Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
May the Lord give you Peace!
Among the many things that we know about Saint Francis are his love of prayer and his love of Scripture. It causes one to wonder about his propensity to relate the two.
Saint Francis cultivated his intimacy with God by retreating often to remote places to contemplate the nature and action of God. He meditated regularly on the awesome mysteries of faith, the effusive goodness of the Father, the mercy of Christ and the often surprising action of the Holy Spirit.
Prayer was for him a source of comfort and strength. In it, his faith grew stronger, his hope more vital and his love farther reaching and more intense. Saint Bonaventure would later observe, “Prayer was his sure refuge in everything he did; he never relied on his own efforts, but put his trust in God’s loving providence and cast the burden of his cares on him in insistent prayer. He was convinced that the grace of prayer was something a religious should long for above all else. No one, he declared, could make progress in God’s service without it.”
As much as we know that Saint Francis was a man who sought intimacy with God in prayer, we also know of his predilection for Holy Scripture. He often quoted verses from memory when preaching, when instructing his brothers and in prayer. From the moment of his conversion, Saint Francis’ thoughts and actions were guided by Scripture verses that he heard initially in sacred Liturgy. His attention to these verses and his retention of them were awesome because he applied them later with tremendous skill and insight as to their relevance to life in his own day.
He was eager to learn more about their meaning and would ask questions of priests and learned brothers. Still, he was always very cautious about the risk of becoming “puffed up” by scholarship as an end in itself. Rather, he assiduously sought to apply its teaching to his own life and urged his brothers to do the same.
He wrote, “A man has been killed by the letter when he wants to know quotations only so that people will think he is very learned and he can make money to give to his relatives and friends. A religious has been killed by the letter when he has no desire to follow the spirit of Sacred Scripture, but wants to know what it says only so that he can explain it to others.”
We know that Saint Francis’ religious life was motivated and informed by the bible in general and the Gospel in particular. His writings are laced with biblical passages. But it was not enough to simply know the words of Scripture. In fact, his first rule was virtually dismissed because it did not conform to established forms, being instead a simple admonition to adopt the biblical teachings as a way of life. Three Scripture verses were to constitute the basis of the life and Rule of the evangelical movement initiated by him.
“If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19,21); “Take nothing for your journey” (Luke 9,3); “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me” (Luke 9,23)
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We can we deduce that the goal of the poverello was to pray incessantly and to allow his life to be guided entirely by the Gospel. The constancy of both makes it reasonably easy to tie them together. In fact, it is impossible to imagine Saint Francis praying without reference to verses that resonated in his heart and instructed his mind. It is not possible to imagine him praying without recalling what he learned from Scripture about the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit.
In effect, we know that he mulled over these verses in the same way that we talk about when we use the expression “praying with Scripture.”
Prompted by the Holy Spirit, Saint Francis entered long periods of loving mediation based upon the words, the lyricism and meaning of Holy Scripture, which enabled him to know himself and God better. In his long reflection on these sacred writings and their major themes, he discovered truths about the universe and the fraternal relationships among all creatures borne of a common Father; about conversion and penance as a response to God’s effusive benevolence; and about the unavoidable and necessary mediation provided by Christ.
Often, his prayer centred on the psalms, as exemplified by his moving Little Office of the Passion. But what best characterises Saint Francis is the grace by which he focused a great deal of his prayer, medication and contemplation on the Gospel itself.
In effect, he regarded it as inseparable from the Body of Christ in the Eucharist. In it, he found the living reality of Christ, continuously renewed and self-revealing. Having discovered the Gospel of Poverty in body, mind and spirit as the foundation of his new life, he never ceased to refer to it along his religious journey. The poverty of Christ crucified, as revealed in Scripture, was the heart of his prayer. The accounts of Matthew were particularly familiar to him, as was John’s account of Jesus’ Passion. But, despite his frequent quotation of these, it is Luke’s Gospel that most clearly renders the purpose of Saint Francis’ religious mission.
Various pericopies, or stories, recalled from Liturgical readings, were the preferred themes of his meditations, according to leading scholars. He thirsted for these to the point of asking for daily Gospel readings even if he was unable to attend Mass. To this end, he had transcribed a collection of Gospel readings that was included in his breviary, which is preserved to this day at the Basilica of Saint Clare in Assisi.
Much of his attention to Scripture in prayer resulted from his profound conviction of the power of God’s Word. He often would recall Jesus’ own declaration, “The words that I have spoken are spirit and life.” He regarded Scripture of a personal expression of affection from his beloved, and savoured each syllable. Each verse was precious, revealing the heart of the one God sent to save him because he “so loved the world”.
The brothers who lived with him knew how his daily and continuous talk was of Jesus and how sweet and tender his conversation as, how kind and filled with live his talk with them. His mouth spoke out of the abundance of his heart, and the fountain of enlightened loved that filled his whole being bubbled forth outwardly. Indeed, he was occupied with Jesus; Jesus he bore in this heart. Jesus in his mouth, Jesus in his ears, Jesus in his eyes, Jesus in his hands, Jesus in the rest of his members.
– Celano, First Life of Saint Francis (115)
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The Second Life written by Thomas of Celano, the saint’s first biographer, contains an entire section devoted to “Saint Francis’ understanding of Holy Scripture and the Power of His Words.” Specifically, chapters 102 through108 recall “the knowledge and the memory of Saint Francis…The prophetic word Saint Francis expounded at the prayers of a Friar Preacher…the things Saint Francis made clear when he was questioned by a cardinal…how Saint Francis answered a brother who urged him to apply himself to reading…The sword that Brother Pacificus saw glittering in the mouth of the saint…the efficacy of Saint Francis’ sermons…a certain doctor’s testimony about it…and how by the power of his words he drove out devils from Arezzo through his instrumentality of Brother Sylvester.” Each reveals the poverello’s familiarity and revered for sacred Scripture and the importance given to these in his reflections, decisions, pronouncements and prayers.
It is often said that no person has kept in such perfect balance the realms of prayer and action. His desire was to pray without ceasing but his call was to be a herald of the Great King among people in need of conversion to Gospel values and teachings. His prayer was steeped in the Word of God, which he ruminated in his heart, and his action mirrored it rigorously, not to boast of leaning but to love Jesus more tenderly. The statue in my bedroom of Jesus and Saint Francis embracing at the cross often reminds me of how joyously the Gospel lived within the heart of the poverello. This awareness gives new meaning to the need to pray with Scripture in a way that honours the uniqueness of each person’s call. “On the eve of his death, the saint, in imitation of his Divine Master, had bread brought to him and broken. This he distributed among those present, blessing Bernard of Quintaville, his first companion, Elias, his vicar, and all the others in order. “I have done my part,” he said next, “may Christ teach you to do yours.”
He often said that man would easily move from knowledge of himself to knowledge of God who would set himself to study the Scripture humbly, not presumptuously.
– Celano, Second Life of Saint Francis (102)
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May we always view the love of Saint Francis for the Word of God, his constant meditation of its meaning and his faithful application of it to his own life as an invitation to move from Gospel to life to Gospel. May the spirituality of the poverello inspire us to be more attentive to Gospel values and to discern their meaning for our lives. May the good Lord grant us the necessary graces to be faithful to our baptismal promise to walk in the footsteps of the Good News.
crib and cross Franciscan Ministries