October 2004 – On the Experience of St. Francis

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

October 2004

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the good Lord give you Peace!

Religious men and women from long ago are often regarded as easy riders on a highway to heaven, scarcely affected by the world around them. Legends often portray them as untainted by their social and political environment. As a result, their struggles are typically glossed over and their true achievements are undervalued or entirely overlooked. Such is the case of the founder of Franciscan spirituality. Because he is an important figure in the development of Christian tradition, it is necessary to look at his life historically and his religious insights with genuine curiosity.

As a child, Francis attended the parish church of San Giorgio, where he learned to read and write Latin, though scholars have determined, judging by the quality of his own writings, that his grasp of it was somewhat rudimentary. As a young man, he was popular and enjoyed drinking and singing with friends. Because of the considerable wealth to which he seemed to have easy access, he could afford to be extravagant whenever he wanted.

As he grew up, Francis would have observed the exercise of tremendous power directed to noble, or at other times, destructive ends. Four important buildings in Assisi were the icons of this power. The first was La Rocca, a fortified castle (symbol of the Lombard-Frank-German feudal aristocracy) that was occupied by a German count until local burghers destroyed it in 1198. The second was the Duomo, or cathedral, which was the symbol of the ecclesiastical power of the bishop, exercised in the manner of feudal lords. The third was the Mercato and Piazza, at the center of the city, which personified a new class of prosperous and ambitious merchants. And the fourth was the Palazzo del Commune, or city hall, where Pietro di Bernadone would file a grievance against his son, Francis, in 1206 before appealing to the bishop.

Not content with prospects of joining the family business, Francis dreamed of a yet more glamorous career as a soldier and eventually a knight. Such fantasies of knighthood actually led him to take up arms on at least two occasions. The first, at age 20, was in a battle against citizens of the nearby town of Perugia. But instead of winning the coveted crown of victory, Francis was captured and spent a lonely year in a dungeon cell. After being ransomed by his father, the demoralized young man came home in poor health. His illness persisted for a year, during which time he came to realize that the prospect of joining his father in the lucrative cloth business no longer satisfied him. His dreams of knighthood persisted.

In the spring of 1205, he eagerly joined the forces amassed in Apulia to oppose certain German princes. Again, Francis’ flare for extravagance came to the fore. With his father’s financial support, he was outfitted with magnificent armor and set off for glory but had only reached Spoleto before sensing a sudden divine call to turn back. He then aborted his plans for worldly knighthood and entered a period of deep and painful personal reflection.

Over time, Francis’ attitudes and opinions were shaped to varying degrees by his experience of the conflicting spiritual, political, and ecclesiastical currents that were prevalent at the close of the 12th century. His own writings show an astute awareness of these movements as well as an appreciation of both the scriptural and liturgical texts. He readily incorporated, synthesized and reconciled much of what was considered by many as impossibly fragmented. One such experience that is generally overlooked in stories about Francis is his exposure to the penitential movement. Oftentimes, when seeing references to him as the “penitent from Assisi,” people erroneously assume that Francis founded the movement.

There was nothing sudden about Francis’ transformation. He moved slowly but surely, though perhaps reluctantly at times, toward a lifestyle diametrically opposed to the dreams of his youth. In his perseverant quest for meaning in his life, Francis prayed a lot and sought guidance from Scripture. In his Testament, he would later clearly identify the Gospel as the inspiration for his way of life. So it is fair to assume that it had a significant effect on him.

There is no way of knowing what the influence of the Gospel was prior to his commitment to follow Christ in strict fidelity, but it is evident from his writings that he was deeply marked by numerous passages that convey the words and actions of Jesus. This is all the more remarkable when we consider that it is unlikely that he ever read or even consulted the Gospel the way we do today, with the whole Bible or New Testament in one bound edition, though Francis did eventually have a “Reader,” which contained 220 different Gospel passages. It can be found in “The Breviary of St. Francis” at the Protomonastero de S. Chiara in Assisi. But what he spoke from was probably his recollection of pericopes proclaimed in the liturgies that he attended. It was only in churches that he would have had access to full biblical texts.

According to popular belief, it was in a church that Francis and his early companions used the officially proscribed practice to discern the will of God for the nascent order by randomly opening the Gospel three times, each time revealing a verse about the nature of discipleship and the call to evangelical poverty. But it was his keen observation and his near-perfect memory regarding the details of incidents and quotations recounted in Gospel narratives that seem so awesome to us today. His ability to cite from them was extensive and his insight into their meaning was very often innovative as well.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Francis’ attention focused unequivocally on the Gospel. Perhaps he did have access to books but that these contained only the four Gospel accounts, or perhaps it was his intuition to resolve the confusion created by different styles of religious behavior prevalent in his time. For whatever reason, he would eventually choose to follow the example of Jesus rather than that of the apostles, a decision that would have surprisingly dramatic consequences.

Another experience that would change the course of Francis’ life was the fact that he charismatically attracted others to join him in the hope of sharing his new way of life. There were just a few at first, among them the wealthy Bernard of Quintavalle, the priest Peter Cattani, and later Clare, born in nobility. Soon there would be many more: not only men, but also women inspired by the brothers’ preaching and, on their advice, entered the prescribed convents to do penance. From every indication, recruiting others to join him and providing leadership to hundreds and then thousands of followers was certainly not part of his original plan. It sent him back to the drawing board so to speak.

There are few moments in Francis’ experience of the Gospel as pivotal as his hearing Christ’s call to preach in the Gospel of Matthew:

Go and preach, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is near!
Heal the sick, bring the dead back to life, heal those who suffer from dreaded skin diseases, and drive out demons. You have received without paying, so give without being paid. Do not carry any gold, silver or copper money in your pockets; do not carry a beggar’s bag for the journey or an extra shirt of a stick. A worker should be given what he needs.’ – Matthew 10: 7-10

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Francis was working on the little church of St. Mary of the Angels at the time, the one he would later call tenderly his “little portion” (Portiuncula). It was on the Feast of Saint Matthias, February 24, 1208, that he felt these verses touch his heart, and embarked on the life of a poor itinerant preacher proclaiming a message of penance and peace. Indeed, it was his experience of this Gospel that compelled him to strike out for the Middle East to engage in missionary activity. In 1212, he attempted to go to Syria but was shipwrecked along the way. Soon after, he set out for Morocco but became ill en route. Finally, in 1219, he encountered the Sultan of Egypt, Malik-al-Kamil, in Damietta, an event that would have a profound impact on him, on his brothers and on the spirituality that was to become his legacy. As he immersed himself ever more completely in the Gospel experience, Francis emerged as a paragon of Christian vision and behavior.

This action, aside from demonstrating the presence of God’s grace in his life, illustrates the degree to which Francis struggled with the meaning of the Gospel for his own life. He could not dismiss the story of Jesus’ life as merely an inspiring account of a life devoid of instruction for our own. He could not easily walk the broad avenues of privilege, knowing that God’s only Son had walked painfully along rugged and dangerous roads.

With tremendous perseverance, Francis would develop an impressive, hard-earned balance between prayer and the action that prayer would prescribe. His primitive hermitage experience and his experience of apostolic action would combine to create a new form of spirituality that would become the movement’s trademark. In effect, Francis carried the hermitage into public places and the public into his hermitages. Thomas Merton wrote that the eremitism of Saint Francis and his followers is deeply evangelical and remains always open to the world, while recognizing the need to maintain a certain distance and perspective. Being in the world but not of the world was Francis’ principal paradigm for public ministry, according to the example of Jesus as revealed in the Gospel (cf. John 17: 14-15).

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May the Father bless you with the Joy of knowing His dear Son our Lord Jesus through faithful reading of the Gospel. May He grant you Peace and Freedom in Christ. And may the Holy Spirit of Love fill your heart with Simplicity, Gratitude and Generosity.