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.
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?