Many years ago now, during my first visit to Assisi, I found by chance a book written by Italian poet and artist Umberto Verdirosi entitled “Behind the Canvas”.
On one page, entitled “Il povero cristo” in Italian and “The encounter” in English, is a painting of a vagabond wearing a red scarf standing before the Crucified Jesus who wears asimilar red scarf around his own waist. The accompanying poem, which begins with “Non parlare, guarda!”, reads in English:
Francis of Assisi was a simple person who understood things as he saw and experienced them. Initially, he saw the Passion of Jesus as mere human suffering and pain, and hence he thought that his body needed to be constantly tamed and purged. But as he grew in the Spirit, Francis began to see and experience Jesus’ Passion (and the Cross) in a different light. He began seeking to imitate Jesus’ Passion in the light of God’s love, and found this when he received the stigmata at La Verna. For Francis, this was the lesson of the Cross and the Passion of Jesus.
As I step into the liturgical season of Lent and into Easter, I cannot help but ask myself what do I “Non parlare, guarda! – Speak not, behold!” of Jesus’ Passion and of my own passion?
It is easy to speak of Jesus’ Passion and my passion from the perspective of pain and suffering. Yet when I behold the Crucified Jesus, I see God as one who does not just love, but who also carries and embraces my passion. It is this love that brings forth hope to Easter and everyday life. Thus, I am able to see and experience my passion as moments of joy, peace and goodness.
On another page of Verdirosi’s book is a painting of Francis before the Crucified Jesus. The accompanying poem begins with “C’era una volta un uomo innamorata dell’amore”, in English “Once upon a time there was a man who fell in love with love itself”.
“Fell in love with love itself” is what Lent to Easter is. What conversion is. What the Passion and Cross of Jesus are. And what and who St Francis of Assisi and being a Franciscan are.
In the following of Francis’ spirituality, the challenge that is always before me and you is to discern what it means to embrace Jesus, his Passion and Cross. This will not be easy but we can do it if we are optimistic and hopeful.
What caught your eye when you first saw the title of this article? Did you spot the word “appointment” first or did you see the word “disappointment” in its entirety? Disappointment may be an apt way to describe 2020 – a year that has been unpredictable, tumultuous and even precarious for some. Speaking to some people, many have voiced their disappointments at having their plans disrupted, derailed or even destroyed. Some worked hard for these plans and had looked forward to their fruition, but alas, the plans were nipped in the bud.
For myself as well, there were so many surprises and even emergencies that I had to deal with, especially with regard to cancellations, restrictions and quarantines. Though confined to one place because of strict restrictions, were our hearts anchored in peace? Or were our hearts restless and constantly troubled? A restless heart is hard to tame, as it has an energy of its own in search of things which elude it. We seem propelled by sheer circumstances, unable to chart any direction for ourselves, much less to enjoy the ensuing journey!
St Francis of Assisi, our brother and companion on this journey called Life, had his own restlessness to tame, be it at the beginning of his life as a youth dreaming of knighthood, or as a middle-aged man dreaming of martyrdom. Through it all, Francis was inspired to follow in the footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ, to be authentic in listening to God’s will for him and to be courageous in carrying it out.
This inspiration, however, was not always shared by all the friars, who thought that Francis’ ideals were too difficult to live out. And thus began Francis’ interior struggle and pain of being rejected by his own brothers and how he experienced increasing disappointment in the way that the very Order he founded was not sharing his original aspirations.
This pain within his heart led him to seek out places of isolation and prayer even more, and one of the most significant places was Mt Alvernia where in 1224, two years before his death, he received a vision of the Crucified One as a Seraph and after which, the marks of Christ’s crucifixion appeared on his body, the Stigmata. Indeed, Francis now experienced an external pain caused by these wounds of the Stigmata, but interiorly there was a consolation in conforming himself in this mysterious way to the Cross of Christ. The pain and suffering of the Cross, accompanied by the joy and love which made Christ embrace it were in fact, the two graces Francis prayed for as he began this 40-day retreat on Mt Alvernia.
After this episode on Mt Alvernia, with his body freshly marked by the Stigmata, Francis continued to battle his interior and exterior pain. Later that same year, as he recuperated at San Damiano (the church which was restored by his very own hands) Francis was moved with self-pity as he was being plagued by rats running all over him one evening. As he fretted, a voice told him: “Then brother, be glad and rejoice in your illnesses and troubles, because as of now, you are as secure as if you were already in my kingdom”.
The voice of the Lord came at a time when Francis was focused on his own sufferings and pains. Nonetheless, it consoled him so much so that he was able to redirect his thoughts to God. As the sun rose, its ray penetrated the sensitive eyes of the nearly-blind Francis, causing him much discomfort and pain. However, the first words that came out of the Saint’s mouth was “Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun” and thus the Canticle of Brother Sun was composed. A song from a heart totally freed by God.
Francis invited all creatures to praise God together with him, including those that gave him pain (like Brother Sun’s rays by day and Brother Fire’s light by night) : to direct our attention, focus and love to
God, and not to be self-focused, self-centred or self- promoting. This is the depth and power of Francis’ spirituality, that in the midst of personal pain, his soul was constantly directed to God in faith, hope and love. This can be seen when he added a new verse to the Canticle a few months later, urging the feuding Bishop and Mayor of Assisi to reconcile: “Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love, and bear infirmity and tribulation. Blessed are those who endure in peace for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.”
In this verse which captures the reality of human brokenness plagued by conflicts, sickness and trials, Francis urges us on: endure in peace and we will be crowned. Take up these crosses and carry them with the Lord, for in this way, we will have inner peace. If we die with Christ, we shall reign with Christ. We shall reign in the Kingdom of God; we shall be crowned in the Kingdom of Love.
From disappointment in the brotherhood, Francis was given the appointment by God to be the universal brother to all creatures, and to be the poor and humble friar who would always proclaim “Peace and All Good!”
St Anthony’s humility accompanied his popularity through the ages. Many of us pray to him when we lose things and we may even call him “Doctor of the Church” and not know why. What many do not know is that Anthony had a licence to teach licentia docendi. St Francis, realising that there was a need for his friars to study theology to be effective preachers of the Word and to maintain orthodoxy of faith against numerous heresies, personally wrote him a letter stating that “it pleases” him that Anthony should teach theology, but that he should never “extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion” (EpAnt). Thus St Anthony became the first teacher of theology in the Franciscan Order.
And teach and preach he did. In a way that led people not to himself, but to Christ. That is humility in action. What grounds his theology is the “poverty and humility of our Lord Jesus Christ”, which mirrors very closely the thoughts of St Francis. St Francis loved to speak of “poverty” together with “humility” in reference to our Lord Jesus Christ, especially in his incarnation and passion. If Jesus emptied himself to assume the form of man, and gave himself up to death on a cross (Phil 2:6), then we, as followers of Christ, are called to walk this journey of self-emptying and kenosis, so as to be filled with the grace of God in order to love and serve our brothers and sisters in creation.
In fact, St Anthony considered humility so important that he called it the source, root and font of all other virtues. “What a person is before God, that he is and no more” is his most succinct definition of humility.
We acknowledge ourselves as we are before God and God sees us as we are and loves us. That is the beauty of Franciscan spirituality, the beauty of simply be-ing. That we appreciate and love the beauty and dignity of our own selves and also of other beings, and thus live this love in fraternity – sharing, serving, sacrificing.
St Anthony also invites us to “the sweetness of contemplation”, to die to the world and live solely for God. It is this desire for God that urges us to a conversion of life in penance, living out our holiness of life in service of all, especially the poor. St Anthony was a man truly after the heart of St Francis, both in words and works, our Doctor of the Church, the one who helps us to find … our way back to God.
St Francis of Assisi is well known for his love of poverty, but he was not born into poverty. In fact, he was born into wealth and privilege, and once dreamt of glory on the battlefield. He thought these were the things that would bring him happiness. It was not until he encountered the leper that he realized that true happiness is found in God alone.
St Francis exclaimed, “And the Lord himself led me among them [the lepers] and I showed mercy towards them. And withdrawing from them, that which once seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body.”
This was the key event for Francis, the one that led him to his conversion. Wanting to imitate Christ, he embraced radical poverty. For Francis, that meant not just renouncing material goods but also putting on the attitude of Christ, to strive to be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect, to serve with humility and charity rather than be served, to be poor among the poor.
As the lepers helped him to overcome his revulsion, he began to show compassion to all, treating everyone as if they were Christ himself. Francis and the early brothers devoted themselves to the care of lepers, who were rejected by society, and to bringing God’s love, peace, joy and hope to those were desolate. The brothers began to look beyond themselves and began to seek to comfort those who were suffering physically and emotionally.
The more Francis immersed himself in serving others, putting his faith in action, the more he was drawn to empty himself, even to going the extra mile for the sake of others. He found his ability to love magnified every day, and this led him to strive to perpetually seek God’s will in his life.
Francis’ quest led him to the knowledge that our God is the “Most High Glorious God”, a God who is love, mercy and compassion. In steadfastly following the will of God in his life, Francis began to experience life to the full. He felt a strong sense of God in his daily life, and the awareness of God’s presence within him gave him a new way of looking at the world.
He began to see God’s presence in others. “What was bitter was changed into sweetness” for him for he was able to discover the dignity and beauty of each person, whether they are rich or poor, healthy or sick, strong or weak, young or old. They were all God’s beloved children. He found that all of creation manifested the beauty of God.
It was God’s gift to him. As Francis rightly put it “the Lord himself led me among them”. Francis knew that God’s gifts were to be shared with others. As he experienced life to the full, he wanted others to also have meaningful lives. For he knew that it is in mutual sharing, in washing each other’s feet that God’s reign is manifested among us.
Caught up in life and its vicissitudes, we can begin to believe the great myth of human ego that this earthly life lasts forever and then, when Sister Death draws near to us, we are lost in panic, lost in pain. We are simply lost, and we hold out against her, not knowing that her gentle purpose is to bring us home. We have forgotten how to die.
St Francis remembered how to die. He knew that when we face the embrace of our sister when it comes, we must do so with love. We must yield to her, and allow ourselves to be ushered by her into the Divine Presence, and for this to happen in such a gentle way, we must practice dying.
We must die, every day, just a little. We must die to our self, die to our false self, die to every part of us that is the accretion of property and wealth for their own sake. We must die to the use of others, die to holding on to power so as to dominate, and even and especially die to the belief that we are at the centre of all things.
Francis himself died to each of these.
He died to the rich home and sumptuous clothes of his youth and to the joy a young man takes in his own vigour and power. He died to the rich young man, who was the toast of Assisi and the centre of attention, known as “Master of the Revels”. He died to his family’s longing to see him raise their profile and their fortune. He died to the noble knight whose armour was forged from the ambition of his father and the myths that filled the head of a young boy who believed war was noble.
He died to the pride that saw only the sores of the lepers and not their souls. He died to the embarrassment of the poor man who begs for his living from door to door. He died to the rejection of some and the adulation of many. He died to the opinion of bishops and princes, popes and kings.
He died to the fear that the brotherhood would not listen … and would not follow. He died to the desire to be a martyr. He died to the fear of suffering and pain. He died to his own flesh, to the world, to the devil. He died to his own will. He died upon the Cross with Christ.
And in so doing, he remembered how to die, teaching us how to die so that one might truly live.
St Paul almost seems to be taunting death with these two questions in his first letter to the Corinthians. And I am wondering how many of us have the audacity to do that.
The culture of death seems to be around us where the voiceless have no right to life and the pain-filled have the right to end life. Diseases and disasters, pride and profit become tentacles of death – an end from which no living person can escape. Majestic royalty or meagre rogue, all fall within the clutches of death. Doesn’t death appear to win eventually?
No, and never with Christ. St Paul follows his questions with a confident affirmation, “so let us thank God for giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”. Victory does not belong to death. Instead, death has been destroyed by God. How? By the willingness of Jesus Christ to enter into his Passion where he embraced death (death which cannot contain life itself ), and then, burst forth from the tomb having been raised to new life in the resurrection. That is what we celebrate at the Triduum, particularly in Easter! Death gives way to Life!
I say that Jesus embraced death because it was a sacred and free act of his. Consummatum est, we read in John 19:30; it is consummated or accomplished or finished, depending on the English translation. What is accomplished? The saving act of Christ which culminated on the cross, where the cross of shame becomes the throne of glory. In obedience to God, Jesus countered the disobedience of Satan. In the utter humility of dying naked on the cross, Jesus shamed the pride of the evil one.
We continue to read in John 19 that Jesus gave up the spirit. Jesus is in control. He is not a passive victim of an unjust trial, but a director in bringing forth justice and salvation for all. And perhaps, even psychologically, the example of Jesus can help us face death and face the process of dying: to “take charge” of our own life and death, and how we die.
I sometimes see people who, having been diagnosed with cancer, live as if they have already lost the fight, but I have also seen others battle on and live fully until the very last minute. I would like to mention Venerable Antonietta Meo, an Italian girl who died from aggressive bone cancer just before she turned seven. Despite her young age, she serenely embraced her illness and united her tremendous sufferings with that of Jesus’ Passion. Today, her remains are held in the Church of the Holy Cross in Rome, very near the relics of the true cross, and the process towards her sainthood is underway because she could see her suffering in the light of Christ’s.
Similarly for St Francis; as he neared his end, he called out to Sister Death and welcomed her. He even composed a stanza on Sister Death within the Canticle of Brother Sun.
We are told that St Francis could embrace Sister Death so readily because he was already assured by the Lord of his salvation. This was the message Francis received when moved to self-pity one day: “Then brother, be glad and rejoice in your illnesses and troubles, because as of now, you are as secure as if you were already in my kingdom.”
It is really easy for those of us who are healthy to talk about sickness and suffering, and have lofty spiritual ideas about it. But I think we need to already begin to confront our own mortality and creatureliness. Sickness and death are part of human living, and it is pertinent to begin confronting these conditions when our health is still holding up and our faith is still unshaken. In fact, it would be wise for us to keep deepening and strengthening our faith in the Lord and in his providence, so that when anything untoward besets us, we have a firm foundation that will not crumble.
I find it beautiful that All Souls Day follows All Saints Day, where our celebration of the latter gives hope to the celebration of the former. Hope that carries us on our journey of faith whilst on earth; hope that breathes light and refreshment in our darkness and tiredness; hope that the ultimate victory is God’s and we just need to claim and participate in this gift.