When the Crusaders opened up the Holy Land to pilgrims, they set the scene for a new dawn in Christian Spirituality in the twelfth century. This new dawn had two distinctive phases. The first involved a growing interest in the Jesus who had lived and died before the Resurrection. The second phase involved a new and unique understanding of the spirituality that bonded the first Christian community together after the Resurrection. The first phase began a hundred years before St Francis of Assisi was born when the whole of Europe had been inspired with what was presented to the faithful as a noble Christian cause – to go and win back the Holy Land from the ‘infidels’ who had held it for centuries. Encouraged by the Church, people from every walk of life set out for the East; sovereigns and serfs, troops and troubadours, prelates and prostitutes, indeed the whole of Europe was brought to a fever pitch of excitement that is difficult to imagine a thousand years later. A great man like St Bernard of Clairvaux was preaching the Crusade only a few decades before Francis was born. By the time Francis was growing up, the family fireside, the taverns, and the marketplaces, as well as the courts of the nobility were places where tales were told and re-told of where the Word was made flesh and “dwelt amongst us.”
Pilgrims loved to tell of how they had seen the very spot where Jesus had been born, where he had walked and talked, where he had died on the Cross and where he had been buried. No wonder it was one of the deepest desires of St Francis to go to the Holy Land himself. Nor was it surprising that when he came back he wanted to burn into the hearts of all, something of the fire that had set him alight with the love of Jesus who had chosen to come amongst us as a helpless baby on the first Christmas Day.
That is why he built for himself and his fellow countrymen, a crib on the hillside above Greccio, high up in the Rieti Valley. It was here that he invited everyone to join him in a celebration of Jesus’ birth that would stain their memories with an experience that would inspire them for a lifetime. The cribs that found their way into every Christian home from that time onwards, symbolised the rebirth of Jesus Christ as the heart and centre of Christian spirituality, through the inspirational genius of the poor man of Assisi.
The second phase of this new dawn involved a new and vital understanding of how Jesus had lived, loved and animated the first Christian community after the Resurrection. It was Francis, more than anyone else who was responsible for inaugurating this second phase, precisely because he had not only heard the Risen Christ speak to him but because he had experienced his love too. It was the same love that had inspired early Christianity then, which was to inspire Francis and the Order that he founded. To avoid any confusion, let me summarize the essence of the Franciscan way of life as conceived and lived by St Francis.
The physical structure of the Order that he founded was entirely based on the way of life as lived by Jesus and his disciples, before the Resurrection. As such it involved the eremitical or solitary life, the community life and the apostolic life. Just as Jesus spent prolonged periods of time in solitude, so Francis taught his brothers to do likewise by both word and example. It would be in solitary prayer in the hermitage or in the friary oratory that his friars would learn to embrace the kenosis or spiritual emptying, that would enable the Holy Spirit to possess them. It was then in sharing what they received with their brothers, that true community would be born as the springboard for intensive apostolic action. Then, firstly by example and secondly by preaching, they would endeavour to extend to the world outside what they had already experienced within their friaries. Although the physical structure of the Franciscan way of life was entirely based on the life as lived by Jesus before the Resurrection, their spirituality was also based on the spirituality that prevailed amongst the first Christian communities.
Before the Resurrection the Apostles were beginners, learning from their new master as he travelled all over Palestine preaching to the people. They were not scholars, they were not intellectuals, but ordinary workaday folk. The few years that they spent with Jesus before his premature death was little enough time for all he wanted to say and do for them. That is why he sent the Holy Spirit after the Resurrection, as he had promised at the Last Supper, “to make everything plain to them,” everything that he did not have time to explain before his death.
It was under the influence of the Holy Spirit then that the first Christian communities flourished. They were animated by the profound spirituality that was later recorded in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the Pastoral Epistles that St Francis insisted that he knew off by heart. It was from reading these scriptures, inspired by the same Holy Spirit who had first inspired those who wrote them, that Francis was inspired to embody the spirituality that they taught in his own life and in the lives of his brothers. This profound spirituality first began to penetrate his heart and mind as he spent the first years of his life as a hermit, immediately after Jesus had spoken to him from the Cross as he prayed in the Church of San Damiano.
Notice that it was not the dead or the dying Christ who spoke to him from the Cross, but the risen Christ. He stands out from the Cross, his eyes are open and you can see the tomb from which he rose behind him. So, it is not the dying, but the Risen Christ whose words Francis heard speaking to him.
When St Bonaventure wrote about this incident, he tells us that Francis not only heard the words of Christ telling him to rebuild his Church, but he tells us that he experienced his love too. It was the same love that was unleashed on the first Pentecost day – The Holy Spirit. The experience so overwhelmed Francis that he lost consciousness as he was caught up in a profound ecstasy. This experience of supernatural love gave Francis the strength to abandon his life completely to Christ.
In the years that followed, he allowed this love to transform him in such a way that he could bring Jesus back once more, placing him at the heart and centre of Christian spirituality. But he did not just call people to remember the Christ who had once lived in the past but to open themselves to receive the Risen Christ who is living and loving now in the present.
First published on Catholic Stand