For the last five years or so, I have reflected almost daily
on this prayer, which Franciscan scholars affirm is, indeed, a prayer composed by St. Francis
himself. And each time I pray it, I am more convinced that it reveals the authentic spirit
of St. Francis.
enlighten the darkness
of my heart.
and perfect charity.
Fill me with understanding
that I may fulfill
I invite you to join me in reflecting on these simple words. With their help, we can be
swept up into union with the “Most High glorious God!” Francis’ prayer
does not start with “Woe is me,” self-pity or some dark misery of the heart,
but with the glory and sublime beauty of God.
As St. Francis’ prayers often do, this one starts with adoration.
Adoration lifts us out of our self-absorption and anxiety. A spirit of adoration helps
enlighten the darkness of our hearts. Essentially, the whole prayer consists of Francis’ request
that the “Most High glorious God” (that is, Christ risen in glory) enlighten
Francis’ heart through the three great virtues of faith, hope and charity.
At this point, it is helpful to recall a key event in St. Francis’ life.
It took place shortly after his conversion as he was withdrawing to caves and other solitary
places to contemplate Christ’s love for him. According to St. Bonaventure, his biographer,
Francis had a vision of Christ “fastened to a cross” and looking at Francis
with such intense love that “his soul melted.”
This vision of Christ’s overflowing love for him became for Francis
the “right faith” he was asking God to give him. And I can only assume that
every time Francis prayed before a crucifix after this, he would relive the same incredible
feeling of God’s overflowing love.
When Francis received the stigmata on Mount La Verna near the end of
his life, this experience of God’s overflowing love was repeated. Again it was a
vision of the crucified Christ. Listen to St. Bonaventure’s account: “Francis
saw a Seraph with six … fiery wings descend from the heights of heaven. And when
the Seraph (came near) the man of God, there appeared between [the Seraph’s] wings
the figure of a man crucified, with his hands and feet extended [as if] fastened to a cross ….
When Francis saw this, he was overwhelmed with a mixture of joy and sorrow. Francis felt
joy because of the gracious way that Christ looked at him, but the fact that Jesus was
fastened to a cross pierced Francis’ soul with sorrow.”
When St. Francis prays for “right faith” in his “Prayer
Before the Crucifix,” I think he is asking God to touch his heart again with this
rich vision of God’s overflowing love. If you and I prayed for the same “right
faith” for which Francis prayed, would it not “enlighten the darkness of our
Next, we pray with Francis for “sure hope.” We recall how
Jesus’ disciples witnessed this “sure hope” when the risen Jesus appeared
to them in the evening of that first Easter Sunday. Jesus stood before them in all his
glory saying, “Peace be with you,” and he showed them his hands and his
side (Jn 20:19-20). A week later, the apostle Thomas finally saw the risen Jesus. This
experience so illumined his doubt-darkened heart that Thomas proclaimed, “My Lord
and my God!”
We jump 12 centuries ahead to see St. Francis praying before the crucifix
in the chapel of San Damiano near Assisi. I find it extremely interesting that the image
of Christ on this crucifix was that of the glorious and risen Christ. Early Franciscan
documents of the 13th century detailing the life of St. Francis indicate that the crucifix
before which he was praying in this prayer was none other than that hanging in the little
chapel of San Damiano.
The crucifix, familiar to and beloved by followers of St. Francis worldwide,
is known as the San Damiano Crucifix. (See the image accompanying the prayer.) The body
of Christ, as depicted on this cross, is not a bloody body or one twisted in anguish. Rather
it is quite luminous, as if it were already his risen body, radiating the glory of God.
Instead of a crown of thorns, this image of Christ has a glorious halo. And his body with
outstretched arms appears to be ascending to heaven. The angels near Jesus’ bleeding
hands are the angels at the tomb on Easter morning who are witnesses of Jesus’ Resurrection.
In short, the image clearly suggests that this is the risen Jesus. If this was the image
of Christ upon which St. Francis was gazing, it makes perfectly good sense that Francis
would address Jesus as “Most High glorious God!”
Getting back to the words of the prayer, St. Francis also asks God to “Give
me...perfect charity.” Just as Francis sees Jesus on the cross handing himself over
completely to his heavenly Father and to all humankind as a gift of total love, so Francis
asks for that same kind of “perfect charity.” Francis is inspired to respond
to God’s total gift of love, as revealed in Christ, with the same kind of total generosity.
This is basically a repetition of what Francis’ whole prayer is
asking, namely, to enlighten the darkness of his heart through “right faith, sure
hope and perfect charity.” When we approach God wholeheartedly with complete faith,
hope and charity, God will “fill” us with understanding and knowledge that
we might “fulfill” whatever God asks of us.
And then we can say with St. Paul, “God’s love is poured
forth in our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5).
respond to Friar Jims Catechism
Quiz: Joseph, the Husband of Mary and Foster Father of Jesus.
Dear Friar Jim: Joseph had to have been a very special man of
impeccable integrity for God the Father to choose him to be Jesus’ earthly father.
The role of father is of utmost importance to children. A child being taught about
God hears him referred to as Father and also hears the name father referring
to the child’s earthly father. It is a tremendous responsibility for fathers to emulate
the goodness of God. Otherwise, children could get confused about the whole issue. Christian
fathers must “walk the talk” as they say. Frank
Dear Frank: Yes, you are right on target in your comments. Thanks. Friar
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