Unlike Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s concentrated, step-by-step instructions for prayer in his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Francis of Assisi’s guidance for those who wish to follow his example of prayer and devotion is more diffuse. It is true to think of Saint Francis’ writings as occasional and unsystematic. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, they offer constructive clues for what we might describe generally as Francis’ “instructions on prayer.”
For the sake of brevity, we will look at four such instructions: the need to prioritize prayer, reverence for the Eucharist, the importance of solitude, and the call to immerse oneself in sacred Scripture. All four of these themes are aimed at leading those inspired by Saint Francis’ pattern of life (forma vitae) to move from simply “saying prayers” to becoming a living prayer.
First, prayer entered early into the formal vision of the Franciscan way of life in the Rule. After the brief introductory section where Saint Francis announced the pattern of life is simply the Gospel of Jesus Christ and outlined the logistics of accepting would-be friars into the community, he then offered a chapter on prayer, fasting, and the general way the brothers are to live in the world.
It should come as no surprise, given the curial hand in the formation of this officially approved Rule for the friars, that the Divine Office canonical requirements for the friar-clerics would make an appearance. Yet Saint. Francis was also accommodating those who may be uneducated or illiterate, permitting them to pray a prescribed number of Our Fathers. One may glean from this inclusion that, although not everyone could be expected to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, all the brothers in the community were expected to pray together.
Unlike the monastic demarcation between the so-called choir monks and the lay monks (those whose responsibilities largely centered on manual labor), Saint Francis affirmed a more egalitarian vision of fraternal life and activity grounded in prayer.
The importance of grounding one’s life and activity in prayer is seen especially in Saint Francis’ explicit instruction on labor in chapter 5: “The friars to whom God has given the grace of working should work in a spirit of faith and devotion and avoid idleness, which is the enemy of the soul, without however extinguishing the spirit of prayer and devotion, to which every temporal consideration must be subordinate.”
That the work of the brothers, however conceived in terms of explicit apostolic ministry or manual labor, should always be subordinate to one’s individual and collective “spirit of prayer and devotion” attests to the importance of prayer in Saint Francis’ vision of Gospel life. Francis reiterated this prioritization in a now-famous letter to Saint Anthony of Padua, when he gave permission to teach theology to the brothers: “I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers, providing that, as is contained in the Rule, you ‘do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’ during study of this kind.”
Second, Saint Francis frequently reflected on the Eucharist and the importance that the brothers approach the Blessed Sacrament in a spirit of prayerful reverence. This personal devotion to the celebration of the Mass, his admiration of the office of the ministerial priesthood (distinct from particular priests who, as he noted with realistic acquiescence, are as finite and sinful as everybody else), and his reverence for the Eucharist are commonly found throughout his writings.
From the beginning of his ongoing conversion around 1206 to his death on October 3, 1226, Saint Francis’ writings do not include extensive instruction on the role of liturgical prayer in the life of the community apart from the clerical Daily Office. This is very likely reflective of the shift in friar demographics. In the beginning, those following Francis’ nascent way of life represented a diverse mixture of backgrounds and experiences. Toward the end of Saint Francis’ short life, a larger number of ordained priests began entering the community, which shifted the availability of the sacraments within Franciscan houses. Correspondingly, his later texts tended to include references to the celebration of the Eucharist and a call for increased participation in the Mass and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament on the part of his followers.
Third, the incorporation of a part-time hermitic life into the broader pattern of life was an important dimension of Saint Francis’ own spirituality and approach to prayer.
While a commitment to itinerant ministry is central to the Franciscan Rule, with Saint Francis emphasizing the importance of establishing relationships with others by meeting them where they are in the streets and villages of the world, he also believed in the need for the brothers to reconnect with God in an attentive and deliberate way. This was demonstrated by his own practice of regularly retreating to hermitages and quiet places. He also went to the trouble of composing a short “Rule for Hermitages.” It reveals at once the importance of experiencing and preserving solitude and the communal, fraternal dimension of lived Franciscan prayer:
“Not more than three or at most four friars should go together to a hermitage to lead a religious life there. Two of these should act as mothers, with the other two, or the other one, as their children. The mothers are to lead the life of Martha; the other two, the life of Mary. . . . The friars who are mothers must be careful to stay away from outsiders and, in obedience to their minister, keep their sons away from outsiders, so that no one can speak to them. The friars who are sons are not to speak to anyone except their mother or their minister, when he visits them, with God’s blessing. Now and then, the sons should exchange places with the mothers, according to whatever arrangement seems best suited for the time. But they should all be careful to observe what has been laid down for them, eagerly and zealously.”
The freedom with which Francis invoked the maternal imagery and the model of Martha and Mary from the Gospels is striking. Though not often well known among modern Franciscans, scholars have noted nonetheless the distinctive contribution that Saint Francis’ vision of non-dominating governance within the fraternity, frequently conveyed in feminine imagery, has made to Christian spirituality. Solitude was not only an important ingredient in Gospel life for Francis himself, but was also intended more generally to be a mainstay of Franciscan prayer by offering an opportunity for small communities to care for one another and provide the space for ongoing, deep encounters with the divine.
Fourth, Saint Francis’ way of Christian living and approach to prayer were both deeply tied to sacred Scripture. Though the early sources
recalled his self-deprecating identification as an idiota, or “unlearned person,” Saint Francis most certainly knew how to read and write. It can be difficult for modern people, living centuries after the invention
of the printing press and used to mass-produced paper, to appreciate
how important the written word was in Francis’ time.
For the most part, the material needed to write a copy of a biblical book or the prayers for the Mass was difficult and expensive to acquire. Unlike our liturgical books and Bibles today, Scripture was often copied out onto a variety of pages. These pages, usually unbound, had the tendency (as most loose papers do) to become scattered and lost. This even happened in churches.
Saint Francis was very concerned about the way these particles of Scripture were cared for (or, more accurately, not cared for). He was almost obsessed with making sure that all pieces of the Scripture were well taken care of and treated with respect and dignity. In a letter addressed to the entire order, he shared his vision of the importance of caring for Scripture, commanding the friars to go out of their way to gather, protect, and venerate even the most seemingly insignificant scriptural texts:
“He who is of God hears the words of God (John 8:47), and so we who are called to serve God in a more special way are bound not merely to listen to and carry out what he commands; in order to impress on ourselves the greatness of our Creator and of our subjection to him we must keep the liturgical books and anything else that contains his holy words with great care. I urge all my friars and I encourage them in Christ to show all possible respect for God’s words wherever they may happen to find them in writing. If they are not kept properly or if they lie thrown about disrespectfully, they should pick them up and put them aside, paying honor in his words to God who spoke them. For by God’s words many things are made holy, and the sacrament of the altar is celebrated in the power of the words of Christ.”
Though he did not outline any particular program or method of reading and meditating on Scripture (e.g., a formal process of lectio divina), Saint Francis did communicate in subtler ways the necessity of living by the word of God. This is seen in his emphasis on the Daily Office prayed in community as well as through the extraordinary frequency with which he cited the Scriptures in his own writings, Rules, and prayers. Saint Bonaventure, in his Legenda Major, described the unique way in which the poor man from Assisi was able to understand the meaning of Scripture, such that he astounded even the most learned and wise scholars of the day:
“Unflagging zeal for prayer with a continual exercise of virtue had led the man of God to such serenity of mind that, although he had no expertise in sacred Scripture through learning, his intellect, nevertheless enlightened by the splendor of eternal light, probed the depths of Scripture with remarkable incisiveness. For his genius, pure and unstained, penetrated hidden mysteries, and where the knowledge of teachers stands outside, the passion of the lover entered. Whenever he read the sacred books and something struck his mind, he imprinted it tenaciously on his memory, because he did not grasp in vain what his attentive mind heard, for he would mull over it with affection and constant devotion.”
Francis’ memorization of, reflection on, and constant reference to sacred Scripture led to his being imbued with the very narrative of God’s self-disclosure. In turn, he was inspired to draw on passages from the Bible, especially the Psalms, to compose his own psalmody and prayers. This is seen most clearly in his creative Office of the Passion, which was modeled on the personal devotional offices commonly found among monastic communities. Here Francis wove together various psalms from the Hebrew Bible with his own devotional interludes and psalm-like additions. The importance of Scripture in prayer was seen by him as an essential element of evangelical life.
Saint Augustine of Hippo famously remarked at various points in his expansive corpus that God is the One who is closer to us than we
are to ourselves. This experience of divine immanence, of the presence of God among and within creation, was the keystone of Saint Francis’ whole approach to prayer, although it is safe to say that he did not realize this overnight. It is always important to remember the lifelong experience of ongoing conversion when calling to mind Saint Francis’ spirituality and form of prayer.
As noted earlier, he began his renewed commitment to Christian living in young adulthood with what we might anachronistically call a “literal” approach to discipleship. His focus was on the externals of affective religiosity, such as attending Mass and physically rebuilding churches. The increasing number of relational encounters—the living among lepers, the unsolicited brothers and sisters, the reception of Clare, and other experiences—shifted, over time, the poverello’s vision of prayer. In the beginning, as Thomas of Celano noted, Francis of Assisi was one who merely “said” prayers, but over time became a “living prayer.”
If prayer is, as we might all agree, always a form of communication with God, then we are in some sense always praying because God is always already present to us (again, Saint Augustine’s insight about God’s immanence and proximity to us). It is, in a sense, a form of hubris to think that we can simply turn on or turn off the prayer channel, as if we had the ability to select when God is able to receive our missives. In truth, not only what we say or think, but how we act, what we prioritize, how we love, how we care for one another, and so on all combine to communicate something to the God who is at all times nearer to us than we are to ourselves.
Long before Ignatius and his successors in the Society of Jesus popularized the expression “finding God in all things,” Saint Francis of Assisi’s understanding and experience of prayer were precisely this form of ordinary mysticism. He came to realize in time that the words said in the Divine Office, the community’s participation in the celebration of the Eucharist, and the charitable acts of love and mercy were not as distinct as one might first assume.
Instead, for Saint Francis, prayer was always a journey of growing more deeply in relationship with God and neighbor, including his nonhuman neighbors. There is no explicit strategy or instruction manual proposed as a means to achieve this mystical awareness.
And yet, Saint Francis’ own narrative of lifelong conversion and his model for how to prioritize the elements of one’s life—never extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion, embrace regular solitude, and so on—provide us with a pattern of life, a guide for our own journeys, and a series of points for reflection.
The goal of prayer (if prayer can ever be said to have a goal) in the Franciscan tradition is, to put it simply, nothing more than for each of us, in our own way and in our own contexts, to become more and more a living prayer.