Day One | Conversion
Where there is Love and Wisdom, there is neither Fear nor Ignorance,
Where there is Patience and Humility, there is neither Anger nor Annoyance
Where there is Poverty and Joy, there is neither Cupidity nor Avarice
Where there is Peace and Contemplation, there is neither Care nor Restlessness.
Where there is Fear of God to guard the dwelling, there no enemy can enter.
Where there is Mercy and Prudence, there is neither Excess nor Harshness
Francis was one of most free people who has ever lived—internally free, that is. His conversion had its dramatic moments (for example, embracing a leper along the road), but it was an ongoing, progressive opening himself to God’s grace and to the life changes which that grace always sets in motion.
Because we are constantly tempted to think that God will ask too much from us, we wonder: “Will the first pair of virtues in each line above lead us to what concludes each line? Will love and wisdom truly keep us from fear and ignorance?”
Thomas of Celano, the first biographer of Francis, wrote that the Poor Man of Assisi seemed to his contemporaries like “a man from another world.” He increasingly based his life on God’s sense of “normal”—and that meant progressively deeper conversion to God’s ways.
God’s grace needs room to work in a person’s life. Conversion creates that room in us by reassessing what it truly important and what is not. The beggar whom Francis could easily have dismissed became an instrument of God’s grace.
Good and gracious God, you have created us in
your image and likeness. We are constantly
tempted to try to improve on your work by finding
some shortcut, some way that will save us time
and energy. Help us to remember, as Saint Francis
of Assisi knew very well, that conversion to your
ways is indeed the quickest and only reliable way
Day Two | Forgiveness
All praise be yours, my Lord, through those who grant pardon
For love of you, through those who endure
Sickness and trials.
Happy those who endure in peace,
By you, Most High, they will be crowned.
(Canticle of Brother Sun)
Saint Francis was very attentive to the needs of the world around him, including what his native city required. When the bishop and the mayor of Assisi were once engaged in a bitter dispute, Francis revised his “Canticle of the Creatures” to praise those who extend pardon for love of you.
Francis wrote these verses, instructed several friars to sing them before the mayor and bishop, and then leave without saying anything else. The mayor and bishop immediately asked one another’s forgiveness for this feud and began working to improve the lives of all Assisi’s citizens.
The bishop and mayor may have been like many people who consider forgiveness a sign of weakness and not a sign of strength. When they moved toward how God sees forgiveness (a step toward greater honesty in all their relationships), then there was no fear that one side might win at the expense of the other. Forgiveness facilitates a win/win outcome.
Forgiveness does not require that people lie to themselves, for example, to deny that certain painful things have happened. But no one’s pain is the whole truth about any situation. The more honest people are, the less inflated their egos are and the less territory they feel they must defend.
Francis lived in a very status-conscious society where people frequently felt that their dignity was not being sufficiently respected. It would be nice but untrue to say that such feelings have totally disappeared today.
Loving God, you know how easy it is for us to
refuse to forgive, to nurse a grudge, keeping it
forever raw and fresh. Help us to get over the
idea that forgiveness is a sign of weakness and
instead to see it for the sign of strength that it
truly is—as Jesus powerfully demonstrated on the cross.
Day Three | Freedom
Almighty, most high and supreme God,
Father, holy and just,
Lord, King of heaven and earth,
We give you thanks for yourself.
Of your own holy will you created all things
spiritual and physical,
made us in your own image and likeness,
and gave us a place in paradise,
Through your only Son, in the Holy Spirit.
And it was through our own fault that we fell.
(Rule of 1221, ch 23)
Everyone wants greater freedom, right? But what kind of freedom: to dominate and impose one’s will, to crush anyone who doesn’t see things my way? Or freedom to see the interconnections of all creation, especially the people made in the image and likeness or God?
A miser thinks that he is truly free, but isn’t he kidding himself? He is walling himself into a world where fewer and fewer people deserve his respect and where only what appears on a balance sheet is judged to be real and worthwhile. How much room is there for virtue in such a person?
The other capital sins (pride, lust, anger, envy, gluttony, and sloth) all promise greater freedom, yet yield only new forms of slavery. An addicted person is unlikely to describe himself or herself as living in slavery, but that is exactly what every type of addiction produces.
Truly holy people, such as Saint Francis, are always internally very free—even if they are imprisoned for what they know is true.
God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each person of
your Blessed Trinity is radically free yet fully in
harmony with the other two. Show us how to get beyond
thinking that selfishness is the best way to assure
our freedom. Help us take to heart Saint Paul’s words:
“Though he was rich, Christ became poor for your sake
so that you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Day Four | Humility
What a person is before God, that he is and no more.
“What a person is before God, that he is and no more.” This is perhaps the most powerful thing that Francis of Assisi ever said. Thomas of Celano recorded it, and Saint Bonaventure wrote that Francis repeated this saying frequently.
In August of 1967, I was introduced to this saying during a retreat before I entered the novitiate (a year-long type of boot camp). In some way, I have been reflecting on it during 50 years of Franciscan living.
With no disrespect to Francis, I think we could add “and no less” to the end of the quote above. Unfortunately, some people think that they can grow in virtue only if they lie to themselves. For example, with some frequency, you hear individuals try to deflect a compliment by saying “But the mashed potatoes were a little lumpy” or “I could have done better if only . . . ” (usually identifying something beyond the person’s control).
In his novel David Copperfield, Charles Dickens shows that humility can be easily counterfeited. The character Uriah Heep is extremely proud of being “very ’umble, living with a very ‘umble mother in a very ‘umble house.” Eventually, however, Uriah is exposed as an extremely greedy man.
Living honestly before God always carries over into living honestly with other people and in one’s own eyes.
God of all mercy, you know how easily we get
confused about the virtue of humility, very
often worrying that if we grow in that virtue
other people will take advantage of us. Help
us to be humble enough always to tell ourselves
the truth at the deepest level and live it out.
Day Five | Spirit-Filled
Almighty, eternal, just and merciful God,
Grant us in our misery that we do for your sake
What we know you want us to do, and always
Want what pleases you;
So that, cleansed and enlightened interiorly and
Fired with the ardor of the Holy Spirit,
we may be able to follow in the footsteps
of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
(Letter to a General Chapter)
The Holy Spirit will always cleanse and interiorly enlighten us if we allow that to happen. We often sense where the Spirit is trying to lead, and then we counter with a more “realistic” approach—but always for what we say are very noble motives!
The Holy Spirit must empty us of whatever is opposed to God in order to fill us with the grace to live up to our God-given dignity. We frequently resist the Spirit’s promptings because we feel that something superhuman is being asked of us.
Few words compare in power to calling an individual “unrealistic.” In fact, saints are the only genuine realists! Was Saint Francis being more realistic when, as a young man, he was the “life of the party”—thanks to his father’s money—or when Francis was caring for men and women suffering from leprosy? Was he more realistic when he avoided solitude or when he made his peace with it?
Only a Spirit-filled man could refuse to become bitter after the opposition that Francis faced. In one of his Admonitions, he warned the friars not to think that by praising the saints they could excuse themselves from the continuous conversion that every saint experiences.
God the Father, when you created the first human
being, you breathed your Spirit into it and gave
it a life unique among all the creatures you had
already made. Help us not to crowd out your Spirit
by things that we consider more important, not to
fear that your Spirit might ask of us something far
beyond our strength. To you be all power, honor,
Day Six | Peace
You are holy, Lord, the only God
And your deeds are wonderful.
You are strong.
You are great.
You are the Most High,
You are almighty.
You, holy Father, are
King of heaven and earth.
You are Three and One,
Lord God, all good.
You are Good, all God, supreme Good,
Lord God, living and true.
(Praises of God)
Approximately 100 years after Saint Francis died, Dante Aligheri wrote The Divine Comedy, in which we read, “In his [God’s] will is our peace.” Francis’ strong affirmation of the Trinity is possible only because God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are never in competition with one another. No one’s goodness takes anything away from the goodness of the other two Persons of the Trinity.
We frequently think in zero-sum terms: Every piece of a pie you cut for yourself means there is that much less for me. This guarantees jealousy—and a constant appeal to someone else’s actions to explain my own.
Over time, Saint Francis knew exactly who he was before God, and thus he never felt threatened by anyone else’s success. He also trained himself—and tried to train the friars—not to become angry because of someone else’s sins.
One of life’s ironies is that we are very slow to claim credit for the only thing for which we are fully responsible: our sins.
God of justice and peace, very often we are tempted
to accept a counterfeit peace: individually or
collectively imposing our will on other people. Show
us how to live in such a way that we can honestly say
at ever-deeper levels and with greater conviction,
“In your will is our peace.”
Day Seven | Mary
Hail, holy Lady,
Most Holy Queen,
Mary, Mother of God,
Chosen by the most holy Father in heaven,
Consecrated by him,
With his most holy beloved Son
And the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.
On you descended and in you still remains
All the fullness of grace
And every good.
(Salutation of the Blessed Virgin)
Francis of Assisi had a great devotion to Mary because he saw in her the model disciple, the person who kept saying throughout her life, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” Mary knew exactly who she was before God. The truth about her life was never a threat to her, something that needed to be covered up or enhanced.
Such internal freedom encourages the same freedom in all of us—if we put away the mistaken idea that we cannot show the same openness to God’s grace that she did. Mary lived according to God’s values so long and so deeply that eventually they made much more sense to her than any counterfeit freedom or values.
We become whatever we choose on a regular basis. Mary became a model disciple because she consistently made the choices that led her toward that goal.
Lord Jesus Christ, your mother, Mary, was the most
genuinely free person who has ever lived. And yet
many people find that hard to believe. She did not
use her freedom to gain wealth, political power, or
high social standing. Knowing that she was doing your
will as best she could was always enough for her. May
we follow her example single-heartedly.
Day Eight | Creation
Most high, all-powerful, all good, Lord!
All praise is yours, all glory, all honor
And all blessing.
To you alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy
To pronounce your name.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made,
And first my lord Brother Sun,
Who brings the day; and the light you give to us through him.
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars;
In the heavens you have made them, bright
And precious and fair.
(The Canticle of Brother Sun)
Most Christians, and many others, know that Saint Francis called the sun “brother” and the moon and stars “sisters.” These are, however, related to each other and to the rest of creation only through God. They cannot explain themselves. They have no value independent of God.
Thomas of Celano, Francis’ first biographer, wrote that Francis made of all creation a ladder by which to ascend to the Creator. A love of nature not rooted in the Creator will sooner or later degenerate into a sentimentality to be doled out or withheld at the pleasure of the person who sees the world this way.
If we forget this, then we will be strongly tempted to yell, “Mine, mine” about things and people who have been created for God’s pleasure. We are invited to share in that pleasure—but on God’s terms.
Lord of all Creation, Francis of Assisi had great
respect for everything that you have made: trees,
birds, worms, sunsets, rainbows, fire, water—and even
lepers. Help us not to be stingy with our respect for
all your creation because, properly appreciated, it
will always lead us back to you and to the harmony
you have always intended us to enjoy.
Day Nine | Consolation
You are beauty.
You are gentleness.
You are our protector.
You are our guardian and defender.
You are courage.
You are our haven and our hope.
You are our faith,
Our great consolation.
You are our eternal life,
Great and wonderful Lord,
(Praises of God)
I have placed this prayer last because, in a way, it summarizes everything Saint Francis had to say about God. The philosophers of Francis’ day said that truth, beauty, and goodness are always three facets of the same reality. They are also self-diffusive, incapable of being hoarded to the benefit of one person or group and the detriment of everyone else.
No matter how difficult our individual circumstances may be, God offers tremendous consolation by constantly affirming that the world is not running amok, spinning beyond God’s control.
Francis of Assisi was no Pollyanna. He saw sin for what it is, but he never doubted God’s love and mercy. May we follow the example of the Poor Man of Assisi.
God of all wisdom, you know how easily we “look for
love in all the wrong places,” as the song so
poignantly says. Remind us today that YOU are love
itself. YOU have given us the consolation of sharing
everlasting life with us. Help us to live in such a
way that, when we come to your eternal banquet, we will
resist the temptation to rearrange everything according
to our liking. All honor, power, and glory to YOU, the
source of all true wisdom.