By Lisa Rosenlund,
Saint Brendan Parish Manager
Each week, we summarize a specific style, form, or approach to prayer, using the highly-acclaimed book by Robert J. Wicks, Prayer in the Catholic Tradition: A Handbook of Practical Approaches (Franciscan Media 2006). In this article, you’ll learn more about prayer in the tradition of Saint Francis.
Born Francesco di Bernardone in 1182 in the Umbrian town of Assisi, Saint Francis did not set out to found a religious order. In fact, the first twenty-four years of his 44-year lifespan were spent living comfortably as the son of a wealthy cloth merchant and attempting to raise his non-noble status by becoming a knight. However, he was unsuccessful and was captured in battle with a neighboring town. His conversion began in captivity and, after his father ransomed him from prison, he returned home “a beaten and changed man.”
At first, Francis rejected his affluent lifestyle and began wearing simple peasant clothing. Then he started selling clothes from his father’s warehouse and giving the proceeds to the church and the poor. Ultimately, he moved outside of town altogether and took up an itinerant lifestyle. Francis’ writings indicate that he initially preferred to “live the Gospel as something of a ‘lone ranger.’” However, although he did not seek it out, others began following him and adopting his new way of life.
In contrast to the Benedictine tradition’s balanced life of prayer and work, Saint Francis leaned more towards unceasing prayer. Indeed, he believed that prayer should be continual and therefore encouraged his friars to pray the daily office.
Reflective of the burgeoning community developing around him, Francis’ prayers were expressed almost exclusively in a collective voice. Indeed, only one of those he wrote was in the first-person singular. According to Wicks, prayer was “a communal experience,” for Francis, “one that extends beyond the individual petitioner or adorer of God to include the community gathered locally or the communion of saints more broadly.”
Francis referred to himself as an idiota, or unlearned, person, though he was not illiterate. His understanding of Scripture astonished the most educated scholars of his time, and he composed his own psalmody and prayers based on passages from the Bible, especially the psalms.
Francis balanced his time in community with periodic retreats to hermitages and quiet places to pray. He specified that three or four friars should go together to a hermitage. Two of the friars were to act as mothers and lead the life of Martha in the story of Jesus visiting the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42). The other one or two friars were to be their children and lead the life of Mary. Occasionally, the roles were to be reversed. Citing scholars, Wicks notes that this prescient “vision of non-dominating governance within the fraternity, frequently conveyed in feminine imagery,” is another of Francis’ many legacies to us as aspirants to Christian spirituality.
Like Saint Francis, by praying daily, praying in community, taking time for periodic retreats and creating our own prayers and psalms, we can make ourselves increasingly present to God.
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