When St Francis of Assisi had rebuilt a tumbledown little church given to him by the Benedictines, he called it St Mary of the Angels. It was here, over eight hundred years ago, that he heard God speaking to him through the Gospels while attending Mass. The message was simple – now that your time living as a hermit is over, you and your disciples must go out, preaching the Gospel to all as Jesus had done with his disciples. Francis so loved this little church that he said it would always be the hub and the home of his Franciscan Family for ever. When the first friars landed in America they immediately built a church and called it after that little church that St Francis had rebuilt with his own hands. Naturally they called it after their spiritual home, St Mary of the Angels or in the Spanish language that they spoke: – Santa Maria de los Ángeles. The town that grew up around it took the same name, until it came to be known simply as Los Angeles, as it is still known today.
Whilst living the life of a hermit the Holy Spirit had been purifying St Francis of sin and selfishness, enabling him to experience Jesus, as he was being brought to birth again within him. This profound spiritual birth was brought about by the same Holy Spirit who had first brought Jesus to birth in Mary’s womb. He was aware of it too, not just through a new conviction that had been implanted into his head, but through a deeply felt experience that enveloped and suffused every fibre of his being. The man he came to call Brother Jesus was now as close to him as he was to himself, and in him, and through him, he came to experience something of the vortex of life and love that endlessly flows between the Father and the Son, which is the Holy Spirit. Everywhere St Francis went, people rushed out to meet him, because in meeting him they met the man who had been brought to birth within him. The more his fame spread the more people ‘worshipped’ the very ground he walked on. No wonder they called him ‘The Second Christ’ for that’s what he was for all who came to meet him.
What is known in the mystic way as the ‘Transforming Union’ takes place the very moment purification comes to an end, as, in and through Jesus they are united with the love of God more fully than ever before. It is instantaneous. The very moment a person is sufficiently purified of the selfishness that keeps the pure love of God out, is the very moment when that love comes flooding in, 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 in Christ where they are possessed by the love of God, is all but permanent. It would be 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 short time before, God had called 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 the convent of 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 the 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.
This incident, not only had a life changing significance for St Francis, but for the Church too in his day, and, if we only reflect on it, for us too in our day. In short, we undoubtedly need to come to know and experience the love of God at work within us, but if when such experiences come, we want to do no more in life than revel in them or spend the rest of our life hankering after them, we have missed the point. They are given not just for us, but, like all charismatic gifts, for others too, that we may love and serve them as Jesus always did. If, as we try to love God in prayer, such experiences are given to us, thank God for them, but remember they are given for others too. If we do not realise this and continually fail to use them for this purpose then such profound mystical experiences will simply disappear. Our love for God will turn sour if we only seek it for ourselves and not to enable us to share it with others through the otherworldly kindness and compassion that was embodied in all that Jesus said and did. As St John would have put it – ‘Saying you love God while at the same time you fail to love your neighbour, simply means that your love of him is illusory.’ It’s all a matter of balance. However it must be said that today the greatest danger is not of lingering too long in prayer, but of lingering too long in trying to serve others without the profound God-given love that make this possible. The balance must be redressed in this era of frenetic busyness.
The love that St Francis received through the Holy Spirit, not only filled him with love to share with others, but with wisdom too, that enabled him to see God’s plan as never before. If all things were created in Brother Jesus, then all things are brothers and sisters to each other. The Philosopher Plato said that the whole world was a prison and the men and women were merely prisoners. Shakespeare said that all the world is a stage and the men and women merely players. The President of the United State said that the whole world is a market place, and men and women buyers and sellers. But St Francis of Assisi said that the whole world is a Friary and the men and women are brothers and sisters to each other, and so were all things, created by the love of God. It is not just Brother Francis and Sister Clare then, 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 Son we were created from the beginning. Furthermore, if the whole world is a friary then 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, to whom he preached on his way to Montefalco.
As the story of Francis further unfolds then, 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, the story of St Francis 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. He in whom all things have been created then chose to enter into us. For St Francis this was the ultimate expression of the poverty that Brother Jesus chose to embrace, and he wished to imitate him. 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 St Francis 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 and the sisterhood that he founded. Indeed he wanted it to be written into his rule that the real superior, who loves and binds together all his brothers and sisters, is the Holy Spirit. What he wanted for them was what he wanted for the whole Church. He wanted it to be a friary too, a place where everyone was bound together in love on their way to the Father, in and together with the One he called Brother Jesus, in whom we all live and move and have our being. St Francis loved St John’s Gospel more than any other, because it begins with all things being created by God in his only Son, the perfect expression of Himself, who he therefore calls the Word. Then it continues with that Word being made flesh in the world that was created in him, as a helpless baby in a wooden crib, and then dying for us as a helpless man on a wooden cross. But then he rises to glory. The Son in whom the whole world was created now rules over this world as Christ the King. But as promised at the Last Supper, this King continues to humble himself to enter into our world, this time through simple bread and wine transformed into himself. Now he rules from ‘above’ and from ‘within’ by the same love that made St Francis into the man that those who came to know him called him ‘The Second Christ’.