March 2002 – On the Footsteps of St. Francis

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

March 2002

Dear Friends of St. Francis:

Peace be with you.

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

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To understand the spirituality of St. Francis, it is important to “observe” him via the facts of his life and those legends that go the very heart of his love for God. St. Francis was, by all accounts, a practical man…one who showed his love for God, for his brothers and sisters in Christ, and for the works of Creation with gestures, rather than words. He has left us with few words of his own, but a huge legacy of love…expressed as deeds.

“Preach always and, if necessary, use words.”

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St. Francis understood perfectly that God is Love…that Love will make us free. He knew well what it means to have the heart of a child…to follow Jesus by taking up our cross…to forgive seven times seventy…to take the last place at a banquet…to invite the poor and those who cannot invite us in return…to see how God dresses the flowers of the fields and feeds the birds of the air…to do to Jesus by doing to others…so that all might be one.

“And when God gave me brothers, no one showed me what I should do,
but the Most high revealed to me that I should live according to the form
of the holy gospel. I had it written in few words and simply,
and the lord pope confirmed it for me.”

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To follow in the footsteps of St. Francis is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who calls us to be his disciples.

“One night when Blessed Peter Pettinaio of the Third Order was praying in the Cathedral of Sienna, he saw Our Lord Jesus Christ enter the church, followed by a great throng of saints. And each time Christ raised his foot, the form of his foot remained imprinted on the ground. And all the saints tried as hard as they could to place their feet in the traces perfectly. Then St. Francis came in and set his feet right into the footsteps of Jesus Christ.” (The Little Flowers of St. Francis)

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Begin your journey as a Friend of St. Francis by reading about his life. The spirituality of St. Francis is not contained in esoteric rhetoric, but in his everyday activity…action entered into in a spirit of prayerfulness and humility; of creativity, community and compassion.
Books about St. Francis seem to stretch into infinity. Each one is unique, revealing a facet of this intriguing man, who – in his disarming simplicity – sheds a practical light upon the truths and mysteries of our faith.

I just finished reading one that I would readily recommend to you – The Lessons of St. Francis: How to bring simplicity and spirituality in your daily life, by John Michael Talbot, musician, teacher and writer who has founded a Third Order residential community in Arkansas.

Following are excepts from this work which helps us to see how to apply this spirituality in daily living:

“Ours in a time of intense spiritual hunger. People are thirsting for the sacred, the mysterious, the mystical. They are looking for more than a good job, a full closet and a balanced checkbook…Perhaps it is no surprise that much of today’s spiritual hunger is being met outside of traditional churches and religious institutions. In that way, our day is remarkably similar to a time nearly eight hundred year ago, when a humble man named Francis transformed his world and reviewed the church of his day by the simple but revolutionary act of practising the Christian faith as it had never been practised before, or since.

O how beautiful, how splendid, how glorious did he appear in the innocence of his life, in the simplicity of his words, in the purity of his heart, in his love for God, in his fraternal charity, in his ardent obedience, in his peaceful submission, in his angelic countenance. (Thomas of Celano)

“…Down through the ages, many people have sought to follow Francis’ example in their lives, including King Louis IX of France, the poet Dante, the artist Michaelangelo, the musician Arlo Guthrie, the scientist Michael Faraday, the philosopher Roger Bacon, and numerous theologians…I believe Francis remains a powerful and reliable spiritual guide for our own troubled times”.

His teaching is true, and his holiness should arouse our admiration. (St. Bonaventure)

“…Following God has never been easy. In times like ours, it can be downright baffling. But Francis gave it his best shot, and today his example continues to inspire many people who are strangely moved by the life of this unique and universal saint.”

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Another of my favourite books about the life and times of St. Francis is God’s Fool by Julien Green, the celebrated novelist and diarist who was a pivotal figure in the Paris literary scene of the 1020s and 1930s. On the back cover of the Harper Collins edition, this commendation by Malcolm Muggeridge appears: “Julien Green’s book is beautifully written, well researched, and altogether a masterpiece. Readers of it have the privilege not just of learning all about St. Francis, but of seeming to participate in his sublimely crazy ministry. To say that it is finely done is not enough; it is enchanting.” Indeed, it is not a work of high scholarship, but it does reflect the passion that St. Francis generates in the hearts of those who observe him closely.

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

The early biographies of St. Francis written by Thomas of Celano and Saint Bonaventure characterise the saint’s conversion as a struggle to discern God’s will. Both of these authors, as well as the author of the Legend of the Three Companions, describe the scene in the deserted church of San Damiano in Assisi during which the young Francis heard a command of the Crucified Lord while he was absorbed in prayer. “Francis”, the voice told him, “go and repair my house, which as you see, is falling completely into ruin.” The remainder of his life was spent consciously responding to that command.

Almost all of the manuscripts that contain this simple prayer indicate its origin at the foot of the crucifix in the church of San Damiano. It clearly reflects the struggle of the early years of the saint’s life as well as his ever present desire to fulfil the will of God.

Thus it is a prayer that can be seen as characterising the Poverello’s entire life. The form in
which this prayer is presented above reflects a simple version that has been transmitted through various Italian idioms. The manuscript of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England contains a Latin translation as well as a notation that this version would enable others throughout the world to profit from the prayers. As it became more popular, the prayer was embellished and lost some of its simplicity.

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Dear Friends of St. Francis, my prayer for your journey into the spirituality of St. Francis is that you be filled throughout with peace and all goodness, for this would be his wish for you (Pace e bene!), and I leave you with the only hand-written message we have from our holy brother. It is the blessing, taken from the Book of Numbers, that he addressed to brother Leo:

The Lord bless you and keep you.
May He show His face to you and have mercy.
May He turn His countenance to you and give you peace.
The Lord bless you!

Fraternally, richard.