“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” 1
We pray because we have discovered God. We want to do everything to spend time with our loving Creator, who is love and dwells within us.
Prayer is like water that penetrates dry ground allowing life to take place. Dry, parched ground is lifeless and not generative; however, once water passes through it, it can then hold seed allowing it to take root and grow. Similarly, the person whose soul is “watered” with regular prayer is ready to take in the Spirit. The soul is then filled with intuitions, inspirations, insights, and discernment. This person sees the same world as everyone else, but is able to recognize the divine more clearly. He/she sees signs of God’s presence that others might miss. In effect, they see the world as God sees the world. This soul, then, becomes a light for others, as they seek him/her out for direction. In fact, after prayer, we have a new vision – we become contemplatives. Thus, we can say that prayer leads to contemplation, which is the ability to see the loving presence of the divine everywhere, and the truth about God, others, and self. Especially as Secular Franciscans who live in the world, we become contemplatives in action.
Yet prayer does not replace the spiritual life; it accompanies it. By this I mean that prayer is a place where the spiritual life takes place in a profound way and is worked out; it is where we spend time with God and come to know him. However, the spiritual life is not limited to prayer, especially for those of us who live and work “in the world.” The spiritual life is worked out through obedience to the commandments, faith, fidelity, self-sacrifice, altruistic charity, relationships with other people, in our daily activities at work, in our ministries and service to others, in our attitudes toward ourselves, other people, and God. Yet, prayer occupies a special place of unparalleled intimacy with God within the spiritual life as a time when can come to know God in a special way.
So how do we begin to speak of Franciscan prayer? As Franciscans, do we have a specific method of prayer? The Jesuits have the Spiritual Exercises left them by their founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola; the Benedictines have Lectio Divina; the Cistercians have centering prayer. Other orders have as their charism a life dedicated primarily to prayer: the Carmelites, Carthusians, and Camaldolesi. But we Franciscans do not have these things. How can we speak, then, properly of Franciscan prayer?
In general terms, Francis’s calling to the Vita Evangelica — or total Gospel life — was to alternate back and forth between the contemplative/prayerful and apostolic works. He never intended to live a life of exclusive prayer in an enclosed setting, as some of the orders just mentioned, even though he was, however, tempted at times to dedicate himself entirely to prayer. 2 Yet, in the end he resolved to continue combining apostolic ministry interspersed with periods of deep prayer. For Francis, periods of prayer would strengthen the spirit enough to return into the world to serve; then, when he was feeling spent, he would return to prayer to become, once again, energized.
Although Francis did not leave us with any treatise on prayer or any particular method, his life and actions, certain writings and prayers, 3 and the 14th century sources can be examined to give us abundant insight into his understanding of prayer. In fact, I would like to suggest three stages central to Franciscan prayer: poverty, being, and imitation. These three elements, taken together, can offer a deeper insight into the Franciscan spiritual life and prayer.
In these three stages of Franciscan prayer, we have the three traditional states, or stages, of Christian perfection through which the soul passes: the Via Purgativa (the Purgative Way: that of cleansing or purification), the Via Illuminativa (the Illuminative Way: so called because in it the mind becomes more and more enlightened as to spiritual things and the practice of virtue), and the Via Unitiva (the Unitive Way: that of union with God by love and the actual experience and exercise of that love).
In fact, St. Bonaventure in one of his major works, “The Soul’s Journey into God” describes these stages similarly with a metaphor of one ascending a “ladder” of the corporeal, the spiritual, and the divine. “One refers to the external body, wherefore it is called animality or sensuality; the second looks inward and into itself, wherefore it is called spirit; the third looks above itself, wherefore it is called mind.” 4 Books I-II deal with the senses at the beginning of the spiritual life, Books III-IV describe the inner journey (the intellect, meditation, and thought), and Books V-VI describe the upward, transcendent direction of the soul, as divine unity. It is a progression of the eyes, mind, and heart, all of which is completed in Book VII when resting in God’s “mercy seat.”
First, Franciscan prayer begins with poverty. A Franciscan Sister once penned, “Without poverty, there is no genuine Franciscan spirituality. Other virtues are Franciscan only in combination with poverty.” 5 In other words, once one is truly poor, then all the other spiritual graces can flow. For Francis, poverty was the foundational point of his entire religious way of life and thus, extended, naturally, into his prayer life. Francis intended true poverty to be a detachment from everything, be it material or spiritual – good or bad, that blocks God’s grace from reaching us. Only in the context of poverty can the spirit of Christ work.
So before entering into prayer, we empty ourselves of everything. Poverty in prayer begins with the acknowledgement that before even beginning to pray, we recognize that we do not know how to pray. In this is our humility in asking God to help us pray. Then we admit further that we are not able to pray on our own relying on our own powers; in fact, we concede that it is God who prays through us and in us. With a proper detachment and humble relationship to God, he fills us and leads us to himself.
Francis, in seeking out places of poverty, often went to the hermitages in the hills to pray in 40-day prayer fasts. Celano said, “He frequently chose solitary places so that he could direct his mind completely to God” 6. In fact, the poverty of these places is very apparent and anyone who has ever been to central Italy and visited any of these hermitages will be amazed at their simplicity and austerity. In the poverty of the hermitages, Francis spent his time surrounded by nature as God created it. He was not surrounded by fine art, icons, furnishings, or decorations; rather, he was immersed in the bareness of God’s creation. As Francis descended down into the barrenness of the cave to pray in solitude and silence, he was entering into something much bigger than himself. It was there that he was thoroughly filled with the presence of the Lord – with an overwhelming sense of the divine, God’s goodness, and his love. “In the clefts of the rock he would build his nest and in the hollow places of the wall his dwelling.” 7
Part of poverty requires that we empty ourselves of all of our attachments. Only by being free from all attachments – especially those that enslave us–, can we be open to God in prayer: worries, anxiety, concerns, negativity or other sins like lust, greed, avarice, etc. – all must be cast aside before prayer. In fact, if we do not empty ourselves of these things before entering prayer, we will take them into our prayer and they will block God’s ability to fill us with his graces. The soul cluttered with such things will not be able to see God properly. If the mind is full with the many things of the world, then the heart is not open to allow God’s grace to take hold. “Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants.” 8 Yet, absolute Franciscan poverty requires that we go deeper. Poverty is not only turning away from the negative things that enslave us; it requires that we empty ourselves of all things – even those that are good to us. Thus we completely empty ourselves of everything – not just the things that enslave us – in order to fully allow God to enter our hearts. Thus, we surrender our good attachments: our relationship with our spouses and children, our ministries, our loves and passions. When we surrender all things, they are brought into proper perspective and we realize that all good things we have are a gift given to us from God above. Then originate in him, and they shall return to him.
In this, prayer is like a death. One way to reach such total poverty in prayer is to imagine for a moment (without falling into morbidity) that we are about to die. After our death, all of our possessions, property, investments, etc. will be divided up among our heirs; all our activities, ministries, involvements, jobs, etc. will either be taken up by someone else or concluded. We, on the other hand, will be taken up by God. In this, we are the perfectly obedient friar – the corpse (to which Francis once referred) who goes where he is placed, doesn’t complain when something is taken away, does not insist on maintaining or losing something. 9 In effect, this level of poverty in prayer is really purity. “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” (Matt 5:8). Authentic prayer, or at least efficient prayer, must embrace purity of heart. Francis spoke of purity of heart in Chapter XXII of his Earlier Rule:
Therefore, all my brothers, let us be very much on our guard that, under the guise of some reward or assistance, we do not lose or take our mind away from God. But, in the holy love which is God, I beg all my brothers, both the ministers and the others, after overcoming every impediment and putting aside every care and anxiety, to serve, love, honor and adore the Lord God with a clean heart and a pure mind in whatever way they are best able to do so, for that is what He wants above all else. 10 Here Francis is telling his brothers to direct the mind towards God; it is up to us to put aside those things that block us from God and consciously turn to our Creator. With a poor heart conformed to God — one that is purified — we can now be open to allow God to penetrate the soul. A person with a pure body, pure mind, and pure heart will begin to be able to see God during prayer and contemplation, but will maintain that vision throughout his conscious hours and begin to develop the gift to see as God sees.
This first stage of Franciscan prayer is similar to the ongoing conversion that accompanies our lives as Franciscans. It is penitential in that we turn from sin and turn towards God. We have already spoken of penance in previous chapters, and won’t go into that again. Suffice it to say that this stage of prayer is similar to the Via Purgativa, (the Purgative Way) in the traditional steps of the spiritual life. The active purification consists of all holy efforts, mortifications, labors, and sufferings by which the soul, aided by the grace of God endeavors to reform the mind, heart, and the sensitive appetite. This is the characteristic work of the purgative way. The passive purifications are the means God employs to purify the soul from its stains and vices, and to prepare it for the exceptional graces of the supernatural life. In the works of St. John of the Cross these purifications are called nights, and he divides them into two classes, the night of the senses and the night of the spirits.
Only after emptying ourselves of everything – false attractions and worldly things that block us from God– can we begin to become the person that God wants us to be. Once we are properly “purged” or “purified” from our vices and have surrendered our entire lives to God in detachment and humility (i.e. poverty), will we be filled with those graces that only God gives. When we have emptied our lives and given them to God, he will begin to fill us with himself and mold us into his likeness. We empty ourselves of all things of the world – not because the world is bad or sinful –, but because we want to be completely filled with him. We have created the proper interior space within in order to allow God to penetrate our souls so that we can be filled with him. We surrender even our expectations of what he will give us. We are totally open to him. And now God can speak to us and give himself to us as he wants to. And this total surrender, poverty, purity in prayer requires that we accept that God will fill us with himself as he wishes. Now that we have arrived at poverty – purity – in prayer, we get quiet.
Now, after poverty, Franciscan prayer continues with being. As Franciscans, this newly purified spiritual person is not someone who lives above the world and floats around in an “other-worldly” sense – like an angel; no, the spiritual life for us is lived out in our human, existence where we live in the actual world as human beings with all aspects of our humanity. Franciscan prayer is not a half-hearted venture, and it involves and encompasses the entire self with our extraordinary humanness: the heart, emotions and joy, desire, praises.
In fact, in Francis’s prayer life, he was practical, sensible and natural, while other prayer traditions emphasized the other-worldly, more transcendent aspect of prayer. Celano described it thus: “He strove constantly to have his spirit present in heaven. … His whole soul thirsted after Christ, and he dedicated not only his whole heart, but his whole body as well, to him.” 11 Bonaventure said: “Whether he was walking or sitting, at home or abroad, whether he was working or resting, he was so fervently devoted to prayer that he seemed to have dedicated to it not only his heart and soul, but all his efforts and all his time.”12 Thus, the spiritual life for Francis involved the entire self, the complete animus, the whole being.
This “human” aspect of prayer for Francis was rooted ultimately in Christ himself. Since the Son of God Francis “lowered himself” by becoming a man,13 Francis desired to enter into that divine mystery by seeking to see, touch, feel, make present, even visually reproduce the human events of the life of Christ. Thus, he often sought to meditate on historical, concrete stories from Christ’s life such as his nativity, passion and resurrection. Thomas of Celano said, “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.” (cf. I Celano, 85)
In desiring to reflect on the life events of Christ himself, Francis sought to re-enact the birth of Jesus in the first nativity scene in the small village of Greccio near Rieti in 1223. Francis also often reflected in a similar way on the Passion of Christ. Towards the end of his life, on Mount Laverna in the year 1224, Francis received the stigmata. Just before that dramatic experience, he desired to mystically participate spiritually and physically in the Passion of Christ. He asked the Lord for two gifts: to feel in his body the pain which Jesus felt during his Passion and to know in his heart the love which Jesus felt for all humanity. “My Lord Jesus Christ, two graces I beg from you before I die: the first, that I feel in my body and soul as much as possible the pain that you, sweet Jesus, felt at the hour of your bitter Passion.” He wanted to suffer in body and soul that which Christ suffered. He then prayed, “The second is that I feel in my heart, as much as possible, that excess love by which you, Son of God, were willing to bear for us sinners.” In the experience of St. Francis, he sought for a total participation in the life of Christ. St. Francis asked to feel all the pain and all the love of Christ. Thus for Francis, prayer was to feel, witness, become involved and personally experience what Christ lived. Being consists of being present in the Gospel stories and finds its origin in the humanity of Christ.
In this, prayer for Francis often involved emotions, feelings, and joy. The Legend of the Three Companions described this emotion early in Francis’s conversion: “All of a sudden the Lord touched his heart, filling it with such surpassing sweetness that he could neither speak nor move. He could only feel and hear this overwhelming sweetness which detached him so completely from all other physical sensations that, as he said later, had he been cut to pieces on the spot he could not have moved.”14 Bonaventure described it like this: “The world was tasteless to him who was fed with heavenly sweetness.”15 Celano said: “Francis was often suspended in such sweetness of contemplation that, caught up out of himself, he could not reveal what he had experienced because it went beyond all human comprehension.” 16 This spiritual emotion was not limited to Francis’s experience; many other Franciscans experienced it. The stories of the Little Flowers of St. Francis are filled with accounts of friars experiencing rapture, sweetness of soul, and ecstasy during prayer. Here are just a few such episodes starting with a description of the spiritual life of Bernard of Quintavalle, the first follower of Francis:
Now the mind of this Brother Bernard was so uplifted to that heavenly treasure which is promised to those who love God that for fifteen continuous years he always went about with both his mind and his face raised toward Heaven. And during those fifteen years, because his mind was raised to the light of Heaven and his feelings were utterly absorbed by divine graces, he never satisfied his hunger at meals. 17 In addition to feelings, desires are also part of Franciscan prayer. “It is God who, in his good will toward you, begets in you any measure of desire.”18 In prayer, God, in the inmost part of our being, speaks to us and plants the seed of desire. Even the desire to pray comes from God who calls us to prayer. “You have not chosen me: but I have chosen you.”19 Spiritual desire is yearning to be with God, as Augustine once said: “our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” 20 However, it is important to note the difference between desires that come from God and desires that arise from the flesh. Before his conversion, St. Francis he had many desires – most of them worldly. Most of his desires were to be better esteemed in the eyes of his peers and others – as a nobleman and great knight. However, his relationship with Jesus Christ began to re-order his desires in conformity with God. And we see how it was God who transformed Francis’s desires: first to turn his back on his natural inclination towards worldly honors in order to listen more intently to God; then through the practice of prayer, to intensify spiritual longings and desires within his spirit. And as Francis prayed more and more, he began to have deep, contemplative experiences happening within him. Francis’s desires changed from worldly to spiritual: his desires to become a knight and move up the social ladder were transformed into a desire to serve lepers, rebuild churches, be poor and beg. In fact, in the Porziuncula, Francis heard the Gospel passage, “take nothing for the journey”21 to which he responded, “This is what I want, this is what I desire with all my heart!”22 But now it is a heart disciplined and purified, as Francis is able to hear clearly.
Next, being poor allowed Francis to fill up with God’s graces wherever and whenever they were given to him, and then to burst out with joy and praise. Thus, included in being is praising God, which Francis constantly strove to do. “As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord God make justice and praise, spring up before all the nations.” (Isaiah 61:12) The Canticle of the Creatures – in which Francis praises God for all his creatures – comes to mind right away. Yet, Francis also wrote a lesser-known work called precisely, “Praises to be said at all hours.” It concludes with a well-known prayer: “All-powerful, most holy, most high, and supreme God: all good, supreme good, totally good, You Who alone are good; may we give You all praise, all glory, all thanks, all honor: all blessing, and all good things. So be it. So be it. Amen.”23 Always remember to praise God during prayer and give him thanks for everything. Through these examples, we can see how prayer involves our being — the whole self: the heart, feelings, desires, and praises. We see that for the Franciscan, prayer is not a detachment, removal, or separation from the world; on the contrary, as Christ himself entered into the world, Franciscans seek to become involved in the world personally and passionately, and participate in it as a living reality. In fact, this model of prayer finds its origin in the very humanity of Jesus. Thus, for Franciscans, we seek to move from Gospel to life and from life to Gospel.
This stage is similar to that of the Via Illuminativa (the Illuminative Way), because in it the mind becomes more and more illumined, or enlightened, as to spiritual things and the practice of virtue. In this grade, charity becomes stronger and more perfect than in the first state as the soul becomes more occupied with the spiritual life, the virtues, and love of God
Lastly, Franciscan prayer reaches its culmination in imitation. After opening himself up to God in complete poverty, and allowing God’s grace to penetrate his innermost soul and being, Francis was transformed and he began more and more to “imitate” Christ. In fact, at the heart of the Franciscan spiritual experience is a transformative encounter with Christ. It was Christ in the vision in Spoleto, Christ in the leper and the beggar, Christ in San Damiano, Christ in the dilapidated churches, Christ in the Gospel, and Christ especially in prayer that led to Francis’s transformation into a more Christ-like person. Celano said that after prayer, Francis “was changed almost into another man.”24 He became like Christ, he imitated Christ.
When one thinks of the imitation of Christ, one thinks of the acronym worn by youth on wristbands, which were popular a few years ago — “WWJD” (what would Jesus do). However, authentic Franciscan imitation of Christ goes deeper. Franciscan imitation of Christ is not so much mimicry; rather, it is a spontaneous response to life after a spiritual transformation has occurred within the heart. The imitation of Christ is fundamentally not a human enterprise; i.e., it does not arise from our own strength. To imitate Christ is to be transformed by, through, and in the power of God. John chapter 15 comes to mind: “I am the vine, you are the branches. The one who abides in me while I abide in him produces much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”25 It is Christ who is the vine, from which the branches (Christians) grow, producing fruit. Without the vine, the branches can do nothing. The branches do not stand alone, and in fact, would soon wither and die were they cut off from the vine.
What we are talking about — “imitation of Christ” — is known in Christian theology as the “deification of man” or the “divinization of man” (theosis in Greek). It is an ancient Christian teaching emphasizing the result of the transforming effect of divine grace, the spirit of God, or the atonement of Christ. It literally means to become more divine, more like God, and/or to take on the divine nature. The deification of man refers not so much to what Christ came to take away from man — sin — (even though that happens in the process), but rather, what God came to give to man: the divine life.
This idea may sound a little unfamiliar to us, as it has been historically emphasized more in the Eastern Orthodox Churches and less in the western Church. Yet, the importance of divinization (theosis) in Catholic teaching is indeed taught in the Catholic Church. Today’s Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature”: “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.” “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” 26
In effect, what we are speaking of — being transformed by the love of God — is really being transformed into the love of God. Through an experience with God, we become like God. We do not become gods, we become like the God who created us and wants to unite us to himself. This is what happened to St. Francis. Having spent much of his converted life living like Christ, he was transformed in a very literal way when he received the crucifixion marks of Jesus in 1224. In a mysterious way, on the mountain of Laverna, he was granted a physical imprint of Christ himself. After a life of about twenty years spent in harsh penance living like Christ in his cross and Passion, this prayer came spontaneously and naturally — to desire to be like Christ in every way, in love and pain with the God to whom he so passionately desired to be fully united. And he was.
Yet, very few of us will ever be physically transformed into the physical likeness of Christ. After our own period of conversion, most of us will come to acquire more and more the spiritual attributes of God while already in this life, yet fully in the next. So what can we hope to become like? What is God like? What are the attributes we will obtain more and more? Francis himself left us a beautiful description of who/what God is — what we can hope to become like:
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. 27
These descriptors of God express not only who God is, but the attributes that we will attain after rejecting vices, embracing poverty and purity, striving to live our lives fully conformed to him with all our being, and allowing the process to take place.
There are many attributes in this thorough description of God: strength, holiness, goodness, wisdom, humility, patience, beauty, meekness, peace, joy, justice, moderation, protector, hope, faith, charity, and sweetness. As there are so many – too many to discuss here, let’s just take one of them: peace. St. Francis was certainly known for peace, and should those of us who follow Christ in the example of Francis.
It follows that, after having reached this stage of perfection, our lives will exude peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”28 The Franciscan school of spirituality is one that leads to both peace and love. We become like the one in whom we believe, thus, love and peace (attributes of God himself) are the end result in the disciple who has experienced conversion through God.
This was certainly the experience of Francis. War and conflict were very common in Francis’s day – among rival towns, between Pope and Emperor, Majores and Minores, hierarchy and heretic, Christian and Saracen, Assisi and Perugia. Francis, participated in this violence. Yet, after his conversion, he became a pacifist and dedicated himself to non-violence. He gave away his armor and arms to a fellow traveler, and returned home. Then he began searching the ways of God in prayer, Scriptures, penance, and almsgiving and began to find true peace in God. That is when he could serve as a peacemaker, and through his preaching and mediation was able to reconcile warring families in civil wars in Siena (Fior 11), Bologna, and also in Arezzo (2 Celano 108). Also, just before he died, he was able to reconcile the Bishop and mayor of Assisi. (LP 44). Francis was able to make peace because he had it within his own heart.
This state is similar to that of the Via Unitiva (the Unitive Way), in that is the way of believers who have become more and more united to God; that is, they have their minds so drawn away from worldly things that they enjoy great peace, and are neither excited by mundane desires nor moved by the passions. They have their minds chiefly fixed on God and their attention turned, either always or very frequently, to him. It is union with God by love and the actual experience and exercise of that love. It is called the state of “perfect charity,” because souls who have reached this state are ever ready to exercise charity by living virtuously, serving others, and loving God habitually.
In conclusion, let us reflect on two descriptions of St. Francis relating to prayer by Thomas of Celano. And in this, we see how Francis himself brought poverty and purity into prayer, it involved his entire self — including his emotions, desires, feelings, etc., and culminated in his being transformed:
“For his safest haven was prayer; not prayer of a single moment, or idle or presumptuous prayer, but prayer of long duration; full of devotion, serene in humility. If he began late, he would scarcely finish before morning. Walking, sitting, eating, or drinking, he was always intent upon prayer. He would go alone to pray at night in churches abandoned and located in deserted places, where, under the protection of divine grace, he overcame many fears and many disturbances of mind.”29 “All his attention and affection he directed with his whole being to the one thing which he was asking of the Lord, not so much praying as becoming himself a prayer.”30