St. Francis and Renunciation Literature of the Middle Ages

Written by on July 23rd, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in Medieval, about Italian

|||Brown, Raphael. The Little Flowers of St. Francis. New York: Doubleday, 1996.|||

Saint Francis of Assisi At that time St Francis appeared as a new herald of Christ to give an example of holy living, of humility, and penance. Then, two years after his conversion, a man named Bernard, endowed with marvelous prudence and very rich in temporal goods, with Peter Cattani, was drawn by his example to the observance of evangelical poverty. By the counsel of St Francis they distributed all their temporal possessions, for the love of God, among the poor, arraying themselves, in the glory of patience and evangelical perfection, with the habit of the Friars Minor; and all their life did they keep their promise then made with the greatest fervor and perfection. Eight days after their said conversion and distribution, Brother Giles, being still in the secular habit, and seeing the contempt of earthly things manifested by these noble knights of Assisi, to the great admiration of the whole world, on the Feast of St George in the year 1209, very early in the morning, as one in earnest about his salvation, went in great fervor of spirit to the church of St Gregory, where was the monastery of St. Clare. Being greatly desirous to see St Francis, he went, as soon as he had finished his prayers, towards the hospital for lepers, where St Francis dwelt apart in profound humility, with Brother Bernard and Brother Peter Cattani. The Little Flowers of St. Francis, III.11

Unlike the monastic reform movements, the mendicant orders did not seek to reform traditional monasticism. The primary focus of traditional monasticism was contemplation, the possession or union of the divine through prayer and penance. One went to a monastery to pray and work away from the world, emulating Christ’s example of going into the desert to pray and do battle for forty days. The mendicant friar, however, had to be a man of action and contemplation, emulating Christ’s public life. The friar was not a monk; he was a beggar, a pauper, who preached for the love of almighty God. Interestingly, one of the first things St. Francis does is call among him twelve men or disciples, “to preach the kingdom of God.” “For just as Blessed Christ, when He began His preaching, chose twelve apostles to despise all things…so St. Francis, when he began to found the Order, chose twelve companions…followers of the most complete poverty.” Thus, for Francis and his early followers radical poverty, that is, trusting God for all things as the birds of the air who “neither sow nor reap, yet are fed by their Heavenly Father,”2 trust for their subsistence, is the catalyst of transforming oneself spiritually. Without worldly goods, one could focus exclusively on love of God, and through this love of God, save souls.

The evangelical virtue of poverty, however, was only one of three rules adopted by the Franciscans. Like their traditional monastic counterparts, they also vowed themselves to the virtues of chastity and obedience, perfectly modeled to the active life. Regarding obedience, the Little Flowers relates a story of Brother Bernard and Francis in which Francis ordered Bernard to stand on his throat and mouth as a punishment for Francis’ “presumption” and “insolence” at Brother Bernard. The brother acquiesces, despite the fact that it was Francis himself whom he was punishing.3 Obedience is difficult enough for a monk secluded away in a monastery. How much more difficult would obedience be for one active in the world? It seems necessary, however, that the idea of perfect obedience would be necessary for the religious life, acting, if nothing else, as a means of perfect abandonment to the divine will. Obedience was seen as the will of God, “Whatever you impose on me–either in part or in whole–I consider it done by God,”4, and as such was the surest way to holiness.

Regarding chastity, we have the wonderful anecdotes of Brother Giles in which he says that grace is impossible “without giving up sensuality.”5 The religious life is a spiritual battlefield in which the friars are the soldiers and the enemy is the self, the devil, and the world. Perfect joy in this world is not possible through “healing the blind, exorcising demons, knowledge of philosophical or spiritual things, or mass conversions.”6 Perfect joy is found only in the Cross of Christ–in the humiliation of “sexual temptation.”7, being scorned by one’s friends, companions, and brothers, and in the physical mortifications of spiritual combat.8 Our flesh, that is, our concupiscible appetite, is like a “hog that runs eagerly into the mud and enjoys being in the mud.”9

Practice, then, in the spiritual life is necessary for success, and it is in the embracing and resignation of one’s self to the virtues that true holiness can be achieved. The evangelical virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience collectively form the foundation upon which the apostolate of the Franciscans is built; namely, from their observance, the friar is able to preach and actively save souls. The necessity of preaching was revealed by God to Francis through the intercessory prayers of St. Clare and Brother Silvester. Since the tradition of religious orders had always tended toward contemplation and less toward active ministry, there arose some confusion about the role preaching was to play in the life the friars. God revealed to Clare and Silvester that “[He] has not called him [Francis] to this state only on his own account, but that he may reap a harvest of souls and that many may be saved by him”10. The image here, that of a laborer in the field harvesting souls for the kingdom, is a powerful analogy. God was not calling Francis and his followers to a life of seclusion away from the world, but, rather, to a life in the world, tilling the land to save souls. It was a radical departure from traditional monasticism; but, it was, nonetheless, exactly what the Church needed at the time. It was also in activity that true contemplation could be born. For the friar, one could not achieve contemplation without having first lived an active life “with earnest effort and all care.”11

By living the active life as a means to the contemplative life, one could discover extraordinary virtues in the ordinary observance of one’s spiritual duties. In this active life, one need not wear a hair-shirt, flagellate oneself, or deprive oneself of sleep for true holiness of life to occur. One needed only to practice humility, chastity, poverty, and obedience–in short, embrace the Cross of Christ–for true and everlasting happiness and holiness to occur.12 And one’s selfless embracing of the Cross could work extraordinary wonders in the field of souls. The active life for the friars was no different than living out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy on a daily basis. How does one live a “good” active life? By feeding the poor, clothing the naked, building hospitals and caring for pilgrims.13

The causes of this phenomenon (the necessity of active orders) can be debated. It was noted above that the monastic system worked well in a feudal society. I think, though, that as cities and towns expanded, and people became more active in the world, there came a necessity for active ministry among the people of the Church. Francis’ own “founding” of the Franciscan Order in Italy is unique as there was certainly suspicion, as is evidenced in the rise of the City-States of clergy in general, and this suspicion grew out of the apparent greed and corruption of the clergy, especially in the monasteries. How refreshing it must have been to see “beggar-friars” truly live out the Beatitudes–“Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the pure of heart.”14

Thus, Francis and his followers did not set out to “renew or reform” monasticism. Instead, his intention, and ultimately our Lord’s purpose, was something completely new. By adopting the evangelical virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience, with a special focus on poverty, Francis’ friars formed an “apostolic” religious order, an order whose only purpose was to live out the Gospel of our Lord as perfectly as possible. It certainly must have been controversial in its time, but controversy is not always a bad thing, for from Francis and his brothers came a renewal in the religious life, a different and refreshing implementation of the Gospel in a suffering world. To repeat the sayings of Brother Giles, reflecting on the security of the religious life, “From the beginning of the world until now there has never appeared a religious order that is better or more advantageous than the Order of Friars Minor.”15

About John Heitzenrater

John W. Heitzenrater is a teacher of history at St. Peter’s Classical School, is a visiting lecturer at the Walsingham Society for Christian Culture, and a guest instructor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth. He graduated from the College of Saint Thomas More and is currently finishing his Masters degree with the University of Dallas where his thesis will explore Individualism and Personalism in Catholic Social Thought. He can be reached at [email protected].

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  1. Little Flowers, I.1. 

  2. Matthew 6:26 

  3. Little Flowers, I.3 

  4. Little Flowers, I.12 

  5. Little Flowers, V.9 

  6. Little Flowers, I.8 

  7. Little Flowers, V.9 

  8. Little Flowers, I.8 

  9. ibid 

  10. Little Flowers, I.16 

  11. Little Flowers, I.14 

  12. Little Flowers, I.19 

  13. Little Flowers, I.14 

  14. Matthew 5:3-12 

  15. Little Flowers, I.19