Francis and the Fransiscans: glimpses from William Short


These are brief excerpts and quotations I marked while reading William J. Short’s Poverty and Joy: The Franciscan Tradition in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series, ed. Philip Sheldrake (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999).

Short’s book is an illuminating trip inside the mind of Francis and the culture of the early (as well as modern) Franciscans. The whole Orbis Traditions series of which it is a part is outstanding–short, affordable paperbacks that are meaty, wise, and quotable. These books build bridges to medieval Christian culture for the modern reader. I will post “glimpses” from the Columba Stewart volume on the Benedictine tradition soon. It’s the best of the series out of the 4 or 5 I’ve read so far.

As with the David Bell and Jaroslav Pelikan “glimpses,” I thank my t.a., Shane Moe, who transcribed these and inserted  brief contextual tags where helpful. Page numbers are at the beginning of each excerpt. The designation “Q” means I wanted to save the text as a quotation, for use in teaching and writing. “D” means a definition of a term. “U” means I want to use an idea or statement in my teaching:

Q, 20: “Chaotic and intuitive, creative and affectionate, radical and obedient, the Franciscan tradition may offer to those searching for a ‘path’ of spirituality an appealing itinerary.”

Q, 21: “In part contemplatives, in part popular preachers, they lived by the work of their hands, frequently with the sick, and begged when they needed to.”

Q, 24: “She [Clare of Assisi] constantly returned to the theme of following ‘the footsteps of the Lord’, like the disciples.”

Q, 24 [Discussing why Francis and his way struck people as new]: “Perhaps it was because he combined austerity of life with an infectious joy, service of the poor with lyrical delight in creatures, popular preaching with silent contemplation, and missionary journeys with long periods in mountain hermitages.”

Q, 31: “He [Francis] taught them ‘by word and example’ (verbo et exemplo).”

Q, 31: “He edified his listeners by his example as well as his words; ‘he made his whole body a tongue’; ‘more than someone who prayed, he had become prayer’: these are some of the descriptions of Francis recalled by Thomas of Celano. That is, his whole person had become the message he was trying to communicate.”

Q, 34 [Quoting L. Moulin in context of controversies about real intentions of founders leading to reforms and divisions]: “The order which has been through the most is certainly that of St Francis, a fine example of triumphant anarchy…”

Use structure (themes of Franciscan tradition), 35: the incarnation; life in poverty; the lepers; the hermitages; the cross; and creation. In order of importance, the first theme of Franciscan spirituality must be that of the incarnate God.

U, 35 [Discussing cross and charity]: Clare’s own vivid meditations of the ‘Mirror suspended on the wood of the Cross’ reveal a good deal of her own mystical identification with Christ.

Q, 35: “A well-known classic of medieval Italian religious poetry, Francis’ ‘Canticle of the Creatures’ or ‘Canticle of Brother Sun’ opens a new chapter in the history of Christian spirituality. Here are the seeds of a spirituality that embraces creation, nature, the world, as a revelation of God, not a distraction.”

Q, 39 [Discussing Francis on the imago dei–image of God in humankind]: In coming to know God, by looking at Jesus, Francis comes to know himself. But in another way, in knowing himself, Francis comes to see Jesus, and thus comes to know God.”

Q, 39 [Quoting Francis from an earlier version of the Rule of the Lesser Brothers dated 1221]: “We give You thanks because, as You created us by means of Your Son, so through Your true and holy love, with which You have loved us, You had the same true God and true man be born of the glorious, most blessed, holy, ever Virgin Mary, and by His cross, blood and death You have liberated and redeemed us.”

Q, 40 [Discussing Francis’ actions]: …his actions, the way in which he expressed externally, through some simple stage-props, his immersion in the wonder of the incarnation.”

U, 41 [Heading “Christmas at Greccio”]: Two weeks before Christmas in 1223, Francis was staying in the little hillside hermitage near the town of Greccio, south of Assisi. According to his contemporary, Brother Thomas of Celano, Francis called a friend of his, named Giovanni, to help him in preparing a special celebration of the forthcoming feast. He asked that animals and hay be brought to a cave at the hermitage, so that a scene could be prepared to show the people of the town and his own brothers the physical conditions of the birth of Jesus.

He wanted people to be able to experience what it was like for the Son of God to be born in a stable, surrounded by the ox and ass, straw and cold. Francis’ brothers and the people of the town of Greccio gathered in the cave on Christmas Eve lighting up the night with torches, singing hymns, with a priest celebrating Mass on an altar arranged over the manger. Francis himself, ‘dressed as a Levite’, sang the Gospel ‘in a beautiful voice’, and preached, full of emotion. Thomas tells us that it seemed as if the infant Jesus, long forgotten in the hearts of the people, came to life that night. And all of creation, the trees and stones of the surrounding mountainside, echoed the praises sung by the people.

This simple kind of nativity scene was destined to be spread by Franciscans throughout the world as they moved out from Assisi in the following centuries. It is by now a familiar feature of Christmas celebrations throughout the world. Though it has suffered its share of commercialization, and its significance has sometimes become purely sentimental, at its origins the nativity scene was a striking affirmation of God’s entry into the mundane, everyday life of poor people, the world of creatures, the world of straw and rocks.

Q, 42 [Discussing Francis’ Greccio nativity scene]: “There, simplicity was honored, poverty was exalted, humility was commended, and Greccio was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem. That triad of simplicity, poverty and humility were, for Francis, hallmarks of the whole life of Jesus, a life he wished to follow.”

U, 42 [In a letter from Francis to his brothers a year after the Greccio Christmas feast]:

O admirable heights and sublime lowliness!

O sublime humility!

O humble sublimity!

That the Lord of the universe,

God and the Son of God,

so humbles Himself

that for our salvation

He hides Himself under the little form of bread!

Look, brothers, at the humility of God

and pour out your hearts before Him!

Humble yourselves, as well,

that you may be exalted by Him.

Q, 43 [Quoting Francis on the chosen poverty of Jesus and his mother]: “He was a poor man and lived on alms, He and the Blessed Virgin and His disciples.”

Q, 43, “If the incarnation, the ‘in-humaning’ and ‘in-mattering’ of the Son of God can be summed up in a word within the Franciscan School that word would be ‘poverty’.”

Q, 44 [Quoting Bonaventure on the incarnation]: “God has humbly bent down and lifted the dust of our nature into unity with His own person.”

Q, 47, [Quoting scribe “Brother A” recording Angela of Foligno’s experiences with God…on poverty and incarnation]: “God had told her: ‘If poverty were not such a great good, I would not have loved it. And if it were not so noble I would not have assumed it.’”

Q, 49 [Discussing Angela of Foligno’s mysticism, quoting a laude quoted by Angela]:

I praise you God my beloved;

I have made your cross my bed.

For a pillow or cushion,

I have found poverty,

and for other parts of the bed,

suffering and contempt to rest on.

Q, 51 [Quoting a Jacopone Da Todi laud on poverty and the incarnation]:

In place of Your glorious throne,

A manger and a little straw;

In place of a starry crown,

Poor swaddling clothes

And the warm breath of an ox and an ass;

In place of a glorious court, Mary and Joseph.

U, 61 [quoting chapter 6 of Francis’ Rule of the Lesser Brothers…concerning the necessity of a Christological understanding of poverty]: “The brothers shall claim nothing as their own: neither a house, nor a place, nor anything. As pilgrims and strangers [1 Peter 2:1] in this world, serving the Lord in poverty and humility, let them confidently seek alms. Nor should they be ashamed, because the Lord made himself poor [cf. 2 Corinthians 8:9] for us in this world. My dearest brothers, this is the excellency of the most high poverty, that makes you heirs and kings of the kingdom of heaven, making you poor in things but rich in virtues. Let this be your portion that leads you to the land of the living [Psalm 141:6]. Dearest brothers, totally joined to this poverty, do not wish to have anything else under heaven, forever in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

U, 67: Clare, like Francis, did not choose poverty for philosophical reasons, nor for practical ones, as a choice making her life more productive or efficient. And neither of them speak about his poverty as a response to the affluence of Church or society in their day, though it was undoubtedly seen by others in that way. The focus of their attention was God’s overwhelming generosity and love, expressed in the free choice of the Son to embrace poverty in becoming a creature. The two disciples from Assisi embraced poverty because it was embraced by their Beloved.

U (and see p. 73), 72 [quoting Francis’ Testament]: While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. The Lord led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body.

U (?), 73: He uses a word for God’s presence, ‘sweetness’, to describe being among the lepers and working for them. Why would he speak in this way? Francis experienced among them characteristics of God. In Jesus God gives up all ‘property’, even divine status, relying on alms and the care of others: in his birth among the poor, his life and travel among people considered of no account, in his suffering and dying, naked and shunned, even by close friends and relatives. The people with leprosy were ‘brother Christians’, special people, ‘bearing the meaning’ of who God is: the humble, poor Lover. This helps us to understand Francis’ words:

[The brothers] must rejoice when they live among people [who are considered to be] of little worth and who are looked down upon, among the poor and the powerless, the sick and the lepers, and the beggars by the wayside…[The Lord Jesus Christ] was a poor man and a transient and lived on alms, He and the Blessed Virgin and His disciples. [italics Short’s]

To be among such people is to be in the community of Jesus, and among those by the wayside, those who had contracted leprosy were especially dear to him.

Service to the lepers was the first work of the brothers and leper houses provided a home for the friars. When he was travelling, Francis would visit lepers along the way: ‘He was riding on an ass when he had to pass through Borgo San Sepolcro…he wanted to rest at a certain house of lepers’.

Q, 75: “To return to his first fervor, even at the end of his life he wanted to return among the lepers.”

75: Rather than emphasising the physical labour of working in a leper hospital, Thomas recounts the story of a single leper whom Francis meets on the plain below Assisi. This is the famous scene of Francis as he kisses the leper.

Q, 76 (high-level penitential life w/ compassionate ministry) [quoting the Legend of Perugia on life at the Porziuncola, “which Francis considered as a place for the contemplative life” and where “people with leprosy seem to be quite at home.”] “There, Brother James ‘sometimes brought several lepers to the church of St. Mary’ from the leper hospital, since ‘in those days the brothers lived in leper-hospitals’. These ‘Brother Christians’ (Francis’ name for people with the disease) participated in the life of Francis and the brothers in this prototype of the Franciscan hermitages….”

Q, 80: “A serious rereading of the Franciscan sources from the point of view of the poor helps to restore to its original, central place the ‘disappeared’ disease that so profoundly marked the origins of Franciscan spirituality.”

Q, 80: “Some Franciscans have also found among our brothers and sisters living with HIV and AIDS the ‘sweetness’ that Francis always regarded as the irrefutable sign of the presence of God.”

Q, 87 [Discussing Francis’ knowledge of the monastic tradition]: “When Francis visited Rome, one of his supporters at the papal court was a Cistercian monk, Cardinal John of St Paul, and the influence of Cistercian tradition is noticeable in some of Francis’ Admonitions.”

Q, 88 [Discussing F’s resistance to joining certain communities of monks at John of St Paul’s urging]: “Always turning toward the life he read about in the Gospels, Francis would attempt to unite the eremitical life with the life of the travelling preacher of the Good News.”

U, 102 [Discussing F’s work in the Divine Office]: Francis had set out very deliberately to follow an inspiration: ‘to follow the footsteps of Our Lord Jesus Christ’. He did this in his actions, in showing mercy to the sick and the suffering, in his preaching repentance and conversion to the gospel, in the way he went away to deserted places to pray. All of these actions resembled externally events in the life of Jesus as told in the gospel accounts. But the Office of the Passion reveals a deeper dimension to this ‘following’: Francis has learned to ‘put on the mind of Christ’, and gives every indication of having changed internally, now seeing the world around him from a new point of view, that of the Lord he has been following.

A certain pedagogy is at work here, first in Francis, then practised by his followers, and one which will mark the Franciscan tradition in its later development as well. Francis does what he sees Jesus doing in the gospel, and from the repetition of the actions, gestures and words of Jesus, he comes gradually to think, react, speak and even pray ‘as if’ Jesus.

Q, 104 [Discussing F’s legacy]: “His compassion for the suffering Christ, like his compassion for the sick at the hospital of San Lazzaro, his tender compassion for creatures, made him seem ‘like a man of another age’. From being the lesser brother among his companions, he now became the ‘saint’. And Saint Francis would, from this point, play an important role as the model, the exemplar of ‘Franciscan spirituality’.”

Q, 105 [Discussing how the tradition points toward F himself “as the one bearing the marks, signs or image of Christ”]: “This is part of a wider phenomenon in the Franciscan tradition, that of Francis as the way toward the Way who is Christ. In fact, Bonaventure uses his understanding of the stigmata event as the organising principle of The Soul’s Journey into God.”

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