Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
May the Lord give you Peace!
In 1785, German poet, playwright and historian Friedrich Schiller wrote “To Joy,” which is better known to us today as the words to Ludwig van Beethoven’s fourth and final movement of his Ninth Symphony, completed in 1824. The exuberance of the composer’s magnificent choral symphony rightly lays claim to the title, “Ode to Joy.”
More than 500 years earlier, the little poor man of Assisi, Saint Francis, had already reached the zenith of joy in The Canticle of Creatures, without using that word in any of its verses.
Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honour,
and all blessing.
To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
The vitality of these verses, the opening lines to the first poem written in the vernacular language of the Italian people, leads one to assume that these mystical words were written during a time of jubilation. Though jubilant about God’s love, Saint Francis actually wrote these lines at a time of intense suffering. He had been betrayed by some of his brothers; the church had significantly altered the rule that had been inspired by his own powerful spiritual intuition; and his body was racked with chronic pain.
One of the most reliable accounts of his life is the Legend of Perugia. In it, we find these revealing words: “During his stay at this friary, for fifty days and more, blessed Francis could not bear the light of the sun during the day or the light of the fire at night. He constantly remained in darkness inside the house in his cell. His eyes caused him so much pain that he could neither lie down nor sleep, so to speak, which was very bad for his eyes and for his health…One night, as he was thinking of all the tribulations which he was enduring, he felt sorry for himself and said interiorly: ‘Lord, help me in my infirmities so that I may have the strength to bear them patiently.’”
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, a Capuchin Franciscan, preacher of the papal household, commented during a meditation given at the Monastery of La Verna: “This was Francis’ Gethsemane, so it is no surprise that he would pray the same prayer as Jesus: ‘Let this chalice pass from me.’” (St. Francis & the Cross: Reflections on suffering, weakness and joy)
The Legend continues, “Therefore, for his glory, for my consolation, and the edification of my neighbor, I wish to compose a new ‘Praises of the Lord,’ for his creatures. These creatures minister to our needs every day; without them we could not live; and through them the human race greatly offends the Creator. Every day we fail to appreciate so great a blessing by not praising as we should the Creator and dispenser of all these gifts.”
Saint Francis is the model of true joy because he found it within, undiminished by the circumstances of his life. He found it by embracing God’s love and then returning it through compassion toward all people, particularly lepers and the poor.
He found joy at the peak of his suffering in all things created by God—all things great and small. The natural world filled him with awe and delight. In it, he saw awesome beauty, meaningful order and constantly renewed life. It revealed God, and the systems within creation reminded him of the call to relationship. We are one body. When one member is injured the entire body suffers. Humanity is an ecosystem in which no one is insignificant and everyone deserves respect.
If a wounded member can cause the body to suffer, then it follows that if one member experiences joy, the entire body is transfigured. That, I think, whether intended or not, is Saint Francis’ greatest contribution to our world. In fact, its impact radiated not only across the world then but now as well. The joy of Saint Francis is synonymous with faith, hope and love; with peace and reverence for life; with simplicity, gratitude and generosity.
If painful illness was a form of Gethsemane for Saint Francis, it was also the place of his Resurrection. To his spiritual intuition, death and life occupied the same mystical space. There where darkness seems most intense, light abounds. This becomes apparent in reading a story told in the rather fanciful yet insightful Little Flowers of Saint Francis. It refers to a journey taken by him and his beloved confident Brother Leo.
Saint Francis begins by relating to Leo a long series of hypothetical situations in which he affirms what joy is not. His first example, “Brother Leo, even if the Friars Minor in every country give a great example of holiness and integrity and good edification, nevertheless write down and note carefully that perfect joy is not in that.”
Later, he goes on to provide examples of true or perfect joy that are contrary to human wisdom, ending with this illustration, “And if later, suffering intensely from hunger and the painful cold, with night falling, we still knock and call, and crying loudly beg them to open for us and let us come in for the love of God, and he grows still more angry and says: ‘Those fellows are bold and shameless ruffians. I’ll give them what they deserve!’ And he comes out with a knotty club, and grasping us by the cowl throws us onto the ground, rolling us in the mud and snow, and beats us with that club so much that he covers our bodies with wounds– if we endure all those evils and insults and blows with joy and patience, reflecting that we must accept and bear the sufferings of the Blessed Christ patiently for love of Him, oh, Brother Leo, write: that is perfect joy!”
Finally, knowing that his listener is now confused and perhaps discouraged, he states simply, “And now hear the conclusion, Brother Leo. Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ gives to His friends is that of conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations, and hardships for the love of Christ.”
Pleasure does not necessarily bring true joy. It is typically ephemeral, and if it is unhealthy, it is often followed by an unpleasant aftertaste or desolation. Conversely, deep and lasting satisfaction can follow difficult periods after which we might say to ourselves in serenity, “That was not fun, but it was the right thing to do.”
Saint Francis’ insight into the power of spiritual joy is really quite staggering. He understood it not only as a reward for virtue but as a deterrent to vice. In a series of admonitions, spiritual counsels on the religious life, he writes, “Where there is poverty and joy there is neither cupidity nor avarice.” In other words, where joy is absent, cupidity grows. Cupidity: inordinate desire. Inordinate desire robs us of the freedom to choose what is in our best interest. It provokes obsessive, compulsive behaviors. Pure desire, on the other hand, leads to true joy. Joy is the freedom to act authentically and lovingly, which brings us evermore joy.
Land of the Heart’s Desire,
Where beauty has no ebb, decay no flood,
But joy is wisdom, time an endless song.
– William Butler Yeats, The Land of Heart’s Desire
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May October, which is the month in which we celebrate the Feast of Saint Francis, be an occasion to appreciate God’s greatest gift—true joy
Fraternally in joy and hope
crib and cross Franciscan Ministries