The pigeons are gathering already, though it’s only
11:00 am, a propitious time in the
Piazza del Comune. The gathering of pigeons signals the approaching noon
feeding time. When the bells in the medieval town begin to ring, hundreds of
pigeons will strut and rise in short flights. Children will delight and some
will be frightened as their parents lead them into the carpet of birds feeding
in front of the Temple
of Minerva. Noontime in Assisi.
Much of the city is there in that noontime ritual: the
birds and the children, the onlooking tourists and natives who sit at the
outdoor tables that front the nearby bars. A procession of tourists or pilgrims
walks around or through the pigeons, and I am reminded of Saint Francis and the
birds: a good reason to lose myself in the scene and remember where I am. This
is the birthplace of Francesco Bernardone, whom the world knows as Saint
Francis of Assisi.
Of Assisi, a phrase that defines much of who he is and the unique
way he lived his extraordinary life.
Today the sun is blinding as I look up from my
cappuccino and see the pigeons strutting nervously as they wait for noon, and
at the other end of the piazza the fountain where Francis and his first
companion, Bernard of Quintavalle, in a lavish gesture, gave away all of
Bernard’s possessions, thus signaling the beginning of Bernard’s life as a poor
penitent Brother of Assisi.
Of Assisi. At that time Assisi
was a city divided geographically between nobles (the majores, the
greater ones) and merchants and the poor (the minores, the
lesser ones). The towered homes of the nobles rose high in the upper part of
the city, while the poor lived in lower Assisi,
and the merchants in between. Upper and lower were divided, generally speaking,
by the Piazza del Comune, the main piazza of the city. Rival families lived in
constant tension in anticipation of the next brawl or outright battle between
their houses. As a boy and young man, Francis saw these divisions and this
omnipresent hostility and quarreling. War was a reality that ran through
Francis’ years as a river of blood.
This was his Assisi, as were the interminable conflicts
between the supporters of the pope and the emperor, the papal Guelfs and
imperial Ghibellines, whose struggles for supremacy tore apart city after city
and divided one city from another, their walled fortress-like towns a now-dumb
tribute to the clamor of their dissensions.
Photo by Christopher Heffron
I leave the pigeons and the fountain and walk toward the
Piazza of Saint Clare from where I will be able to see Assisi’s
own walled fortress, the Rocca Maggiore, the symbol of the emperor’s power over
Assisi and the
surrounding countryside. The Rocca Maggiore and all the violence it symbolizes
prepares Francis for knighthood and war, and to war he does go, only to be
captured in the first battle at Ponte San Giovanni between Assisi
and her rival, Perugia.
Capture and prison and a year of illness after he is finally released lay the groundwork for the inner journey, just as violence and war precipitate the
young Francis’ outer journey, which he resumes as soon as he is well. But only
a day’s journey out of Assisi,
Francis experiences the first of his dreams and voices that change him utterly.
The mystic journey begins.
But I am ahead of myself, still looking up at the Rocca
Maggiore, at those heights Francis longed to attain. He would instead descend
from those heights again and again before he finally ascended the mountain of God, La Verna, and met there the
Six-Winged Seraph with the body of a crucified man—all of which is yet to come.
He has yet to be born and live. Of that story these are the bare outlines that
we will flesh out as we explore Francis’ mysticism.
Francesco Bernardone was born in 1182 in the Umbrian
town of Assisi
and was baptized John. At the time of his baptism his father was away on a
business trip to France;
when he returned, he changed his son’s name to Francesco, “the Frenchman.”
to his nickname, the boy grew up enamored of the French language and of the
tales of the knights and ladies of French Romance. He was a carefree, generous
young man who pursued the good life with gusto, partying and carousing with his
friends. But throughout all the levity of
his younger years, he dreamed of becoming a knight—a serious, bloody
enterprise. And when a war broke out between Assisi
and its neighbor, Perugia, he got his chance to
ride off to war as a knight of Assisi, only to
be captured as a prisoner of war in the defeat of Assisi in the very first skirmish.
How could he have known that this was the end of war for
him, this humiliating defeat of his hometown? How could he have known that the
year of imprisonment in a Perugian prison would change him deeply? And he, but
twenty-one years old, returning home to Assisi
a broken man, to lie in bed for a year. A year in prison, a year in bed. He,
the richest young man in Assisi,
a man his companions had dubbed “King of the Revels,” Francis, the son of the
cloth merchant Pietro Bernardone and the Frenchwoman Lady Pica.
He would try to go to war again as a knight in the papal
army battling the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor, but God had other plans and
in a vision told Francis to return to Assisi
where it would be revealed to him what he was to do. And so Francis retreated
from war, and one day while he was praying before the crucifix of the
dilapidated little chapel of San Damiano, outside the walls of Assisi, he received his call from God. From
the crucifix came the voice, “Francis, go and rebuild my house which, as you
see, is falling utterly to ruin.”1
Francis was to build, to repair, not to tear down with
weapons of destruction. He began to beg for stones and repaired with his own
hands the run-down chapel of San Damiano, which was the “house” Francis
believed his vision referred to. It was this house, this little church, but it
was more. It was the larger house, the Catholic church itself, that he was to
Francis learned this larger implication of the vision
one day when he saw a leper on the road and impulsively jumped from his horse,
gave coins to the leper and embraced him. Unbelievably, he was not repulsed,
but filled with joy, for he realized he had embraced his Lord, Jesus Christ.
That is how it happened that Francis went to live among
the lepers, ministering to them and learning from them. There, he realized,
were the living stones, and together, they were building the kingdom of God
on earth. There was God among the rejected, the despised, the poor.
Thus it began, the Franciscan rebuilding of the church.
Others soon joined Francis, and they became a brotherhood, and the church
approved their way of life: to live with the poor as poor men who observed the
holy gospel wholeheartedly.
Francis and the brothers preached and worked with their
hands for their daily bread, and when they received nothing for their labor,
they begged for their food. They continued to live among the lepers, making
peace with them and with all people and all creation by making peace with their
own aversion to the lepers. They embraced them instead of running away.
Women came to join them; the first was Clare, the
daughter of the knight Favarone di Offreduccio. The bishop of Assisi gave Clare and her companions as their
cloister San Damiano, the church Francis himself had restored with his own
hands. There they lived in extreme gospel poverty in contemplation of the Poor
Crucified Christ. They worked with their hands and depended on the begging of
the brothers for their sustenance. They prayed for and ministered to the sick
who were brought to their door.
Francis, in the meantime, was expanding the brothers’
ministry beyond Assisi to all of Italy and even
farther. He himself, with one or two brothers, made missionary journeys
preaching conversion and forgiveness, which he saw as the means
of peacemaking. He traveled to Spain,
France, Switzerland, Dalmatia and even to Syria, the Holy Land and Egypt during the Fifth Crusade. He
tried to be a peacemaker between Christians and Muslims, going so far as to
enter the camp of the sultan, again preaching conversion of heart and
forgiveness; the sultan listened and gave Francis safe passage through his
The animal and plant worlds, too, received Francis’
compassionate love. He reached out to and reverenced all created things. He
preached to the animals and birds and fish. He embraced and tamed the ravening
wolf of Gubbio.
He preached always the God-man, Jesus Christ, and tried
to make him visible and tangible, as when, three years before his death, he
celebrated Midnight Mass with live animals to re-create the first Christmas,
thus popularizing the tradition of the Christmas crib.
following year, while Francis was in deep prayer on the mountain
of La Verna in Tuscany, he received the sacred stigmata,
the five wounds of Christ, becoming himself a visible image of his crucified
Shortly afterward he sang his “Canticle of the
Creatures,” the swan song that summed up his life and attested to the peace and
joy and integration a life of love and forgiveness brings. He sang of all
creatures as his brothers and sisters and bade them forgive one another if they
wished to be crowned by God. He then welcomed even death as his sister and
The man who
longed to be a knight, a man of war, died a man of peace—at peace with God,
with himself and with all of creation. God changed his heart, and his changed
heart changed the world.
The mysticism of Saint Francis grew out of and was not
separate from his Catholic sacramental and gospel life. Francis’ intimacy with
God was not a category of experience separate from his intense living of the
gospel within the Catholic church.
True, at the beginning, when he was still “in the
world,” as he put it, he was gifted with ecstatic dreams and with the vision of
Christ speaking to him from the crucifix of San Damiano and with the vision of
Christ the Leper. But even then Francis did not have these visions and dreams
in order to draw him into himself but to draw him into the mystery of the
church. “Go and rebuild my house,” the voice of the crucifix spoke, “which, as
you see, is falling utterly to ruin.” Francis went out and begged for stones to
repair the ramshackle chapel of San Damiano, and eventually the house of the
larger church itself. And when he saw Christ in a leper, Francis went to live
among the lepers. “[A]nd the Lord Himself led me among them,” Francis writes in
his Testament, “and I worked mercy with them.”2
The visitations from the Lord led Francis into
church-building and church-making together with others, not into
self-absorption. In the same way, the inner conversions he experienced and his
lifelong walking in the footsteps of the poor Christ derived from his response
to the Gospel on two occasions, especially, in February and April of 1208.
The first occasion was the Gospel Reading on the Feast
of Saint Matthias, February 24. After Mass Francis, who’d been moved by the
reading, asked the priest to explain the gospel to him, which the priest did,
line by line. When he heard the words that Christ’s true disciples should “Take
no gold, or silver, or copper in their belts, no bag for your journey, or two
tunics, or sandals, or a staff” (Matthew 10:9–10), Francis was filled with joy
and cried out, “This is what I want; this is what I desire with all my heart!”3
Francis began immediately to live out Christ’s words.
This is Francis the practical mystic, one who responded
wholeheartedly to God’s Word and in that response God was revealed. Everyone
can be this kind of mystic with God’s grace. The practical mystic is not one
with secret knowledge of God, but one who knows God in doing the will of God.
Francis expands on this practical mysticism for everyone
when he writes in his “Letter to the Faithful,”
We are his bride when our faithful soul is
united with Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit; we are his brothers and sisters
when we do the will of his Father who is in heaven, and we are mother to him
when we carry him in our hearts and souls through love and a pure and sincere
conscience, and give him birth by doing good.4
This is a mysticism for everyone. This is a mysticism
Francis offers to all believers, a mysticism which he illustrates through the
gestures of his own life. The Franciscan mystic is the ordinary Christian
mystic who is brother, sister, bride and mother of Christ by means of a
fidelity, made possible by the Holy Spirit, in doing God’s will, in carrying
Christ within and through love and a pure and sincere conscience and in giving
birth to Christ by the charity of good works. In all of this is intimacy with
God, and intimacy with God that results in charity is practical mysticism.
It is interesting that Francis’ response takes place
within a liturgical setting and that he seeks the explanation of the priest
before he acts on God’s Word. His personal response to the Gospel had begun,
and it was precipitated by hearing the Gospel read at Mass.
On April 16 of that same year, Francis was approached by
the son of a wealthy nobleman of Assisi,
Bernard of Quintavalle, about how Bernard might “reject the world” after the
example of Francis, who answered that they needed to seek God’s counsel. The
two then went to the church of Saint Nicholas in Assisi, and after they’d prayed, Francis
opened the Missal three times to discern God’s will.
first text to appear was: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions,
and give the money to the poor” (Matthew 19:21). The second read: “Take nothing
for your journey” (Luke 9:3). And the third, “If any want to become my
followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”
(Matthew 16:24). And Francis said, “This is our life and rule, and that of all
who wish to join our company.”5
Again it is the Word of God in the liturgical Mass book
that Francis and Bernard consult, and what the three openings reveal become
their rule of life, not just for Bernard and Francis, but for all who will join
them. When the revelation Francis received on the Feast of Saint Matthias was
confirmed by Bernard’s joining him, he envisioned a company of those who, like
him and Bernard, would live out this scriptural rule of life. Within the
parameters of that rule and in the church, which was to confirm it officially
in the person of Pope Innocent III, Francis and others who joined that holy
enterprise experienced profound intimacy with God through transformation into
The most dramatic visual confirmation of that intimacy
was revealed in the very flesh of Francis himself in the sacred stigmata he
received on Mount La Verna in September of 1224, two years before he died and
sixteen years after Francis and Bernard embraced the way of life revealed to
them in the opening of the Missal.
It was an experience revealed within the brotherhood and
in the community that is the church as Francis was in retreat to prepare for
the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel. As
the life of the brothers was an intensification of the life lived by all
Christians, so Francis’ life was an intensification of the gospel life the
brothers lived in common.
The sacred stigmata is the dramatic visual
representation of Francis as the personification of one “wounded” by God’s word
as described in the Letter to the Hebrews: “Indeed, the word of God is living
and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul
from spirit, joints from marrow...” (Hebrews 4:12). And again in Isaiah: My
word “shall not return to me empty, / but it shall accomplish that which I
purpose, / and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).
All the mystics fulfill these words, of course, but
there is something swift and dramatic in the way Saint Francis responds to
God’s word. He hears the word of God, and he carries it out without
reservation, without counting the cost, without equivocation.
“Go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling
into ruin,” the voice from the San Damiano crucifix entreats; Francis goes out
and rushes to his father’s shop, takes a bolt of the best cloth, mounts one of
his father’s fine steeds and rides to the neighboring town of Foligno. There he sells the cloth and the
horse and returns to Assisi
with a bag of money for the priest of San Damiano so that the little church
might be repaired.
When the wise priest refuses the money, fearing perhaps
the wrath of Francis’ father, Francis, undaunted, throws the money on the
windowsill and goes up to the city of Assisi
to beg for stones to personally repair the church. He heard the words; he acted
on them, beginning with their literal meaning. He starts with stones for a
little chapel; he ends up restoring the Catholic church itself. The literal
becomes something more; the literal is the symbolic and the symbolic is the
literal for Francis.
Each time he hears the word of God, he immediately
responds to its literal invitation, and when he does, something much larger is
fulfilled. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of
heaven,” Jesus says (Matthew 5:3). So Francis then endeavors to be poor in
spirit, but he goes further. He pushes the envelope and renounces all his
possessions; he leaves the protective walls of Assisi and literally lives with the poorest of
the poor outside the city wall: the lepers. Others join him in this way of
life, and soon the kingdom of heaven begins to happen in the swamp-like valley
The kingdom then begins to spread throughout Italy
and Europe, the Middle East and eventually
throughout the world. In Francis’ response the Word of God did not return to
God empty, but returned a hundredfold.
Francis follows in the footsteps of Jesus, and that is
where most of us falter. We want to follow Jesus’ footsteps, but we know ahead
of time where they lead, and we are afraid. We hold back.
The difference between us and saints and mystics like
Saint Francis is threefold: First, the mystics have heard a word beyond the
word we hear in Scripture; they literally hear an inner or outer voice inviting
them to love’s journey. Second, the mystics fall in love with God whom they
experience in an intimate, sometimes overwhelming way. Third, they are somehow
already rich soil in which the seed of God’s word grows and produces rich fruit
(see Matthew 13:9).
All of us are invited to be rich soil for God’s word,
and all of us have become rich soil in baptism. All of us have heard God’s word
in Scripture, in nature, in prayer, and all of us experience intimacy with God,
especially in the sacraments (the external signs of a deep, interior reality).
What makes the difference is both in the fullness of our response and in the
level of consciousness of what is really going on within us. The kingdom of
heaven is already within and around us, but because of our often lukewarm
response of heart and action, we don’t have eyes to see or ears to hear.
The mystics, however, cultivate awareness. They listen
for God’s word; they respond with concrete, often heroic, actions when they
hear it. A mystic, then, is one who shows the rest of us who we really are, who
we can become, if only we would realize the gift of God that is already within
us and respond in our concrete daily lives to God’s great gift of love. The
mystic shows us how not to let God’s word return to God empty. The mystic
uncovers the mystery, a mystery inside each one of us, and models what it looks
like and what it accomplishes.
all of this it is important to remember that God takes the initiative—both
in the ordinary believer’s life and in the mystic’s life. One cannot force
God’s hand or woo God to make one a mystic. But once that initiative is taken,
the mystic’s heart is changed, and he or she falls in love with God.
In Saint Francis’ case God was the Poor Crucified Christ
who spoke to him from the crucifix; therefore, when he would see a poor person,
or one “crucified” by life’s burdens or the evil of humans, he would embrace
that person as he would Christ himself. The twentieth-century English mystic
Caryll Houselander literally saw Christ in others from time to time, and I
suspect such was Saint Francis’ experience when he lived and worked mercy among
Francis did of course have visions like the other
mystics in these pages, and his first vision was when he was a young man, a knight
in an Assisi regiment marching to southern Italy to fight
in the papal army under Walter of Brienne. On the first night out, in the city
of Spoleto near Assisi, he dreamed of a large castle hall in
which there were many shields adorning the walls, which a voice assured him
were for him and his followers. Francis took the voice literally and thought he
was to be a great lord. But then the voice spoke again.
“What is better, Francis, to serve the lord
or the servant?”
“Why, the lord, surely.”
“Then why are you serving the servant?
Return to Assisi
and it will be shown you what you are to do.”6
And so it was as a deserter from the army, a seeming
coward or madman that Francis returned to his hometown to the ridicule of his
He began to pray in caves and abandoned churches, and it
was shown him what he was to do. The crucifix of San Damiano spoke to him, and
sometime later, when he was riding on the road outside the city, he saw a leper
by the side of the road. Inexplicably, he dismounted his horse, gave money to
the leper and then embraced the leper! When he mounted his horse and turned to
leave, he looked back and there was no one there. He knew then that he had
embraced Christ, and he went and began to live among the lepers.
Only a madman or a man in love would do such a thing.
And in a sense Francis was both; he was a man madly in love with Christ.
Gradually, from the time he returned in disgrace from Spoleto, until he
embraced the leper, this man who wandered the countryside of Assisi, praying in caves and abandoned
chapels, had fallen in love with Christ. His life afterward was nothing but a
loving response to a love that had first loved him. He wanted to be as much
like his Beloved as possible, to follow in his footsteps, to listen to his
words, to love as Christ had loved.
That quest for intimacy and identification with Christ
is the reason for what is perceived as Francis’ radicalism. He would hear a
passage from the Gospel like, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me
is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38), and he would seek to embrace any cross
that came his way in obedience to his Beloved’s words. He would take literally
such words as “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor
gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matthew 6:26), and
the birds became his brothers and sisters. He spoke to them; he blessed them;
he modeled the life of his fraternity after them. And because the brothers were
more important than the birds (Matthew 6:26), Francis knew the heavenly Father
would care for them who, in losing their lives, would find their lives (Matthew
Jesus himself had lived like the birds, and Francis was
in love with Jesus. This is how the apostles and disciples lived, and Francis
and his brothers would do the same.
In his writings Francis never uses the word imitate
in relation to Christ; instead he uses the phrase, “to follow in the footsteps
of Christ”; Christ’s invitation was to “follow me” (Matthew 10:38), not
“imitate me.” In following Christ the self one thinks has been lost is actually
found, so that one walks in the footsteps of Christ a whole and realized self.
This is the basic story of Francis of Assisi, and it is
the story of the gospel lived out as fully as he was able. And in the context
of that particular gospel living, there were visions and voices, culminating in
Francis’ mystical experience on Mount La Verna, in which he was sealed with the
wounds of Christ. He returned from La Verna a stigmatic who lived intimately and
excruciatingly a Christlike passion for the final two years of his life. What,
then, was the mystical experience of La Verna, and what was the subsequent way
of the cross he walked?
In 1224 Francis, already very ill with what was probably
a form of tubercular leprosy, his eyes hemorrhaging from a trachoma contracted
when he was on the Fifth Crusade, decided to make the long, almost
one-hundred-mile journey from Assisi to La Verna
He was discouraged by events in the order, like the building
of friaries, that were to him betrayals of the gospel poverty the brothers had
vowed; he was worried about the pope’s call for a new crusade. What further
loss of life and further divisions would result? And what would happen to his
friend Sultan Malek al-Kamil, for whom Francis had promised to pray when he
last left the sultan’s camp?
The retreat he entered on La Verna was in preparation
for the Feast of Saint Michael on September 29, and around the Feast of the
Triumph of the Holy Cross, September 14, an extraordinary mystical experience
took place that is now celebrated in the Franciscan liturgical calendar on
This is Saint Bonaventure’s rendering of that event:
[O]ne morning about the feast of the
Exaltation of the Holy Cross, while he was praying on the mountainside, Francis
saw a Seraph with six fiery wings coming down from the highest point in the
heavens. The vision descended swiftly and came to rest in the air near him.
Then he saw the image of a Man crucified in the midst of the wings, with his
hands and feet stretched out and nailed to a cross. Two of the wings were
raised above his head and two were stretched out in flight, while the remaining
two shielded his body. Francis was dumbfounded at the sight and his heart was
flooded with a mixture of joy and sorrow. He was overjoyed at the way Christ
regarded him so graciously under the appearance of a Seraph, but the fact that
he was nailed to a cross pierced his soul with a sword of compassionate sorrow.
...Eventually he realized by divine inspiration that God had shown
him this vision in his providence, in order to let him see that, as Christ’s
lover, he would resemble Christ crucified perfectly not by physical martyrdom,
but by the fervor of his spirit. As the vision disappeared, it left his heart
ablaze with eagerness and impressed upon his body a miraculous likeness. There
and then the marks of the nails began to appear in his hands and feet, just as
he had seen them in his vision of the Man nailed to the Cross. His hands and
feet appeared pierced through the center with nails, the heads of which were in
the palms of his hands and on the instep of each foot, while the points stuck
out on the opposite side. The heads were black and round, but the points were
long and bent back, as if they had been struck with a hammer; they rose above
the surrounding flesh and stood out from it. His right side seemed as if it had
been pierced with a lance and was marked with a livid scar which often bled, so
that his habit and trousers were stained.7
From this moment on, Francis realized that his desire
for martyrdom had been and would continue to be fulfilled in a way other than
what he expected and wanted. His martyrdom was to remain a person of peace in
the face of persecution, even by his own brothers, to remain a person of peace
even in war, in the crusades, in want and poverty, in sickness, in
discouragement and despair. It was an inner martyrdom that leads to a
transformation in Christ that is so intense and intimate that the wounds of
Christ break forth from within, the outside becoming what Francis already was
He was already accustomed to putting patches of soft
cloth on the outside of his habit if he was wearing soft patches underneath his
habit next to his skin, so that people would know that in his illness there
were soft patches protecting his skin from his rough habit. Francis had always
insisted on being sincere—not to be one thing on the inside and another on the
outside. This, too, was a sort of martyrdom of spirit. And in the end God
revealed in his flesh what Francis had already become in his spirit, a
crucified son of God.stigmata came only at the end, two years before Francis
died; it was the result of a lifetime of a living martyrdom, of remaining a
person of peace, no matter what the circumstances, of sitting in peace while
others were taking up arms (real or metaphorical) against their “enemies.” It
was the martyrdom of embracing those whom others thought repulsive; it was the
martyrdom implied in the words of Jesus, “Love your enemies, do good to those
who hate you” (Luke 6:27). Francis’ whole life had been a living out of the
gospel injunctions of Jesus so completely that he became another face of Christ
for his own times and for all time.
Saint Francis never wrote of his mystical experiences,
except to recount what the Lord had told him to do, where the Lord had led him.
For example, in his Testament he writes, “For I, being in sins, thought it bitter to
look at lepers, and the Lord himself led me among them, and I worked mercy with
them. And when I left their company, I realized that what had seemed bitter to
me, had been turned into sweetness of soul and body.”8
But from the mystics who did write of their intimate
experiences of God, we learn of the pattern and content of those mystics who
did not write down their experiences. Such is the case of Saint Francis, who
kept hidden the hidden things of God. It’s true that others wrote about him,
but Francis himself never wrote down his intimate experiences of God. In fact,
he said to his brothers in his Twenty-Eighth Admonition:
Blessed are you servants who lay up
treasures in heaven (cf. Mt. 6:20) of what the Lord shows you, and do not
desire to show it to others hoping for personal gain from the Lord’s treasure. For the same Most High
will manifest your works to whomever God
pleases. Blessed then are you servants who keep in your heart the secrets of
the Lord. (cf. Lk. 2:19, 51; Lk. 8:15).9
And Saint Bonaventure, in his Major Life of Saint Francis, quotes Saint Francis:
When the Lord visits you in prayer, you
should say, “Lord, you have sent me this comfort from heaven, even though I am a sinner and unworthy, and I
entrust it to your keeping because I feel like a thief of your treasures.” And when you leave your prayer, you
should seem to be only a poor little sinner, and not someone especially graced
Both of these quotations speak to the humility of
Francis, who, though he had one of the most celebrated mystical experiences of
the Middle Ages in his stigmata, never spoke of it, nor wrote down what the
Lord revealed to him in that intimate exchange on Mount La Verna. But a prayer
attributed to Saint Francis by Saint Bernardine of Siena and Ubertino da Casale speaks volumes
of what it was Saint Francis experienced on La Verna:
May the fiery and honey-sweet power of your
love, O Lord,
wean me from all things under heaven, so
that I may die for
love of your love, who deigned to die for
love of my love.11
That, in essence, is the practical mystic, Saint Francis
Eyes fixed on the Lord Jesus. In this exploration of
Francis the mystic, we are reminded again to look upon Christ on the cross and
know that despite what things look like from a human point of view, God is
love, and everything we do and everything that happens to us takes place within
God’s love—even to death upon a cross. Remaining in that love, no matter what
befalls us, is to remain in God. The questions are not, “Why is this happening?
How can God allow this? Why doesn’t, didn’t God prevent this?” but rather, “Can
this separate me from the love of God? Is God’s love still here despite this?”
God is love, and though love does not always do our will,
it does not mean that God’s love is not there, though that is what we feel is
happening. As a man Jesus underwent this deep human experience of abandonment
because the Father didn’t always do what he wanted. As with us, love was not
his own will. Love is the interaction between two wills; for a human being it
is the interaction between my will and the One whose will is the cause of my
existence and my very ability to will. Creator and creature: There is an
infinite difference between them. That realization is the beginning of the love
of God. And realization being of the mind, it is the beginning of truth. That
something, someone, outside myself is the cause of my very existence, makes my
existence an act of gratitude for each moment held within that creative will.
further realization that God’s creative will is an eternally sustaining will,
namely, that my existence will not end, summons me to humble acquiescence and
dialogue—or to proud, illusory self-sufficiency, which is a kind of hell because it severs the bond of love
and results in a turning in upon oneself.
God’s love, in
contrast to self-absorption, overflows, and though eternal creator chooses to
become one with love’s creation entering the created world as creative word
becoming obedient to the word’s own speaking of what it means to be a creature,
obedient, as Saint Paul says, even “to the point of death— / even death on a
cross” (Philippians 2:8). Christ was broken and died on the cross: Life did not
spare the eternal Son, just as life will not spare us, but God’s Incarnate Word
confirmed for us that love endures, no matter what humans or fate or life does
or refuses to do. And in the end obedient love rises from the grave.
Excerpted from Mystics: 10 Who Show Us the Ways of God
1. Author’s translation from The Second Life of Saint Francis by Thomas of Celano, VI, 10.
2. Author’s translation of The Testament of Saint Francis in Through the Year with Francis of Assisi (Cincinnati: Saint Anthony Messenger Press, 1993), p. 82.
3. Author’s translation of Saint Francis’ “Letter to the Faithful,” First Version.
4. Author’s paraphrase of Saint Bonaventure’s Major Life of Saint Francis, I, 3.
5. Marion A. Habig, ed., English Omnibus of Sources for the Life of Saint Francis (Chicago: Franciscan Herald, 1973), pp. 730–731.
6. Author’s translation.
7. Author’s translation.
8. Author’s translation.
9. Murray Bodo, Through the Year with Francis of Assisi (Cincinnati: Saint Anthony Messenger Press, 1993), p. 60.