As we begin, let me note something very specifically about Saint Francis’ love for Scripture. It is a statistical fact that in about one hundred pages of printed text, Francis quotes or at least alludes to Scripture some six hundred times—six hundred times in about one hundred pages of printed text. This surely shows to us that Saint Francis had an appreciation of Scripture, and that it always affected the way he approached his life and all of reality.
In his writings, there is a phrase that is often translated as “the written words of God,” or you may find it put as, “the holy name and written words of God.” This phrase simple means the words of Scripture; usually, when he uses it, he is referring to an interesting point about the Word of God.
One place where this phrase appears is in Francis' Testament, written at the end of his life as he’s looking back. Here he wrote, “Wherever I come upon his most holy written words in unbecoming places, I desire to gather them up and I ask that they be collected and placed in a suitable place.”
Saint Francis had such reverence for the written Word of God that if he saw a scrap of paper on the ground anywhere with the words of Scripture on them, he would treasure them and put them in a special place. In fact, in one account of the life of Francis it says, “Therefore, whenever he would find anything written, whether about God or about man, he would pick it up with the greatest reverence and put it in a sacred or discreet place.”
Now, I’m not recommending that for our own practice—although we would be able to get rid of a lot of the litter in our world if people did that. The point is, Francis' love for Scripture was so great he did not want these words to be trampled on or ignored in any way. They needed to be treasured.
In what is called his Letter to the Entire Order, Francis repeats those same words that I just quoted from the Testament, and he indicates that, if people do this, they honor the Lord in the words that he spoke. He goes on to say, “God’s words sanctify numerous objects, and it is by the power of the words of Christ that the sacrament of the altar is consecrated.”
Church and Scripture
Francis did not love Scripture just as some nice book that God gave us, which we know is out there and we read once in a while, but he sees it in the context of the whole Church and especially of the liturgy. It’s particularly in the liturgy that the Word of God comes alive, and it becomes so alive that it gives us the gift of the Eucharist.
Francis' Love for Scripture
Perhaps one of the most beautiful descriptions of Francis' love for Scripture is given to us by Saint Bonaventure. Bonaventure puts it this way, Saint Francis had never studied Sacred Scripture, but unwearied application to prayer and the continual practice of virtue had purified his spiritual vision, so that his keen intellect was bathed in the radiance of eternal light and penetrated its depths. Free from every stain, his genius pierced to the heart of its mysteries and by affective love he entered where theologians with their science stand outside.
Once he had read something in the sacred books and understood its meaning, Francis impressed it indelibly on his memory. Anything he had once grasped carefully, he meditated upon continually. When the friars asked him if he would allow the learned men who were entering the Order to continue the study of Sacred Scripture, he replied, “I do not mind, provided that they do not neglect prayer, after the example of Christ of whom we are told that he prayed more than he studied.”
It was clear that the friars should not study merely in order to have something to say. They should study so as to practice what they have learned and then encourage others to do likewise.