Beginning Again with Saint Francis of Assisi

Posted by Guest Blogger on 4/4/16, 7:00 AM

Saint Francis of Assisi in the Desert by Giovanni Bellini
Image: Saint Francis in the Desert, Giovanni Bellini.

“Let us begin to do good, for as yet we have done little.”
Saint Francis of Assisi

Francis spoke these words at a time when most people already considered him a saint. In his mind, there was no plateau in life where he could feel he had “made it” and could coast into heaven from then on.

He did not compare his love with that of other men but with that of Christ; hence, he always saw an infinite expanse into which he could still go, becoming more and more like his Lord.

God has already blessed you with his life and given you the gift of faith and faithfulness. Each time we begin anew, we enter a new phase of life intent on enriching our relationship with God. You are not entering upon something different from the Christian life or something better than the life of other Christians.

You are looking, like Francis and with Francis, into that vast expanse of Christ’s love, and you desire to share it more deeply. The only thing different about your new life is that your Christian life will now be given a particular coloring and direction by Francis and the traditions that have grown from his life and words.

You’re beginning again, and you will continue to begin again for the rest of your life. 

We often think that God’s call comes to us when we have achieved a level of spiritual perfection, when we are worthy of so great a calling. But the reality for most of us is that we get hints and suggestions of a new direction for our lives at the most unexpected (and occasionally inopportune) times.

It was this way for Jesus’ first apostles. And it was this way for St. Francis of Assisi and many of the saints.

Beginning Again with Francis of Assisi

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In your spiritual life, you must be satisfied to progress gradually. Usually you will not notice your growth. Sometimes it may even seem you are growing backward as you discover your weaknesses and failings.

But trust in God. Allow God to lead you through your spiritual companions, through the reflections of this book, through your own study and prayer. Week by week, you will turn your attention from one aspect of the spiritual life to another.

It’s like painting a picture: a touch here, a dab there, and gradually the masterpiece emerges. When you finish this year of reflection, study, and prayer, you will be just beginning a deeper and more fruitful life with God. No deep understanding of Jesus, Francis, and Clare can be reached without God’s direction through prayer.

Make each action part of your prayer life. Invite the Holy Spirit to lead you not just to mental knowledge but to a deep spiritual understanding that will result in your conversion. Conversion is the ongoing process of learning to live the gospel way of life given to us by Jesus and revealed to us by Francis and Clare.

Image: Lindsay Henwood.

Connecting with Scripture: Luke 5:1–11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore.

Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.

Miraculous Draught of Fish

So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Connecting with Franciscan Writings

Francis lifted his head from the stone floor and looked searchingly into the eyes of the crucifix that seemed now to have depth, like real eyes. Suddenly, the whole face of the Christ seemed to move, and Francis was afraid. Then as from some faraway place and yet coming surely from the crucifix, a voice clear and resonant pierced Francis’ soul. 

“Francis, go now and repair my church which, as you see, is falling down.”

Francis was jubilant. He waited for more, and he searched and searched the face of the crucifix, but there was no movement, no sign that more would come. Francis remained transfixed for a long time, and thanked Jesus over and over again for this clear request He had made of him. He would start rebuilding the church immediately.

It never occurred to Francis that Christ was asking anything other than the actual repairing of churches that were falling into ruin. So he ran from San Damiano and set about collecting stones to rebuild crumbling churches.

He would start with San Damiano itself. His whole mind and energy were now focused almost fanatically on this one project. This single-minded obedience to his dreams and voices was to become a bold pattern in Francis’ life that would lead to his total and radical service of the gospel of Christ.

—Murray Bodo, Francis: The Journey and the Dream

Image: Detail, Miraculous Catch of Fish. Jan van Orley.

Franciscan Life in the World

“The Franciscan family, as one among many spiritual families raised up by the Holy Spirit in the Church, unites all members of the People of God—laity, religious, and priests—who recognize that they are called to follow Christ in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi. 

In various ways and forms but in life-giving union with each other, they intend to make present the charism of their common Seraphic Father in the life and mission of the Church.” —Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order, 1

Francis simply wanted to follow the Gospel literally, wholeheartedly, and humbly. Others were inspired by his example and captured by his vision. In a comparatively short time, the little group of Franciscans grew into an order of thousands that needed organization.

Francis was careful to have every development of the Order approved by the Holy Father. The original Rule, a collection of Gospel texts, was expanded over time and became the final and definitive Rule of 1223 which First Order Franciscans still observe today. 

On one of his wanderings, Francis met a merchant named Luchesio in the town of Poggibonsi. Luchesio had been a rather hard man who watched his money very carefully, though he was strangely generous to the poor, gave lodging to pilgrims, and helped widows and orphans. Francis seems to have had no influence in his conversion but gave him and his wife, Bona Donna, a norm of life.

Third Order of Francis of Assisi

After this, Luchesio devoted all his time to works of charity, especially care of the sick in hospitals. He wore a rough tunic of a simple peasant with a rope around his waist. When he was home, he worked in a little garden he had retained after parting with his other possessions, and he sold the produce from it. If this way of life did not bring him enough, he would go out and beg.

A number of people with the same spirit gathered around Luchesio. Francis gave a rule of life to these followers (later called the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, which means those who turn to God from a sinful and idle life). They sought to imitate in the world the ways of Francis and his brothers.

As soon as they entered the brotherhood, they pledged themselves to give back all unjustly acquired goods—which in many cases meant to give up everything—to pay the tithes which they might owe, to make their wills in time to prevent strife among their heirs, to not bear arms, to not take an oath except in special extraordinary cases, and to not accept public office.

They wore a poor and distinctive habit and divided their time between prayer and deeds of charity. They generally lived with their families, but sometimes, like the Friars Minor, they withdrew into solitude.

Around 1221, Cardinal Hugolino and Francis wrote the first formal Rule for the Third Order. We no longer have the original copy of this rule, but it was certainly the foundation of the Rule of 1228, which we do have. For nearly eight centuries, this gathering of the faithful has been striving to live the Gospel life in the world under the direction of the Franciscan Order and according to the Rule of Francis as approved and adapted by the Church. 

The Order has had its ups and downs. There have been periods of great spiritual fervor and also times when the vision of Francis was somewhat eclipsed.

Today there are three branches of what is called the First Order of St. Francis: the Friars Minor (OFM), the Capuchins (OFM Cap.) and the Conventuals (OFM Conv.). When St. Clare and other women followed the example of Francis, the Second Order was founded, known today as the Poor Clares.

Some members of the Third Order band together to live in community, take the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and observe a rule approved by the Holy See. They are called Third Order “Regulars” (TOR) and comprise most of the Franciscan sisters with whom you may be familiar.

The Third Order Secular, now known as the Secular Franciscan Order, consists of Franciscans who live in the world and meet together in small groups known as fraternities.

Connecting with Scripture: John 1:35–42

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.”

They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed).

He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Connecting with Franciscan Writings

Francis always thought of the early days of the brotherhood as the Rivotorto times. In those days the brothers all huddled together in a single sty through the heat of summer into the cold and wet autumn of winter’s chills and into spring when the rains kept floors and walls constantly damp, and the whole interior was musty. Those were the happy times.

It was so crowded in the shelter that Francis had to chalk little boundaries on the ceiling. The brothers would then sleep beneath their own chalk mark, approximately, because some were fat and some skinny, some tall and others short. No one minded then and any of them would have been glad to sleep outside in the snow, so great was their love for the poor Jesus of Nazareth.

As more and more brothers came into the fraternity, the simplicity of Rivotorto died and a more rigid structure was born. And when this complexity entered into the idyllic days of the woods and fields, Francis knew he must go to the Pope for his wisdom and guidance on what the brothers should do.

Image: Friars in the Garden of Gethsemane.

It was not that he felt the need for some structure for this new community of men who were forming around him, but Francis did want some kind of official sanction for his way of life in poverty and some ecclesiastical protection for his brothers. There were bands of reformers and fanatics roaming the countryside at the time who were leading the common folk down blind alleys of heretical enthusiasm.

Francis understood, as every Christian of his time did, that no matter how clear the voice of God sounded within you, there was no assurance that it was in fact God’s voice unless the church gave approval. The Roman Court was the discerner of spirits for every Christian of the thirteenth century. So Francis and a few of the brothers set out from Rivotorto on the long walk to Rome.

—Murray Bodo, Francis: The Journey and the Dream


Lord, you promise to make all things new.
That includes me.
As I begin this journey
to discover St. Francis’s way to you,
I ask you to begin to renew
my faith, my hope, and my love.

 This blog was adapted from Live Like Francis, by Jovian Weigel and Leonard Foley.


Live Like Francis by Jovian Weigel and Leonard Foley, OFM

Topics: st. francis