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Saint Francis and the Imitation of Christ | Ivan Gobry |
From Saint Francis of Assisi: A Biography
The sentiment that would carry Francis away and govern the founding of his
religious order was, from the very first moment of his conversion, a delirious
love for Christ. Not a contemplative love, which is satisfied with a
perceptible, mental vision of the Savior, which dwells at length upon his words
and his sufferings, but rather an active love. Of course, Francis habitually
possessed that contemplative fervor, too, as all of his biographers assure us.
Bonaventure writes: "He devoted such an ardent love to Christ, and his
Beloved showed him in exchange such a familiar tenderness, that the servant of
God had almost continually before his eyes the physical presence of his
And we find, in one of his prayers, the accents of all the great mystics:
"Lord, I beg thee, let the burning, gentle power of thy love consume my
soul and draw it far from everything that is under heaven, so that I may die
for love of thy love, O thou who hast deigned to die for love of my love."
Furthermore, this is the desire that he expresses for Christians in general, in
a sort of "encyclical letter" that he wrote entitled, "Letter to
All the Faithful". To those who truly love Christ, he promises that they
will be his spouses, his brethren, and his mothers:
We are spouses when the faithful soul is united to Jesus Christ through the
Holy Spirit. We are his brethren when we do the will of his Father who is in
heaven. We are his mothers when we bear him in our hearts and in our bodies
through our love, through the purity and fidelity of our conscience, and when
we give birth to him by the performance of good deeds, which should be a light
and an example for others. Oh, how glorious and holy it is to have such a
Father in heaven! Oh, how holy, beautiful and amiable it is to have a Spouse in
the heavens! Oh, how holy and precious, pleasing and humble, peaceful and
sweet, lovable and desirable a thing it is, surpassing all else, to have such a
We find the same accents in the writings of Clare, the perfect disciple of
Francis, for instance, in a letter to Agnes of Bohemia, who had become the
abbess of the convent in Prague:
Happy indeed is she to whom this is granted a place at the divine banquet, for
she can cling with all her heart to him whose beauty eternally awes the blessed
hosts of heaven; to him whose love gladdens, the contemplation of whom
refreshes, whose generosity satisfies, whose gentleness delights, whose memory
shines sweetly as the dawn; to him whose fragrance revives the dead, and whose
glorious vision will render all the inhabitants of the heavenly Jerusalem
The 1221 rule had enshrined in its text the duty to belong to Jesus Christ:
Let us not desire anything else, let us not want anything else, let nothing
please us or give us joy except our Creator, Redeemer, and Savior, the one true
God, who is the fullness of Good, the complete and total Good, the venerable
and supreme Good, who alone is good, merciful and kind; who alone is just,
truthful and right; who alone is beneficent, innocent and pure; from whom,
through whom, and in whom is found all pardon, all grace, all glory for the
repentant and the just, and for all the blessed who rejoice with him in heaven.
With Christ, Francis could give free rein to his poetic sensibility. But poetry
is not good form in a canonical document, and so that exhortation was deleted
from the definitive rule.
Now the love of Christ compels the soul and draws it into a service which is
preferential, exclusive, and unconditional. Saint Bonaventure could write,
"One word sums up all of Francis: faithful servant of Christ." As a
servant, he was entirely subject to his master, as called for in the prayer
that concludes his "Letter to the General Chapter":
Almighty and ever-living God, just and merciful Lord, grant to us miserable
creatures, for your own sake, that we may know what you will, and that we may
always will what pleases you; so that, externally purified and illumined within
and inflamed with the fire of the Holy Spirit, we may follow in the footsteps
of your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and by your grace alone may
arrive at our destination in you, O Most High, who in perfect Trinity and
utterly simple Unity live and reign and are glorified, Almighty God, unto ages
of ages. Amen.
To follow Christ is not only to serve him, it is not enough to do his will; it
also means becoming like him. This love is a love that consists not only in
doing, but in being; a love that thrives not only in activity but in the
person. Francis, without having read the Fathers of the Church, follows their
teaching in this: Origen, Athanasius, and Gregory of Nyssa demonstrate how the
Son is the mediator of the Father: God created man in his image, in a state of
perfection; original sin corrupted that image, and the Son, who is the perfect
image of the Father, came both to reveal God to us and to teach us the way
leading to the restoration of his image in us. Saint Francis adds, however, an
original thought to this doctrine about creation: God the Father created us in
his image with respect to our souls, and in the image of his Son, the Incarnate
Word, with respect to our bodies.
The Friar Minor is someone who must put on Jesus Christ. The first rule states
this explicitly: "The rule and the life of the Friars Minor consists of
living in obedience, in chastity and without owning anything, by following the
teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ." It adds, in the concluding
admonition, "Our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose footsteps we must follow. . .
Now, Saint Francis himself is not content to call on his brothers in his rule
and in his exhortations to imitate Jesus Christ: he proves himself to be his
most fervent imitator. So much so that Saint Bonaventure, in the prologue of
his biography, considers this fact an essential component of his master's
To all true lovers of humility and holy poverty, the grace of God our Savior
has manifested itself in these latter days in the person of Francis, his servant,
so that his example might present for their veneration the surpassing mercy of
God in his regard, and might teach them to renounce once and for all the
impiousness and covetousness of this world, to conform their lives to the life
of Christ, and to yearn with an incomprehensible longing for Christ, our
Thus Francis calls his disciples to imitate Jesus Christ, and the disciples
find in him the example of imitating the Divine Model. This is precisely the
theme of the wonderful anonymous work composed by the friars who were closest
to Saint Francis, The Mirror of Perfection. One of the chapters candidly declares, "Francis, faithful
servant and perfect imitator of Christ, felt that he had been completely
transformed into Christ .
And it concludes as follows: "Thus, having spent twenty years in perfect
repentance, on October 4 in the year of the Lord 1226, Francis passed on to the
Lord Jesus Christ, whom he had loved with all his heart, with all his mind,
with all his soul, with all his strength, with the most ardent desire and most
lively affection, following him to complete perfection, running eagerly in his
footsteps, and arriving at last in his glorious presence."
Francis claims to imitate Jesus Christ more especially in his lowliness and his
suffering. This is the subject of one of his admonitions: "Let all the
friars consider the Good Shepherd who suffered death on the Cross for the
salvation of his flock. The Lord's sheep have followed him in trials,
persecution, and humiliation, in hunger and thirst, in weakness, hardships, and
all other sorts of misfortunes."
According to The Three Companions,
a devotion to the Passion of Christ was engraved on his soul at that moment in
the ruined church of San Damiano when the Crucified Lord spoke to him.
"From that day on, his heart was so struck and so profoundly wrenched by
the memory of the Lord's Passion that, throughout the rest of his life, he harbored
in his soul the memory of the wounds of the Lord Jesus."
He had composed an office of the Passion, along with a "prayer for times
of sickness", which has come down to us: "I give you thanks. Lord
God, for all my pains, and I ask you, my Lord, to send me a hundred times as
many, if such is your good pleasure. For I would very willingly accept it if
you did not spare me but overwhelmed me with pain, since my submission to your
holy will is for me a surpassing consolation."
And so the mystical gift of the stigmata was the answer to this thirst for a
practical union with the sufferings of Christ. A few moments before receiving
it, he was praying to the Savior in these words: "Lord, I ask you for two
graces before I die: to experience in myself. as much as possible, the
sufferings of your cruel Passion, and to feel for you the same love that drove
you to sacrifice yourself for us."
Celano reckons that the manifest sanctity of Francis was the result of the
martyrdom that he received, not at the hands of the Muslims. as he had hoped at
first, but through the intervention of God himself "His perfection equaled
that of the saints who had gone before him, but his life shone with still
greater brilliance. For our glorious father was marked, in five places on his
body, with the seal of the Passion and of the Cross, as though he had been
crucified with the Son of God."
We find the same remark in the writings of Saint Bonaventure: "In order to
arrive at the firm conviction that Francis, this messenger sent by the love of
Christ for us to imitate, is the servant of God, it is enough to contemplate
that perfection in his sanctity whereby he merited that he should be presented
as a model for the perfect disciples of Christ. And what assures us of this is
the irrefutable proof the seal that made him into an image of the living God,
Love for Christ leads to love of the Eucharist--the living Christ offering
himself on the altar for our salvation and reserved among us for our adoration.
Francis left behind an exhortation on the Body of Christ that displays flawless
doctrinal knowledge of this mystery:
Every day the Son of God comes to us under humble appearances; every day he
descends upon the altar through the hands of the priest. And just as he
revealed himself to the apostles in truly human flesh, so too he reveals
himself to us now in the consecrated bread. They, when they looked upon him
with their fleshly eyes, saw only his flesh, but because they contemplated him
with their spiritual eyes, they believed that he was God. May we, too, when we
see with our fleshly eyes the bread and wine, be able to see and believe most
firmly that they are the most sacred Body and Blood of the living, true Lord.
This, indeed, is the manner that he has chosen to remain always with those who
believe in him, as he himself said: "Behold, I am with you until the
consummation of the world."
In his "Letter to All the Faithful", Francis recalls the institution
of the Eucharist and repeats the first words of the formula of
transubstantiation. Then he comments: "The Son of the Father wants us all
to be saved by him, and to receive him with a pure heart into a chaste body
.... We must confess to the priest all our sins and receive from him the Body
and Blood of our Lord. Anyone who does not eat his flesh and drink his blood
cannot enter into the Kingdom of heaven."
At that time, the Church had not enacted very precise regulations for showing
respect for the Eucharist, in particular for conserving the consecrated species,
which were often left at random in some corner of a church or an oratory. Saint
Francis denounced this scandal and urged clerics, his contemporaries, to
venerate continually the Real Presence of God under the appearance of Bread.
The Legenda antiqua relates that
Blessed Francis had a great respect and a profound devotion for the Body of
Christ. That is why he had it written in the rule that the friars should
surround the Eucharist with great care and a lively solicitude in the provinces
where they were staying, exhorting and encouraging the clerics and priests to
reserve the Body of Christ in a decent, suitable place; and that if they did
not do so, the friars should do it in their stead. Nay, much more, he insisted
on sending into the provinces friars who brought with them ciboria in which to
reserve the Body of Christ.
We find an echo of this preoccupation in the "Letter to All Clerics on the
Respect Due to the Body of the Lord". He calls to the attention of all the
clerics who habitually surround the altar the sad state of the liturgical
furnishings: chalices, corporals, altar linens; he notes that "many leave
the Eucharist haphazardly, in dirty places, carry it through the streets
unworthily and administer it indiscriminately." He, who was only a lowly
deacon, ordered those to whom the letter was addressed that, wherever they
found the Body of Christ in an unsuitable place, they should respectfully take
it and find for it worthy place. And then he allows his indignation to erupt:
"And ye: all these profanations do not move us to pity! Even though our
Lord. in his goodness, abandons himself into our hands, and we hold him and our
mouths receive him every day! Are we unaware of the fact that one day we must
fall into his hands?"
In his "Letter to the General Chapter", the protestations give way to
Let mankind be seized with fear, the whole world should tremble and heaven
rejoice, when Christ the Son of the living God is present on the altar in the
hands of the priest! O wondrous majesty! O stupendous dignity! O sublime
humility! O humble sublimity! That the Lord of the whole universe, God and the
Son of God, should humble himself to the point where he hides under the form of
a little bread, for our salvation. But you should keep nothing for yourselves,
so that he who has given himself entirely to you may receive you entirely.
In another letter, "To the Rulers of the People", addressed to
"magistrates, consuls, judges, and governors", Francis exhorts his
readers, first, not to forget that the day of death is approaching, and that
one must prepare for it by keeping the commandments, and second, to receive the
Eucharist and to show great reverence for it.
His "Letter to All Superiors of the Friars Minor", on the other band,
takes up again the admonition that he addressed to the clerics concerning the
Eucharist: "Ask the clergy with all humility to venerate above all the
most sacred Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, together with his holy
name and the writings which contain his words, those words which consecrate his
Body." Furthermore he recalls the duty of all clerics to keep the Body of
the Lord carefully reserved in a tabernacle, to administer it with discernment,
and to remind the faithful in their sermons to receive Communion worthily.
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Ivan Gobry is a specialist of the Middle-Ages, an emeritus Professor at Universite de Reims, and an
author of several books on the Middle-Ages and philosophy. He is considered one of the leading experts on
Francis of Assisi.
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