Article By Bret Thoman, OFS
Prayer and Desire in the Life of St. Francis
“It is God who, in his good will toward you, begets in you any measure of desire or achievement.” When we open ourselves to God, we become our true selves. With God, we can let go of the false self and open ourselves up to the true self. It is here where God works in us; here he speaks to us. In the inmost part of our being, God speaks to us – he leads us to him. In this process, he plants the seed of desire. God calls us to himself. “You have not chosen me: but I have chosen you.” It is even God who calls us to prayer – the desire to pray comes from God himself and in prayer we become face to face with God and his truth – the truth about ourselves, about others, about God himself. The desire to search for God which led us to prayer, leads to other desires as well. Spiritual desire is yearning to be with God, as Augustine once said: “our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This was true with St. Francis of Assisi. As a young man, he had many desires – some already holy, some more worldly, conditioned by the times in which he lived. Bonaventure says this of Francis, as a young man: “the sensitivity of his gentleness, together with a refined set of manners, a patience and affability beyond human decorum, and a generosity beyond his means singled him out as a young man of flourishing natural disposition.” However, as a Bourgeois merchant, he desired greater social position, which led him to the battlefield in his quest for noble knighthood; first against Perugia, then towards Apulia for the Pope. Underlying this quest was his desire to be esteemed in the eyes of his peers and others – as a great warrior. However, it would be his relationship with Jesus Christ that would re-direct his desires towards those in conformity with God. For Francis, it began in dreams and visions. The first vision (or dream) described in the Sources is of Francis having a vision of a “large and splendid palace with military arms emblazoned with the insignia of Christ’s cross.” However, at this time Francis’ spiritual discernment was as yet immature and he misinterpreted the dream in terms of military honors; thus, he set out for Apulia on yet another military adventure on behalf of Walter of Brienne fighting for the Papacy. After one day of travel with several Assisian knights, he had another dream in Spoleto. In this dream, a voice asked him if it was better to serve the Master or the servant. Francis, living in feudal times, would have understood this very clearly, and he responded that it was better to serve the Master. The voice told him to go back to his home town where he would be told what to do. And this time, Francis listened to the voice and responded properly by giving away his military gear. He went against his natural disposition of seeking worldly and military honors, despite the fact that he knew he would be judged a coward by his father, peers, and townspeople. But now he is responding to the desires that God is putting in his heart and acting accordingly; it is the Spirit within himself that he is discerning and following. Please click on the picture above, or the link below to read the entire story.
The Poverty of Franciscan Prayer
The heart of Franciscan spirituality is poverty. A Franciscan Sister once penned, “Without poverty, there is no genuine Franciscanism. Other virtues are Franciscan only in combination with poverty.” In other words, once one is truly poor, then can all the other spiritual graces can flow. For Francis, poverty was the starting point of his entire religious outlook.
Today the word poverty evokes images of inner city families locked into a welfare system, or sullied, half-dressed children begging in urban slums. This is not the poverty that Francis was speaking about. For Francis, poverty did indeed begin with material and economic dispossession; however, he felt it necessary inasmuch as poverty led one to fill up the emptiness with God. Francis intended poverty to also mean a poverty of the spirit, the senses, emotion, relationships, possessiveness, even of desires. St. Francis intended true poverty to be a detachment from everything, be it material or spiritual, that interfered with God’s ability to reach us. Only by being free from those attachments that enslave us, can we be open to receiving God’s love and graces.
Francis wanted himself and his friars to completely empty themselves not in order to be poor as a value in and of itself, but to be empty in order to fill themselves up with God. Therefore, the true poverty Francis idealized was not just being poor; rather, it was being full of God and his graces. Thus, Franciscan poverty is world-poor, God-rich.
Being poor allowed Francis to fill up with God’s graces wherever and whenever they were given to him. We often read about him praising God and singing of God’s goodness – often in nature: the Canticle of the Creatures immediately comes to mind. Since Francis had so emptied himself out, he was able to see things that many people miss; and he often saw God’s reflection in creation. And often, the desire to praise God welled up within him. We have the image of the world as Francis’ cloister.
Since he did not own or possess anything, he felt a fraternal relationship to everything and everyone. This was counter-cultural to the prevalent order of medieval feudalism in which he lived. Feudalism was, in essence, a social system bonding individuals, people, communities, and cities to one another in hierarchical relationships of serving and being served: e.g. serfs and peasants were subjects (vassals) to their Lord (the aristocratic landowner; e.g. barons or dukes); additionally cities like Assisi were subject to Spoleto, which was subject to the Emperor. In effect, everyone related to one another as Lord-Subject in a possessive and territorial style. However, Francis moves away from this social system in that had so dispossessed himself of things that he ceases to relate to anyone (or anything) in the traditional Lord-Subject manner. Instead, he came to feel a relationship of equality-brotherhood with all of creation; thus, the Canticle of the Creatures. Francis did not possess things (or certainly not people); rather he was on equal par with them fraternally.
For Francis, poverty originates in his never-ending desire to imitate Jesus Christ. It rests in his understanding of the person of the Christ, whom he viewed (together with his Blessed Mother) as being poor. The second Person of the Trinity, the Word, humbled himself to become a human being, a defenseless child. Then as an adult Jesus, God-made-flesh, would take upon himself the sin of all humanity through tremendous suffering – the Passion. And God’s poverty was not limited to the Passion, but every time Mass is celebrated, God humbly allows Himself to be completely and truly present in a piece of bread and wine! How incredible that the Creator and Lord of the entire universe would be so humble! Thus in the incarnation, the Passion, and ongoing Transubstantiation, God’s nature is manifest through his poverty. God is like water—he always goes down to the lowest level. In effect, the nature of God can be discerned – God’s nature is poor!
So, Franciscan poverty is identifying with the poor Christ, the humble Christ, the loving Christ. Francis believed that God is so generous and so loving that he can do nothing else other than give himself away. This led a later Franciscan theologian, John Duns Scotus, to conclude that the Incarnation was not an after-thought on the part of God as a response to redeem man from sin, but even had Adam never sinned, Scotus opined, God would have sent his Son anyway, since God’s nature is total giving of himself.
Thus Francis desired to imitate our Lord totally and to give away everything in order to receive him fully. So, true Franciscan poverty is not to strive to possess nothing, rather, it is possessing nothing to be filled up with God and his love. Franciscan poverty encompasses humility, simplicity, vulnerability, non-possession, and generosity.
Franciscan Prayer and the Heart, By Bret Thoman, SFO
“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 8). Saint Francis was ever convinced that prayer must begin with the purity of heart. If the mind is cluttered with so many things of the world, then the heart is not open for prayer to allow God’s grace to take hold. “Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants.” (Matthew 13) For Francis, true prayer takes place in the proper context and relationship of the body, mind, and heart – and all three must be pure together to allow for true contemplation.
Francis believed that the body must be kept pure in order not to keep God’s grace away.
In his Earlier Rule of 1221, he says:
And let us hate our body with its vices and sins, because by living according to the flesh, the devil wishes to take away from us the love of Jesus Christ and eternal life and to lose himself in hell with everyone else. Because, by our own fault, we are disgusting, miserable and opposed to good, yet prompt and inclined to evil, for, as the Lord says in the Gospel: From the heart proceed and come evil thoughts, adultery, fornication, murder, theft, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, false witness, blasphemy, foolishness. All these evils come from within, from a person’s heart, and these are what defile a person.
To ‘hate our body’ may seem severe coming from a saint who is mostly known to us as the brother of all creation. However, when Francis spoke negatively about the body, he meant more aptly, the flesh. This understanding is taken directly from the Bible; in Gal 5, 16-17, Paul says “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…” further Paul says in verses 19-23: “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.” (Cf. also Eph 4, 22-24; Romans 8, 1-13). Thus, Francis and his early followers, wished to live in the Spirit by subduing the body, or flesh, which they recognized as housing sin. They were not punishing their bodies because they believed them evil; rather they were trying to discipline and purify the senses, atone for sin, and win grace for others.
With a purified body, Francis could then turn to the mind. The mind, mens, could sometimes be associated with the heart; however, the mind should be considered that rational part of the psyche that has volition or will. It is what we control, have power over, and can direct. Francis says 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.
Here Francis is telling his Brothers to direct the mind towards God; it is up to the person, through his own powers, to put aside those things that block us from God and consciously turn to our Creator. Thus, the Christian experience is not passive, but is active requiring the person to conform his will to that of God.
Here one can draw on the medieval monastic writings of Guigo II, who described the four-fold ladder of ascent to God through listening to the Sacred Scriptures. His method of lectio divina involved the four stages of lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. The Christian should use his own will and powers in the second and third stages of meditatio and oratio. Here one quite consciously should direct his forces and energies towards God, eliminating all distractions and those things which block the conscious contact with God. Francis was quite aware of the Benedictine monastic experience and perhaps draws on their spirituality which had existed for some eight centuries prior to his conversion.
Through a purified body and a mind conformed to God, we can now open our hearts to allow God to penetrate the soul. Here the heart should be considered the centermost part of our being, the animus. The heart could be considered also the togetherness of the mind and body. With a pure and chaste body, a mind directed to God, and a heart open is the context allowing contemplation with God.
What is contemplation? If we look at the etymological root of the word contemplation, we see the Latin word cum (with or in) and templus (temple). Thus, contemplation can be defined as being in the temple, with God where he lives. It is being together and alone with God, our Creator and Maker. However, the meeting-place with God is not ‘out there’ somewhere; rather, it is going deep within our own hearts and finding God there in total surrender, poverty, and purity. It is in our own human heart where we find God.
Thus, the human heart is central to the experience of finding God. However, the heart must be purified to see God; one cluttered with anxiety, worries, lusts, resentment will not see God. Instead, the person will most likely take his distractions into the prayer experience, and perhaps wonder why God seems so distant and disinterested: spiritual desolation. A person with a pure body, pure mind, and pure heart will not only see God in contemplation, but will maintain that vision throughout one’s conscious hours and have the gift to see as God sees.