243px-13th-century_unknown_painters_-_St_Francis_of_Assisi_-_WGA23872The very moment a person is sufficiently purified of the selfishness that keeps the pure unadulterated love of God out then that love comes flooding in instantly, not just into the mind, where it had already been partially experienced before, but into every part of the personality. The receiver swoons with the sheer delight of experiencing what Jesus Christ had experienced throughout his life on earth. Before, mystical experiences had come and gone, but now in the ‘Transforming Union’ the experience of being possessed by the love of God is all but permanent. That’s why it is often called the ‘Mystical Marriage’. Now marriage is not the end, but the beginning of a love that grows deeper and deeper, as with years of mutual self-giving, lovers are irrevocably bonded together. It would be all but impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when this happened to St Francis. However the sources enable us to see quite clearly the immediate effects of this profound transformation within him. Whenever a person experiences the delight of being totally possessed by the Holy Spirit, they just want to revel in that experience. Understandably they are tempted to do nothing else but relish what they have received to the exclusion of all else.

This is precisely what happened to St Francis. Only a few years before, God had spoken to him in the little church of St Mary of the Angels commanding him to become an itinerant preacher, but now he experienced a desire to stay at home to bathe in the glory of what he had received. Did this mean that he should forsake that calling? He didn’t trust himself to decide, so he sent Brother Masseo to Sister Clare at San Damiano and to her cousin Brother Sylvester at the hermitage of Le Carceri to pray to God for enlightenment. The reply from both of them was in complete accord. “God did not call you for yourself but for others.” The moment he heard their reply from Brother Masseo he took to the road again, taking Masseo with him and Brother Angelo, a young knight he had recruited into the brotherhood at Rieti. But now it was a different Francis who took the road to Rome by way of Montefalco.

The Desert Fathers had their own way of describing the pinnacle of the mystic way on earth. It was seen as a return to ‘Paradise Lost’. What was lost by Adam could be regained by those who had been purified of the sin and the selfishness that had expelled him from Paradise. That is why the great father founder of Egyptian Monasticism, St Antony, was finally at one, not just with himself, but with the whole of creation symbolised by his familiarity with the wild animals with whom he lived in complete harmony and without any fear. St Francis had now arrived at that very place himself and his arrival was symbolised by what is perhaps the most iconic picture that we have of him, preaching to the birds on the roadside between the villages of Cannara and Bevagna on his way to Rome. The many paintings of this idyllic scene depict the time when a new departure had just begun in the spiritual life of Francis and the beginnings of his unique vision.

In the first book of the Old Testament the author of Genesis presented the world that God created as a Temple. The firmament comprises the vast dome in which the whole of creation resided. Each day that God had spoken his Word had been embodied in as many animals, plants and inanimate wonders as he chose, to give him praise and glory just by being and doing what he created them for. In the first chapter of St John’s Gospel we are given the world-shaking news that God’s Word in whom and through whom all things were created in the beginning was now, ‘in the fullness of time’, made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He is now not only the new temple in which all creation resides, but the supreme King of that Creation who has come to rule over it and, as its supreme priest, lead it in an unending offering of love, praise and thanksgiving to the Father who sent him.

Now everything seemed so simple to the man who had just been suffused by the ‘Wisdom of God.’ If all things were created in Brother Jesus then all things are brothers and sisters to each other. It is not just Brother Francis and Sister Clare but Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Wolf and Sister Lamb, Brother Fire and Sister Water, for the whole of creation is a brotherhood and sisterhood with a common Father in whose embrace all were created from the beginning. Indeed the whole world must then be a friary and the highways and the byways of that world must be the cloisters of this friary. So from now on, whenever Francis walks through these cloisters with his brothers, he orchestrates the whole of creation around him to give praise and thanks with him to their common Father through Jesus their eldest brother, beginning with the birds of Cannara and Bevagna.

As the story of Francis further unfolds it is full of his love for his brothers and sisters, the birds, the animals, the trees and the plants and even inanimate things that listened to him and obeyed him without question when some of his own brethren didn’t. When he tells the swallows to remain silent at Alviano so that his listeners can hear what he is saying, they obey him. When he asks the falcon to wake him in the night for prayer it does so and when he orders the man-eating wolf to stop attacking the villagers of Gubbio it obeys. But most of all it is full of his love for Brother Jesus who emptied himself of everything to enter into the world that was created through him and in him just so that he could enter into us. For St Francis this was the ultimate expression of the poverty that Brother Jesus chose to embrace. It was not just that he abandoned a home of absolute bliss to make his home amongst us, but that he finally humbled himself to enter into our common food and drink, bread and wine, to make his home within us, as he had promised at the Last Supper, to lead us into the ultimate mystical union. That’s why he wrote in the very first of his admonitions:-

“Every day He humbles himself as he did when he came down from His heavenly throne into the Virgin’s womb, every day He comes to us and lets us see his abjection when He descends from the bosom of the Father into the hands of the priest at the altar. In this way our Lord remains continually with His followers, as he promised- ‘Behold I am with you all days even unto the consummation of the world.’”(Admonition 1)

The vortex of supernatural life and love that endlessly revolves between the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit, who Francis wanted to be the inner dynamism that animated and ruled the brotherhood that he founded.   These are the predominant themes that begin to characterise the preaching and teaching of Francis and the letters and the writings that he completed towards the end of his life.

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