It is hard to believe that August has turned into September, but such it has. For us, that means that we have entered upon the season of our Father St. Francis. So it seems opportune to resume our series on the Life of St. Francis and Poor Clare Spirituality. Here begins
Part Three, The Threshold of Love
Fraternal Charity and Holy Living
The spirit of grace shone so strongly in Francis that his brothers were soon ignited by the flame of his holiness and burned with intense zeal. In these early days they reached for the perfection of virtue and sought in all things to deny themselves. From such habitual selflessness they conceived a wonderful charity toward one another. Thus they became masters of themselves and lived securely without anxiety, spending themselves freely for the good of others.
Human beings were not created to be alone. God calls some, a precious few, to live as hermits far from their fellow men. Yet even these are called apart only so that they might live more intimately with God, and they will be reunited with their brothers and sisters in heaven. We were made in the image and likeness of the Triune God Who is Himself a Communion of Love. Therefore our destiny is not isolation but the deepest union with God and all His people. From the earliest years of Christianity members of the Church have found it profitable to gather together in the same spirit and ideal to discover the fullness of prayer.
The Holy Spirit inspired Saint Francis with a new view of the world. It is new with an eternal newness that never grows stale: the clear perception of reality and truth. Open and ready to receive the imposition of grace, Saint Francis gazed upon his Creator and, as through a lens, upon creation as seen by the Creator. He discovered the reality of Poverty as freedom from the vain and selfish pursuits that constrict, bind, and limit our lives to a shallow and futile mortality. The more this understanding seeped into his being, the more Saint Francis experienced sentiments of humility and gratitude. He then saw that Poverty is a return to the central purpose of pleasing God. From this positive vision of God’s Supremacy and his own position of privileged servant flowed a spring of fraternal charity and boundless generosity.
The Franciscan Tradition has always valued communal living and the uniting of persons in the praise of God. The experience of common life, self discipline, and menial service to others contributes to promoting the spirit of mutual respect. The practice of Poverty requires each one to treat material goods with care, as if they belonged to another, and so nurtures the disposition of concern and self-gift. Moreover, the real presence of community greatly aids the progress of virtue and the development of a tender conscience.
Another grace of fraternal life recognized by Saint Francis is edification. There are many aspects of ourselves which we cannot easily identify unless we have observed them in others. The faults and differences of others challenge us to expand our outlook and develop a real view of the world. Our interaction and patience with others prepare us to live selflessly and ultimately show us what it means to have a loving relationship with God.
Any authentic experience of God begets gratitude, gratitude begets humility, humility begets generosity, and generosity begets goodness. From goodness proceeds clear vision, true recognition, and an appropriate response to the value of God and of each person. The Franciscan ideal of Poverty fosters an inner purity and security which engenders a true and invincible joy of heart that is capable of giving with generosity surpassing human means. Discipline forms us in personhood and enables us to grow in supernatural virtue which brings us to the realization of the fullness of our human nature. For a Franciscan mutual charity is essentially intertwined with holy living and the attainment of human potential. Conversion and Relationship are directly linked: Relationship must be imbued with goodness, and true goodness fosters Relationship.
A Household of Faith
On one occasion when Francis and his brothers were without shelter they came upon an abandoned hovel in a place called Rivo Torto. Here they stayed in utter poverty, working and begging for their bread. The hovel was so small that there was hardly any room for all of them to rest comfortably in it together. Wishing to avoid discord and confusion, Francis wrote the names of the brethren on the wall, so that each might go peacefully to his own space to pray or sleep. Yet they outdid one another in charity and mortification and never complained. When a man drove a mule into the hovel wishing to occupy it, Francis and his brothers quietly moved on to another place.
One of the greatest sorrows of our time is the invasion of secular principles into family life. The deep and mysterious holiness of Matrimony and human life is being forgotten. The formation of the person and growth in graceful maturity is being replaced by noise and meaningless pursuits. The popes in recent years have striven to reintroduce and protect the basic value of the family in society.
A great advantage that comes from persons living together in community is growth in virtue and generosity. When we, as imperfect human beings, are together with other imperfect human beings, our faults work like sand paper on one another. We rub each others’ roughness until we are smooth and fit together. For a cloistered contemplative Poor Clare these benefits are intensified in much the same way as they were for Francis and his brothers in the small confines of Rivo Torto. In order to become a little poor one of the Kingdom she must learn to place herself at the service of all in gentleness and humility. She must overcome her tendency to be annoyed with the shortcomings of others and focus on becoming perfect in charity.
Fraternal life in Franciscan living is an invitation to become the poorest of all. It is an opportunity to curb one’s pride and imitate the meekness of Christ. In time the experience of relationship gives one power over his own passions so that he may experience deep interior peace and tranquility.
The common life lived in a monastery is a discipline of grace. To do together with others what one has resolved to do and to endeavor to conform to a common rule gives one a sense of responsibility and obligation. In this way she can train herself to habitual self-giving. She needn’t be distracted by privileges and arrogant superiority, but can be before others as she is before God. Through the familial experience she will be led joyfully to self-fulfillment and the fruits of true love.