In August of 1224, just over two years before his death, St. Francis journeyed to Mount La Verna to pray. This was not unusual. He often retreated to commune with the Lord, usually seeking out-of-the-way places where he could find the silence necessary to listen closely to the movement of the Spirit.
This particular retreat followed on the heels of important changes in the movement that Francis had inspired several years before. Only a year previous, he witnessed the acceptance of what would become the official Rule of the Order of Friars Minor. While this event would seem to be a reason for celebration, there was some consternation in Francis’s heart over how the Rule had been significantly altered from its previous incarnation presented to Rome in 1221. Jacques Le Goff tells us in his biography of the saint “Francis, with death in his soul, accepted this deformed Rule. The biographers call this period of his life, at the end of 1223, the time of ‘great temptation’ – temptation to completely abandon the new Order, if not orthodoxy.”
Loyalty to the Church
In reading Francis’s various writings, one is struck by the tremendous loyalty Francis had to the Catholic Church and its hierarchy, especially to priests. The Church was the mediator of the sacraments that sustained his spirit and Christian existence, calling him to live the Gospel in its purity and simplicity. But with the juridical redaction of the Rule, this loyalty must have been severely strained, because it seemed to gut the heart of what he knew the Lord had called his brothers and himself to live. The temptation may have been to go the route of the Waldensians or the Humiliates, lay movements that challenged the power structure of the priesthood and the central control the hierarchy had on the Church.
But Francis did not go that route. Instead, he committed himself more completely to his vision of the Gospel, to follow the humble Christ who did not succumb to the power structures of the world around him. At the same time, he submitted himself to the rule of the Church hierarchy, though without imitating or acquiring those behaviors antithetical to the teachings of humble Christ.
Through the incarnation, God manifested a phenomenal humility in the person of Jesus Christ. Coming not as a potentate, but a backwater nobody, God demonstrated God’s use of power as nonviolent, noncoercive, and nonoppressive. God desires our consent in submitting our wills to Godself. This was the God that Francis knew and deeply loved. And he knew that he had been called to imitate the humility of God as demonstrated in the life of Christ. It was God’s humility in Christ that allowed the power structure of Jesus’ society to convict him and crucify him. It was a free and total nonviolent submission to the power structures of his time, a power structure that had been around since the dawn of human political/religious society.
This is what Rene Girard calls the ‘Violent Sacred’. This is the idea that someone needs to be sacrificed for the wellbeing and harmony of the group/tribe/nation. But the crucifixion of Christ exposed this false structure. It uncovered the truth that it is not God who demands sacrifice, but humans, who then project their violence on the divine to cover up the human penchant for violence and oppression.
Imitating Christ’s Humility
While on La Verna, Francis had a bewildering mystical experience. He saw what he described as a being with the wings of a Seraph but the body of a crucified man. St. Bonaventure would be so inspired by the vision that he used it to lay out his mystical road map for the soul’s journey to God. Over a period of time, or, as Bonaventure would have it, immediately, marks began to appear on the body of the poor man from Assisi. The so-called ‘stigmata’ (mark) was believed to have occurred on the body of Francis, the first person in Catholic history to receive such a phenomenon. While numerous writers have attempted to explicate this event, at the heart of this miracle, commemorated as the Feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis, we see the profound depths of Francis’ imitation of the crucified Lord.
Psychologists have demonstrated Aristotle’s insight that the human creature is the most imitative of species. Imitation is the means by which we learn to acquire cultural and social norms, conventions, values and practices. That is why one speaks the language one does, through imitation of those speaking around oneself. Our very desires are profoundly shaped through imitation of those we esteem, either family and friends, or heroes, such as sport stars, celebrities, or religiously significant personages.
Francis was no different, as the many biographies depict his imitation of the cultural influences shaping his attitudes and behaviors. But unlike so many in his society, he was, through the various experiences of his life, struck by a deeper vision of the Gospel, a radical (going to the roots) vision that pierced the cultural overlay that had enervated the revolutionary teachings of Jesus that laid bare the false structures of human society. Francis tells us in his Testament that his conversion was powerfully affected by his encounter with a leper, a social pariah, an outcast, one at the bottom of the social ladder. It was this encounter that began to open Francis’ eyes to the upside-down delusion that Christian society had come to legitimate as God’s will. This insight did not set Francis in good standing at first, until slowly he was able to help others to recognize this truth. Unfortunately, this insight did not take root in most of Christendom, despite the esteem Francis acquired as a holy man.
As all movements that grow into large structures, the Franciscan charism began to be diluted through institutionalization, and it was this and other circumstances that led Francis to relinquish control of the Order in the early 1220s, and accepting the redaction of the Rule. And thus his need to retreat to La Verna and seek God’s consolation in the silence of the Mountain hideaway. Francis did not give in to the temptation to impose his will on the Order, but instead attempted to become an example to imitate, allowing the other brothers to choose his way of living the Gospel. Francis became more conformed to the humble Christ as he gave himself over more and more to Christ’s example.
Like Christ, who carried the pain of the little ones, the marginalized, the outcasts, and attempted to meet each He encountered at a level of equality and dignity, so Francis attempted to imitate his Lord and teacher. This was the way of the cross, the way of nonviolence, the way of power as service and not as coercion. His body thus mirrored his true spiritual state.
— Fr. Kyle is a professor in the School of Franciscan Studies at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y.
Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, holy day or other seasonal theme — are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at email@example.com.
- “Digital Pilgrimage Takes Thousands to Franciscan Italy” — June 24, 2015, HNP Today
- “General Minister Welcomes Pope to Church of San Damiano” — Oct. 9, 2013, HNP Today
- “Seasonal Reflection: When Francis Became the Love He Contemplated” — Sept. 16, 2009, HNP Today