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Spiritual Practices of St. Francis of Assisi

James Choung & Prof. Samuel Schutz - May 6, 1996
http://www.thefranciscanfriars.org/book/export/html/100
Reflection questions by Don Grant

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  (active service)
to his adoration of nature  (contemplative life)
to his fervent times of prayer, nature  (contemplative life)
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 (all-inclusive) spiritual living even for today.

FOR REFLECTION: Does my spiritual life include time for both contemplation and active service? Is my spiritual life more contemplative then active or the other way around? Do I discern a need to rebalance the contemplative and active aspects of my spiritual life? (What things do we do in our contemplative life? Give examples of active service regarding our family, our fraternity, our parish, for community at large. Why might our answers be different at different stages in our lives?)

01. 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.

What does it mean “to contemplate alone with God?” Would it be correct to say that in his prayer life, St. Francis was having a conversation with God? If so, when did God first speak to St. Francis? What was his response? Did he misunderstand what God was asking him to do? Why might the prayer life of First Order and Second Order Franciscans be different from Secular Franciscans?

FOR REFLECTION: What are the similarities and differences between my prayer life and the prayer life of St. Francis? Do I need to make changes in my prayer life? If so, what do I need to do to make those changes?

02. WELCOMING THE HOLY SPIRIT

Often, while praying, St. Francis would be rapt in ecstasy. Whenever he felt the Holy Spirit approaching, he would always welcome Him, enjoying the "inspiration" for as long as God permitted. (Think of the word inspiration as meaning “being in-Spirit.” When we’re in-Spirit, we’re inspired…and when we’re inspired, it’s because we’re back in-Spirit, fully awake to the Spirit within us.)

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 (traditional doctrine), 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.

FOR REFLECTION: Is my faith more than an adherence to the doctrine of the Catholic Church? What can I do to be more aware of/sensitive to the approach of the Holy Spirit?

03. 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.

In our world of consumption, where the resources of nature are blighted and abused, Francis stands out as an anomaly. 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.

FOR REFLECTION: What are the similarities between my view of nature and St. Francis’ view of nature? When I contemplate a beautiful vista, am I consciously aware that God that created the world of nature, (sometimes referred to as the Book of Nature), and give him thanks?

04. 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.

FOR REFLECTION:To what extent in our own lives do we emulate the way Francis lived a life of poverty?

05. CARE FOR THE POOR & SICK

Not only did Francis 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.

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.

FOR REFLECTION: To what extent do I actively reach out to the poor and rejected of society?

06. 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 demanded 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 (critical explanation or interpretation of a Biblical text) 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.

FOR REFLECTION: What is the connection between the above notes and RULE 4 from our Way of Life?

“The rule and life of the Secular Franciscans is this: to observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of St. Francis of Assisi who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people. Christ, the gift of the Father's love, is the way to him, the truth into which the Holy Spirit leads us, and the life which he has come to give abundantly. Secular Franciscans should devote themselves especially to careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and life to gospel.”

07. 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. Like some of his brethren, 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 Egypt to preach to the Sultan.

When Francis preached,

He let his lifestyle and spirituality speak for themselves.

He 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.

FOR REFLECTION: Do you see similarities in the way Francis preached and the way Pope Francis is preaching today? Give examples. Consider the exhortation, “Preach always, and when necessary use words.” What personal changes do I need to make to preach in the manner of Francis and Pope Francis?

Sources of Information

Press, 1981. Pp. 49-55.

Fortini, Arnaldo. Francis of Assisi. Translated by Helen Moak. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1981.

. Francis and Clare: The Complete Works. Translated and Introduction by Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady. New York: Pauline Press, 1982.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity, Volume 1: to A.D. 1500. New York: Harper Collins, 1975; Harper Collins, 1953.

. "Legend of Perugia." In St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis. Translated by Paul Oligny. Edited by Marion A. Habig. 3rd Edition. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973. Pp. 977-1091.

. "The Little Flowers of St. Francis." In St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis. Edited by Marion A. Habig. 3rd Edition. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973. Pp. 1301-1506.

. "Mirror of Perfection." In St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis. Edited by Marion A. Habig. 3rd Edition. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973. Pp. 1125-1293.

Rotzetter, Anton. "Mysticism and Literal Observance of the Gospel in Francis of Assisi." In Francis of Assisi Today. Translated by Robert Nowell. Edited by Christian Duquoc and Casiano Floristán. New York: The Seabury Press, 1981. Pp. 56-64.

Thomas of Celano. "The First Life of St. Francis." In St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis. Edited by Marion A. Habig. 3rd Edition. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973. Pp. 227-355.

Thomas of Celano. "The Second Life of St. Francis." In St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis. Edited by Marion A. Habig. 3rd Edition. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973. Pp. 359-543.

By: James Choung

MC 101 Spiritual Formation
Prof. Samuel Schutz
May 6, 1996

GCTS Box #72
130 Essex Street
South Hamilton, MA 01982

jchoung@aol.com