Francis chose a very specific way of life in which to embrace ‘Lady Poverty’ and it was quite unique. It was quite simply the way of life as lived by Jesus and his followers before the Resurrection. For him it had three inseparable characteristics. It is an eremitical or solitary life, a community life and an apostolic life. All these three ingredients are so inseparably bound together that no authentic Franciscan life can exist if one of them is permanently lacking. The monks who had preceded the mendicants, based their way of life on that of the first Christian community in Jerusalem when everything was owned in common. The Benedictine monks for instance, whose form of monasticism predominated in Europe before the Franciscan rule was approved, positively excluded the mendicant way of life by adopting a vow of stability which tied them to their monasteries. This is not a criticism of this form of monastic life, because it was never founded to evangelise the world through apostolic work in the world, but primarily by contemplative prayer. The many disparate lay preachers and ‘prophets’ who had preceded Francis based their way of life on the apostolic life as lived by the first apostles after the Resurrection. Nowhere in the writings of Francis does he use the phrase ‘the apostolic life’ to describe the life to which he and his followers wanted to commit themselves. It is always the Gospel way of life, more specifically the way of life imposed on those first disciples sent out by Jesus before the Resurrection to preach the Good News.
For the first time in history Francis chose to base his way of life on the life as lived by Jesus and his disciples before the Resurrection. Jesus himself lived in a travelling community with his disciples, and he preached to others as part of that community and sent his disciples from that community to preach to others too. Nevertheless, he needed to keep turning aside into solitude to receive what he was to give to others and he taught his followers to do likewise by both word and example. This is why Francis taught his disciples to follow this example by repeatedly turning to God in both communal and solitary prayer to receive the same Love that had transformed Brother Jesus. Only then would they be able to share it with others. This continual repentance would open them ever more fully to the Love of God or the Holy Spirit, who would bond them into a loving, caring brotherhood that would speak to others far louder than in mere words.
When you go to Franciscan Italy you will see communities of Friars living amongst the people they serve in the villages, in the towns and in the cities, but look up high above the valleys and you will see the remote and solitary hermitages on the hillsides. It is to such places that the friars regularly returned to receive in profound prayer the same ‘Holy Spirit’ who progressively permeated and transformed the human body and soul of ‘Brother Jesus’ before them. Then they would return to make pools of contemplative stillness in the friaries, from where they would go out to breathe the breath of supernatural life into a world that is dead without it.
From the very beginning St Francis had continually sought out solitude. Whether he was working on rebuilding tumbledown churches, mentoring the first friars at Rivo Torto or building the first Franciscan Friary at the Portiuncula, he would repeatedly steal away to his beloved ‘prisons’ – Eremo Delle Carceri – lonely caves cut into the side of Monte Subasio where he could be utterly alone with his ‘Lady Poverty’. Sometimes she would show him only the darkness of his own nothingness, sometimes she would show him the light of God’s goodness, for this is the only way that saints are made out of sinners.
Thanks to Bernard of Quintavalle we have a clear insight into the sort of prayer that sustained Francis in his solitude. Although Bernard had been impressed by Francis, he didn’t want to make a final decision whether or not to join him until he had tested his spiritual metal, so he invited Francis to stay overnight. When they settled down for the night Bernard pretended to sleep and waited to see what his guest would do. Once he thought his host had fallen asleep Francis knelt by his bed and prayed through most of the night and he prayed the same prayer time and time again. The prayer that he used would later become the motto of the Order. It was simply ‘Deus Meus et Omnia’ – ‘My God and my All’.
This gives us a profound insight into Francis’ spiritual development at the precise moment when he was about to found his Order (April 1208). The days of first fervour were now over; he no longer meditated on the life of Brother Jesus as he had before. He no longer wept uncontrollably as he meditated on his passion and death. He had now already passed from meditation to contemplation. Inevitably he would have turned to what is often called the ‘prayer of the heart’. It is a short prayer usually of no more than a few words. In the stygian darkness that a beginner experiences, this prayer often comprises a desperate cry for help that lasts for very many months. However Francis was not a complete beginner in the mystic way as his prayer clearly indicates. The ‘prayer of the heart’ that he chose to use now no longer comprised the prayer of desperation and the cry for help, but an exclamation of sheer joy. For now he was experiencing the joy that St Bonaventure described as the ‘shaft of light that flashes out from the divine and mysterious darkness’, raising him up to experience the love that he desired above all else. His prayer is now inspired by spiritual joy as the profound realisation that the God who is now his all, is beginning to make his presence felt within him. ‘Deus Meus et Omnia,’ he cries out – ‘My God and my all’. If St Francis had still been crying out to God from the depth of the dark purification that afflicts a beginner in the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ Bernard of Quintavalle would have probably cut and run, and who would have blamed him? He would hardly have been inspired to give all his money away to the poor the following day, don an old sack for a tunic and run off barefoot to a cow shed to pledge his life to ‘Lady Poverty’. In short St Francis was already sufficiently advanced in the spiritual life to inspire people to change their lives, if not by becoming beggars in mud huts, at least by becoming better people in their own homes.
Before leaving this revealing little episode there is a further conclusion that can be drawn from the contents of St Francis’ ‘prayer of the heart’. Notice it is not directed to Jesus Christ, who spoke to him in San Damiano and for whom he wept in the days when he would meditate for hours on his painful passion and death. It was directed to God alone. Those who are ignorant of the mystic way are often quick to condemn it for seeming to forget the most important truth of our faith, the Incarnation. Where is Jesus Christ in the strange new world they ask? Where is he indeed, the poor spiritual traveller begins to wonder, when his presence and all the fervour that once surrounded meditating on his humanity seems to have evaporated? The question seems even more pressing when the saint most venerated for bringing back the sacred humanity of Jesus into Christian Spirituality, seems to have lost sight of the Incarnation himself. The answer is simply this – at this point of his spiritual odyssey Francis, along with those who have travelled along the same way before him have not abandoned Jesus Christ. Far from it, they are now not just travelling with him as before, but in him. As Jesus promised at the Last Supper, his love for them is now such that he is in them, and they are in him, and in, with and through him, they are more fully open to the Father and to the Father’s love than ever before.
David is the author of Wisdom from Franciscan Italy – The Primacy of Love which shows how the essence of Christian spirituality is restored by Francis.