March 2011 – Letters from Assisi III

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

March 2011

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

According to the logic of Saint Luke’s Gospel, Jesus did not enter the dessert in order to be tempted; he “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” (4: 1-2) We may ask, then, why did the Holy Spirit lead him there in the knowledge that he would be tempted? The answer may lie in what occurs just before and immediately after this familiar event.

At the end of the third chapter, we read about the baptism of Jesus at which he hears a voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (v. 22) Later, returning from the desert, “filled with the power of the Spirit…he began to teach in the synagogues and was praised by everyone.” (4: 14-15) This experience of temptation, therefore, comes at a crucial moment in his life, at the inauguration of his ministry.

Note the displacement. Jesus is on a journey, within and without. Indeed, the journey within is the most interesting. Moreover, his journey is ours. It is the movement of liberation from superficial identities to the identification and appropriation of our unique life’s mission. It is a pilgrimage that requires wisdom and courage because it inevitably passes through a dark valley of testing from what is comfortable but inauthentic to an unknown horizon.

With time, after wrestling with the false self, the meaning of our life clarifies. In chapter four, Jesus “unrolled the scrolls and found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” (v. 17-18) Then he declared boldly, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (v. 21)

Sometimes the way we are tested is determined by the very nature of our calling (Cf. Monbourquette, How to Discover your Personal Mission) Jesus, the very Word of God, was tempted by a false understanding of scriptural authority. It is ironic—but it should not be surprising—how deceitful agents can hide snares within the maze of holy texts that are the foundation of human fulfilment.

Temptation comes from our woundedness. Between us and the realization of our mission run a chasm of self-doubt and a forest of sub-personalities that confuse us and complicate our discernment. These exist because they serve a limited purpose. They allow us to function despite fears and insecurities. They are generally adapted to particular circumstances. But they limit our freedom and authenticity.

Most of us flee from the pain of childhood wounds rather than confront them. In the process, we flee our true identity and giftedness for these are inexorably tied to our deepest wounds. What Jesus did was teach us to face the truth of our identity regardless of the discomfort that this might entail. Freedom and spiritual growth are always accompanied by temptations. If we fall prey to these temptations, we are effectively distracted from knowing the mission and purpose for our life—the mission that gives meaning to our life.

But why lead Jesus to the desert? It is precisely there that testing is likely and even necessary. Desert is code for solitude with no place to hide. No distractions. No one to reinforce falseness or encourage us to take the easy, pleasure-seeking-pain-avoiding way.

In other words, God’s Wisdom directed him to a time and place where he could appropriate his spiritual identity and to reflect upon God’s call and the mission that flowed from his particular charisms. In the process, he would have encountered lingering biases, fears and doubts. He could become who he truly is. The power of this story lies in its application to our own lives. Can we truly afford to dispense with solitude, as frightening a time and place as that may be?

Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.
Henry David Thoreau

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The Apennine mountain range is the backbone of the Italian peninsula. The Umbrian-Marchigian Apennines are composed chiefly of limestone and sandstone, and contain numerous grottoes, craters, and springs. The lower parts of the slopes have thickets of evergreen shrubs and at higher elevations there are deciduous forests of beech, oak, and hornbeam, as well as coniferous forests and meadows.

Saint Francis was often led by the Spirit into the wilderness. He would wander the wooded hills and discover the many crevices and caves that scar the soft rock. Eventually, modest hermitages would be erected. Here, he would spend days, even weeks, in solitude. I have already noted grottoes in the Rieti valley and will refer later to others in the vicinity of Mount La Verna. Now, my mind is focused on the hermitage known as Eremo delle Carceri, so named because this was originally the prison of Mount Subasio. Saint Francis came here to pray in the many surroundings caves.

The climb to Eremo di San Francesco winds along up the gentle slope. It is lined with Cypress trees between which grander views emerge as the elevation rises. Squared stones form shoulder-high walls that lead to the hermitage; signs urge silence in this zona sacra: Ubi Deus ibi pax. White, pink, orange and red geraniums line the guardrail and decorate the ancient iron crested well that sits just inside the main gate. A clay-potted plant suspends from an old pulley and chain above another well nearby, this one just outside the door to the santuario.

Once inside, I bend low to pass through the small stone doorframe of the poverello’s grotto. I recall the words of Jesus: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10: 25) A small peace plant sits amid the cramped stone surroundings; smallness, peace, life in the womb of Mother Earth—it all fits.

I see the first temptation, the one about turning stones into bread, as basically an invitation to doubt his vocation to sonship. This is what we all doubt. “If you are the son of God…”
Richard Rohr, The Good News According to Luke

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Why did Saint Francis, who is generally understood to have been a gregarious extravert, devote so much of his time to solitude after his conversion? Part of the answer lies in his desire to pray and commune with God whose unfathomable love moved him so deeply. Another part, I think, lies in a need to deal with his own demons: doubts and fears, personality issues and ambivalence in the face of contradictory forces in play in his immediate surroundings. Carl Jung wrote, “Solitude is for me a fount of healing which makes my life worth living.” In solitude Saint Francis would find the wisdom to make sound choices and the courage to remain faithful to his commitments by resolving the dissonance in his life.

Hermitages always played an important part in Franciscan life. According to Thomas Merton, who clearly had an affinity for its spirituality, we find in the primitive rule of the order “the authentic tradition of the earlier itinerant hermit movement, which was non-monastic and completely open to the world of the poor and the outcast.” (“Franciscan Eremitism” in The Francis Book).

Solitude was a place of healing, not only because it provided an environment in which he could reflect and make decisions authentically, but because there he enjoyed a panoramic view of the world in which he was called to love and serve the Lord. Merton wrote that Franciscan eremitism was “open to the world and oriented to the apostolic life…A spirit of simplicity and charity pervades even the life of solitary contemplation.”

Let the brothers wherever they may be in hermitages or other places take heed not to make any place their own and maintain it against anybody else. And let whoever may approach them, whether friend or foe or thief or robber, be received kindly.
Saint Francis of Assisi, First Rule

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As Saint Francis wrote to Brother Leo, May the Lord bless you and take care of you; may the Lord be kind and gracious to you: May the Lord look on you with favour and give you peace.


richard Boileau

crib and cross Franciscan Ministries