January 30, 2008

St. Francis’ Prayer Before the Crucifix

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.




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.

St. Francis’ Prayer Before the Crucifix

Most High
glorious God,
enlighten the darkness
of my heart.
Give me
right faith,
sure hope
and perfect charity.
Fill me with understanding
and knowledge
that I may fulfill
your command.

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.

‘Enlighten the darkness of my heart’

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.

‘Give me right faith’

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 hearts”?

‘Sure hope’

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!” 

‘And perfect charity’

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.

‘Fill me with understanding and knowledge…’

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).

Friar Jim’s Inbox

Readers respond to Friar Jim’s “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 Jim

Send your feedback to friarjack@franciscanmedia.org.

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