St. Francis of Assisi, Charismatic Penitent
Saint Francis was born in 1182 in Assisi, Italy, the son of a prosperous merchant. Conditions in Italy were not dissimilar to the conditions of our day.
The powerless minores no longer tolerated the domination of the majores; prolonged drought caused widespread famine; and barbarous public torture was but a different form of the violence and terrorism of today.
Francis of Assisi was not born a saint. The son of a wealthy merchant, he had time and money to host lavish banquets for young nobles who proclaimed him “King of Feasts.” Parties and selling cloth left Francis little time for God.
A handsome, charming and educated young man, he spent his early life leading young nobles in parties. He dreamed of knighthood and longed for the adventurous life of chivalry. In pursuit of that dream, he joined in the war between Assisi and Perugia at the age of 20.
In a war between Assisi and Perugia, Francis fought with youthful enthusiasm. He was wounded and taken prisoner. Spending the next year in a dungeon, he contracted malaria. Ransomed by his father, a more reflective Francis returned to Assisi. Sickness overtook him and in that languishing experience he heard the first stirrings of a vocation to peace and justice.
The military victories of Count Walter of Brienne revived Francis’ desire for knighthood. Under Brienne’s command, he hoped to win his favor and become a knight. On his way to join Brienne, Francis stopped in Spoleto and heard the shocking news of his death. Overcome by depression, his malaria returned.
One night a mysterious voice asked him, “Who do you think can best reward you, the Master or the servant?” Francis Answered, “The Master.” The voice continued, “Why do you leave the Master for the servant?” Francis realized the servant was Count Walter. He left Spoleto convinced God had spoken to him.
During the next two years Francis sensed an inner force that was preparing him for another change. The sight of lepers caused revulsion in the sensitive soul of Francis. One day while riding his horse, he came upon a leper. His first impulse was to throw him a coin and spur his horse on. Instead Francis dismounted and embraced the leper. On his death bed he recalled the encounter as the crowning moment of his conversion: “What seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body.”
Later, in a dramatic moment of prayer in the abandoned Church of San Damiano, he heard a voice coming from the crucifix which challenged him to rebuild the church. At first he thought it meant that he should rebuild San Damiano. Gradually, Francis realized that God meant that he should “rebuild” the Church at large. From that moment he learned that living a Christian life would place him in opposition to the values of his society and set him apart from family and friends and many of his own age.
He became a charismatic penitent. The Brothers and Sisters of Penance see the pattern of gradual conversion that marked Francis’ spiritual journey as the defining characteristic or charism of the Third Order Regular.
At first Francis sought to live a life of solitude and prayer. Within a few years he came to see God was calling him to give new momentum to a movement already present among the Christian faithful, a life of conversion – the challenge to LIVE the Gospels in his daily life. Francis found that other men of Assisi were attracted to the same vision – to follow Christ and His Apostles. Soon there grew a small commune which settled on the outskirts of a town near the abandoned Church of Our Lady of the Angels. Here a new Order in the Church was born.
Before Francis died in 1226 at the age of 44, he founded three Orders. His gift to humankind was his love of God as he experienced Him in all of His creation. His imprint on history are the men and women who identify with his vision in the Franciscan way of life. That legacy lives on in the followers of Francis who today seek to inspire in themselves and others the ideals of peace and justice of the gospels.
The Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans), in its attempt to remain faithful to the intentions of the founder, St. Francis of Assisi, went through many difficulties in the course of its history, which led to disagreements and divisions.
The three major branches of the First Order for Religious men, the Franciscan Friars Minor, the Conventual Friars Minor and the Capuchin Friars Minor have their own organisation and legal structure, but share Francis as their Father and Founder.
The Capuchins are the youngest branch, going back to 1525, when some Friars Minor in the Marches wanted to live a stricter life of prayer and poverty to be closer to the original intentions of St. Francis. Thanks to the support of the Papal Court the new branch received early recognition and grew fast, first in Italy, and since 1574 all over Europe. The name Capuchins refers to the peculiar shape of the long hood. Originally a popular nickname, it has become the official name of the Order, which now exists in 106 countries all over the world, with around 10,500 brothers living in more than 1,700 communities (fraternities, friaries).
Simplicity, closeness to the people, a fraternal spirit in our houses and our apostolate are visible signs that mark our lifestyle, while the emphasis on penance and prayer in the life of the first Capuchins needs to be revived.
Besides the Capuchin Order for Religious men, there exist many contemplative monasteries of Capuchin nuns and a multitude of religious congregations for women with the Capuchin spirit, often founded with the assistance of a Capuchin friar.
The Secular Franciscan Order for lay people is an independent organization encompassing the whole Franciscan spectrum. Franciscans, Conventuals, Capuchins and other members of the Franciscan Family give spiritual assistance to the Secular Franciscan Order.
All these groups of professed religious and secular Franciscans form the Franciscan Family.
Friars Minor, Gray Friars, Grey Friars, OFM
The Franciscans are members of a religious order that follows the rule of Saint Francis of Assisi. The first Franciscans, called the Order of Friars Minor, followed an ideal of total poverty; they possessed nothing in common or individually. Forbidden to accept money, they lived from day to day by working and begging. When they began studying and living at universities, however, they had to modify their strict ideal of poverty. By the time Saint Francis died (1226), the order had spread from Italy to England, the Holy Land, and all of Europe. The friars were known as the people’s preachers. They wore a gray tunic with a white cord at the waist; hence, their English name Grey Friars.
From the beginning, there were disagreements about the direction the order would take. The Franciscan minister general, Saint Bonaventure, sought a balance between the Conventuals, who wanted to adapt their poverty to the needs of the time, and the Spirituals, who wanted a strict poverty. The quarrel intensified during the 14th century when some of the Spiritual Franciscans, known as the Fraticelli, were condemned (1317 – 18) by Pope John XXII. Disagreements about the ideal of poverty brought a permanent division in the 15th century between the Friars Minor Conventual and the Order of Friars Minor. In the 16th century, the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin established a stricter independent branch of Franciscans. Preaching, teaching, foreign missions, and parish work remain the work of the Franciscans today. The Poor Clares, Franciscan nuns, are the second order. The Third Order comprises lay men and women who combine prayer and penance with everyday activity. Many sisters, brothers, and priests follow the Franciscan ideal in communities affiliated with the Third Order. There are Franciscan communities in the Roman Catholic church and the Anglican (or Episcopalian) churches. The English philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon was a Franciscan, as were the philosopher – theologians Duns Scotus and William of Occam. Other famous Franciscans include Saint Anthony of Padua; two Renaissance popes, Sixtus IV and Sixtus V; and Junipero Serra, the founder of the California missions. Cyprian Davis
M D Lambert, Franciscan Poverty: The Doctrine of the Absolute Poverty of Christ and the Apostles in the Franciscan Order, 1210 – 1323 (1961); J R Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order From Its Origins to the Year 1517 (1968); W Short, The Franciscans (1989).
The Franciscan Order is one of four thirteenth century orders of mendicant (begging) friars (Franciscan, Dominican, Carmelite, Augustinian) established to meet the urgent challenge of spiritual decline, urban growth, and the rapid spread of heresy (especially in southern France and northern Italy). It was founded by Francis of Assisi and formally approved by Innocent III in 1210. Unlike earlier monasticism, the friars lived active lives within the world as preachers and ministers to the needy.
Francis’ deep suspicion of formal organization and learning and his extreme view of proverty (even physical contact with money was to be avoided) became the center of bitter conflicts within the Order. Early on, tension arose between the Zealots, who advocated strict observance of the founder’s rule, and those factions (the Laxists, the Community) who favored various accommodations to reality. Under papal auspices the Order was fully organized by 1240 as one international body with only clerics eligible for office (another departure from the spirit of Francis, who favored laity), and provision was made for property to be held in trusteeship to get around the prohibition against ownership. During the years 1257-74 tensions abated under the conciliatory minister general Bonaventure, who established a moderate balance between structure and vitality. As an outstanding scholar, he also represented the increasing influx of Franciscans into the world of learning within the urban-based universities.
Following the death of Bonaventure a bitter debate ensued over the nature of apostolic proverty. The extreme view of the Spirituals (formerly the Zealots) was rejected by Pope John XXII, who in 1322 officially approved corporate ownership of property, arguing that Christ and the apostles as leaders of the church had owned property. Spirituals who fled became known as Fraticelli. Even outstanding figures such as the minister general Michael of Cesena and William of Ockham went into exile and denounced the pope.
Difficult conditions of plague, warfare, and papal schism during the century and a half before the Reformation led to a general decline within the Order, but another movement for restoration of the strict rule emerged, the Observants. They were opposed by the more moderate Conventuals, who preferred urban residence to remote hermitages. Failure to unite these factions led Pope Leo X in 1517 to officially separate the Order into two independent branches, the Friars Minor of the Regular Observants (strict) and the Friars Minor Conventuals (moderate). Given their reforming instincts, the Observants soon divided into several factions, Discalced (shoeless), Rocollects, Reformed, and Capuchins (pointed cowl). The latter played a significant role in the Counter-Reformation and by 1619 had gained complete autonomy. Again, internal division and the external challenge of the Enlightenment and revolutionary Europe weakened the Order until mounting pressure led Pope Leo XIII in 1897 to unite all Observant branches (except the Capuchins, who retained their independence).
Alongside the Order of Friars Minor, with the three independent branches of Observants, Conventuals, and Capuchins, there emerged two other Franciscan Orders, the Second Order of nuns (Poor Clares), founded by Francis and his follower Clare in 1212, and the Third Order (Tertiaries) of mainly lay persons.
The Franciscans, along with their rivals the Dominicans, represented a new spiritual force within the thirteenth century church. As advocates of the simpler apostolic life of poverty and preaching, they struck a responsive chord among the growing number of townspeople who had become alienated from the monastic and hierarchical establishment. Nonetheless, instead of becoming rebellious heretics, the friars were obedient servants of the established church. Like the town, the university became a major focus of their activity as they sought to prepare intellectually for their worldwide mission, confronting infidel, heretic, and indifferent alike with the truth of Christianity. Virtually every outstanding scholar of that age was a friar, including Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham among the Franciscans. Contrary to the spirit of Francis, however, the Order became aggressively associated with the repressive Inquisition and the anti-Jewish activities of the Western church during its effort to consolidate Christian society. R K Bishop (Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
Brooke, The Coming of the Friars; J. Cohen, The Friars and the Jews; L. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe; J. Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order from Its Origin to the Year 1517.
SPIRITUAL PRACTICES OF ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI
Intimacy with God was the foremost priority for Francis, being in love with the One who loved him first.
St. Francis is one of the most revered saints of all time, and volumes upon volumes have been written about him. Yet, though he is known for his intense spirituality, it is still difficult to write about his explicit spiritual practices. He left no specific expositions of his spiritual life, and provided no explicit plans for spiritual exercises or methods of prayer. However, the person of St. Francis is known and described in his biographies, and his life, whole and complete, is in itself a spiritual practice to God. From his caring of the poor to his adoration of nature to his fervent times of prayer, all of his actions were an act of worship. His life, a combination of the contemplative and the active, is a Christian model of holistic spiritual living even for today.
Intimacy through prayer
To Francis, being with Christ was a love affair. When referring to his relationship with God, he called himself “a spouse of the Holy Spirit.” To cultivate his intimacy with the Divine, he often retreated to remote places to pray and contemplate alone with God. He loved being alone with His Father so much that, at times, he was torn between devoting himself completely to the contemplative instead of the active life.
Prayer was his chief comfort. It was Francis’ starting place, his source of strength in faith. God was his refuge on whom he could cast all of his cares and burdens. He was completely dependent on the Lord, and he understood that progress in God’s service was futile without prayer. In fact, he placed prayer at the highest pinnacle of all of the spiritual exercises and used every means to have his friars concentrate on it. He eagerly sought to pray to God without ceasing, to keep his soul always in the presence of God. Bonaventure witnesses:
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.
And, Francis’ prayers were not detached or antiseptic requests, but instead his prayers were often passionate and cries from the soul. Bonaventure writes:
Francis would make the groves re-echo with his sighs and bedew the ground with his tears, as he beat his breast and conversed intimately with his Lord in hidden secrecy. Here he defended himself before his Judge; here he spoke with his Lover.”
Intimacy with God was the foremost priority for Francis, being in love with the One who loved him first.
The busy ministers of the modern age could learn much through Francis’ example. His priorities were in line with the will of God. He placed his relationship with the Savior as his foremost concern, above ministry strategies and scholastic exercises. As a man whom God used to bring widespread renewal to the Christian faith, he desired most of all to be at the feet of his Father, seeking intimacy, guidance and nourishment through solitary prayer.
Welcoming the Holy Spirit
Often, while praying, St. Francis would be rapt in ecstasy. Whenever he felt the Spirit approaching, he would always welcome Him, enjoying the “inspiration” for as long as God permitted.
His ecstasy would come in different forms, often experiencing what was beyond human reason. One time, he fell into a trance and rode through the town of Borgo San Sepulcro like a corpse, while the townspeople touched and pulled him, even cutting off little pieces of his tunic as souvenirs. After leaving the town, Francis asked when they would be arriving at the city they had just ridden through! Ecstasies of this sort would also occur in community, where he and his companions “were rapt out of themselves, and lay on the ground like dead men, completely unconscious.”
Near the end of his life, Francis went up Mount La Verna to pray and to reflect on the Passion of Christ, and he prayed and meditated for three weeks straight. He desired to share in Christ’s sufferings, and the result of his prayers was the appearance of the stigmata on his body, the marks which resembled the wounds caused by the nails and spear on the Crucified Christ.
Francis’ biographers have written about many more mystical vignettes that have occurred throughout the life of this saint. These experiences mark Francis intimacy with God, and his sensitivity to the workings of the Holy Spirit. They did not supersede his orthodox beliefs, but merely enhanced his intimate relationship with the Spirit. A life of orthodoxy need not exclude the visible outworking of the Holy Spirit. Francis’ faith was much more than a heady theology, but a spiritual life which was also lived out and supernaturally experienced.
Worshipping through nature
St. Francis would often experience mystical experiences through nature as well. In nature, he would see the beauty of His creator. Armstrong writes of Francis:
A Christian nature mystic is therefore one whose mystical experience, whatever form it may take, is based on Christian beliefs and involves an appreciation of Creation as God’s handiwork.”
The whole of nature was a sacrament, where Francis would find himself in an ecstasy of prayer with eyes raised to heaven while holding a waterfowl in his hands. The world and all of its beauty was considered a gift from God.
Sometimes however, his reverence for nature would reach extremes, treating God’s creation with radical reverence. Once, he was sitting close to a fire, and when his undergarments were caught aflame, he refused to put out the fire, saying “Dearest brother, do not hurt Brother fire!” Other times, his love for water made him wash his hands where the water would not be trodden underfoot, and his love for rocks made him walk on them reverently and fearfully, out of love for Christ who is called the Rock.
In our world of consumption, where the resources of nature are blighted and abused, Francis stands out as an anomaly. Though his behaviors border on the extreme, his love for creation and for the Creator is evident through his actions. For Francis, creation was not a god in itself, but an avenue in worshipping the True God. Armstrong writes, “For him nature spoke of God.” And out of love for the Father, he treated God’s creation with the utmost respect, taking care of the world God has given mankind to tend.
His view of the Bible
St. Francis brought an experiential level to the study of Scripture as well. He believed that the Bible should not merely be learned, but experienced and lived out. He distrusted Biblical scholarship of his times, though he was not completely disavowing the study of the Bible. One time, Francis himself demands the assistance of brothers learned in the Bible and skilled in the use of language, and he quoted extensively from Scripture, thereby exhibiting his own predilections to the study of the Word.
However, he does consider book-learning a real temptation, puffing up the mind. The Word should be studied, but prayer and self-sacrifice are the necessary pre-conditions for scholarly activity, so that each word is received with humility. The scholar of Scripture should not seek the knowledge of the Word as an end of itself. Instead, the Bible should not merely be learned, but its commandments should be obeyed. Francis writes:
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.
This is an indictment of much of theological education today! The study of the Word must be taken as a spiritual exercise, meant for changing the soul, for cleansing the heart. Theological students today easily forget to pray before studying, ignore the application of their homework into their lives, and turn their studies into drudgery instead of a spiritual act of worship. Though Francis’ exegetical processes may be in want, his heart was absolutely correct. The Scripture was not written merely to be learned and spoken about, but it is to be lived out in the lives of Christians. Ultimately, the Scriptures are interpreted through Christian living. Rotzetter writes:
To put it another way, Franciscan exegesis takes the risk of venturing into the realm of practical living before everything has been thought out and made safe. It makes the experiment of living with and from the gospel and experiences its spiritual character in action.
Christian freedom and challenge
His interpretation of the Bible affected his thinking of his spiritual life. He hated legalism and resisted writing specific rules of spiritual living; he wanted his friars to live a life of simplicity and humility. Not wanting to quench the workings of the Spirit by legalistic trappings, he desired instead the spiritual dynamism and freedom which encourages life and imagination. Little is explicitly forbidden to the friars. Francis responded to some of them who wanted more specific rules and regulations:
My brothers, my brothers, God called me to walk in the way of humility and showed me the way of simplicity. I do not want to hear any mention of the rule of St. Augustine, or St. Bernard, or of St. Benedict. The Lord has told me that he wanted to make a new fool of me in the world, and God does not want to lead us by any other knowledge that that. God will use your personal knowledge and your wisdom to confound you.
On the other hand, Francis also observed the Scripture as literally as possible. For example “Do not worry about tomorrow” was taken seriously in a radical manner. The brothers, instead of putting their beans to soak in warm water the day before they were to be eaten as was the custom, they would soak them on the day itself. Similarly they did not accept more alms than they could use on a given day. Thus, Francis lived according to the Word in a radical manner.
The freedom of Christian grace and the challenge of Christian living were intertwined. Instead of falling into the trap of legalism or liberalism, Francis finds an excellent medium, combining both freedom and challenge. He sought the challenge of applying Christian principle to his life, yet found freedom in its expression.
Life of voluntary poverty
His literal approach to the Bible caused Francis to live a life of poverty. In 1208, his father took him before the local bishop to demand that justice be done: he wanted Francis to return his goods. Francis, without prompting or urging, disrobed in front of the bishop, saying that he could now say in complete honesty and without reserve, “Our Father who art in heaven.” This was the beginning of his avowal of possessions.
At a mass on February 24, 1208, it was made even more clear. The words of St. Matthew convicted him to the heart: “Take no gold or silver or copper in your wallet, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics or sandals or a staff…” Francis obeyed his calling to absolute poverty, wandering through towns and villages to preach the gospel. He stressed the adoration of God, repentance, generosity, and the forgiveness of wrongs done to each other. He gave his heart out to the poor, befriending them and preaching the gospel. His main overarching passion was to imitate Christ, and his poverty was to be the way of life for Francis. Clissold writes:
Francis passionately believed that the love of material possessions lay at the root of society’s ills and of man’s estrangement from his maker. Property implied the need for arms with which to defend it, and led to the struggle for power and prestige and to the chronic warfare which was the scourge of his times.
But, in his self-denial, Francis did not have a morbid hatred of self that other ascetics often had. Though he slept on the ground, ate little, kept long vigils throughout the night, lived in shabby clothing, and gave away everything he had, we could not picture him sitting on a pillar or laden with heavy chains. He forbid friars to be too harsh with their penances, and had some penitential instruments confiscated for their caused injury, even death. The self-denial was about following Christ, not hating the self whom God created.
Especially within the affluence of American culture, it is easy to follow the crowd and fall into the sin of materialism and hoard the wealth God has freely given. Francis, however, though his poverty was able to grow rich in spiritual wealth. His poverty was a sign of his radical faith, willing to throw aside material comforts to conform more closely to the life of Christ. In this way, he was completely dependent on God. Though not all Christians are called to Francis’ extremes to live in absolute poverty, they should be generous, and willing to use their material wealth cheerfully and without compulsion for the furthering of God’s divine will.
Care for the poor and the sick
Not only did he set himself to being poor, he gave devotedly to the poor. Celano writes that Francis would grieve over those who were poorer than himself, from a feeling of sincere compassion. Ever since his early years, he felt a compassion for those less fortunate, and gave alms to the beggars liberally. One time, he found another brother accusing a poor person of being rich, claiming that he was merely posing as a beggar. Francis commanded that brother to strip naked and to kiss that poor man’s feet, asking for forgiveness.
He also cared for the sick. Though he was terrified of their disease, he visited the lepers and cared for them. His heart reached out to the poor and the rejected of society, to bring to them the love of Christ. His was the heart of a true minister, full of compassion. In his imitation of Christ, he sought to care for those his Savior cared for. He did not merely revel in the ecstasy of the contemplative; his love ¾ given by God ¾ also drove him to care for the needs of people around him.
Preaching to the nations
Francis was a missionary as well. He preached throughout the countryside, telling the simple folk about the Gospel. He sent some of his brethren to France, Germany, and Spain, where many of them met their martyrdom. Francis himself sought martyrdom, to be linked inextricably with the Passion of Christ by the sacrifice of his own life. He sought to bring the message of Christ to the Muslims, and even made his way to Syria to preach to the Sultan.
And when Francis preached, he did not do it with an acerb tongue. He preached without the bitter gall of many prophets. Instead, he let his lifestyle and spirituality speak for themselves, and allowed the utter goodness of his heart to pour forth. He lived what he preached, and therefore did not need to rely on oratorical skills or psychological manipulation to share what was in his spirit, the Spirit of God. He imitated Jesus: what he preached, he had already practiced. His life was a witness to his relationship with Christ.
In his life, Francis embraced both the contemplative and the active. Without the contemplative, his action would be empty, shallow. He would have nothing to give but himself. Without the active, he would have a superficial love affair at best. Instead, he was able to give the love of Christ through a knowledge of Scripture and a relationship of intimacy. And, his relationship with God pressed him to make radical decisions, offering his life to God as a spiritual act of worship. Francis’ life is a vivid model and a welcome challenge to the spiritual lives of today’s Christians. St. Francis of Assisi combined the intimacy of the contemplative and ministry of the active together in spiritual tandem, leading to an honest and devoted imitation of Jesus Christ.