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Reflection: Franciscan Perspective on Lent

For the second week of Lent, a friar who specializes in Franciscan history, describes the traditions and challenges of the season leading to Easter.

Early Franciscans saw themselves as part of the great penitential movement of their times: men and women who heard the Gospel afresh and turned their hearts to the coming of God’s Kingdom in a deeper way. Therefore, the liturgical season of Lent, especially dedicated to renewing an authentic Christian conversion of mind and heart, has always occupied a special place in their lives.

Characteristic Lenten practices are reflected in the early Franciscan rules of the Friars Minor, the Poor Clares, and lay penitents, especially the discipline of fasting, which at the time entailed the communal solidarity of abstaining from meat, meat fats, and dairy products for the Lenten season. Actually, the Rule of the Friars Minor was, for the time, much less rigorous than other religious orders with regard to corporal fasting, as it required simply that the brothers conform themselves to the Lenten practice common to all practicing Catholics. Sources tell us that Francis himself did keep a greater austerity in this regard, but this was his own personal discipline. The two other fundamental penitential practices – prayer and almsgiving – were much more central for him.

Lake Trasimeno, where St. Francis stayed during Lent in 1211. (Photo courtesy of pxfuel.com)

We know that Francis himself almost always retired for the season of Lent with a few brothers to a hermitage. His favorite retreats were La Verna and Greccio, but also in other places; we know, for example, that he spent the Lent of 1211 on an island in Lake Trasimeno. Here he could step apart and reflect on how God was asking him to deepen his commitment in terms of the ever-changing situation of his life. “When blessed Francis stayed constantly in a place to pray . . . he was always anxious to know the will of the Lord, about how he could please him better” (Assisi Compilation, 118).

Most Franciscans today, committed to many activities, do not have the burden of physical penance or the time to spend all of Lent in a hermitage, but the challenge for us is still there to create sufficient mental space during this sacred season to “go apart” — at least mentally — from our numbing daily activities. We too must discern God’s continuing call, to “know the will of the Lord, how we might please him better.” Francis tells us why in an eloquent passage of the Earlier Rule (22:9-55). It is all-too-easy for our heart to lose its focus on pleasing the Lord. Rather, under the guise of accomplishing some good work, other cares can take possession of our hearts. Thus, something ostensibly done for the service of others might actually be flowing primarily from an underlying motive of self-advancement. “We must,” as Francis tells us elsewhere, “desire above all else to have the Spirit of the Lord and its holy activity” (LR, 10:8).

But when Francis speaks of “doing penance,” he emphasizes, most of all, the last of the classic trio: almsgiving: reaching out in mercy to the meet the concrete needs of our sisters and brothers. This is the message he wanted his brothers to tell the world: “Do penance, performing worthy fruits of penance because we shall soon die. Give and it will be given to you. Forgive and you shall be forgiven. If you do not forgive people of their sins, the Lord will not forgive yours. Confess all your sins. Blessed are those who die in penance, for they shall be in the kingdom of heaven.” (Earlier Rule, 21). This message is especially appropriate for Lent.

After all, Francis began “doing penance” when the Lord led him to go among lepers on the margins of Assisi society and treat them with compassion. Ultimately, our human sin, manifest in the situation of the lepers, is our failure to recognize that all people – and indeed,  all creatures – are God’s precious gift, worthy of our respect and care. So often we choose not to see their situation. So Francis urged lay penitents to give generous alms, and he told his brothers, even though they themselves were recipients of the generosity of others, to always share their meager goods with the poor. We “produce worthy fruits of penance” when, like Francis, we reject those attitudes and behaviors that fracture the unity of this world and instead are drawn into a new vision of reality – God’s New Creation – and engage in deeds of mercy, peace, and reconciliation to help make it a reality. This above all is what Lent is about. The challenge is ours.

Dominic Monti is a distinguished professor of Franciscan research at St. Bonaventure University. The previous reflection published in HNP Today, titled “Worldwide Brotherhood: A True Gift,” was written by Russel Murray, OFM.

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office. Additional reflections by friars can be found in the Spiritual Resources section of HNP.org

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