October 2005 – On the Legacy of St. Francis II

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

October 2005

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

Last month, we reflected on the appropriateness of the spirituality of Saint Francis in responding to the ever-present and visceral cry for peace heard throughout the world. This month I invite you to consider the appropriateness of the poverello’s insights with respect to our relationship to creation and our quest for simplicity.

When Pope John Paul II declared Francis of Assisi to be the Patron Saint of Ecology, I doubt that anyone was surprised. His Canticle of Creation alone would have earned him that accolade. On the surface it appears rustic and naive but, “when it is seen in terms of Francis’ other works and the motivation behind its composition, the poem in fact acquires an indisputable claim to originality and complexity.” (Roger Sorrell, St. Francis of Assisi and Nature)

The controversial Latin American theologian Leonardo Boff adds, “Creatures, each having autonomous worth and beauty, are yet brothers and sisters to each other, aiding each other, gladly performing their divinely allotted functions…By giving creatures their due praise, people overcome their customary callous ingratitude to creatures and to God – another step toward the reconciliation and redemption of humanity envisioned by the end of the poem.”

Saint Francis tied all things together into a single integrated worldview, which encompassed God, humankind and all things great and small created by God’s own hand. He understood the intended connectedness, so it would not be surprising to find a prominent liberation theologian eight centuries later writing a book linking the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.

The world and its creatures are within the human being in the form of the archetypes, symbols, and images that inhabit our interiority and with which we must dialog and that we must integrate. If violence persists in the relationships of human beings with nature, it is because aggressive impulses emerge from within human beings.
– Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor

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Despite growing public interest in matters of religion and spirituality, a phenomenon often heralded under the banner of postmodern values, it must be recognized that we live in an overly materialistic world. The acquisitive and clinging tendency that seems to fuel an insatiable appetite for power and possessions creates tremendous anxiety in our lives and induces us to assume roles and adopt behaviors that burden us with stress.

This was also true when Saint Francis was alive, although it was manifested in different forms. His spirituality, however, provided relief from the anguish of unnatural ambitions: evangelical poverty was the antidote that he prescribed. While the challenge that this spirituality poses is daunting, for which reason we are often inclined to dismiss it, it is as relevant to us today as it was to him in his day. Francis would have been no more eager to part with property than we would be. But it was the price he was prepared to pay for the freedom to follow Christ rather than the ways of the world.

William Short (Poverty and Joy: The Franciscan Tradition) wrote that following this example, living without anything of one’s own today implies, “the refusal to arrogate to one’s self what belongs to all, because all belongs to the Creator. Everything is gift; nothing is ‘property.’ The gospel mandate to ‘sell all and give to the poor,’ which Francis and Clare followed, far from being meaningless, is as urgent in our own day as it was in theirs.”

But evangelical poverty was for the poverello – and must be for us today – understood to be the means and not the end of a courageous spiritual journey focused on union with Jesus Crucified. It is for this reason that we are more inclined to shift our attention from evangelical poverty, which is a value too easily misunderstood and misrepresented, to humility and simplicity.

Poverty is never lived for its own sake, but always for the…life of the Spirit, that it brings to the world…The viable reforms always made specific expressions of poverty secondary to renewal of gospel service to the poor and union with Jesus in contemplative prayer.
– Bonaventure Stefun, The Poverello’s Legacy
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Knowing that there are similarities between the times in which Saint Francis lived and our own, we face another important question before deciding on a course of action to communicate his spiritual insights to our own culture. Was his way of looking at things compatible with our own? Relative to the context in which we must situate him, it may be said that he was naturally disposed to such an outlook. His struggle with religious questions was chiefly caused by his determination to be authentic.

Can we today authentically appropriate and effectively communicate his spirituality without such an attitude? I suggest that we cannot. It would be folly to simplistically imitate someone from so foreign a culture. Yet it would be equally foolish to disregard his insights and the stunning parallels that exist between his socio-political and ecclesial environment and our own. I think it would be regrettable to set aside a tradition that carries with it a unique capacity to help us understand the desire that dwells within each of us, namely to find ultimate meaning and to fall in love.

The challenge is to communicate these insights with language that resonates for people in the 21st century, particularly those who are unfamiliar with the expressions (and even the categories of traditional religious discourse) and the rituals of celebration and worship. It is also to use the stories of the life of Saint Francis in new ways to engender passion in faith and compassion in love. It is finally to leverage genuine conversion, as Lonergan understood the term, in the hearts, minds and souls of God’s people.

These challenges call us to be creative in the way we present Saint Francis, always mindful of the adaptations required, and always recalling that he communicated more by his way of life than by his way with words…as Jesus had done. While his form of theology can be described as archaic, his spirituality is timeless because it continues to elicit our wonder and to inspire our own attempts – however meager or ineffective – to follow (him) in his dedication to the vita evangelii Jesu Christi.

Francis’ form of theology is archaic, in the sense that it harkens back to the richest forms of early Christian theology, such as we find in the Apostolic Fathers, before the differentiation of individual doctrines had a chance to develop. Francis archaizing theology is a good antidote to any incipient attempt to separate doctrinal insight and spiritual practice.
– Bernard McGinn, Reflections on St. Francis at the New Millennium

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Saint Francis died on October 3, 1226. His feast is celebrated on October 4, marking his passing into glory. During his life, he had so intimately embraced his Lord and Savior that he gave to the world the joy of recalling the birth of Jesus in a manger, and his devotion was crowned with the wounds of Christ in the stigmata that occurred only a few years before his death.

I have no doubt that the blessing that he wrote with his own hand to his beloved brother Leo, the same blessing that Aaron uttered, was fulfilled on that wonderful day. Surely, the Lord blessed him as He had when taking care of him through times of deprivation and anguish. The Lord was kind and gracious to him as Saint Francis had been to those that he had met since his conversion…and the Lord looked upon him with favor and gave him eternal peace.

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Dear friend of Saint Francis, may the good Lord take care of you and gently bless you with kindness and grace. May you live in His peace and experience true joy in the manner of the poverello.