A Theology of St Francis of Assisi      by John Hebenton

The following is based on all the writings of St. Francis of Assisi. It is my attempt to summarise how he saw God, himself and all creation. It is my attempt to discern why he responded to God as he did.

 

Francis of Assisi was overwhelmed by the awesome transcendence of God. “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God”[1] Most of his writings begin with or include some ascription to the wonder of God, most of which are written in very Trinitarian terms. The Canticle of Brother Sun for example begins:

 

“Most high, all powerful good Lord

Yours are the praises, the glory, the honour and all blessing.

To you alone Most High do they belong

And no man is worthy to mention your name.”[2]

 

This understanding and experience of God underscores his whole approach to life and his theology. As can be seen by the last line quoted above, this understanding colours Francis’ conception of himself and all humanity; his understanding and experience of God’s love, especially as revealed in the person of Christ and in particular in the incarnation; Mary, the Mother of Christ; and how he should respond to that love.

Francis was not only overwhelmed by this holy, wonderful God most high[3] he was equally overwhelmed by the undeserved love of this God for both him and humanity. Francis saw humanity as the most undeserving of all of God’s creation.

 

“And yet, all the creatures under heaven, each according to its nature, serve, know, and obey their Creator better than you. And even the demons did not crucify Him and crucify Him even now by delighting in vices and sins…. In what then can you glory? For if you were so subtle and wise that you had all knowledge and knew how to interpret all tongues, and minutely investigate the course of the heavenly bodies, in all these things you could not glory, for one demon knew more about the things of earth than all men together, even if there may have been someone who received from the Lord a special knowledge of the highest wisdom….”[4]

“And we must hate our body with its vices and sins; because, by living according to the flesh, the devil wishes to take from us the love of Jesus Christ and eternal life and to lose himself with everyone in hell. For though our own fault we are rotten, miserable, and opposed to good, but prompt and willing to embrace evil….”[5]

 

It is God’s response to this worthlessness that shapes Francis’ theology and his life. God responds with the Incarnation, an act of love that was beyond anything imaginable. In the Incarnation, “the all-powerful, most holy, most high, and supreme God”[6] gave up all for these worthless creatures. The greatest imaginable gift is offered and the greatest imaginable cost paid. “Nor should they feel ashamed since the Lord made Himself poor for us in this world.”[7] In the Incarnation, God gave up everything to be a poor, naked, defenceless human, completely at the mercy of others. At that moment God the most holy all-powerful experienced absolute poverty.

 

Three “moments” best expressed this poverty within the incarnation for Francis. The first was the nativity; a story Francis gave special attention and devotion to, enacting the first crib scene at Greccio. The role Mary played in this moment was at least in part behind the special place he gave her in his devotions.

 

The second is the story of the crucifixion and the picture of the poor naked crucified Christ. It is this image of Christ that Francis prayed before in some way every day of his life as a friar[8] “Though he was rich beyond all other things, in this world He, (Christ) together with the most blessed Virgin, His mother, willed to choose poverty.”[9] These two moments are the focus of an Office Francis wrote for his brothers. The Office of the Passion[10] is a collage of scripture through which his brothers were invited to experience the Incarnation from the perspective of Jesus and Mary. In this small way his brothers were offered a way of knowing the great poverty that God experienced so that they might have life in its fullness.

 

The third “moment” of Incarnation for Francis is the Eucharist. “…daily He comes to us in humble form; daily He comes down from the bosom of the Father upon the altar in the hands of the priest. And as He appeared to the holy apostles in true flesh, so now He reveals Himself to us in the sacred bread.”[11]  Once again the poverty of this moment impressed Francis deeply, that the Almighty, eternal, just, and merciful God[12] is met in a humble piece of bread. To receive this bread and wine was to receive the transcendent God revealed in absolute poverty. To receive the bread was to receive Christ, and was the way to eternal life.[13]

 

“And the will of the Father was such that His blessed and glorious Son, Whom He gave to us and Who was born for us, should, through His own blood, offer Himself as a sacrifice and oblation on the altar of the cross: not for Himself through Whom all things were made, but for our sins, leaving us an example that we should follow in His footprints. And the Father wills that all of us should be saved through Him and that we receive Him with our pure heart and chaste body”[14]

 

None of this was particularly unusual or unique. What differentiates Francis from other theologians is his response. And that is found in the phrase “that we should follow in his footprints”.[15] To “follow in his footsteps” was to “live according to the form of the Holy Gospel.”[16]

 

Scripture held a special place for Francis. The written words, especially of the gospels, were the Words of God. He implored his brothers to venerate and restore any scriptures they found lying around.[17] The importance of scripture for Francis is seen in his use of passages strung together in the Earlier Rule, and the Office of the Passion, for example. But it was not enough to simply know the words of scripture. Francis sought to live them out.

 

“Those are killed by the letter who merely wish to know the words alone, so that they may be esteemed as wiser than others and be able to acquire great riches to give to their relatives and friends. In a similar way, those religious are killed by the letter who do not wish to follow the spirit of Sacred Scripture, but only wish to know what the words are and how to interpret them to others. And those are given life by the spirit of Sacred Scripture who do not refer to themselves any text which they know or seek to know, but, by word and example, return everything to the most high Lord God to Whom every good belongs.”[18]

 

To walk in the footsteps of Christ meant to live the words of the gospel. The Later Rule begins, “The rule and life of the Friars Minor is this: to observe the holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without anything of their own, and in charity”[19] Francis was overwhelmed by the transcendence and the love of God, and the only response he could possibly offer was an overwhelming response. To live out the gospel was that response, and what he understood by that is spelt out in the Admonitions, the Letters to the Faithful, The Testament, and most clearly in the Earlier and Later Rule. This response is inspired both by his awareness of how poor and undeserving he and his brothers were of such love, and a desire to fully experience the love that God offers through Christ, so that he in turn could be a living sign of love...

 

The first and overriding mark of following in the footsteps of Christ is that of absolute poverty. At an outer level this meant owning nothing. Those who lived the gospel under this rule were to live in the simplest and poorest of clothing that was to be patched with the simplest of cloth when needed. They were not to have sandals, unless necessary. They were to work for their food, but were not to receive money, unless it was to be used for a sick brother or for those poorer than them, for example lepers. Begging for alms was a fit occupation for such low and poor brothers, and no brother was to shy away from this.

 

At an inner level, Francis saw absolute poverty meaning spiritual poverty. So he exhorted his brothers to assume great humility. They were the poor little ones, useless servants of God, worthless and weak, full of sin. This spiritual poverty or humility shaped and defined their relationships with both their fellow brothers and those who were not. If they were in leadership, Francis insisted that they understand their role as not being over their brothers, but as their servants. When they were praised he urged that they deem themselves no better than before. Rather than glory in what they had done, he instructed that they glory in the cross alone. He taught his brothers that when dealing with those who had sinned they were not to be disturbed or angered, for that is what the devil seeks. Instead they were to remain their servants, spiritually helping as best they could. Even when dealing with those who were not Christians, Francis encouraged his brothers to not engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to them at all times. They were to preach the Word of the Lord through their deeds, striving to humble themselves in all things.

 

This humility is, I think, at the heart of Francis’ radical view of creation.  Unlike many other Christians who used Genesis 1 and 2 to justify a theology of domination and superiority over creation, Francis saw that creation and humanity are equally loved by God, and are equally reliant on God.  Neither is greater than the other.  Francis saw the Creator revealed in both.  Further, he saw humanity as the means by which God speaks God’s love for creation.  The creation is the means by which God speaks God’s love for humanity. Each exists for the other.  And so we have the Canticle of Brother Sun.[20] All was sacred, and all is to be treated with awe and reverence.

Finally this humility led Francis to redefine perfect joy. This was not to be found in the trappings of power, wealth, and comfort that people in Europe ascribed to, including his family. For Francis, perfect joy was found in being afflicted and responding in love. When this happened eternal life was gained[21]

 

“Therefore all my brothers, let us be very much on our guard so that we do not lose or turn away our mind and heart from the Lord under the guise of achieving some reward or doing some work or providing some help. But in the holy love which is God I beg all my brothers both ministers and the others, as they overcome every obstacle and put aside every care and anxiety, to strive as best they can to serve, love, honour, and adore the Lord God with a clean heart and a pure mind, for this is what He desires above all things.”[22]

 

I have never read all these sources before. I have read a lot about Francis, but never what he wrote himself. I found his writing inspiring, and difficult. His theology is more traditional and more Catholic than I am. I found his High attitude to God is enormously inspiring. His vision of humanity as grotesquely sinful is a difficult picture. And his deep humility and self effacement is both inviting, and beyond what I can aspire to. Yet he offers a vision to pray for, work towards, and one day attain if it is the grace of God.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHIC REFERENCES:

Armstrong, R.J., O.F.M. Cap. and Brady, I.C., O.F.M. (1982). Francis and Clare, the complete works. New Jersey: Paulist Press.

All bible quotes are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

[1] The Earlier Rule: Chapter 5: 1.  p. 113, in Francis and Clare, the Complete Works (1982) translated and introduced by Regis Armstrong, O.F.M. CAP., and Ignatius Brady, O.F.M.

[2] The Canticle of Brother Sun, p. 38, ibid

[3] See The Parchment Given to Brother Leo, p. 99 ff, ibid

[4] The Admonitions: chapter V, No One Should Boast in Himself but Rather Glory in the Cross of the Lord.  p. 29, ibid

[5] The Earlier Rule: Chapter XXII, An Admonition to the Brothers: 4-7.  p. 127 ibid

[6] Prayer at the end of the Praises to Be Said At All Hours.  p. 102, ibid

[7] The Later Rule: Chapter VI: 3.  p. 141, ibid

[8] The Prayer before the Crucifix, which it is said Francis prayed before the crucifix at San Damiano.  p. 103, ibid

[9] The Second Version of the Letter to the Faithful: 5. p 67, ibid.

[10] pp. 80-98, ibid

[11] The Admonitions: Chapter 1, The Body of Christ: 17-19.  pp. 26 ff, ibid

[12] Prayer at the end of The Letter to the Entire Order, p 61, ibid

[13] This theme is repeated throughout his writings.  See for example The Second Version of the Letter to the Faithful; Admonitions; The First Letter to the Custodians; The Letter to the Entire Order, The Earlier rule, and the Latter Rule, ibid.

[14] The Second Version of the Letter to the Faithful: 11-13.  p. 68 ibid

[15] See for example the Admonitions and the Earlier Rule.

[16] The Testament: 14.  p. 154, ibid.

[17] See for example, A Letter to the entire Order: 34, The Testament: 12.

[18] The Admonitions: Chapter VII, Good Works Must Follow Knowledge: 2-7.  p. 30, ibid

[19] The Later Rule: Chapter 1: 1. p. 137, ibid

[20] p. 38, ibid

[21] See in particular True and Perfect Joy.  p. 169, ibid

[22] The Earlier Rule: Chapter XXII, An Admonition to the Brothers: 25-26.  p. 128, ibid