January 2003 – On Prayer

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

January 2003

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the good Lord give you Peace.

Humility, simplicity, poverty and prayer are the four foundation stones on which Saint Francis built, wrote John Moorman in his popular history of the Franciscan orders. In the holy man of Assisi, we find prayer and action in perfect equilibrium. In prayer, we find the key to peace and joy. Prayer fortifies action and keeps it aligned with the will of God.

“After he had been there for some time, through unceasing prayer and frequent contemplation, he reached intimacy with God in an indescribable way. He longed to know what in him and about him was or could be most acceptable to the Eternal King. He sought this diligently and devoutly longed to know in what manner, in what way, and with what desire he would be able to cling more perfectly to the Lord God, according to His counsel and the good leisure of His will. This was always his highest philosophy; this was the highest desire that always burned in him as long as he lived.”
– Thomas of Celano, The Life of Saint Francis – The Second Book

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What is prayer? Prayer is a response. It is a plant for which humility is the seed, and simplicity and poverty are its roots. It is a plant that is drawn to the Son…nourished by the Spirit…in the direction of the Creator of Life. Prayer is a response because the heart that prays has first heard the gentle voice of God…deep within.

How do we pray? Technically, there are many forms of prayer, but the form must never be a substitute for sincerity of heart. It is not the mind that penetrates the carapace with which daily living encrusts our craving heart…it is the Spirit within us that prays. It is from the human heart that the Spirit communicates most easily with the source of all Life.

Forms of prayer can serve as aids, but we must constantly guard against treating the form as though it were God…as though it were a guarantee of wholesome communications. Anyone in the communication business can tell you that slick communication is not necessarily honest communication. In fact, it’s quite often not. The same is true of the journey inward. It is must be undertaken with humility, gratitude and a confession of our great loneliness for God and of our need for His guidance and nourishment…no matter how ragged the form. Yet, it is true that various forms of prayer can provide a context or a frame within which effective prayer can occur. With this in mind, let’s explore some of the forms available to us.

First of all, let it be said that for Christians, the perfect model of prayer according to the Gospel of Luke is the prayer of Jesus the Son to His Father as he taught His disciples. The Lord’s Prayer has it all. It is humble. It is grateful. And it confesses our need for daily help…both spiritual and material. The “Our Father” is also an affirmation that we journey as a community…as one family. The prayer does not start with the one word “Father,” but with “Our Father.” This recalls that the most perfect commandment includes love of neighbor, and that where two or more are gathered in the Lord’s name, there will He be. The Lord’s Prayer is so complete that it has been variously called “the summary of the whole Gospel” and the summary of all 150 Psalms of the Old Testament.

Secondly, we do well to recall the prayer of Mary in the Magnificat…a simple act of faith and confidence in the Lord…again, a gesture of humility, of gratitude and of generosity. This prayer also reminds us that, while there is merit in praying together in one place, there is a time for private prayer. It is worth noting that this particular private prayer is still a prayer of community because it is a courageous commitment to a very public ministry. In fact, private prayer is not really solitary prayer if it is done in communion with the Holy Mother of God or with saints who help us draw closer to the heart of Jesus.

Prayers can also be classified as prayers of adoration, prayers of petition, prayers of intercession, prayers of thanksgiving and prayers of praise. Each has its purpose, depending on where we are on our journey. The Word of God and the liturgy of the Church are traditional and often-profitable ways to pray…provided they emanate from the heart.

There are many places where we can pray. We can do so formally in public places of worship or in sacred spaces lovingly prepared for this purpose in our homes or gardens. Prayer can occur anywhere…while walking, sitting or even lying down. Praying can happen spontaneously or at prescribed times. Whatever way you pray, it is the heart that determines the power of the prayer. The Lord calls us to pray unceasingly. That is why we have at our disposal so many forms of prayer from which to choose, the most fundamental of which is a grateful heart: you have heard me say before that prayer is an attitude of gratitude.

Vocal prayer, scripted or spontaneous, is what we usually think of when we speak of prayer. While it plays an important part in spirituality, we would be remiss to ignore others. Prayer, for example, can also take the form of meditation…what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “a prayerful quest engaging thought, imagination, emotion and desire.” This is a particularly powerful tool for our journey of interiority because “its goal is to make our own in faith the subject considered, by confronting it with the reality of our own life.”

Prayer can also be contemplative…what the Catechism calls “a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus, an attentiveness to the Word of God, a silent love.” Contemplative prayer is what we associate with the great saints we call mystics. It is my conviction that Francis grew in the knowledge and love of God directly as a result of his exceptionally creative and contemplative focus on how God is revealed in the Word of God, in Creation, in art…such as frescos, in the cross in the abandoned church of San Damiano, and in encounters with strangers like the leper or the Sultan of Egypt.

Francis was a very intelligent man, but he understood above all the need to see with the eyes of the heart so that the mind might then lead more effectively to the interior truths about love, peace and joy, rather than the self-illusions of wealth and power that the mind often creates if left to its own devices. He is someone we can look to in order to develop a better appreciation of what it means to journey to a place deep within ourselves…a place of encounter with the living Christ. Near the end of this journey, Francis and Jesus became so united that Francis even bore the wounds of the beloved he carried in his heart.

Thomas Merton, who had a great admiration for Saint Francis, called contemplation “a simple intuition of the truth in which the mind is content to rest in a reflective gaze, without specific acts of reasoning, in the way an artist stands gazing at a picture. In the strict sense, contemplation is a simple intuition of God.”

“Where there is rest* and meditation,
There is neither anxiety nor restlessness.”
*May be understood as rest in God or contemplation
– Part of The Admonitions of Saint Francis, XXVII

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Among the prayers written by Saint Francis are The Prayer before the Crucifix, the Praise of God, the Canticle of the Creatures, the Canticle of Exhortation, the Office of the Passion, A Prayer Inspired by the Our Father, the Praise to be Said at All Hours, a Salutation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a Salutation of the Virtues. The so-called Prayer of Peace, which is written in the spirit of his Admonitions, was actually written early in the last century and gained popularity as a means of bringing an end to the First World War.

The Prayer Before the Crucifix, according to an accompanying note in the recently published anthology of early Franciscan documents, Francis of Assisi: The Saint, reflects what Thomas of Celano and Saint Bonaventure saw as the characteristic element of the early years of the saint’s journey, namely his struggle to discern God’s will. The author of The Legend of the Three Companions claims that it summarizes his yearning in this simple prayer and places it on his lips as he kneels before the crucifix in the crumbling Church of San Damiano in Assisi.

“Most High, glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of my heart
and give me true faith,
certain hope and perfect charity,
sense and knowledge, Lord,
that I may carry out Your holy and true command.”

– The Prayer before the Crucifix by Saint Francis

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May you find the Messiah’s Way, Truth and Life in your heart’s most earnest prayer! May you be filled with Wisdom and Truth in silent meditation! And may the grace of child-like awe be yours in contemplating the wonders of God’s holy Creation!