September 2004 – On Franciscan Spirituality

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

September 2004

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the good Lord give you Peace!

It has been a pleasure and a real privilege for me to spend the past couple of years immersed in post-graduate studies with a view to gaining a better understanding of the religious insights of Saint Francis. I recently completed writing and defending a thesis on the “Communication of Franciscan Spirituality.” As I developed the dissertation, the profound admiration I felt for this man just kept growing in my heart. Here was a man who tackled life’s most daunting questions with disarming honesty and simplicity, and – in the process – revealed the fullness of the wisdom contained in the Gospels.

The school of spirituality he gave birth to is one that has provided nourishment to millions of people across continents and centuries. Its value remains undiminished and arguably more relevant today than ever before.

“(Francis’ spirituality is) the richest of all, incontestably one of the most beautiful, and one which has most definitively left its stamp on the history of the Church.”
– Martial Lekeux, Franciscan Mysticism

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Christian spirituality, in its elemental expression, is a way of following Christ. It is the manner in which we accept to follow Him as His disciples. According to Philip Sheldrake (Spirituality and History), “…spirituality is a conscious relationship with God, in Jesus Christ, through the indwelling of the Spirit and in the context of the community of believers. Spirituality is, therefore, concerned with the conjunction of theology, prayer and practical Christianity.” The fact that authentic spirituality must be grounded in a believer’s experience as opposed to static or objective categories is certainly also evident in his presentation of the historical dimension of spirituality:

There is the personal assimilation of salvation in Christ by each person within changing historical, cultural and social circumstances that demands new approaches to Christian conduct…specific spiritual traditions are initially embodied in people rather than doctrines and grow out of life rather than from abstract ideas.

If Christian spirituality is a way of following Christ, variations arise that, while remaining faithful to Christ, emphasize different characteristics of His life and teaching. One could either attribute this to our limited capacity for absorbing the totality of His sacred reality, or to the fact that different people will quite naturally ascribe slightly different meanings to shared events, or to the Holy Spirit revealing insights to us that suit our own particular spiritual needs.

Prominent among the many variations is Franciscan spirituality. One of the earliest inclinations we have of its nature is an account attributed to one of Francis’ closest friends, Brother Leo. It’s a spirituality where humility, simplicity, poverty and prayer are revealed as active ingredients.

The most holy father (…) willed and preached to (his brothers) that they should desire to be founded on holy Humility, and to imitate pure Simplicity, holy Prayer, and our Lady Poverty, on which the saints and first friars did build. And this, he used to say, was the only safe way to one’s own salvation and the edification of others, since Christ, to whose imitation we are called, showed and taught us this by word and example alike.

Likewise, it is clear from reading his Later Rule that Francis intended the imitation of Christ to be inspired by the Holy Spirit: “Let them pursue what they must desire above all things: to have the Spirit of the Lord and His holy manner of working.” Among other things, this rule reveals the primacy of one of three core aspects of his spirituality, according to Armstrong and Brady (Francis and Clare: The Complete Works), namely that it was Trinitarian, as well as ecclesiastical and fraternal.

For my own recent investigation of the poverello’s spirituality, Sandra Schneider’s definition was also important: “The experience of consciously striving to integrate one’s life in terms not of isolation and self-absorption but of self-transcendence toward the ultimate value.”

This definition’s foundation in human experience resonates perhaps most dramatically with this man who struggled to make sense of the collision between the secular world of immediacy and the religious world of values. The desire for integration is what I perceive to be the driving force of Francis’ relentless quest for meaning. My sense is that Francis experienced what Tad Dunne called “the split soul” (Lonergan and Spirituality: Toward a Spiritual Integration), a problem that burned inside him in the manner that made Augustine “restless.” (cf. Confessions).

Vernon Gregson (The Desires of the Human Heart: An Introduction to the Theology of Bernard Lonergan) emphatically added, “The unrestriction of Christ’s love is the life that all people hunger to enjoy. The cross of Christ is the law of redemption, the way that conversion passes on to putting one’s body and spirit on the line for authenticity and self-transcendence.” More than anyone, I think, this aptly describes Francis, who was called alter Christus by Pope Pius XI.

Francis’ life was marked by zealous and uncompromising pursuit of Gospel meaning, and he understood in his own manner that meaning is made of conscious living, animated by a desire for self-transcendence, the purpose of which is to be authentically in Love.

Gregson offered perhaps the most intriguing and probably the most helpful perspective on spirituality by suggesting that it can be used almost interchangeably with religious conversion.

I use the word, spirituality, in addition to, and sometimes in preference to religious conversion…Religious consciousness – spirituality or religious conversion – is a praxis, an engaged human state…It is an engagement with the absolutely Transcendent, which liberates one to engage, to respond to, and to create and transform the world of finite value, the world of persons, society, civilization…Lonergan’s understanding of what is basic to religion then approximates what is called spirituality. It is surrender to the Transcendent, with the consequent transformation of subjectivity.

A spiritual person is, therefore, someone who is drawn to and responds to the higher values of the human good. Essentially, Francis did, albeit with singular persistence, what any sincere Christian is invited to do, namely to believe in the Gospel and to live in accordance with its precepts. What is unique about his spirituality is its emphasis on a particular cluster of precepts, something that has inspired millions of people to follow Christ in the footsteps of Francis. I use this expression cautiously since Francis often referred to following in the footsteps of Jesus and would not have us divert our attention from that purpose. Meanwhile, we would do well to avoid saying that we do so in imitation of Francis since the task we ought properly to undertake is to be authentic and conscious of our times and culture in following Jesus. In some ways, it can be said that the footsteps of Francis only to serve to confirm that the path we follow is the course that Jesus established.

Of the various definitions of Franciscan spirituality available, I favor the one proposed by Foley, Weigel and Normile (To Live as Francis Lived: A Guide for Secular Franciscans): “To live the Gospel according to the spirit of Saint Francis in communion with Christ, poor and crucified, in the love of God, in brother/sisterhood with all people and all creation, participating in the life and mission of the Church, in continual conversion, in a life of prayer – liturgical, personal, communal – as instruments of peace.”

This articulation of Franciscan spirituality seems to summarize the principal elements contained in the vast collection of literature about his spiritual theology and the legacy of the tradition that he spawned. In many ways, it is too broad, since it does not adequately reveal the great attention Francis focused on living like Jesus according to the Gospel, but it does aptly situate his insights regarding creation, community and church to which he was faithful, even when their behavior seemed at variance with his understanding of Gospel values.

“(Francis’ spirituality continues) to elicit our wonder and to inspire our feeble attempts to follow (him) in his dedication to the ‘vita evangelii Jesu Christi’.”
– Bernard McGinn, Reflections on St. Francis at the New Millennium

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May Francis be for you an inspiration to always seek the face of God. May his writings reveal to your heart his relentless effort to understand and then to be the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. May his light fill you with joy in the Peace of Christ.