Lesson Twenty-five—A Chariot of Fire
Lesson: The Order of the Friars Minor was now approved, and Francis and his brothers returned to a town near Assisi to live in a small, abandoned hut. Shortly after, they moved to the church of Saint Mary of the Portiuncula in Assisi where they took up residence. As members of the newly established Order of the Friars Minor, they lived a life of continuous prayer and labor. They especially spent much time in meditation on the Incarnation and on the Cross of Christ.
One night, when Francis was away from his brothers, staying near the cathedral where he was to preach the following day, something miraculous happened to the brothers back at their little hut. While Francis prayed alone in a garden near the cathedral, some of his brothers were also holding vigil in prayer throughout the night. At midnight, the brothers suddenly saw a chariot of fire pass through their hut three times. Its radiance splendidly illuminated the entire house. But the fiery chariot didn’t only illuminate the hut, it also illuminated the spirit of every brother in such a way that the conscience of every brother was made known to all. Francis, being away in body, was made present to them in spirit, and they each were given an understanding of his very soul.
After this experience, the brothers discussed among themselves what this vision meant. Eventually, they understood that the chariot represented Francis, who was not with them in body, but was always with them in spirit. When Francis returned to them, he was given insight into their consciences and the future lives they would lead for the glory of God. This spiritual knowledge of each other’s souls gave great comfort to all, united them more firmly, and further convinced the brothers that God wanted them to follow Francis wholeheartedly.
Reflection: Imagine if someone close to you knew your conscience through and through. This was the case with Francis and his brothers. By a special grace of God, Francis was aware of the soul of each of his brothers, which enabled him to lead them in accord with God’s will. Additionally, God gave Francis’s first brothers a knowledge of Francis’s soul. Though this might appear frightening to some, it is only frightening if we have something to hide. If, on the other hand, our souls are pure and set on the will of God in all things, then the revelation of our souls to others would be a glorious experience.
Many believe that this manifestation of our consciences to all will take place in Heaven, at the Final Judgment. Recall Jesus’ own words that indicate this: “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. Therefore, whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops” (Luke 12:2-3).
Though we have not been given the same mystical gift that Francis and his brothers were given that night, it is good for each of us to work toward a point in our lives in which we are not only comfortable, but also joyous at the idea of revealing our souls to others. Though prudence may dictate some discretion, the ideal will be that we are free to be open, transparent, and fully known by others. While we are on this side of Heaven, that might only be possible to a certain extent among those with whom we share a close friendship and are fully united in Christ. Spouses should especially strive for this transparency with pure love, mercy, openness and understanding.
Reflect, today, upon how freeing it would be to not only open your soul completely to another, but to also be fully loved and accepted in that act. This is Heaven. While on earth, we should hope to be able to share in this holy knowledge of each other, anticipating that glorious day when God will unite us fully with Him and with each other.
Saint Francis, God gave you and your brothers a glorious gift when He opened your consciences to each other, enabling you each to know and love your brothers with the purity and charity of God Himself. Please pray that I also receive the gift of true spiritual friends with whom I may open my conscience with confidence and trust. May I also strive to be a true friend to others: holy, confidential, trustworthy, compassionate, and merciful, just as you were to your brothers. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Twenty-six—The Preaching of Francis and His Brothers
Lesson: Soon after arriving in Assisi, now set on fire by the Spirit of God and a commitment to their new rule of life, Francis and his brothers went forth to preach. They did so with words, but also by the witness of their lives. They preached not through clever reasoning or learned discourse. Their message was simple. Turn from sin, turn to God, praise Him in all things, pray always, renounce the world and its empty promises, love poverty, trust fully in the providence of God, love all people, be the humble servant of all, love the Gospel, live it fully, proclaim it always, forgive all who wrong you, and be a source of true peace and unity among all.
Though their preaching was powerful, the witness they gave by the way they lived was even more powerful. The brothers prayed constantly. They prayed as they traveled. They kept long vigils of prayer at night. They always praised God. Sometimes they praised Him on account of the beauty of creation and sometimes because they suffered greatly from rejection, hunger, and the elements they endured on their travels. Their joy and their continuous praise of God disarmed many people, which enabled them to be instruments of God’s peace and unity. The evident love they had for their other brothers was contagious and inspiring, leading many to desire that same love in their own lives. Their radical embrace of poverty and dependence upon God’s providence led many to see that the accumulation of wealth was not the source of fulfillment in life. Their harsh penances, by which they continually mortified their appetites and fleshly desires, gave witness to the fact that self-gratification was a deception. The mercy with which they treated those who ridiculed them and even abused them, taught that anger and revenge were never the answer.
The personal witness of Francis transformed his brothers of the Order of the Friars Minor. In turn, the brothers, changed by their father Francis, went forth with Francis to change many lives. Their new life was a bright light that caught the attention of many, and God began to work countless miracles of grace in the lives of those who were touched.
Reflection: Imagine entering Heaven and seeing a countless line of people coming to thank you for the difference you made in their lives. This reality is possible for us all. God wants to use us to bring many people to Heaven. Though we may not be called to the ministry of public preaching or to be a religious or priest, God has a plan for the fruitfulness of every life.
Sometimes our daily holy witness to those we encounter does more for their souls than we realize. Our fidelity to prayer for others will most certainly bear an abundance of good fruit in their lives. Going out of our comfort zone, doing what God calls us to do and being faithful to His perfect will are all ways by which God will use us to bring others to Heaven.
When you look at your life, what do you see? Are there ways that God wants to use you to enrich the lives of others that you have failed to do? Do you strive to treat those around you with the greatest charity, mercy, and compassion? Do you listen to those who need someone to talk to, even if you’d rather do something else? Have you completely forgiven everyone in your life and replaced every hurt with God’s love?
Reflect, today, upon the fact that God wants you to imitate the fruitfulness of Saint Francis’s life. Though your vocation might be very different in terms of how it is lived out, the zeal that he and his brothers had for the conversion of souls must also resonate within each one of us. We must pray, listen, and respond to God, no matter what He asks of us. Reflect upon how well you do this in light of the inspirational witness of Saint Francis and his brothers and recommit yourself to following their holy example.
Saint Francis, you and your first companions were so deeply in love with God that you went forth sharing the Gospel with both your words and actions. The love in your heart was contagious and affected many. Please pray that I may also be inspired by you and follow your example. I pray that God will use me in powerful ways to bring many souls to Heaven with me and with you. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Twenty-seven—The Followers Grow
Lesson: After Francis’s eleven brothers were strengthened in their resolve to follow Francis’s life and teachings, they returned to the church of Saint Mary of the Portiuncula. From there, Francis went forth preaching in all the nearby cities and towns. His preaching was exceptionally fruitful in the lives of many since the Spirit of God dwelt so powerfully within him and radiated forth for all to see.
One of the first new followers was a young woman named Clare who was from a wealthy noble family in Assisi. After hearing Francis preach a Lenten mission at the church of San Giorgio in Assisi, she spoke to Francis and asked him to help her become one of his fervent followers. On the evening of Palm Sunday, 1212, about two years after Francis and his brothers had returned to Assisi with papal approval, Clare and two companions were secretly received by Francis at the Portiuncula. Clare’s long hair was cut as a sign of her commitment to embrace this new way of life, and she was sent to stay with the Benedictine nuns. Shortly afterwards, Clare and her companions moved to San Damiano. Though her family was outraged that she would embrace the life of voluntary poverty in imitation of Francis, she was determined to do so. Eventually, her embrace of this new life became the foundation of the Poor Clare nuns. Clare lived until 1253, dying only days after her and her sisters’ rule of life was approved by the pope. At her death, there were three monasteries of nuns. She would be canonized a saint two years later.
In addition to Clare, there were many lay people who wanted to follow the example and teachings of Francis. This desire became so strong over the next decade that Francis founded the lay order of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance. The order began as early as 1215 and was formally approved by the pope in 1221. The rule of life enabled married men and women, clerics, and single laity, to commit themselves to the way of life Francis taught. Today, this order has spread throughout the world and in most places is called the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO). Though the members do not take religious vows, they do commit themselves to a rule of life as was given them by their founder.
Reflection: Francis not only inspired people to change their lives, he also inspired them to imitate him. In Francis, we can see the words of Saint Paul to the Corinthians come true: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). People not only wanted to imitate him, but they also wanted what he had. They wanted his joy, his freedom, his detachment, and his profound unity with God. The desire in many hearts for this was so strong that the Poor Clare nuns and the Order of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance were formed.
How fully could those words of Saint Paul also be said about you? Could you confidently say those words to others, telling them to imitate you as you imitate Christ? Of course, this can only be said by one who is fully united to Christ in this life, as Saint Francis and Saint Paul were.
Think about the influence you have on others. With all humility and gratitude to God, we should be able to see people’s lives changed for the better because of our influence. If we were fully united to God, there would, in fact, be many who are inspired by our lives and feel drawn to us, desiring to imitate us.
This life is short, and too often, we settle for being only mediocre in our witness of the Gospel. In Heaven, we will never regret going all in, giving our lives fully to Christ so that Christ will touch many hearts through us.
Reflect, today, upon the witness you give to others. Do you tempt others to sin or set a poor example, or do you truly inspire others and encourage them to turn more fully to God? Ponder this honest question today and know that Saint Francis was but a man. He was a man fully set on fire with the love of God. If Saint Francis can do this, so can you.
Saint Francis, the holy witness of your life inspired many to follow you in a radical way. Your love of God overflowed into the lives of those whom you daily encountered. Please pray that I will also become an instrument of the love of Christ. May I be freed of every sin that tempts others to sin and be filled with every virtue so that I am also a holy instrument of God whom others can imitate. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Twenty-eight—Taming Temptations of the Flesh
Lesson: Francis lovingly referred to his body as “Brother Donkey,” as a way of humbly acknowledging that his bodily senses, appetites, and desires needed to be tamed and ordered by the Spirit of God. He discovered that the bodily appetites were very stubborn, like a donkey. To accomplish this, Francis regularly engaged in severe penances, such as eating barely enough food to retain his physical health, never eating cooked food—such as meat—unless he first watered it down to the point that it was tasteless, sleeping in a sitting position, and enduring extreme cold in the winter. In living such an austere life of penance, Francis discovered that these penances enabled his body to be obedient to his spirit while his spirit was united with God.
Such an extreme life of penance, however, was always to be at the service of charity. Therefore, when he traveled and people offered him a meal, he would eat it joyfully. Or if a brother was ill because of too much fasting, Francis would bring him food and eat it with him to help ease any temptation of guilt for breaking his fast.
The devil tempted Francis in various ways, including one night when he appeared to Francis and tried to deceive him into thinking that these severe penances were an offense to God. The devil then tempted Francis so severely with an interior temptation that Francis went outside and plunged himself into the snow, saying to a brother who saw this that it was easier for the body to endure cold than it was for the spirit to endure a temptation toward sinful passions.
One effect of Francis overcoming all fleshly temptations through penance was that the entire Universe served him and bestowed upon him consolations from God that were far greater than fleshly indulgences. For example, Francis once blessed a cup of water and it turned into the finest of wine as a gift from God for him to enjoy. Another time when Francis desired to hear music, angels appeared to him to play a Heavenly melody. And on another occasion, while walking with a brother through the darkness without torches, a light from Heaven appeared and lit the way for them as they walked. These miracles led Saint Bonaventure to say of Francis, “The whole framework of the universe does homage and service to him who thus purifies and sanctifies his senses” (Bonaventure, The Life Ch. 5, pg. 66).
Reflection: Do you fast? Do you do any form of regular penance? For most people, this might be a humbling question because most people rarely engage in forms of bodily mortification. Often, when Ash Wednesday or Good Friday comes, we enter into a day of fasting and absence with a willing reluctance. But when it comes to the mortification of our appetites, approaching this with willing reluctance will never suffice.
Francis ran to mortification with much zeal and a joyful embrace because he discovered the glorious effects of taming his stubborn Brother Donkey. He found that as he willingly and eagerly subdued his bodily appetites and desires, his spirit was much freer to surrender itself to the Spirit of God.
Have you ever discovered the great value in fasting, mortification, and various forms of bodily penance? The only way to discover this freedom is by believing the witness that Saint Francis and many other saints have given and by freely choosing to follow their example with much zeal.
When one begins to engage in various forms of mortification, a profound spiritual freedom will be experienced. Fasting, for example, will help a person discover that there is a much greater joy than the joy of indulgence. Self-denial will reveal to the soul that happiness is never found in the delights of this world, but only in the delights bestowed by God upon the spirit.
Reflect, today, upon your attitude toward every form of fasting and bodily penance. If you initially experience a distaste for such practices, see that distaste as a deception of your stubborn flesh. See your bodily appetites and desires as a donkey that is stubborn and needs to be tamed. Ponder the great wisdom that Saint Francis discovered in his penitential life and trust him enough to resolve to follow his example. In time, by intentionally practicing various forms of mortification, you will no longer need to rely only upon the testimony given by the life of Saint Francis. You will also be able to rely upon the testimony of the freedom you begin to experience within your own soul.
Saint Francis, in the eyes of the world, your severe penances and fastings were seen as foolishness. But it was the Holy Spirit Who inspired you to confidently embrace such mortifications. Through them, you discovered not only a new freedom, but a joy that could never come from any form of fleshly indulgence. Please pray that I may discover what you discovered and practice what you practiced so as to discover the freedom and joy that you discovered. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Twenty-nine—Humility and Obedience
Lesson: Francis was praised by many. This greatly disturbed him since he knew the truth that God and God alone was to be praised, not him. He often proclaimed that if the graces God had given him were given to a criminal, that criminal would certainly become much holier than he. He also often preached about the humility of God as taught by the Incarnation. Since God descended to the realm of sinful men, taking on human flesh, we must also descend to the depths of humility, never seeking praise.
One day, after Francis had indulged his appetite for food too much after recovering from an illness, he used it as an occasion to publicly humble himself in the sight of the people. To do this, he had the brothers tie a cord around his neck and drag him to a stone in town that was used to depose criminals. Once there, Francis confessed his gluttony and preached fervently that he was not to be praised but, rather, held in contempt by all and despised for being a glutton. As a result, the people were astonished and were convicted of their own sins, thus leading them to be in awe of his humility.
Francis also found that humility and obedience were closely connected. Therefore, in order to grow in humility, whenever Francis and another brother would go on a journey, Francis would humble himself before the brother and promise obedience to him throughout the journey. This humility of Francis opened the door to Heaven, and the power of God worked through him in many ways.
The brothers also discovered that when they acted in complete obedience to the humble Francis, Francis’s humility worked through them. On one occasion, Francis saw a vision of many demons who were tormenting and controlling a certain town he was visiting. Therefore, he ordered one of his brothers to go to the gates of that city and command the demons to leave. The brother, acting out of obedience to the humble Francis, did as he was told and the demons had no choice but obey the brother on account of the humility of Francis and the obedience of the brother.
Humility is so great that it will be the source of exultation in heaven. This is testified to by one of the brothers who, while praying, had a vision of an empty throne in Heaven. A voice said to him that it was a throne vacated by one of the fallen angels but was now reserved for the humble Francis.
Reflection: Do you want to be truly great? Do you want to be exalted for all eternity by God Himself? This can only be accomplished in one way. You must enter the truth of who you are and believe it with all the powers of your soul. What is the truth? The truth is that you are weak, sinful, and fully unworthy of God’s mercy. By yourself, you are capable only of sin. But it is this humble admission that gladdens the Heart of God and opens the abundance of His mercy.
Greatness is found in the transformation of our souls. Only God can do this for us, but we must first do our part. Though Saint Francis was God’s powerful instrument in this world, he never turned his eyes upon himself, never taking credit for anything God did in him and through him. Instead, he was steadfast in his conviction of his unworthiness and sinfulness. Because of these deeply-held truths of Saint Francis, God was able to continue the condensation of His Incarnation in the life of Saint Francis. God wants to do the same through us.
Saint Francis also discovered that obedience to God opened the door to His mercy. Therefore, Saint Francis was constantly on the lookout for practical and real ways in which he could exercise obedience to God by humbling himself before his brothers and submitting his own will to theirs. We must also seek out these opportunities by looking for ways that we can deny our own selfish will and choose the will of others around us. This is especially important to work toward within one’s family.
Reflect, today, upon the radical humility and obedience of Saint Francis. Call to mind any practical ways in which you can work to embrace humility and obedience in your life. Can you admit your weakness and sin? Are you convinced that God and God alone is worthy of all praise and glory and that any good done through you is on account of the mercy of God? Can you embrace this humility by voluntary acts of obedience to those around you, choosing their daily preferences over your own? Think about concrete ways in which you can choose the will of another, especially within your family, as a way of taming your will and preparing it to submit to the will of God more fully.
Saint Francis, your wisdom was otherworldly. It defied the temptations of your weak and disordered will, enabling you to choose only the will of God. Please pray that I will grow in true humility, joyfully submitting myself to every humble truth in life. Please help me to embrace this humility by mortifying my own will through voluntary acts of obedience to the preferences of others so that I will be more disposed to always obey the will of God. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Thirty—Lady Poverty
Lesson: Of the many unique characteristics that made up Francis’s life and mission, his love for poverty stands out. Francis loved poverty because in it, he discovered a new freedom to become attached only to His God. By renouncing everything, owning nothing except one tunic and a cord, begging for food, and giving all the excess that he received to the poor, Francis can be said to have wedded Lady Poverty.
One of the most inspiring depictions of Francis’s love for poverty comes in the form of a short story written in allegorical form called “Francis and His Lady Poverty.” The author is unknown, but the story was most likely written only a few years after Francis’s death. The story was unquestionably the work of the Holy Spirit.
The story begins with Francis and some of his brothers wandering from town to town searching for “Lady Poverty.” Poverty itself is personified in this story, as are Persecution, Greed, Sloth, and Discretion. When told that Lady Poverty lives up a high mountain, Francis and his companions climb the mountain with supernatural enthusiasm and speed. Upon meeting Lady Poverty, a long discourse takes place in which Lady Poverty speaks of how she was first present in the Garden of Eden and how she was expelled by the sin of Adam as he sought after selfish indulgences. She speaks of her return to earth in the poverty of Christ, identifying herself as Jesus’ most intimate companion. Jesus left the glories of Heaven and descended into poverty, entering the womb of a poor virgin who laid Him in a manger. Lady Poverty was especially close to Christ throughout His earthly life, especially as He hung naked on the Cross, stripped of everything earthly. That was Lady Poverty’s most sacred moment. She then remained close to Jesus’ Apostles as they continued His saving work.
Lady Poverty then explains to Francis and his brothers how, over the centuries, many monks and hermits lived with Lady Poverty, only to abandon her for new companions of Greed, Sloth, and Discretion. Francis then, filled with the utmost joy, pleads with Lady Poverty to join him and his brothers for a nuptial banquet in which they can be wedded to her for the rest of their lives. She agrees and when she visits their humble home, is given their humble food of a little bread and water. She witnesses their complete detachment from everything and is overjoyed, for she knows she has found her new home and will no longer need to wander about the mountains.
In wedding himself to Lady Poverty, Francis found that he was free from every empty seduction of the world. He found that true happiness was found only in the attainment of God, not in anything of this world. He believed that by renouncing ownership of everything, God would not only provide for him day in and day out, but also bestow upon him an abundance of true spiritual riches.
Reflection: Often in life we personify many things. We see the riches of this world and the passing satisfactions they provide as a source of fulfillment that we want and even need. Like Saint Francis, we must vigorously oppose these temptations and seek the deeper spiritual truths that are eternal. Poverty must be seen as a glorious means of the spiritual riches we long for. Do you see this?
The free embrace of poverty is nothing other than the free embrace of the Truth. It’s a living out of the realization that the spiritual riches of God are infinitely greater than all the riches of the world. This truth is hard to believe and even harder to joyfully embrace.
Though few people are called to the same depth of literal poverty that Saint Francis and his companions were, we must all seek the same depth of spiritual poverty. Recall the first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). This teaching of Jesus does not first come in the form of a command, but as a blessing. In other words, how blessed is that person who discovers and embraces the high calling to poverty of spirit. How blessed is that person who lives in this world fully detached from the things of this world. How blessed is that person who is so free from the passing satisfactions of this world that they are free to become attached only to the spiritual riches of the grace of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Reflect, today, upon your own attitude to material riches. Do you desire the attainment of the passing things of this world? Though it might not be a sin to own things in this world, it is a sin to live attached to them. This realization requires a profound openness to the deepest spiritual truths God wants to reveal. Reflect upon how open you are to the first Beatitude and how willing you are to fully detach yourself from the fleeting pleasures of this world. Believe that this interior detachment is not a loss, it’s a gain of something so much greater. Seek out that blessing which will remain with you forever, and you will have discovered riches more valuable than anything this world can offer.
Saint Francis, you diligently sought out Lady Poverty because you discovered the true spiritual riches she bestowed. You understood well that the things of this world were good and gifts from God, but that attachment to the things of God was not the same as attachment to God Himself. Please pray that I can discover the great wisdom of poverty of spirit by imitating your interior detachment. Fill me with a longing for simplicity and poverty so that I, too, will become eternally rich. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Thirty-one—All Creation Gives Praise to God
Lesson: It happened one day, as Francis and his brothers were on a journey, that they saw a flock of birds in the distance. Francis, filled with joy at seeing them, ran up to them. As he approached them, the birds did not fly away but looked at Francis eagerly and calmly. Francis then spoke to them about praising God. He said, “My brothers, birds, you should praise your Creator very much and always love him; He gave you feathers to clothe you, wings so that you can fly, and whatever else was necessary for you. God made you noble among his creatures, and He gave you a home in the purity of the air; though you neither sow nor reap, He nevertheless protects and governs you without any solicitude on your part” (Celano, First Life #58). At that, the birds stretched out their necks, opened their mouths, and gazed at Francis as he passed by them. He touched them and blessed them and gave them permission to depart.
Similar interactions with God’s creatures were reported on many other occasions. Fish would poke their heads out of water to listen to Francis. Rabbits would run to him and jump into his lap. Lambs would follow his instructions and give praise to God. Wolves were tamed and obedient to his gentle instructions. And even a grasshopper sang God’s praises to the delight of this holy man of God.
Francis was deeply committed to the praise and glory of God in all things. His praise affected even the creatures God made. All creation seemed to join in the same joy and praise that continuously flowed forth from Francis. Thus, the holiness of this man of God helped restore order and harmony to all parts of this fallen world.
Later in his life, Francis composed a beautiful hymn called the “Canticle of Brother Sun.” In that canticle, Francis offered praise and glory to God and acknowledged the truth that even the elements of the Universe give praise and glory to God. He called them Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Stars, Brother Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Fire, Sister Earth, and Sister Death. By their very nature, these elements of God’s creation radiated the beauty and splendor of God, giving God glory by their very existence. Thus, Francis’s affection for all of Creation was the result of His desire that all things share in the glory of God.
Reflection: When you look at God’s Creation, what do you see? Saint Francis saw Creation as not only a reflection of its Creator, but as a source of God’s glory. Because Saint Francis was also a creation of God, he saw all that God made as his brothers and sisters and believed that they were created to share in the same purpose of his life, which was to give glory and praise to God.
It’s interesting that Saint Francis most likely composed his “Canticle of Brother Sun” at a time when he was almost blind and when the brightness of the Sun was too much for his eyes to handle. Even within that context, Saint Francis understood the beauty of the Sun as it gave light to the world, just as God gave the True Light to the world. He pondered the beauty of the moon and stars, the providence of God in the wind, water, fire and earth. He even saw the blessing of illnesses and tribulations, including his Sister Bodily Death from which we cannot escape. Most importantly, he saw the creation of the eternal soul as the most precious gift and mortal sin as the greatest evil.
Since it is well documented that Saint Francis often was given command over the elements of nature, including irrational animals, we are invited to learn the lesson this teaches. God is the Master of all Creation, and those who live in perfect harmony with God share in His power over Creation. Most importantly, if we can obtain perfection in this life, we will be given complete mastery over God’s greatest creation: our own soul. When this happens, God will be glorified to a far greater degree than if every irrational animal in the world were to cry out in praise of God with one voice.
Reflect, today, upon your own soul as the pinnacle of God’s most beautiful creation. See your soul as a reflection of God and strive to discover the primary reason you exist. Command your own soul to give praise and glory to God always and in every circumstance. Praise Him through illness and weakness, through the good and the bad, in the morning and evening and with every act in between. May all Creation give praise and glory to God, beginning with you.
Saint Francis, you discovered the profound truth that everything God created was made for the sole purpose of giving praise to its Creator. As a result of a special grace of God, you shared in the governance of Creation and ordered it to fulfill its mission. Please pray for me and exercise God’s will over my own life by giving me a command of love to praise and glorify my Creator. May I listen to your command more speedily and readily than even the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, devoting all that I am to God’s glory. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson: For Francis, prayer was as necessary for the soul as food was for the body. He could not survive without constant and deep prayer. His prayer continuously praised God for everything. He praised God for every suffering he endured. He praised God for the conversion of souls he encountered. He praised God for His gift of Creation, for the poor lepers, for his brothers, and especially for the Most Holy Eucharist.
Some three hundred years after Francis lived, Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Ávila composed some of the greatest works on the mystical life of prayer. In those works they described various forms of ecstasy, visions, rapture, contemplation, and divine union that leads to spiritual marriage with God. When one reads the stories of Francis, it is clear, beyond doubt, that Francis’s prayer was among the highest forms of prayer one can attain in this life.
At times, Francis would enter into a trance so deep that no one could rouse him out of it. It was as if he left his body and the dead corpse was unable to communicate with his spirit any longer, which had been fully absorbed in the presence of God. At other times, he was seen elevating off the ground, light shining forth from him, his countenance transformed, and he was in another world.
Francis was especially faithful to the singing of the Divine Office at the appointed hours every day. He would sing the Psalms with the deepest affection and devotion. He attended the Holy Mass as often as possible. He had a deep devotion to our Blessed Mother, and he was especially devoted to contemplation of the Passion of Christ.
Though Francis often attempted to keep the good fruits of his prayer hidden, as if it were a sacred exchange meant only for him and his Lord, the transforming effects of his daily prayer could not be hidden. The union he shared with God was evident to all who met him and became a source of ongoing inspiration and encouragement for others in their own prayer lives.
In addition to his continuous praise of God, Francis also prayed with a holy sorrow. He always acknowledged his sin and the sins of others with profound tears. He regularly begged God for mercy for himself and for all, while at the same time he glorified and praised God in all things. His profound depth of prayer always led him to the conviction that God was glorious above all and that he was nothing other than a sinful wretch in need of God’s mercy.
Reflection: How do you pray? How often do you pray? Oftentimes, when we do pray, we offer up a few of our personal requests to God, hoping that God will grant our requests as we ask them. But is that true prayer?
True prayer always begins with the praise and glorification of God for Who He is and for the perfection of His will. True prayer also always includes the surrender of our lives to God and His will. The goal of prayer is nothing other than divine union. We are called to become one with God so that we can share in His life completely.
Saint Francis’s prayer was so deep, so profound, so all-consuming that his spirit was regularly transported out of his body in ecstasy. Though this might seem like a foreign experience to you, it must become the goal of our prayer life. We must seek to enter so deeply into union with God that our spirits become fully immersed in God Himself.
If you desire this depth of prayer, shared by Saint Francis, then seek to imitate him by giving praise to God. If you are ill, embrace that illness with patient endurance, and offer that suffering to God for His praise and glory. If you are wronged by another, are persecuted, or struggle in any other way, do not see these as obstacles to God. Instead, see them as a glorious means to deeper union with God by enduring them with love.
As you learn to praise and glorify God always and for all things, seek to abandon yourself to His will and His will alone. Too often our prayer is selfish in that we pray for our will and not God’s will. This will never work. When we pray, we must always ask for the fulfillment of God’s will and nothing else. If a friend or family member is in need, offer them to God with trust, not telling God what they need, but praying for God’s will to be done in their lives. If you encounter some difficulty in your own life, seek only that which God wants to come of it. And as you see the many blessings of God’s grace abound, give praise to God for them, admitting your unworthiness of His mercy, thanking Him for that mercy, nonetheless.
Reflect, today, upon your life of prayer. If that phrase “life of prayer” does not describe you, then resolve to fix that. Ponder any excuses that arise in your mind regarding your life of prayer. If you feel you are too busy, do not know how to pray, feel like you get nothing out of prayer, or have some other excuse for not praying, dismiss them. Resolve to pray. Don’t give up. Try and try again and little by little, God will enter your life more fully and enable you to enter more deeply into His perfect will.
Saint Francis, your prayer was profound, continuous, and transforming. You discovered how to pray, simply by praying and praying often. Please pray that I will also discover how I am to live a life of prayer. Help me to follow your holy example so that I can share in the same fruits of prayer as you. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Thirty-three—Knowledge of the Word of God
Lesson: In order to manifest His almighty power, God chooses the weak to show forth His might, and He chooses the humble and simple to manifest His divine wisdom. Such was the case with Francis.
It happened on many occasions that very learned theologians would converse with Francis. Though Francis was not well educated in the science of the Scriptures, he was taught by God and given an understanding of the Word of God that far exceeded those learned men. His contemplation of the Gospels led him to insights and understanding of His Lord that could never be obtained from years of diligent study. For him, the Word of God was personal and real and was communicated to him through his prayer by God Himself.
Francis’s knowledge of the Word of God also exceeded knowledge of the Scriptures. On many occasions, he was also given insight into God’s will for the lives of those all around him. To some, he would reveal that they were frauds and under the influence of the evil one. Some repented; others died in their sins. He could read souls and know the thoughts of those whom God revealed to him. He used this knowledge to prophesy to them and call them back to God.
On one occasion, as Francis and one of his brothers were traveling, Francis mounted a donkey since he was quite weary from the journey. The brother with him thought to himself that it was unfair that Francis should ride and he should walk since the brother came from a more noble family. As soon as he had this thought, it was revealed by God to Francis and Francis immediately dismounted the donkey, insisting that the brother ride instead of him. The brother was immediately filled with remorse at his thought, knowing Francis was aware of it, and he humbly begged Francis for forgiveness.
On another occasion, a man who had lived a very sinful life was quite ill and came to Francis asking him to bless him. Francis, being aware of the wretchedness of the man’s soul, told him he would bless him, but that if he did not then change his life, he would end in hell. As soon as Francis blessed him, the man was cured and gave praise to God. As time passed, however, the man returned to his sinful ways and was met with a tragic death, his soul receiving a just condemnation as Francis foretold.
Reflection: Do you desire to be truly wise? Do you wish you always knew what others needed to hear to help them grow closer to God? This desire is attainable, but not from years of diligent study. Though that may help, the wisdom of God is first and foremost a gift given by God to those who are close to Him. God’s wisdom and His counsel belong to Him, not to us. Therefore, if we wish to be truly wise and full of holy counsel for others, then we must see ourselves only as instruments, not as the source. This requires humility and surrender.
Saint Francis was so deeply united to God that God was able to reveal to him many things that years of study could never provide. He spoke with the wisdom of God and with the authority of God. It was truly God who spoke to Him and revealed His truth to him.
Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge and Counsel are all gifts of the Holy Spirit. They are gifts God desires to bestow upon everyone. We will never obtain those gifts by seeking them. We will obtain them only by seeking God. And we will lose them by turning from God.
If you long to have these intellectual gifts, then seek out God Himself. Ponder Him in prayer. Listen to Him speak. Savor all that He reveals. Love Him Who communicates with you.
Reflect, today, upon the mind of God. God is perfect Wisdom. He has all Knowledge. He Understands all things and always is the perfect Counselor. Reflect upon the very real invitation God is offering you to share in His attributes. Resolve to seek the source of these gifts, and He will bestow them upon you in abundance.
Saint Francis, your mind was sharp and fully engaged in the deepest mysteries of Heaven. You knew God intimately, and your knowledge of God brought forth an abundance of spiritual gifts. Please pray that I may always turn to God with all my heart and seek Him Who is Wisdom itself. As I do, may God bless me with an increase of every virtue and spiritual gift so that I can be a greater instrument of His divine Wisdom in this world. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Thirty-four—Prayer and Preaching
Lesson: Francis’s desire to give God the greatest glory possible by his life led him to a certain dilemma that he struggled with for some time. He was uncertain as to how he was to give God the greatest glory by his life. Therefore, he conversed with his brothers about this question.
The dilemma was whether it would give God greater glory if he were to give himself wholly to a life of prayer or to a life of preaching. He saw himself as a man who had received the gift of prayer but felt as though he was quite incapable of preaching well. He knew that the life of prayer led to the accumulation of many graces, accomplished the purification of the affections, united him most fully with the Triune God, and led to the increase of every virtue. An active life of preaching among the people, however, brought with it many temptations. It led to distractions, a relaxation of spiritual disciplines, and left him more engaged with sinful men than with God. Thus, even though he felt drawn to the life of solitude and continuous prayer, he pondered the central truth of the Incarnation. God Himself chose to descend to man so as to bring to him the Gospel and bestow salvation to all who responded.
To solve the dilemma, he asked two of his brothers to go and consult with a holy friar who had dedicated himself to the life of prayer, as well as with Clare and her sisters. After being consulted, they both sent word to Francis that they believed he should go forth and preach. Upon hearing this, Francis immediately took their counsel as the will of God and devoted himself to preaching. Eventually, he learned to divide his time equally between the contemplative and active life.
As he went from town to town, his simple and humble message touched many. At times, he spoke gently of the mercy of God and humble souls were filled with gratitude. At other times, he was inspired to send forth the Sword of the Spirit to reveal the sins of those before him and to call them to repentance. He spoke powerfully, simply, humbly, and with a conviction that only the Spirit of God could give.
His preaching was also accompanied by many miracles. He healed many who were lame, restored sight to the blind, and cast out many demons. Many people were even healed by touching objects that were touched by Francis and eating bread that he had blessed. Thus, God confirmed Francis’s preaching by these miracles, changing many hearts. God also blessed his preaching because Francis did so out of obedience to the will of God and in response to the mandate he had been given by the pope himself.
Reflection: At times, we tend to retreat to that which is most comfortable to us. For Saint Francis, the contemplative life of prayer was very comfortable and was something to which he was interiorly drawn. But there was one thing that attracted him even more: the will of God. Therefore, upon discovering God’s will for his life, he ran to it with all his might.
Perhaps living a life of continuous prayer, separated from the activities of the world, is not as attractive to you as it was to Saint Francis. But you can be certain that there are other good things in life that you desire more than others. It is good to discover what it is that puts you in your “comfort zone.” Though God may call you to engage in that activity at times, you can be certain that His will will also call you out of your comfort zone at times.
Since Saint Francis’s overriding desire was to do that which gave God the greatest glory, it was easy for him to enter the active apostolate of preaching, once he discerned that to be God’s will. We must also seek to have the glory of God as our singular desire so that when we discover how God wants us to glorify Him, we will run to it with all the powers of our soul.
When we discern God’s will for our lives and when His will includes doing those things that we initially find difficult to do, God often confirms our obedience to Him by revealing to us the good fruit of our obedience. For Saint Francis, the confirmation came in the form of many conversions, miracles, and other signs from Heaven. For us, when we embrace God’s will as it is revealed to us, we will see the good fruit of those efforts and that good fruit must lead us to greater confidence in our commitment to fulfill God’s will.
Reflect, today, upon anything that you sense God calling you to do that is out of your comfort zone. Have you allowed fear, discouragement, or doubts to deter you from that which God wants of you? Resolve to work through those obstacles and place your focus only on what God wants. Do so with abandon and trust, and you will see God doing great things through you.
Saint Francis, above all things you wanted to serve the will of God for your life. You were ready and willing to abandon that which was easiest and most appealing to you so that God could be more fully glorified through you. Please pray that I will also follow your example by overcoming every fear and insecurity and run to God’s perfect will with all my might. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Thirty-five—A Desire for Martyrdom
Lesson: Francis had such a deep love for God that he wanted everyone to know Him, including the Muslims. As a result, Francis longed to travel to Syria where he could preach to them in hopes of converting them. The only problem was that there was a great risk of being killed if he entered Muslim territory. Despite this fact, Francis’s desire to preach to the “infidels” was so strong that it turned into a desire for martyrdom.
In 1212, just a few years after the Friars Minor were formally approved, Francis set out on ship for Syria with some of his brothers. The trip was hampered by a bad storm, and he never made it to Syria. He tried to make it on another ship, but this ship never made it either. Eventually, due to illness, Francis and his companions returned to Assisi.
Several years later, around the year 1219, Francis’s desire to make it to Syria was fulfilled. He joined the Crusaders at the front of the battle and then informed them he was going to the Muslim camp to share the Gospel. Despite many warnings, Frances and some companions entered the Muslim camp, only to be taken prisoner and severely beaten. When the Muslims inquired about his reason for being there, Francis said that he came to share the Gospel with the sultan. When the sultan heard about this, he was very curious and had Francis and his companions brought into his presence. The sultan was very impressed at Francis’s courage and allowed him to speak about the Gospel to him. Though the sultan tried to dissuade Francis and to entice him with many worldly things, Francis refused, courageously challenging the sultan in many humble but daring ways. This only impressed the sultan further. As a result, tradition states that the sultan gave Francis and his companions safe passage into the Holy Land so that they could visit the holy sites of Jesus’ life. To this day, the Franciscans are entrusted with the care of the many Christian sites throughout the Holy Land. Other traditions state that, as a result of Francis’s prayers and further preaching of his friars, the sultan eventually did convert.
Reflection: Have you ever sensed God calling you to some work, only to have every effort to achieve that work thwarted? Don’t give up. If the desire in your heart is from God, it might be that God is slowly preparing you for the fulfillment of that work—not according to your timing, but in accord with God’s. Saint Francis longed to preach to the sultan and convert the Muslims. Though he initially tried to accomplish this in 1212, it wasn’t until seven years later that this desire became a reality. This teaches us that Saint Francis’s desire was indeed given by God, but the timing was not the timing Saint Francis initially discerned.
In each of our lives, God sometimes inspires us to do some act that He wants done right away. At other times, God gives us a mission that can only be accomplished after a long period of patience. In the latter case, it might be that God is setting the stage for the future accomplishment of His will. Or He may need to first do something within our own soul so we are prepared. Whatever the case might be, pay attention to any unshakable holy desire God seems to have placed upon your soul. If it is from Him, He will bring it to fruition in accord with His will and at His designated time.
Reflect, today, upon how fully committed you are to the will of God. Do you seek His will for your life? Do you sense God stirring up certain holy desires within you? If you do not sense such desires, continue to surrender yourself to God’s will and wait on Him. If He has some mission for you, He will reveal it when you are more fully open. If you do sense a certain desire right now but are uncertain as to how you can fulfill it, then be patient. Place that desire before God day after day. Allow it to grow and if it is from God, He will inflame that desire and bring it about when and how He wills.
Saint Francis, God gave you the desire to preach to the Muslims. This desire was placed in your heart and grew stronger year by year. Your perseverance and dedication to what God spoke to you eventually resulted in the fulfillment of that desire for the glory of God. Please pray that I will also hear God speak to me and be open to the holy desires He gives to me. May I be patient and steadfast in my service of God’s will so that God will enable me to fulfill it when and how He chooses. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Lesson Thirty-six—Perfect Joy
Lesson: Though not one of the original eleven companions of Francis, Brother Leo was one of Francis’s closest companions. He joined the order shortly after it was first approved by Pope Innocent III in 1209. Leo might have already been a priest when he joined the brotherhood and might have acted as a regular confessor to Francis.
On one occasion, as Francis and Brother Leo were walking through the cold of the winter, Francis was inspired to call Brother Leo and explain to him the nature of perfect joy. He began by explaining what perfect joy was not. Francis said that perfect joy did not consist in a friar being able to perform many miracles, such as healing the sick or even raising the dead. It did not consist in a friar being thoroughly versed in every language or even being a master of the Scriptures. It did not consist in a friar knowing the secrets of nature, speaking with the voice of an angel, or even converting the most hardened sinner, including the infidels.
After revealing to Brother Leo what perfect joy was not, Brother Leo cried out, “Father, I beg you in God’s name to tell me where perfect joy is found.” To that, Francis responded that perfect joy is found in the endurance of every evil with peace and joy, accepting and embracing every suffering for the love of Christ. This is the discovery of perfect joy.
To illustrate this, Francis explained that if, after walking in the cold and rain for a long time they were to arrive at a friary and the brother who answered the door were to reject them, calling them liars and thieves, and eventually even beating them and forcing them to leave, if they were to embrace this humiliation and suffering for the love of Christ, then they would discover perfect joy.
Reflection: Saint Francis did not see the things of life in the way that most did. He saw them from a divine perspective. He understood the deeper truths of life, happiness, and fulfillment. For Saint Francis, the perfect fulfillment of God’s will means embracing mysteries that most people could never comprehend.
How could perfect joy be found in rejection, insult, persecution, and suffering? It wasn’t. It was found in the free embrace of these sufferings for the love of God, in imitation of the sufferings of Christ. Saint Francis knew that God was so powerful that He would transform the worst in life into the greatest. Poverty became riches, humility became exultation, suffering became joy, and death became life.
What is it that gives you the most joy in life? Don’t answer that too quickly. Oftentimes we see joy in that which gives us sensory or emotional pleasure. Saint Francis discovered that perfect joy was only found in the complete imitation of the life of Christ. That means that an imitation of Jesus’ greatest act, His free embrace of suffering and death, was the only thing that could provide “perfect” joy. Though he did not seek out rejection and suffering for their own sake, when he encountered these things, he saw them as opportunities to imitate Jesus’ embrace of His Cross more fully.
Do you carry with you some suffering that you wish would end? Do you see some cross in your life as a source of dissatisfaction in life? Do you get depressed, discouraged, angry, or even despairing over something undesirable that you cannot change? If so, seek to embrace the understanding that Saint Francis had of these things.
Reflect, today, upon anything in your life that appears to be an obstacle to joy for you. Then, try to see every trial not as an obstacle, but as a means to obtain perfect joy. Seek to discover this new form of joy by patiently enduring all things for the love of God. If this is difficult, reflect upon Saint Francis’s discourse with Brother Leo, and strive to trust the wisdom and discovery of this most holy man of God.
Saint Francis, you discovered perfect joy in that which most repulses the world. In you, the wisdom of the world was turned upside down as the wisdom of God shone forth. Please pray for me as I struggle with every form of happiness in life. May I discover the greatest happiness and the gift of perfect joy as I seek only to imitate the Cross of my Lord as you did. Saint Francis, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.