Contemplation and Prayer II ©
Dear Friend of Saint Francis,
True Christian prayer is necessarily Trinitarian. We do not pray to the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit in isolation; we pray with, through, and to them in relationship to one another and to us. Blessed John Paul described the Trinitarian dynamic of prayer as reciprocity and mutual self-giving: “Wrought in the Holy Spirit, this reciprocity opens us, through Christ and in Christ, to contemplation of the Father’s face.”
Yet this dynamic does not end with the Father. Rather, the Father returns us to the Son whose Holy Spirit of Truth and Love permeates all of creation and continues to reveal a reality that transcends purely human understanding. We experience even fleeting moments of cosmic consciousness only by entering the mystery of the Trinity.
“Prayer, especially Trinitarian prayer or prayer in the Spirit, is indispensable for growing in holiness,” writes Capuchin Franciscan Friar Raniero Cantalamessa. (Contemplating the Trinity, 2007) I would add that Trinitarian prayer is also key to growing in happiness because joy comes from meaning; and the only meaning that satisfies human desire is truth that exceeds the reach of reason alone. The grasp of meaning requires a mystical acceptance of reality that is not sensible, literally.
What we learn, too, from the Trinity about holiness and meaning is that ultimate reality is not static, although we try to shoe-horn God into rigid categories that are inevitably inadequate if not altogether wrong. In fact, the Trinity is the most dynamic force in the universe. It is vital in every way.
A good example of this creative energy is the interplay between God and creation. This is well articulated by the 14th Century mystic John Ruusbroec (The Spiritual Espousals): “God is a flowing and ebbing sea which ceaselessly flows out into all his beloved according to their needs and merits and which flows back with all those upon whom he has bestowed his gifts in heaven and on earth.” This suggests that only people who are not rigidly moored can move freely with the tides of human endeavour that are filled with God and divinity. That is the essence of the challenge “Duc in altum, put out into the deep.” Fr. Cantalamessa explains, “…lift the anchors! Do not be afraid of venturing forth into the open sea of holiness.”
Prayer is indispensible for this adventure in faith. Indeed, prayer calls for action but action must always be firmly rooted in prayer. More particularly, the journey that is described here requires us to grow in our capacity for contemplative prayer, which is awareness of the presence of God apprehended not by thought but by love. (The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, 1993) There must be a desire for communion with God; even if that desire is placed in the human heart by God’s Holy Spirit and fuelled by intuition that pierces through limited evidence that the mind alone would misconstrue. Prayer allows us to enter with new vision the mysteries of our faith, especially the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus and to experience these as Trinitarian events of comic significance.
The resurrection of Christ is…the act of infinite tenderness by which the Father, after the terrible suffering of the passion, revived his Son from death by means of the Holy Spirit and made him Lord.
(Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa)
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I have heard people claim that Saint Francis was principally charismatic, arguing that what mattered most to him was openness to new and sudden developments that were not of his own design. I have also heard it said that his attention was mostly fixed on the humanity of Jesus. Indeed, imitation of Christ’s life was for Saint Francis a privileged path to holiness. Yet others have argued that his relations were directly with the Father. He left the secular world by declaring, “From now on I can freely say Our Father who art in heaven.” And, it was the unfathomable, awe-inspiring, and overpowering love of God—creator-father of all that is good—that moved him to radical conversion and the Gospel life.
All of these statements are true, but they are also inadequate. Saint Francis was, above all, Trinitarian. This is the shared understanding of those who have explored the depth of the poverello’s spirituality. Those who interpret evidence superficially—presumably because he was uneducated and favoured simplicity—misjudge and underestimate him.
To illustrate this point, let’s take the example of his storied association with the crib and cross of our Saviour. At La Verna, the place where he received the wounds of Christ—the Stigmata—there is a lovely terra cotta relief glazed in white, with blue and green accents. It depicts the Nativity with the crowned Father and traditional Dove along with a host of angels hovering over the silent scene. Meanwhile, the very depiction of the crucifixion that seized the attention of Saint Francis at San Damiano and began the exciting journey that we call Franciscanism features all three Persons of the Trinity. This time, it is only the outstretched hand of the Father that is seen along with the Dove.
The Trinitarian quality of Saint Francis’ spirituality is perhaps best exemplified by his letter to the entire order and by his very brief instruction to Saint Clare regarding the rule of life of the first community of sisters. The conclusion to his letter to all Friars Minor reads, “Most High, Who live and rule in perfect Trinity and simple Unity, and are glorified, God all-powerful, forever and ever. Amen.” To Saint Clare and the Poor Ladies of Assisi, he wrote, “Since by divine inspiration you have made yourselves daughters and servants of the most High King, the heavenly Father, and have taken the Holy Spirit as your spouse, choosing to live according to the perfection of the holy Gospel,” in other words, according to the example and teaching of the Son, “I resolve and promise for myself and for my brothers always to have that same loving care and special solicitude for you as I have for them.”
Saint Bonaventure, who aptly theologized the spiritual intuitions of Saint Francis, refers to the contemplation of the Trinity as self-diffuse Good. By this principle, we understand creation to be an overflow and expression of immense and continuous fecundity. What the Father had created is summarized in the Son, thus he is the link, intermediary, and exemplar for humanity that seeks, often unconsciously, the restoration of communion with its creator.
The magnitude of things…clearly manifests the immensity of the power, wisdom and goodness of the triune God, who is by his power, presence and essence exists uncircumscribed in all things.
(Saint Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey into God)
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The saint’s devotion to our Blessed Mother is well known. It is inexorably tied to his devotion to the Holy Trinity. This is well expressed in his Greeting to the Virgin Mary: “Holy Lady, Queen and Mother of God, you are the virgin who has become the Church: chosen by the most holy Father in heaven, consecrated by him as a temple with his beloved Son and Consoler-Spirit; in you was and resides the fullness of grace, the One who is all goodness.”
There is an image in my mind of Saint Francis expressing his reverence to our Blessed Mother in relation to God Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our Lady of the Trinity is a quiet retreat centre that I have visited twice in Blois, at the heart of France’s lovely Loire Valley. It is animated by a community of Capuchin Franciscans. The main sculpture of the sanctuary features Our Lady with three rings intertwined on her chest as representation of three privileges accorded by the triune God, namely power, wisdom, and love.
The artist’s presentation of her relationship to her Son as being inseparable from that of the Father and the Holy Spirit is insightful. It ties together threads that must never be looked upon in isolation. She did the will of the Father by conceiving the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is well summarized by Saint Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians by the final and familiar blessing, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” (13: 13)
The Marian privileges of power, wisdom, and love led to the devotion of the Three Hail Marys, first proposed by Saint Anthony of Padua and ratified by Pope Benedict XV on July 20, 1921. The practice of this devotion is actively promoted by the community of Our Lady of the Trinity.
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.
(Luke 1: 35)
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May the Holy Trinity bless you with insight into the nature of Trinitarian love, life, and joy. May you, like Saint Francis, understand that God, while unchanging in purpose, is constantly dynamic by endlessly renewing the face of the earth and the capacity of your heart. May you, like our Holy Mother, live always in the power of faith, the wisdom of hope, and the love of God.
Crib and Cross