Category Archives: Bret’s Articles

St. Francis as Peacemaker

By Bret Thoman, OFS

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

The Lord revealed to me a greeting, as we used to say: “May the Lord give you peace.” (Testament 23)

St. Francis was a man of peace. In everything he did, he always sought to create peace between people, families, and cities; most fundamentally, however, he hoped to reconcile God with man. And this during a period in which war and conflict were all too common: between rival towns, ruling families, Pope and Emperor, Majores and Minores, hierarchy and heretic, Christian and Saracen, Assisi and Perugia. Arnaldo Fortini, one of the great biographers of St. Francis, described well the violence during the time of Francis. 1 Fortini noted the number of wars fought between local towns, cities, regions, provinces, and he described with horror the brutality and atrocities committed both on the battlefield and towards captured prisoners.

Before his conversion, Francis knew such violence first hand. 1 He lived a youthful life doing things that did not bring him peace. His chivalric outlook on life led him to battle as a way to bring honor and glory to himself in his self-centered attempts at becoming a knight. His first attempt – a disaster for himself and the Assisian army – led to his capture and imprisonment for a year in a dungeon-prison in Perugia. A year after his release, he heard the call to arms, and he set out to Apulia to fight once again. However, this time, he never saw battle, as after only a day’s journey from Assisi, he had a dream in Spoleto. Francis heard a voice present him with a question: “Is it better to serve the Master or the servant?” Francis, in a society still feudal, responded that it was always better to serve the master. The voice then told him to return to Assisi where he would be told what to do. At that moment Francis became pacifist and never again picked up the sword. The next morning, he woke up, gave his armor and arms to a fellow traveler, and returned home.

After this experience, Francis would soon dedicate his life to peace as a peacemaker. Just before he died, he wrote in his Testament, “The Lord revealed to me a greeting, as we used to say: ‘May the Lord give you peace.’” 2 According to the words of Thomas of Celano, Francis began his sermons with a call for peace, “In all his preaching, before he proposed the word of God to those gathered about, he first prayed for peace for them, saying: ‘The Lord give you peace.’”3 In his Earlier Rule, he wrote, “And into whatever house they enter, let them first say: Peace to this house.” 4

In his Admonitions, Francis twice quoted Jesus’s Beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”5 In the thirteenth Admonition, Francis then wrote:

The servant of God cannot know how much patience and humility he has within himself as long as everything goes well with him. But when the time comes in which those who should do him justice do quite the opposite to him, he has only as much patience and humility as he has on that occasion and no more.

In another Admonition, Francis quoted the same Scripture, and then wrote: “The true peacemakers are those who preserve peace of mind and body for love of our Lord Jesus Christ, despite what they suffer in this world.”6

In these two Admonitions, Francis is saying that true peace does not take place when everything in the world goes well for us, but is something other-worldly. When our peace is centered not on receiving the things of this world that we desire – even when good and just – but on the will of God – even when God allows things to go badly – then the vicissitudes of this world do not affect us and cannot take away our peace. In fact, this is precisely what Jesus himself said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.”7 And, according to Francis, precisely when the things of this world do not go according to our own will, our peace is tested. And, the amount of humility and patience we have at that moment is the amount of peace we may have – and no more. This peace is a gift from the Holy Spirit – not a material one from this world.

Now let’s look at Francis’s attitude toward peacemaking. The Legend of the Three Companions says that Francis always counselled the friars to carry peace in their hearts:

As you preach peace by word, so you should also possess peace, and superabundant peace in your hearts. Anger no one, nor vex any man; but by your meekness urge others to be peaceful, meek and merciful. For we are called to heal the wounded, to succor the injured, and to bring back the erring to the ways of righteousness.8

Here Francis is saying that one has to be at peace before preaching about, teaching about, or trying to mediate peace. In other words: if you want to bring peace to others, you must have it in your own heart first. There is a well-known tune that begins, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” I will spare you my singing voice, but you know the verse. The message is that only after we have received the gift of peace, can we then become an agent of peace in the world to those around us. “You cannot give what you do not have,” goes the old saying. Think for a moment about someone you know who is peaceful. Don’t you want to have that person around when you want to talk about something that is troubling you? Don’t you want to ask him or her for their advice and counsel? Now, conversely, think of someone who is not at peace. You probably do not want that person around when you have a conflict; often their advice and attitudes will create more problems for you.

Francis’s attitude toward peacemaking was not one of diplomacy, statecraft, or realpolitik. For him, peace came simply from a personal and subjective relationship with the incarnate God in the Person of Jesus Christ. Francis believed that peace was not something that could be “made”; rather, it had to be “embodied.” If peace originates in God – and is fully manifested in the Incarnation in Christ – then it has to be personally received before being applied to conflicts. He did not necessarily intend to become a peacemaker, he simply set out to follow Christ. Francis’s attitude towards peace was no different than his attitude toward life: he was a Christian and his response towards life and its complexities was always in Christ. The Lord gave Francis peace which spread to those about him.

So the question is this: “How do we have peace in our hearts?” This is a valid question, and one we have been attempting to answer in these reflections we’ve been doing each month. I think that the story of St. Francis gives us answers. And in each reflection, we have spoken of how St. Francis arrived at peace.

Question: What are some of those ways?

By humbly surrendering himself to God, by seeking the will of God, by living a life of penance and by becoming willing to suffer, serving the poor and seeking justice, forgiving, having a humble and surrendered attitude toward personal desires and needs (including food, clothing, shelter, and property), Francis found peace. The same man who spent his youth in seeking worldly desires, entertainment, knighthood, money, fine clothes, after his conversion, spent the rest of his life serving and helping the poor – especially the leper. His life as a merchant – in competition, calculating, evaluating, planning – did not bring him peace. Only by leaving everything and embracing the poor did he receive peace. In all of this, Francis imitated Christ, and by doing so, he found peace.

Francis’s journey to peace initially began when he surrendered himself in obedience to God. He converted his life centered on vice and sin. Obedience represents one of the three knots on the Franciscan cord and around the Secular Franciscan TAU. A fresco in the upper basilica of St. Francis depicts the moment in young Francis’s life just after he had stripped off his clothes in front of the bishop of Assisi, his father, and the townspeople, declaring that his father was no longer Pietro Bernardone, but his Father who art in Heaven. An often-overlooked detail in that fresco is highly significant and symbolic of Francis’s obedience. Francis is standing toward the right side of the panel with the clerics and bishop behind him, while his father and the townspeople are depicted on the left side. Francis’s earthly father appears enraged, clenching his fist, reared back, as if about to strike Francis. Another man (perhaps Francis’s brother) holds their father’s hand to prevent the blow. Francis, apparently oblivious to the action surrounding him, gazes heavenward with his hands clasped together in prayer. At the top of the fresco, directly above Francis’s earthly father, however, is another hand – the hand of God – which protrudes from the clouds in the traditional form of a blessing. Francis has just taken his obedience away from his earthly father – and all his earthly pursuits – and given it to his heavenly Father. And his Father blesses him for it, while his earthly father curses him for it.

For Francis, the will of God was to take on a life of penance. His penance consisted in rebuilding churches, fasting, praying, giving away his possessions, prayer, living in community, and faithfulness to the Church. Perhaps his biggest penance, however, was in serving the poor – especially the leper. We have already spoken of penance, but suffice it to say that penance is any action we take – whether voluntary or involuntary – to convert from the “old man” in order to embrace the “new man.”9 Through penance, God takes our old nature, turns it upside down, and makes us into something new. We are no longer focused only on ourselves- our hurts, pains, feelings, etc. Those things have been renewed in Christ – the New Man – we are now open to turn to others’ hurts, pains. A number of years ago, I had the honor of serving on the Parish Mission Team of the Archdiocese of New York led by a wonderful priest named Fr. Tom Devery. Fr. Tom used to say, “You begin with penance; then, after you remove two ‘N’s’ which stand for ‘no-no’s’ and ‘nonsense’ what are you left with? Peace.” In all of his penances, Francis found peace.

Since Francis had peace within his own heart, he was able to transmit to those around him. We have numerous stories recounted of how Francis served as a peacemaker. One interesting aspect about Francis that does not receive much attention is how, through preaching and mediation, Francis was able to reconcile feuds and civil wars in various towns and cities throughout Italy. In the Little Flowers of St. Francis, the tale is told of Francis and Masseo journeying to Siena, which they found in a state of civil war. Francis preached a sermon and “brought all of them back to peace and great unity and harmony.”10 Another story is told –depicted in one of the frescoes in the upper basilica – how St. Francis drove out demons and stopped a civil war in Arezzo. Thomas of Celano recounts how Francis and Silvester arrived in Arezzo to find the city “shaken by civil war to the extent that destructions seemed very close.”11 Francis prayed and told Silvester to sing a hymn and command the demons to leave. The fresco in Assisi notes the demons fleeing the city. After peace was restored, the citizens of Arezzo underwent a change of heart. Another story is told how Francis brought peace to warring families in Bologna in 1222.12 Finally, in Assisi, just before he died, Francis reconciled the bishop and mayor.13 After this reconciliation, he added a stanza to his Canticle of Brother Sun:

Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love
And bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by you, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Another way that Francis contributed to peace was by prohibiting his followers from carrying arms and swearing oaths, including the non-Religious Tertiaries (today’s Secular Franciscans). This created not a few problems in medieval feudal society when public order depended on the oath of allegiance sworn to one’s liege lord backed up with a call to arms when necessary. The civil authorities were okay with monks and friars not bearing arms, but not the lay penitents. After rigorous defense on behalf of the Church hierarchy, the civil authorities eventually ceded and allowed the Franciscan prohibition against carrying arms for lay Franciscans to continue. Eventually, many people entered the Third Order of St. Francis precisely to avoid military service. This had the effect of lessening violence as there were fewer people willing to fight.

Question: what do you think it was about Francis that allowed him to be a peacemaker?
When St. Francis set out to mediate peace, he was simple and his message was simple. He arrived in towns in a simple manner dressed in poverty. As he had dispossessed himself of everything, he approached conflicts from the outside and people did not feel threatened by him; he had renounced everything – money, position, politics, and worldly honors. He did not stand to gain anything from the conflicts he mediated; people could sense peace within him. Thus, Francis’s approach to peace reflected his emphasis on being “minor,” or “lesser” in society; without power, wealth or social privilege. In the feudal system in which he lived, this struck people. And they listened to him. As he traveled around preaching – his example was much more convincing than the words he spoke.

Francis did not expect to bring peace into the world by simply withdrawing and praying for the world (which he did periodically); but, rather, by directly engaging the world where the world was. His attitude toward conflict was to get inside it. But always as a Christian and always with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as the Word became incarnate and came down into the world – in all its ugliness and sin – so did Francis get involved in the complexities and difficulties of the world. But always with Christ at the center. He did so by engaging the world through witness, service, patience, penance and suffering, prayer, dialogue – ultimately through love.

Now let’s look a little more deeply at Francis and peacemaking. When attempting to negotiate peace, Francis did not hope for merely an end to the struggle and violence, but something more concrete. He was attempting to bring peace that comes from an active spiritual experience, a changed soul, the peace that does not come from the world, but from God through Jesus Christ. So for Francis, peace was not simply the absence of war or tension, but was a concrete experience and expression of living the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”14 Pope Paul VI said the same thing slightly differently, “If you want peace, work for justice.”15 Isaiah says, “The work of justice will be peace; the effect of justice, calm and security forever.”16 In other words, true peace between individuals or groups in conflict with one another cannot be negotiated by merely removing the tension; instead, the presence of justice must take place. In some areas of the world, extensive walls are built up along borders to separate groups of people who have had long-simmering tensions. Taking away the possibility of conflict may temporarily remove the potential for struggle; yet, this only gives the appearance of peace. In fact, such a situation can actually foster more hatred and anger leading to more war in the future. So, if long-term, authentic peace is to take root, justice must be present.

So the next question we may ask ourselves is, “What is justice?” Justice involves respect, forgiveness, fraternal concern, compassion, and care for others. In effect, justice is love. Pope Paul VI elaborated on the statement (quoted above) during his speech on the Celebration for the Day of Peace:

It is an invitation [to celebrate peace] which does not ignore the difficulties in practicing Justice, in defining it, first of all, and then in actuating it, for it always demands some sacrifice of prestige and self-interest: Perhaps more greatness of soul is needed for yielding to the ways of Justice and Peace than for fighting for and imposing on an adversary one’s rights, whether true or alleged. We have such trust in the power of the associated ideals of Justice and Peace to generate in modern man the moral energy to actuate them, that we are confident of their gradual victory. Indeed we are even more confident that on his own modern man has an understanding of the ways of peace, sufficient to enable him to become a promoter of that Justice which opens those ways and sets people traveling them with courageous and prophetic hope.17

There is an old Latin saying, Amor omnia vincit, which means “Love conquers all things.” In fact, it is true love that brings true peace: wherever one works for the good of others, there is peace. Where there is love, there is God – Ubi caritas, Deus ibi est. And where there is God, there is peace.

When we begin to direct and order our lives towards love and justice, what happens? Do we focus primarily on our own needs, desires, problems, challenges, goals, etc.? Or do we open ourselves up to others? Having had a spiritual experience and having received the gift of peace, a desire wells up within our hearts to help and give to other people. We stop focusing on ourselves and begin to consider the needs of others. This is the Golden Rule, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” When we perceive difficulties, we desire to find a way to help resolve such challenges: this is working for justice. Working for justice is observing what is broken and seeking to rebuild it. And here is peace.
This is reflected in the Franciscan Peace Prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

In this prayer, written by a French priest in the years leading up to World War I, we see how various negative attitudes or situations are countered with something positive. Each desire to “get” or “receive” something is responded with a desire to “give” the same thing sought. And precisely through giving, we receive. Here is peace.
Yet, there is another aspect to working for peace that is reflected in this prayer. When we begin working for justice, we find it necessary to sacrifice something of ourselves. In its most materialist sense, this sacrifice demands our time, energy, and resources. However, sometimes the sacrifice asks more. It may ask us to sacrifice ourselves. Mother Theresa said we must give to each other to the point that it hurts:

Jesus gave His life to love us and He tells us that we also have to give whatever it takes to do good to one another. And in the Gospel Jesus says very clearly: “Love as I have loved you.” Jesus died on the Cross because that is what it took for Him to do good to us – to save us from our selfishness in sin. He gave up everything to do the Father’s will to show us that we too must be willing to give up everything to do God’s will – to love one another as He loves each of us. If we are not willing to give whatever it takes to do good to one another, sin is still in us. That is why we too must give to each other until it hurts.18

“Giving until it hurts” is embracing the cross. When we have undergone our own spiritual transformation through the cross, and have walked the road from sin to redemption, and have moved from war to peace in our own lives, we can bring that peace to others. Just as God has embraced and redeemed the ugly aspects within us, we extend that to others.

In fact, perhaps the highest form of spirituality within the Christian life, is to sacrifice ourselves for those who have harmed us. We voluntarily make sacrifices to atone for the sin that others have committed against us. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. was striving for in his ways of non-violence. By voluntarily submitting to his oppressors who did violence against him – during marches, sit-ins, protests, etc. – he was able to show the righteousness of his cause and the wrongness of those harming him.

St. Camilla Battista da Varano, a 16th-century Poor Clare nun canonized in 2010, wrote about how she did penance for those who had harmed her. She suffered terribly when her father, a Renaissance duke, was murdered by agents of the Borgia family (possibly with the approval of the pope, also a Borgia). Camilla wrote in her work, Purity of Heart:

the prelates and pastors of our souls … to whom belong the care of souls … beat me with harsh words and wounded me with worse deeds and under a pretext of good, they took from me a father who was my refuge in my tribulations. These prying prelates are guardians of the ceremonial walls of religion, but not the walls of the good and holy life; … [nevertheless], we should not stop honoring these prelates because of this; rather, we must frequently pray for them … [and] I will dress in sackcloth and ashes of humility and patience [for them].19

She shows us how penance is sacrificing a part of ourselves for others. In this case – innocence for guilt.
Saint Bonaventure wrote in the Triple Way that only the zeal for martyrdom leads to the repose of peace. And is martyrdom anything other than imitation of Christ on the cross? Francis wrote of the cross in his Letter to the Faithful:

And, as the Passion drew near, He celebrated the Passover with His disciples and, taking bread, giving thanks, and blessed and broke it, saying: Take and eat: this is my Body (Mt 26:26). And taking the cup He said: This is My Blood of the new covenant which will be shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:28). Then He prayed to His Father, saying: Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me (Lk 22:42). And His sweat became as drops of blood falling on the ground (Lk 22:44). Nonetheless, He placed His will at the will of the Father, saying: Father, let your will be done (Mt 26:42); not as I will but as you will (Mt 26:39). And the will of the Father was such that His blessed and glorious Son, Whom He gave to us and was born for us, should, through His own blood, offer Himself as a sacrifice and oblation on the altar of the cross: not for Himself through Whom all things were made, but for our sins, leaving us an example that we should follow in His footprints (cf. 1 Pet 2:21). 20

“… that we should follow in his footprints” – in the footprints that led to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The cross is the highest form of the love of God incarnate, a love which does not die, but triumphs over evil and death. The peace of Christ is love: love of others, love of God, love of the cross. Only through the cross can one change painful, even violent situations, into life-giving encounters. This is what being a peacemaker is: transforming the difficulties, tragedies, even violence that life can sometimes present into life, into peace. It is a peace that only Christ can give – a peace the world cannot give.

Francis’s Christian life began with his gaze on the crucifix at San Damiano and ended with the wounds of the cross on his body in Laverna. Just as Christ on the crucifix of San Damiano was not depicted as dead, but alive, and the wounds of Christ came alive in Francis’s own body, God is able to make life out of death. The Passion, crucifixion, and death of Christ did not have the final say – the Resurrection did! The cross was not defeat and failure; paradoxically, it gave life.

The cross is the martyrdom that each of us is called to – whether as Christians, Catholics, or Franciscans. For some of the early Franciscans – the protomartyrs who gave their lives in Morocco – their martyrdom was actual; Giles referred to embracing what he called the “martyrdom of contemplation”; for Clare martyrdom was illness and her desire to die a martyr. For others – perhaps Francis himself – martyrdom was and continues to be his work to build up the Kingdom of God in prayer, community, the leprosaria, penance, poverty, and in working to reconcile people with each other, with God, with themselves. This is working for peace.

When we have peace from the Holy Spirit, we can stand with St. Paul who was “convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”21
Francis – who stridently sought to follow Christ, namely Christ’s commandment to love one another as he loved us22 and who followed Christ all the way to the cross – received this true peace. It is the peace that the Risen Jesus gave to his disciples when he stood in their midst and said: “Peace be with you!”, and in saying this, he showed them his wounded hands and his pierced side.

Reflections:
How do you understand your life as peacemaker?
How have you concretely been a peacemaker?
What are some areas within your own life, family, parish, or community where there is a lack of peace? Can you think of a way to bring peace to that situation?
Very few of us can be like Francis, Clare, and the first followers who desired to die the actual death of the martyr. For most of us today, our martyrdom will consist in our struggles with our communities or family members, finances or jobs, health and illness. Yet, just the same, as we
“work out our salvation” in the throes of life, we find peace. Where do you find peace working through the difficulties of ordinary life? 23

1. Cf. Francis of Assisi, A Translation of Nova Vita di San Francesco by Helen Moak. 1985. Crossroad Publishing Company, New York. Pp. 53-63

2. Testament 23

3. 1 Celano, chapter X, 23

4 Earlier Rule, Chapter XIV

5 Matthew 5:9

6 Admonitions 15

7 Cf. John 14:27

8 Legend of the Three Companions, 58

9 Cf. Rom 6:6; Eph 2:15; 4:22-24; and Col 3:9-11

10 Little Flowers of St. Francis 11

11 2 Celano 108

12 from the writings of Thomas, Archdeacon of Spoleto; from Omnibus 1602-01

13 Legend of Perugia 44

14 As quoted in “Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr (1982) by Stephen B. Oates. MLK said this in 1955 in response to an accusation that he his activism was “disturbing the peace” during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.

15 MESSAGE OF HIS HOLINESS POPE PAUL VI FOR THE CELEBRATION OF THE DAY OF PEACE, 1 JANUARY 1972

16. Is 32:17

17. SPEECH GIVEN FOR THE CELEBRATION OF THE DAY OF PEACE, 1 JANUARY 1972

18 Speech of Mother Teresa of Calcutta to the National Prayer Breakfast, Washington, DC, February 3, 1994.

19 “Purity of Heart” and quoted in “From Worldly Princess to the Foot of the Cross.” by Bret Thoman, published by TAU Publisher, Phoenix, p. 205.

20 Second Version of the Letter of the Faithful. 6-13

21 Rom: 8:38ff.

22 cf. Jn 13:34; 15:12

23 cf. Jn 20:19-20

Obedience

 

A Personal Encounter with Jesus Christ

— Finding God with St. Francis of Assisi

Introduction: Obedience

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

“My God and my all.” (St. Francis of Assisi)

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (Deuteronomy 6: 4-6). In these two sentences, God enjoined his Commandments on the Israelite people through Moses as mediator. This first Commandment is the basic principle of the entirety of Mosaic law. Christ himself repeated these words when responding to the Pharisees who asked him which commandment is the greatest: “He said to them, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.’” (Matthew 22:37f).

This same Commandment is sometimes written: “YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD AND HIM ONLY SHALL YOU SERVE” (quote). Here God makes it clear that he is the only God and that there is no other god. The first of the commandments establishes the primacy of God. Our entire human existence originates from and in God. He is the source of all being and being itself. Our relationship with God begins when we acknowledge the sovereignty of God who deserves our full worship because of his love. The first Commandment – the source of religion – recognizes God as the source of our entire essence, love, and life. In this Commandment, God calls and demands that man accept him and worship him alone. With a firm understanding of who God is, we “Know and fix in [our] heart, that the Lord is God in the heavens above and on earth below, and that there is no other.”¹

Scripture sometimes refers to the obeisance owed God as “fear of the Lord.” “You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him. . . . You shall not go after other gods.” (5: find quote from Catechism). This “fear of the Lord” is a reverential fear and respect for God due to his sovereignty as Creator of the heavens and the Earth. This “fear and respect” is the bedrock of our faith. We put God first – before all else in our lives.

When Moses meets God and asks who he is, God replies “I am who I am.” This mysterious response tells us nothing, but it also tells us everything. God is nameless, but he is also everything. He is YAHWAH, the beginning and the end. The God we believe in is the one and true God who revealed his glory to Israel. It is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is the God who called Abraham to leave the land of his father in order to give him a new land where his offspring would multiply and he would be fertile. He is the God who led the Israelites out of the desert. He is the God Jesus referred to as “Our Father.”

We owe our entire lives and all of creation to God – the God who, in the beginning “created the heavens and the earth.”2   The God we worship is the God who made and ordered the universe. I remember some years ago visiting the Hayden planetarium of New York. I left it feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the immensity of the universe. I could not help but reflect on how our little home here on earth was so small, while the universe was so immense. Yet, the God of all creation still found time, care, and love to look after us, too.

With the primacy of God firmly established, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the purpose of the “Life of man is to know and love God.” When we submit ourselves in obedience to God with God as the central point in our lives, our lives are properly and correctly ordered. We become more human. We live the way we were created to be – to give honor and glory to God.

Yet, this is not how most of us live our lives. Even if we have the desire to live correctly and to honor and worship God, we fall short. Let us look to the experience of Adam and Even in the garden. According to Genesis, Adam and Eve were the first man and woman created by God. (cf. Genesis xyz.) They lived in blessed happiness in the garden paradise on earth created for them by God. Yet, through their disobedience, they fell away from that state leading to our present world of suffering and injustice.

Now the snake was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made. He asked the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden’?” The woman answered the snake: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, or else you will die.’” But the snake said to the woman: “You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.” The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Genesis 3:1-6)

Let’s look at this story a little more closely. Before their fall, Adam and Eve lived in freedom, joy, and bliss. When God made the earth, he told Adam that he could eat from any of the trees “except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die” (Gen 2:16-17). The serpent’s temptation was that by eating precisely of the one tree they were commanded not to, they would “become like gods who know good and evil” (Gen 3:5). Their temptation and sin was really no different than ours: whenever we disobey God by sinning, we are saying that we know better than God. At the root of their sin was a desire to be like God. The serpent convinced them that God was keeping something from them that was good for them, but was in fact, bad. By eating of the fruit, they sought to become like God, but became idolatrous.

The moment they disobeyed God, their eyes were immediately opened, they realized something was different, they felt shame, and they tried to hide from God. Then they both tried to excuse themselves by blaming someone else as the cause of their transgressions: Adam blamed Eve who, in turn, blamed the serpent.

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. When they heard the sound of the LORD God walking about in the garden at the breezy time of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. The LORD God then called to the man and asked him: Where are you? He answered, “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.” Then God asked: Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat? The man replied, “The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it.” The LORD God then asked the woman: What is this you have done? The woman answered, “The snake tricked me, so I ate it.” (Genesis 3:7-13)

Whether we consider Adam and Eve as the first actual human beings who lived in history, or as symbolic of the condition of man and woman, the point is the same: we sin through our disobedience to God. And when we do so, we, too, feel a sense of shame. Often, we, too, seek to blame someone else for our actions or for the way we feel. Sometimes our shame is for something we have specifically done; other times, it is due to the nature of being human – our weaknesses, limitations, our humanity. The temptation of Adam and Eve was that “they would become like God.” At some level, in our sin and disobedience, we seek to become our own gods. When we sin, we become idolaters.

Some people, from childhood, are aware of the separation that exists between them and God due to their disobedience. They grow up with a keen awareness of the opposition between divine omnipotence and their own human weakness, and their attempt at reconciling that struggle comes in subtle ways. For others, the moment of the realization of their sinfulness is dramatic and great; they realize that they have been living as great sinners far from God and his will by having greatly offended him. They have a powerful awakening at a certain point in their lives that is dramatic and sudden. This is the experience of St. Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis became aware of his disobedience one night while he was on his way to war. As a young man, Francis had desired to become a knight. Inspired by tales of chivalry, he was enthusiastic to fight for a cause, a lord, and a lady, and to receive self-glory through war. Yet, God had other plans for him. While journeying to fight in southern Italy as a crusader, Francis heard God’s voice in a dream in Spoleto. God asked him whether it was better to serve the Lord or a servant: “Francis, who can do more for you, the Lord or his servant, a rich man or a beggar?” Francis responded that a lord or a rich man could do more. Then he was asked by the voice, “Then why are you serving the servant?” Francis asked, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” The voice responded, “Go back to your home and you will be shown what to do.” The next morning, Francis gave away his armor to a poor knight who was traveling with him, and headed back to Assisi on foot to listen to the voice of God and to discover what he was to do. His life would soon become radically different. St. Bonaventure said that this was the first moment in his life when Francis was able to discern and listen to God and he “began to God’s will at this point” – (quote.) This is when Francis began to become obedient to God.

Later in his life, St. Francis spoke and wrote often of obedience. In the 2nd Admonition, Francis wrote, “For that person eats of the tree of the knowledge of good who makes his will his own [appropriates his will to himself] (qui sibi suam voluntatem appropriat) and, in this way, exalts himself over the good things the Lord says and does in him.” He said that perfect obedience was …xyz (Admonitions III: perfect obedience) Here we see how St. Francis believed that self-will was at the root of evil. Thus, obedience to God is the root of all goodness.

What is obedience? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “To obey in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself” (CCC 144). We have models in Scripture: Abraham is the model of such obedience offered us by Sacred Scripture. The Virgin Mary is its most perfect embodiment. Of course, Christ himself obeys his Father all the way to the cross.

The word comes from the Latin ob-audire, which means, “to hear or listen to.” Scripture says, “Incline your ear, and hear my words, and let your mind attend to my teaching” (Prov 22:17). St. Benedict began the Prologue to his great rule with the words, “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” There is an image of St. Francis in a series of three frescoes in the lower basilica built in his honor designed to represent obedience – one of the three evangelical counsels. This is the panel that faces the choir where the friars gather to pray the Divine Office several times each day. St. Francis has his index finger over his lips indicating to his friars that in order to be obedient, they need to be quiet to listen. This when we wish to become obedient, we need to step back and listen.

We begin to become obedient to God when we decide to place our faith and trust in him. Even if we do not know him well, or if we know him but a little, when we seek him we are beginning to reconcile that chasm that exists between us and him. Scripture refers to this moment in our lives as the beginning of wisdom. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Prov. 9:10; Psalm 111:10).

Yet sometimes people today do not really know who God is. Sometimes they may be afraid to surrender themselves to him. Often people have an inaccurate image of God impressed on them perhaps from their childhood. They may believe that God is angry at them or is constantly scrutinizing their behavior – waiting for the right moment to strike as soon as they get out of line. We need to know and have faith that God loves us deeply, passionately, mercifully, and totally.

Scripture tells us that “God is love.” Our understanding of God culminates in Christ. In the person of Christ, we see the face of God. God is not just an almighty, Creator, aloof being up in Heaven somewhere; he is incarnate, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Christ himself refers to God as Father in the prayer he taught his disciples. This gentle image of God that Jesus seeks to portray our God who not only protects, provides for, and guides, but who also is tender, merciful, and loving. In other words, our God is one of love. When we trust that God truly cares for us, we can allow ourselves to enter into the mystery of the love of God. We can enter into relationship with him, and we allow him to give himself to us. Then our prayer is centered on a great and loving God. St. Francis of Assisi left us a beautiful prayer describing who God was for him:

You are holy, Lord, the only God, You do wonders.
You are strong, You are great, You are the most high,
You are the almighty King.
You, Holy Father, the King of heaven and earth.
You are Three and One, Lord God of gods;
You are good, all good, the highest good,
Lord, God, living and true.
You are love, charity.
You are wisdom; You are humility; You are patience;
You are beauty; You are meekness; You are security;
You are inner peace; You are joy; You are our hope and joy;
You are justice; You are moderation, You are all our riches
[You are enough for us.]
You are beauty, You are meekness;
You are our protector,
You are our guardian and defender;
You are strength; You are refreshment.
You are our hope, You are our faith, You are our charity,
You are all our sweetness,
You are our eternal life:
Great and wonderful Lord,
God almighty, Merciful Savior. 5

These are beautiful images of God. This is why St. Francis himself frequently prayed, “My God and my all.”6  God was all love for him.

God deserves our trust, as well as our obedience. And when we decide to obey and follow the voice of God, who leads us from the place we were, we are called to go forth. But we have no idea where he will take us. Our life becomes a journey, like a pilgrimage. We become like Abram, called by Yahweh to go forth from his pagan past and his father’s home in order to migrate to the land of God’s choice, where he would receive divine blessings (cf. Genesis 12: 1-4). Or we become like the Hebrew people, led by Moses out of the desert to the Promised Land. In short, we become disciples of Christ called to live as “strangers and aliens on earth” (Hebrews 11: 14) and to “conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning”7  Like the prophets and the disciples of old, the journey may involve a period of struggle, uncertainty, doubt, desert (literal or metaphorical), and difficulty in which we may feel lost. However, we will ultimately arrive at a better place. In fact, the state of exile is not the Christian’s ultimate goal – Heaven is.

In our Christian life, we will hear the call, leave, and wander; yet ultimately we will arrive in a purified place and state. Once we are obedient, we must leave. Something. Abraham was called to leave his father’s land and house. We, too, are called to leave that which is familiar to us. It may be our vices or sins; it may be our community; it may be our ways of doing things – what is familiar to us. But God will call us to something. Then we set out on the journey.

Our journey begins when we realize that something is not quite right. We are lost. The father of the Italian language, Dante (and also a Third Order lay Franciscan), wrote his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, between 1308 and his death in 1321. In the epic poem, Dante narrates his travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. At a deeper level, however, it is an allegorical journey of the soul towards God. It began with the following lines:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

At the midpoint of the journey of our life

I found myself in a dark forest

because the straight path was lost.

Dante begins his poem like a pilgrim and stranger. He realizes he is lost. Yet, it concludes after his journey through trials and tribulations when he ultimately arrives in Heaven; like the prophets of old, he is called to pass through a “desert” only to arrive at a better place.

When we are obedient, we give God our will. We make a decision. We take the first step and become willing to walk our journey towards God. This is the beginning of freedom. When we seek to follow God, we begin where we are – enslaved to the world – and we walk towards God. There we will eventually find intimacy and union. Obedience will eventually restore us to the Kingdom of Heaven. Like St. Francis of Assisi, we ask God what he wants us to do. We seek to do God’s will.
Fundamentally, our obedience to God leads to the end of the shame we inherited from the sin of Adam and Eve. It restores our Garden of Eden of joy, peace, and bliss. This is the Kingdom of God. How do we get there? Through the cross. It is the cross that takes away our shame. As we move from Holy Week to Easter, we thank God for the cross.

The Christian pilgrimage journey involves a process of departure, wandering, and arrival. It requires a sense of rupture when the pilgrim leaves what is familiar and enters a new place where he becomes, in the words of Francis and Clare, a “pilgrim and stranger.” However, at some point on the journey, that feeling of being a stranger passes, and a sense of familiarity rekindles within. It may happen during the wandering, upon arrival, after returning home, or even in the next world to come. And in the process, the pilgrim becomes something he was not before, and he/she arrives (or returns home) transformed. He/she has gone through the same inner spiritual journey as the prophets and pilgrims of yesterday and is no longer the “old man”; the pilgrim is “renewed.”8 The pilgrim has moved through loneliness, exile, sin and wandering to grace, purpose, reassurance and wholeness in God.

Where/when have you personally experienced the spiritual process of departure, wandering, and arrival in your life? Some examples are being called to religious life, leaving home and getting married, taking on a new career, etc.

Bret Thoman, OFS


1 – Deuteronomy 4:39

2 – Genesis 1:1

3 – Ibid. 129.

4 – 1 John 4:8

5 – From the parchment given to Brother Leo at Mount Laverna after receiving the stigmata.

6 – Cf. “The Little Flowers of St. Francis” chap. 2

7 – 1 Peter 1: 17

8 – Romans 6:6; Ephesians 2:15; 4:22-24; and Colossians 3:9-11

The Incarnation, Greccio, and St. Francis

By Bret Thoman, OFS

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7)

In 1223, just three years before he died, St. Francis recreated the nativity of Jesus in Greccio, a small village in the Rieti valley in the same region as Rome. With the assistance of a local nobleman named John, they assembled some animals including an ox and donkey, a young couple with a newborn baby, and some hay in a cave on a cliff about one mile from the town of Greccio. Francis, as a deacon, sang and preached to the people and to the brothers gathered there about the humility, poverty, and simplicity of God who came in the form of a babe. No one had ever done this before. He began a tradition called the crèche, which name comes from the town of Greccio through the French.

Francis’s desire was to reflect on and re-live the historical, concrete, human dimensions of the life of Christ – in this case his birth. Through the nativity scene, Francis created the possibility of entering into the place. Through the presence of the characters – Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi, and the Christ-child himself – together with the animals, the hay, the manger, Francis enhanced the possibility of entering into the mystery of the Incarnation.

Today, we have many more opportunities to experience the Gospel stories; for example, through hearing the Scriptures in our own language, movies, paintings, pictures, etc. But in Francis’s day, religion tended to be loftier; earlier medieval liturgies were often difficult for laypersons to understand, as they were in Latin and preaching more theological.
Let’s listen to the story from Thomas of Celano. While I do so, I want you to close your eyes and use your imagination.

The Manger he made in Celebration of the Lord’s Birthday
By Thomas of Celano

His highest aim, foremost desire, and greatest intention was to pay heed to the holy gospel in all things and through all things, to follow the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and to retrace His footsteps completely with all vigilance and all zeal, all the desire of his soul and all the fervor of his heart.

Francis used to recall with regular meditation the words of Christ and recollect His deeds with most attentive perception. Indeed, so thoroughly did the humility of the Incarnation and the charity of the Passion occupy his memory that he scarcely wanted to think of anything else.

We should note then, as matter worthy of memory and something to be recalled with reverence, what he did, three years prior to his death, at the town of Greccio, on the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ. There was a certain man in that area named John who had a good reputation but an even better manner of life. Blessed Francis loved him with special affection, since, despite being a noble in the land and very honored in human society, he had trampled the nobility of the flesh under his feet and pursued instead the nobility of the spirit. As usual, blessed Francis had John summoned to him some fifteen days prior to the birthday of the Lord. “If you desire to celebrate the coming feast of the Lord together at Greccio,” he said to him, “hurry before me and carefully make ready the things I tell you. For I wish to enact the memory of that babe who was born in Bethlehem: to see as much as is possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he rested on hay.” Once the good and faithful man had heard Francis’s words, he ran quickly and prepared in that place all the things that the holy man had requested.

Here, I want you to do something: Imagine that you are present in Greccio, or better yet, present in Bethlehem.
Finally, the day of joy has drawn near, the time of exultation has come. From many different places the brethren have been called. As they could, the men and women of that land with exultant hearts prepare candles and torches to light up that night whose shining star has enlightened every day and year. Finally, the holy man of God comes and, finding all things prepared, he saw them and was glad. Indeed, the manger is prepared, the hay is carried in, and the ox and the ass are led to the spot. There simplicity is given a place of honor, poverty is exalted, humility is commended, and out of Greccio is made a new Bethlehem.

The night is lit up like day, delighting both man and beast. The people arrive, ecstatic at this new mystery of new joy. The forest amplifies the cries and the boulders echo back the joyful crowd. The brothers sing, giving God due praise, and the whole night abounds with jubilation. The holy man of God stands before the manger, filled with heartfelt sighs, contrite in his piety, and overcome with wondrous joy. Over the manger the solemnities of the Mass are celebrated and the priest enjoys a new consolation.

The holy man of God is dressed in the vestments of the Levites, since he was a Levite [i.e. deacon], and with full voice sings the holy gospel. Here is his voice: a powerful voice, a pleasant voice, a clear voice, a musical voice, inviting all to the highest of gifts. Then he preaches to the people standing around him and pours forth sweet honey about the birth of the poor King and the poor city of Bethlehem. Moreover, burning with excessive love, he often calls Christ the “babe from Bethlehem” whenever he means to call Him Jesus. Saying the word “Bethlehem” in the manner of a bleating sheep, he fills his whole mouth with sound but even more with sweet affection. He seems to lick his lips whenever he uses the expressions “Jesus” or “babe from Bethlehem,” tasting the word on his happy palate and savoring the sweetness of the word. The gifts of the Almighty are multiplied there and a virtuous man sees a wondrous vision. For the man saw a little child lying lifeless in the manger and he saw the holy man of God approach the child and waken him from a deep sleep. Nor is this vision unfitting, since in the hearts of many the child Jesus has been given over to oblivion. Now he is awakened and impressed on their loving memory by His own grace through His holy servant Francis. At length, the night’s solemnities draw to a close and everyone went home with joy.

The hay placed in the manger there was preserved afterwards so that, through it, the Lord might restore to health the pack animals and the other animals there, as He multiplied his holy mercy. It came to pass in the surrounding area that many of the animals, suffering from various diseases, were freed from their illnesses when they ate some of this hay. What is more, women who had been suffering with long and hard labor had an easy delivery after they placed some of this hay upon themselves. Finally, an entire group of people of both sexes obtained much-desired relief from an assortment of afflictions.

At last, the site of the manger was consecrated as a temple of the Lord. In honor of the most blessed father Francis, an altar was constructed over the manger, and a church was dedicated. This was done so that where animals once at the fodder of the hay, there humans henceforth for healing of body and soul would eat the flesh of the immaculate and spotless lamb, our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us with supreme and indescribable love, who lives and rules with the Father and the Holy Spirit as God, eternally glorious forever and ever. Amen. Alleluia, Alleluia.

So what is the message of the Incarnation and Greccio? God has appeared – he has revealed himself. Previously, God had revealed himself to mankind only partially. “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe” (Heb 1:1-2). In this, something new has happened: God has appeared and has revealed himself. He has emerged from the inaccessible light and has come into the world. He is no longer merely an idea, a hoped for promise, an article of faith; now he has appeared.

But how has he appeared? In what form did he appear? Who is this Christ child? “The kindness and love of God our Savior for mankind were revealed” (Tit 3:4). This was the real “epiphany,” that God appeared to us as kindness and love. In the Christ child, God is not a wrathful executioner of justice, nor is he an angry judge; rather, he is “kindness and love.” We recall the prophecies of Isaiah: “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful” (Is 9:5f). This is the only text in the Old Testament that prophesies the coming of a child, which tradition has assigned to be the Christ child. The prophet describes how the Child will be: “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” Here, a child, in all its weakness, neediness, and dependence is the Mighty God, the Eternal Father. His peace “is forever.”

God has appeared as a child born in a stable in Bethlehem, not in the palaces of kings. This is the “epiphany” – the manifestation of God. The person that God assumes is a child; and this is striking in that it shows us who God is.

Saint Francis was very devoted to the Nativity of Christ and Christmas. He called Christmas “the feast of feasts,” the feast above all other feasts – and he celebrated it with “unutterable devotion” (2 Celano 199). He kissed images of the Christ-child with great devotion and he stammered tender words such as children say, according to Thomas of Celano (ibid.). For the early Church, the feast of feasts was Easter – since Christ saved mankind from sin through the Resurrection. Francis neither changed nor intended to change this order of precedence among the feasts, centered on the Paschal Mystery; in fact, the Resurrection presupposes the Incarnation. And yet through Francis and the character of his faith, something new took place: Francis discovered Jesus’s humanity in an entirely new depth.

This human existence of God was most obvious to Francis at the moment when God’s Son, born of the Virgin Mary, was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. For God’s Son to take the form of a child, a truly human child, made a profound impression on the heart of the Saint of Assisi, transforming faith into love. In the child born in the stable at Bethlehem, we can as it were touch and caress God.

In this new experience of the reality of Jesus’s humanity, the great mystery of faith is revealed. Francis loved the child Jesus, because for him it was in this childish estate that God’s humility shone forth. God became poor. His Son was born in the poverty of the stable. In the child Jesus, God made himself dependent, in need of human love, he put himself in the position of asking for human love – our love. Today Christmas is often over-commercialized; its bright lights hide the mystery of God’s humility, which in turn calls us to humility and simplicity.

Questions:

Why was Francis so devoted to the crib? To the Christ child?
When you think of God, what does he look like? Is he the “mighty conqueror” or the humble, needy child? Or is he both?

Faith challenge: Now spend some time now meditating and reflecting on the mystery of the Incarnation. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order and writer of the great “Spiritual Exercises” described meditating on historical events. Find some time and a place to be quiet. Read slowly from the beginning of the Gospel of Luke and/or Matthew describing the birth of Christ. Now close your eyes and meditate on the event. Imagine yourself in the scene. What do you see? What do you hear, What do you smell? What do you feel?

Franciscan Penance

Question: What is penance for you?
I’d like to offer several ideas of what penance is.

1. Penance is a sacrament
In a sacramental understanding of the term, “penance” applies to the whole activity from confession to absolution. The sacrament of penance (also called reconciliation or confession is one of the two sacraments of healing: “Jesus Christ has willed that by this means the Church should continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1421] Through the priest who is the minister of the sacrament and who acts not in his own name but on behalf of God, confession of sins is made to God and absolution is received from God.

2. Penance is repentance, which is a conversion, a metanoia, or a new beginning
After Francis’s return to Assisi from the dream in Spoleto, he began performing the following actions:

  • Ascetic practices: Francis began wearing a hair-shirt, fasting, and engaging in other corporal disciplines.
  • Solitary prayer: Francis began withdrawing to caves and isolated places outside of Assisi with a companion for prayer and reflection.
  • Giving alms: Francis gave money, clothes, and food to the poor, and he bought furnishings for churches. According to the sources, Francis had always been generous, but now his largesse took on religious meaning.
  • Pilgrimage: On a pilgrimage to Rome, Francis took a large handful of coins and threw them over the tomb of St. Peter; before returning to Assisi, he traded clothes with a beggar, now not only giving to the poor, but identifying with them and becoming one of them.
  • Re-building churches: After selling his father’s horse and cloth in Foligno, Francis begins re-building the church of San Damiano; he later re-built San Pietro della Spina near Rivotorto in the valley, and the Portiuncula/St. Mary of the Angels. (This will be taken up in the next lesson.)
  • Serving lepers.In these actions, Francis was doing things differently; he was converting. He was moving away from one way of life and embracing another. This was his life of penance.

    The origins of this practice of penance are found in the Bible. In the original Greek language of the New Testament, John the Baptist and then Jesus insist that their listeners have a metanoia. The Greek translation says, “Metanoeite!” which translated literally means to change one’s mind or heart. This phrase was translated into the Latin Vulgate Bible as “Paenitentiam agite!” (literally, “do penance”). Then, the words were translated into English as repent.

    In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’ (Matthew 3: 1-2).
    From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ (Matthew 4:17)

    So we see that the biblical meaning of the word “repent”, which has the same root as the word “penance” means metanoia, change of heart, conversion.

    And this biblical meaning of penance is the same as Francis’s understanding of penance; i.e., the turning away from sin and having a conversion of heart. In fact, Francis wrote in the first line of his Testament, written just two years before he died, that he began to do penance by serving lepers. “The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body; and afterward I lingered a little and left the world.” Thus, in Francis’s experience with the lepers, we clearly see not just an external action or a corporal discipline, but a change of heart – a metanoia. His heart was changed through his actions. Through his embrace of the leper, Francis says that his bitterness was changed into sweetness, and he was transformed. Thus, for him penance was not merely an external act, but it was an act accompanied by an internal change of heart. Penance changed him and brought him closer to God. It should also be said that his heart was not changed without the action; rather, the change of heart followed, and was consequential of, the action.

    So after returning to Assisi from Spoleto, and later separating from his father, Francis thoroughly dedicated himself to penance. And after Francis’s first followers joined him, they, too, took up this penitential life. When asked who they were, Francis and his followers referred to themselves as penitents from Assisi.1 It was not until they went to Rome and were granted oral approval of their way of life by Pope Innocent III in 1209 that they began calling themselves Fratres Minores (Friars Minors). Soon after this important meeting, Francis’s fledgling group of penitents would emerge from the penitential movement, and become established as a distinct Order within the Church: the Order of Friars Minor.

    Question: Why did Francis embrace the leper? And later dedicate his life to serving lepers?
    At table:
    1. Who is the leper in your life? Can you find the courage to “embrace” that person?

3. Penance is a corporal discipline, also known as asceticism:
Let’s look a little more closely at the specific ways in which Francis practiced penance. In addition to his work with the lepers, Francis (and Clare) practiced corporal penances, which were often quite harsh: Francis often mixed his food with ashes or bitter herbs to kill the taste, while Clare ate very little; Francis commonly wore a hair-shirt (a rough garment worn on the skin underneath the habit), while Clare wore a small rectangle of horsehair under her tunic; they deprived their bodies of sleep; Francis sometimes slept on stones while Clare slept on a bed of vine-branches or the bare floor using rocks for pillows; Francis frequently responded to temptation by rolling around naked in thorn bushes or snow. Thomas of Celano said that Francis subjected himself to severe disciplines and called his body “Brother Ass” (i.e. donkey). (2 Celano, 97). Francis wrote in his Letter to the Faithful: “All those who love the Lord with their whole heart … and hate their bodies with their vices and sins … produce worthy fruits of penance.” In the 10th Admonition, he wrote, “Many people, when they sin or receive an injury, often blame the Enemy or a neighbor, but this is not right, for each one has the real enemy in his own power; that is, the body through which he sins.”

These corporal penances practiced by Francis, Clare and their followers should more precisely be called asceticism. In this, we should distinguish between penance (the biblical metanoia described above), and asceticism (self-mortification). It is true that Francis and the early Franciscans regularly practiced asceticism as a form of penance, but penance was not limited to asceticism; for Francis, penance meant conversion.

Question: Why did Francis and Clare practice asceticism?

At table: What forms of corporal penance have you ever engaged in? What were the results?

4.Penance is a detachment from worldly things by seeking to avoid vice by practicing virtues

Francis and the early Franciscans practiced penance and asceticism because they believed that sin was the result of an inordinate attachment to worldly things. While fervently believing that the world was good, they believed that too strong an attachment to the things of the world could lead to sin. In fact, the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, lust, gluttony, ire, sloth, and envy) are natural God-given instincts taken to the extreme. By disciplining the body, or flesh, which they recognized as housing sin, they were seeking to free themselves of vices in order to live in the Spirit. They were not punishing their bodies because they believed them to be evil; rather, through self-mortifications, they were seeking to detach themselves from the things of the world, avoid vices, and be free to practice virtues.

Francis’s primary form of penance was working with the lepers. We might judge that he struggled with pride before his conversion. The sources say that he often sought to look good in fine clothes, he wanted to impress people by becoming a knight, he enjoyed feasts and parties, etc. (cf. Legend Three Companions, Chap. 1). However, these vices kept him rooted to worldly things. They prevented him from being able to freely experience, enjoy, and love God. Thus, once he discovered the humility that was required for him to work with lepers, his pride was leveled and he was forced to become humble. Through working with lepers, Francis was freed of his vices, and he could love and more freely enjoy God. And so great was the spirituality he experienced through that humble service, he continued to work with lepers all his life, and he established leprosaria throughout all of Italy. He even required that new friars work with lepers as fundamental to their formation.

Penance, sacrifices, and ascetic practices help us to avoid vice and grow in virtue. They reform the human condition that is naturally inclined towards selfishness and self-centeredness, and they create the interior freedom that allows the soul to re-orient itself towards others. We can be inspired by the experience of Francis, Clare, and the early Franciscans who experienced a radical and full metanoia. Without falling into Phariseeism – showing off external mortifications in order to receive praises from the people – (cf. Matthew 6:2), or without engaging in extremism, we can discover in them what true penance is: metanoia, another way of saying conversion.

Francis’s main form of penance was working with the lepers. His vices kept him rooted to worldly things and prevented him from being able to truly experience, enjoy, and love God. Thus, once he discovered the humility that was necessary to work with lepers, his pride was leveled. In working with lepers, Francis was freed of his vices.

The Seven Deadly Sins (also known as the Capital Vices or Cardinal Sins), is a list or classification of vices that have been used since early Christian times to educate and instruct the faithful concerning humanity’s tendency to sin. However, there are seven virtues to directly counteract each of the vices that can be practiced in its place.

VICE    VIRTUE

pride    Humility
greed   Charity
sloth    Diligence
wrath   Patience
lust      Chastity
envy Kindness
gluttony Temperance

Question for table: Which of the vices are you inordinately attached to? Can you practice its corresponding virtue to offset the vice?

5. Penance is atonement for one’s sins or those of another
6. Penance is a form of intercession

Make sure I note the difference between voluntary penance and involuntary penance; we can choose penances; i.e. fasting, corporal works of mercy, prayer, etc. or let sufferings we do not choose become a form of penance; i.e. sickness, job/financial loss, etc.

Conclusion:
Paragraph 1435 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one’s brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering, endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness. Taking up one’s cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance.” (cf. Luke 9:23). In this list, there are numerous ways of practicing acts of penance leading to a conversion.
Final Homework Assignment:

Do penance! Find the penance that God wants for you to do and embrace it! Do it daily, weekly, monthly! But do it.

Take five minutes and write down your penance.

Are you going to do penance this month?

Do not be hearers of the word, but be do-ers!

Penance and St. Francis

By Bret Thoman, OFS
Though he found it necessary to moderate his early rigor because of his infirmity, he would still say: “Let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord God, for up to now we have made little or no progress.” He did not consider that he had laid hold of his goal as yet, and persevering untiringly in his purpose of attaining holy newness of life, he hoped always to make a beginning. (Thomas of Celano, 2nd Life, chapter 6-??)

These were the words that St. Francis said towards the end of his life as he was already sick. They are surprising when we recall that Francis was already considered a saint and had accomplished monumental things in his life. Yet Francis always wanted to do more for God; he was constantly reflecting on his life, what he had done, and what he could do.

And all of us should step back and reflect on our own lives: on what we have done, where we have been, what has happened. As we do that, we consider what we are doing and where we are going. These reflections are important because they help us see what is blocking us in our lives from God – where we have turned away. When we practice this, we can have a clearer vision of where God is calling us. Then we can turn back to him. This is penance.

St. Francis of Assisi thoroughly devoted himself to penance as a way of life. The word penance, however, has various meanings and associations. For some, penance means denying one’s self some sort of pleasure; for others it recalls the name of the sacrament now usually referred to as “reconciliation”; for others it is punishment for committing a sin; or it could be the action assigned to the penitent by the priest during the sacrament of reconciliation. All are correct. But for Francis of Assisi, penance had a deeper meaning: it meant conversion.

As a young man, Francis of Assisi dreamed of becoming a knight. Inspired by tales of chivalry, Francis was enthusiastic to fight for a cause, a lord, and a lady. He dreamed of being counted as one of the same order of the Templars, Lancelot, Tristan, or etc. However, while en route to do battle in the Crusades, Francis heard God’s voice in a dream in Spoleto. God asked him whether it was better to serve the Lord or a servant: “Francis, who can do more for you, the Lord or his servant, a rich man or a beggar?” Francis responded that a lord or a rich man could do more. Then he was asked by the voice, “Then why are you serving the servant?” Francis asked, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” The voice responded, “Go back to your home and you will be shown what to do.” In Francis’s first encounter with the Lord, he was challenged to examine the direction he was going in his life, make a decision, and go in a different direction. At that point, Francis renounced his pursuit of war and returned to Assisi. This was the beginning of his conversion.

Though firmly convinced he was not supposed to continue pursuing the military life of a knight, Francis did not know what he was supposed to do next. Yet, one thing was clear: Francis began to do things differently. Just a short time before, Francis was known for being lavish, a squanderer, boisterous. The Legend of the Three Companions wrote this of Francis:

Francis grew up quick and clever, and was also intent on games and songs; and day and night he roamed about the city of Assisi with companions of his own age. Yet with the help of God’s grace, even when he was with his jovial companions, although always ready to enjoy himself, he never followed the lure of his passions. He was a spendthrift, and all that he earned went into eating and carousing with his friends. For this his parents often remonstrated with him, saying that in squandering such large sums on himself and others, his style of living made him appear not so much their son as the son of some great prince. However, being rich and loving him tenderly, they allowed him free rein in order to avoid displeasing him. In all things Francis was lavish, and he spent much more on his clothes than was warranted by his social position. He would use only the finest materials; but sometimes his vanity took an eccentric turn, and then he would insist on the richest cloth and the commonest being sewn together in the same garment.1

However, after his return to Assisi from the dream in Spoleto, the Sources reveal that he began performing the following actions:
Ascetic practices: Francis began wearing a hair-shirt, fasting, and engaging in other corporal disciplines.

Solitary prayer: Francis began withdrawing to caves and isolated places outside of Assisi with a companion for prayer and reflection.
Giving alms: Francis gave money, clothes, and food to the poor, and he bought furnishings for churches. According to the sources, Francis had always been generous, but now his largesse took on religious meaning.

Pilgrimage: On a pilgrimage to Rome, Francis took a large handful of coins and threw them over the tomb of St. Peter; before returning to Assisi, he traded clothes with a beggar, now not only giving to the poor, but identifying with them and becoming one of them.
Re-building churches: After selling his father’s horse and cloth in Foligno, Francis begins re-building the church of San Damiano; he later re-built San Pietro della Spina near Rivotorto in the valley, and the Portiuncula/St. Mary of the Angels. (This will be taken up in the next lesson.)

Serving lepers. This will be taken up fully in the next chapter.

In these actions, Francis was doing things differently; he was converting. He was moving away from one way of life and embracing another. This was his life of penance. And in this, he was not original; in fact, he was embracing a way of life that had been around for many centuries. An excellent book describing the history of the penitential movement in the Church and in the origins of the Franciscan movement is “St. Francis and the Third Order” by Raffaele Pazzelli, TOR.

Pazzelli notes that the origins of the practice of penance are found in the Bible.2 In the original Greek language of the New Testament, John the Baptist and then Jesus insist that their listeners have a metanoia. The Greek translation says, “Metanoeite!” which translated literally means to change one’s mind or heart. This phrase was translated into the Latin Vulgate Bible as “Paenitentiam agite!” (literally, “do penance”). Then, the words were translated into English as repent.

In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’ (Matthew 3: 1-2).

From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ (Matthew 4:17)
So we see that the biblical meaning of the word “repent”, which has the same root as the word “penance” means metanoia, change of heart, conversion.

And this biblical meaning of penance is the same as Francis’s understanding of penance; i.e., the turning away from sin and having a conversion of heart. In fact, Francis wrote in the first line of his Testament, written just two years before he died, that he began to do penance by serving lepers. “The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body; and afterward I lingered a little and left the world.” Thus, in Francis’s experience with the lepers, we clearly see not just an external action or a corporal discipline, but a change of heart – a metanoia. His heart was changed through his actions. Through his embrace of the leper, Francis says that his bitterness was changed into sweetness, and he was transformed. Thus, for him penance was not merely an external act, but it was an act accompanied by an internal change of heart. Penance changed him and brought him closer to God. It should also be said that his heart was not changed without the action; rather, the change of heart followed, and was consequential of, the action.

So after returning to Assisi from Spoleto, and later separating from his father, Francis thoroughly dedicated himself to penance. And after Francis’s first followers joined him, they, too, took up this penitential life. When asked who they were, Francis and his followers referred to themselves as penitents from Assisi.3 It was not until they went to Rome and were granted oral approval of their way of life by Pope Innocent III in 1209 that they began calling themselves Fratres Minores (Friars Minors). Soon after this important meeting, Francis’s fledgling group of penitents would emerge from the penitential movement, and become established as a distinct Order within the Church: the Order of Friars Minor.

Let’s look a little more closely at the specific ways in which Francis practiced penance. In addition to his work with the lepers, Francis (and Clare) practiced corporal penances, which were often quite harsh: Francis often mixed his food with ashes or bitter herbs to kill the taste, while Clare ate very little; Francis commonly wore a hair-shirt (a rough garment worn on the skin underneath the habit), while Clare wore a small rectangle of horsehair under her tunic; they deprived their bodies of sleep; Francis sometimes slept on stones while Clare slept on a bed of vine-branches or the bare floor using rocks for pillows; Francis frequently responded to temptation by rolling around naked in thorn bushes or snow. Thomas of Celano said that Francis subjected himself to severe disciplines and called his body “Brother Ass” (i.e. donkey). (2 Celano, 97). Francis wrote in his Letter to the Faithful: “All those who love the Lord with their whole heart … and hate their bodies with their vices and sins … produce worthy fruits of penance.” In the 10th Admonition, he wrote, “Many people, when they sin or receive an injury, often blame the Enemy or a neighbor, but this is not right, for each one has the real enemy in his own power; that is, the body through which he sins.”

These corporal penances practiced by Francis, Clare and their followers should more precisely be called asceticism. In this, we should distinguish between penance (the biblical metanoia described above), and asceticism (self-mortification). It is true that Francis and the early Franciscans regularly practiced asceticism as a form of penance, but penance was not limited to asceticism; for Francis, penance meant conversion.

So why were they so harsh? First, we should not judge history, especially eight centuries ago, through the lens of today; rather, we should look at it in its historical context. It is important to take into consideration the medieval class structure. Life was cruel in the middle Ages, and was nasty, brutish, and short. It was a little easier on the upper classes of the nobility, but doubly harsh for the peasants. Since the Franciscans embraced poverty centered on the experience of the poor, crucified Christ, much of the way the early Franciscans lived was modeled after the way poor peasants lived. Thus, they sought to imitate Christ and the poor by living like them; they sought to live out penance and asceticism as personal sacrifices in already harsh conditions.

Sometimes asceticism is confused with dualism, i.e. the spirit is good, while the body is bad. Early Franciscan asceticism was not dualistic. The heretical Cathars or Albigensians did embrace dualistic beliefs, and their beliefs were widespread in Francis’s era. They, too, embraced poverty, but not for the same reason as Francis; rather, they judged creation and the body to be evil. Thus, they did not want to possess anything material for fear that such attachments would corrupt them. Francis believed that creation and material things were good, since they were created by God. (cf. Genesis 1:1-31). In particular, the human person was good, as it was created in the image of God (ibid.). In the 5th Admonition Francis wrote, “God had created you and formed you to the image of his beloved Son according to the body, and to his likeness according to the spirit.” For this reason he had a fraternal affection for all creation and considered people, animals, and all of creation his brothers and sisters. This will be taken up in a later chapter.

So what did Francis mean when he spoke negatively about the body? When he referred to the body, he really meant the flesh. The understanding of “body” in the sense of “flesh” is taken from Holy Scripture. Paul wrote, “I say, then: live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. For the flesh has desires against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other…” (Galatians 5: 16-17) Further, Paul wrote: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness… In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (ibid. 19-23; cf. also Eph 4: 22-24; Romans 8: 1-13). Thus, Francis believed at the same time that the body was good, yet sin resided within its flesh. Thus, he practiced corporal penances and asceticism seeking to discipline, even quell the flesh.

Further, Francis and the early Franciscans practiced asceticism because they believed that sin was the result of an inordinate attachment to worldly things. While fervently believing that the world was good, they believed that too strong an attachment to the things of the world could lead to sin. In fact, the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, lust, gluttony, ire, sloth, and envy) are natural God-given instincts taken to the extreme. By disciplining the body, or flesh, which they recognized as housing sin, they were seeking to free themselves of vices in order to live in the Spirit. They were not punishing their bodies because they believed them to be evil; rather, through self-mortifications, they were seeking to detach themselves from the things of the world, avoid vices, and be free to practice virtues.
Francis’s primary form of penance was working with the lepers. This is a topic that will be taken up in detail in the next chapter. We might judge that he struggled with pride before his conversion. The sources say that he often sought to look good in fine clothes, he wanted to impress people by becoming a knight, he enjoyed feasts and parties, etc. (cf. Legend Three Companions, Chap. 1). However, these vices kept him rooted to worldly things. They prevented him from being able to freely experience, enjoy, and love God. Thus, once he discovered the humility that was required for him to work with lepers, his pride was leveled and he was forced to become humble. Through working with lepers, Francis was freed of his vices, and he could love and more freely enjoy God. And so great was the spirituality he experienced through that humble service, he continued to work with lepers all his life, and he established leprosaria throughout all of Italy. He even required that new friars work with lepers as fundamental to their formation.

So how are we now to understand the strict penances practiced by the early Franciscans? The first thing is that we continue to understand penance as a metanoia – a call to conversion – which is its biblical meaning. Then, we attempt to integrate penance into our lives today in the 21st century. To live as Francis and Clare lived eight centuries ago may not be necessary, practical or even possible today. However, we can certainly let their experiences shape and mold our lives today. We can seek to imitate Francis and Clare in their penances, however without engaging in extremism.

First, we should remember that penance is at its root an act or acts that lead to metanoia – conversion. Paragraph 1435 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one’s brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering, endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness. Taking up one’s cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance.” (cf. Luke 9:23). In this list, there are numerous ways of practicing acts of penance leading to a conversion.

Penance, sacrifices, and ascetic practices help us to avoid vice and grow in virtue. They reform the human condition that is naturally inclined towards selfishness and self-centeredness, and they create the interior freedom that allows the soul to re-orient itself towards others. We can be inspired by the experience of Francis, Clare, and the early Franciscans who experienced a radical and full metanoia. Without falling into Phariseeism – showing off external mortifications in order to receive praises from the people – (cf. Matthew 6:2), or without engaging in extremism, we can discover in them what true penance is: metanoia, another way of saying conversion.

While I have dedicated this chapter to penance as it relates to Francis, I do want to briefly mention Clare, who also committed her life to penance and conversion. In a departure from the life of Francis, however, it would appear that Clare never had a radical conversion moment like him – a “leper encounter” as an adult. In the previous chapter, I introduced her childhood, and we saw that she had always lived the holy life concerned with helping the poor as far back as her childhood. Ioanni di Ventura of Assisi was a watchman at her family’s household while she was a girl. He testified as the 20th witness in Clare’s canonization process saying that “she saved the food [she was] given to eat, put it aside, and then sent it to the poor.” He also said that “she fasted, prayed, and did other pious deeds…and that it was believed she had been inspired by the Holy Spirit from the beginning.”4 Sr. Ramona Miller says that “Clare’s spiritual journey had begun in her own home and her deeds indicated that she had chosen to live as a penitent: performing personal ascetical practices, prayer and acts of charity, especially making contributions of money and food to the poor.”5 Thus, we see that Clare always practiced a life of virtue concerned with holiness and the poor.

It should be said that there are some who have theorized that Clare and the sisters served lepers together with Francis and the friars in the first few years following her entrance into religious life at San Damiano in 1212.6 It is plausible, as the leper hospital of San Lazarus was not far from San Damiano. The theory goes that after the first Rule was written by Cardinal Hugolino in 1219, the sisters were forced into monastic claustration. However, if this theory were true, it seems strange to me that there is no written documentation regarding Clare serving lepers.7 Nevertheless, we do know that Clare regularly served people who came to San Damiano. For example, the Canonization process is filled with stories of how Clare prayed over and cured people who came to San Damiano seeking healing of various ailments. The sixth witness testified that “she saw others who had been brought to the monastery to be cured by the holy mother. She made the sign of the cross over them and they were cured.”8 We will talk more about Clare’s spirituality as a sister in San Damiano in the next unit.

Assignment:
I hope that after this lesson, you understand that Franciscan penance means conversion.
Francis’s main form of penance was working with the lepers. His vices kept him rooted to worldly things and prevented him from being able to truly experience, enjoy, and love God. Thus, once he discovered the humility that was necessary to work with lepers, his pride was leveled. In working with lepers, Francis was freed of his vices.

What is penance for you? What vice do you have that blocks you from God’s presence and grace?
The Seven Deadly Sins (also known as the Capital Vices or Cardinal Sins), is a list or classification of vices that have been used since early Christian times to educate and instruct the faithful concerning humanity’s tendency to sin. However, there are seven virtues to directly counteract each of the vices that can be practiced in its place.

Which of the vices are you inordinately attached to? Can you practice its corresponding virtue to offset the vice?

VICE VIRTUE
pride Humility
greed Charity
sloth Diligence
wrath Patience
lust Chastity
envy Kindness
gluttony Temperance