedral of Assisi until 1036 when San Ruffino began to house the cathedra. I enter its three austere pilaster sections silently, respecting the prayer of a handful of tourists, observing fragments of 14th century frescoes. The apse is simply beautiful—unadorned, concave—rising high to a dark timber ceiling.

Descending limestone stairs, I gaze upon the vestiges of a paleochristian structure standing on the foundation of the so-called House of Propertius, with its Pompeian style wall paintings. Human history insists on continuity. So does spiritual history. This is the temple to which Saint Francis was presented as a child.

This church would witness the turning point from which his public ministry would be inaugurated. To the right of the well facing its eight-ray rose window, he stripped off his expensive clothes and returned these to his angry father, renouncing publicly his inheritance.

Dramatic as it was, this storied stripping was not a freakish act. At least the bishop would have understood the significance of this gesture, recalling Jesus being stripped of his garments before the crucifixion. Saint Francis was dying to his former life in order to clothe himself with Christ (cf. Gal.3:27). In the words of Saint Bonaventure, “Thus the servant of the Most High King was left naked so that he might follow his naked crucified Lord, whom he loved…He designed for himself a tunic that bore a likeness to the cross, that by means of it he might beat off all temptations of the devil; he designed a very rough tunic so that by it he might crucify the flesh with all its vices and sins.”

The vision of a penitent raises in our age the spectre of suffering. We think of painful self-mortification, forlorn faces and desolate deprivation. It is hard to exaggerate the joy that filled a heart in which freedom now reigned: Free at last. Free to be a child of Love. Free from falsehood and fear. Free from privilege that must be rationalized, power that must be defended and possessions that never suffice. Free from obsessions that never satisfy. Free of an oppressive father to hear the Creator gently call, “You are my Son, the Beloved with you I am well pleased.”

The walled city echoed with the sound of spiritual song: French verses, vernacular praise, and the celebration of meaning, identity and purpose. Houses, convents, public buildings, blending into a single, warm monochrome architecture rising on either side of discreet cobblestone alleyways and stairs, retransmit these to our contemporary senses. Its narrow lanes rise and descend under his light-hearted steps—undulating as the formerly forested hills would have. Brilliant cascading geraniums drape window boxes, cling to ledges and insinuate themselves into the countless crevices between sand-colour bricks. They testify to the child-like joy of the eternal poverello.

(His mother) brought him to the cathedral of San Rufino….the water flowed down his forehead, and he was called Giovanna…Giovanni had announced the coming of the Messiah and preached repentance as the way to salvation.
Julien Green, God’s Fool

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Saint Clare too was “presented at the temple”—first for baptism and then for entry into religious life. While the former is significant; the later represents what she would call a conversion, matching that of Saint Francis roughly six year earlier.

The baptismal font at the Cathedral of Saint Rufino, where Saint Clare was baptised, still survives, along with the crypt and outer walls of the eight-century church. I stood amazed at the low wrought-iron rail, gazing at this well-preserved vestige of holiness. I admire the enclosure: an alcove with wood-relief cameos of brothers also baptised there over which stretches the curved image of the saint as a baby held with arms outstretched—as Jesus might have been by his mother—by Otolana Offreduccio, a devout woman, standing beside her husband, Lord Favarone, a great knight who had traveled to the Holy Land on Crusade. The image of this family of privilege is topped by a large gold and azure stripped shell, a symbol of the water of baptism.

But her conversion from life in the world to her consecration at the Portiuncola is probably an even more apt parallel to the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. Today, the tiny chapel that has been from the beginning the mother church of the Franciscan order sits dwarfed by the huge baroque dome of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The original basilica was destroyed by an earthquake in the mid-1800s. But the sacred Romanesque chapel of white and mauve squared stone and decorated roof slabs survived.

On its facade, wrapped around the main entrance, appears a painting of Saint Francis receiving from the Christ and Mary his Mother the indulgence, Pardon of Assisi. But I prefer the back entrance. Over the bulging doorway, there is a beautiful, albeit somewhat damaged fresco painted by Pietro Perugino around 1485. Crucifixion depicts Jesus being taken down from the cross at which Saint Francis kneels, arms outstretched. I have twice visited this revered site that was given to the growing order by the Benedictines after the early brotherhood outgrew their first friary, in what had been stables, at Rivotorto, only two kilometres east of Assisi.

According to Marco Bartoli, Saint Clare, then a young lady, walked alone—leaving behind her house, her city and her family, to join the brothers at the Portiuncola. It was on Palm Sunday, the day that catechumens were baptised, that she was greeted in joy by the brothers with lit torches, as Jesus might have been when gloriously entering Jerusalem. Then, she would reverently recall the Way of the Cross recounted in the Gospel reading as Saint Francis cut her hair with all liturgical correctness, save for the absence of a bishop who would customarily conduct the tonsure ritual.

The most high heavenly Father saw fit in His mercy and grace to enlighten my heart, that I should do penance according to the example and teaching of our most blessed father Francis.
Saint Clare of Assisi, The Testament

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May your journey of faith be marked by the special joy of dedicating your life to the Lord. May he bless you abundantly with peace, courage and wisdom to assume the gifts that he has given you for your unique mission. May his face shine upon you always.


richard Boileau

crib and cross Franciscan Ministries