4. How St. Francis did Penance,...

Seeking Franciscan Perfection
A Reflection on the Franciscan Life by Fred Schaeffer, SFO


Part 4 - How St. Francis did penance, especially for conversions.


St. Francis lived a strictly disciplined life, a life of asceticism even though he wasn't a monk in the strictest sense of the word. What he experienced was completely different than religious in the current American culture. He fasted and did penance not because he had to, but because he wanted to. He realized in the deepest form that he was a sinner, and that in order to seek Franciscan perfection, he needed to live 100% for Jesus Christ, in total abandonment to anything remotely of comfort and ease.

The American psyche is so completely different that we can scarcely understand what St. Francis went through, as a normal everyday way of life, because we've never, and probably will never come even close.

As a personal aside, I spent a few months shy of five years as a contemplative monk in Massachusetts and later, Florida. I make reference to that fine time often in my writings, because in many ways, it was a time of asceticism and penance, unlike I'd ever thought I'd experience. As a result, I felt closer to our Lord than I ever thought would be possible, and these years proved to be a solid foundation for my later years. What I experienced particularly in Massachusetts, reminds me now of how Francis possibly might have lived. Mine was a time without much heat in wintertime, in an old 100-year old drafty house. I used a cell (that's what monks call their bedrooms), just big enough to hold a narrow bed and a small desk, in a cell with Northwest exposure. It was brutally cold there in winter, like standing outside. The electric blanket helped a little. But St. Francis didn't have electric blankets, and even if he had something remotely like it, I don't think he would have used this convenience. In the days of St. Francis, wintertime Italy could be quite cold, and he had no heat either. He probably didn't have a hot meal most days, and he didn't eat very much. So when present-day friars thank God that life isn't so bare and strict as it was at the time St. Francis was still around, they know what they are talking about. There is a pitfall in all of this, however. The complete 180 degree turn away from penance and asceticism in general, means we are soft. We are no longer hardened to sin and there is more of an opportunity to fall. One of the greatest dangers, there is, I think, for people in religious life these days, is that they become so dedicated to their work (the Apostolate), that times of prayer and community take a back-seat, and the seeking of Franciscan perfection begins to suffer. Unlike Vowed religious, those in lay Orders, such as Secular Franciscans, because of their life in the marketplace, are somewhat shielded from the possibility that prayer and fasting takes a backseat to the work, by nature of their worldly situation, but they too must be on guard to keep up the daily prayer. That means not only 15 minutes in the morning and evening for the appropriate hour of the Liturgy of the Hours, but a fairly constant line of prayer communication with our Lord throughout the day.

So the form of penance we should consider in life is that of atonement and reparation for the sin of the world, abortion, disrespect for and misuse of the Sacred Species, insulting Our Lord through hardened sin, not only in our family circles or extended family, but also of total strangers. Think of the opportunity that presents itself in a National election, where a popular candidate is extremely anti-life. We must ask Our Lord to give good Catholics wisdom and strength to make the right choice, so that the four non-negotiable points aren't violated. Please pray that Catholics do not lose their immortal souls by making a choice that is indefensible before God. Atonement and reparation for the sins of the world. St. Francis said: "There is an enemy we ought not to love, and that is the body. And if we vigorously and ceaselessly fight this enemy, then no other enemy, spiritual or material can hurt us." (Tenth Admonition). It may seem that I'm taking what St. Francis said out of context as he wasn't referring to abortion at that time, but ANY lack of self-discipline can hurt us, and it probably will. All of us experience the urge to excess, the tendency to a mindless and ungoverned use of the flesh in regards of passion and desires. Aborting a living fetus, a person however tiny, is a mortal sin and a sin of excess. It is telling our Lord that we know better, more and that we refuse to accept His love and goodness. And knowing what we are doing (don't tell me that the woman who elects to have an abortion doesn't know, in her heart, what she is doing or about to do), we say "I don't care" and "I am in charge of my destiny." No, God is in charge, then, now and always, and a choice so heartlessly taken will bring much suffering and regret. We need to pray for the reparation and atonement of that wanton act of neglect, of murder. Somebody has to, so let it be the religious and those in lay orders. Making atonement, suffering as penance, yes even some people who are suffering souls, is the path to Franciscan perfection, and in the truest sense it is laying down ones life for his/her brother or sister.

"The only valid atonement a Christian can contemplate is that of Christ. He alone saves us. He alone makes reparation to the goodness and holiness of God for the offense and damage of sin. He does so by his perfect and childlike love and trust in His Father. In him all the wreck and ruin of human life can be repaired, restored for life, "made up for.¹"

Any accident that befalls us, penance that comes by way of sickness, terrible suffering, a 45-year old man dying of incurable cancer, a person who has three strokes in one week, a family who loses their home to fire or a financial mishap, as terrible as these things are, such accidents in the normal progression of life should not be considered a "punishment" from God. God doesn't punish in this way. God does not punish at all, for that He loves us too much. It is mankind, men and women, who when faced with hardship sometimes see a parallel between "hard times" as a result of too soft a life previous to that. I can't explain that, and I am not even sure hardship is a result of some mishap in life, but God didn't cause the pain, that I am very sure of.

As we come closer to our Lord through years and years of penance, self-control over sin, with His help, of course, there comes a time of spiritual bonding to Our Lord, a wonderful time of inner peace and joy. It is not really a matter of a particular length of time, rather, it is an inner disposition for some time that makes us receptive to God's special Graces. He wants us to come closer to Him, but we have to be open to that. Sin closes the window, so to speak. Sin is a partial blockage of that eye of the needle we all need to go through at one point or another in life (cf. Mt. 19:24). Sin is the obstacle between God and ourselves and we initiate this breakdown (God does not) when we lose control of our egos. God doesn't need to punish us, because punishment is already included in the sin we commit. So accept the pain, and repent.

Penance is conversion, self discipline and "co-atonement¹" with Christ. Perhaps in light of these words we can understand why depictions of St. Francis comforting Our Lord on the Cross have such great meaning to us. He suffered with Christ, as we do too, when we co-atone with Him for the sin of this world.

The road of atonement, reparation and suffering in general can be very bitter and many will break down from time to time for some more unneeded and generally unnecessary relapse into a sinful state no matter how brief. Thank God we have the Sacrament of confession, for we have the opportunity to begin again. That reminds me of a story of two young teenagers chatting one day about confession. One said to the other, we can do this or that (referring to something sinful), all we have to do is confess it and then we can do it again! That's lying to God - it just doesn't work that way. When we receive the sacrament of Reconciliation, we promise to atone for our sins and do it no more, and we mean it. To our Lord even the tiniest infraction causes Him pain on the Cross! It continues to hurt Him day after day.

We are a sinful people. Part and parcel of Original Sin makes us so. We are prone to failure, because we are weak! We have no guts, no intestinal fortitude to say, "Yes God, I will sin no more!" So avoid sin, do not place yourself into a near occasion of sin. Avoid hanging around with friends who can sway us into areas of sin. If you are serious about God, you know as well as I do, what to do to avoid sin at all costs. When you love God you do not sin, and when you still sin you do not love Him enough. St. Bonaventure is supposed to have said that, and it is true. It is even logical, it makes total sense. (I have never seen the citation that attributes those words to the Saint but someone told me that is what he said.)

Jesus, when He was born of the Virgin Mary, he was poor. He could have been born in an elaborate royal palace, but he chose to be born in a stable, a trough for animal feeding. His first audience were, of course, his parents on earth, Joseph and Mary, the animals, such as perhaps a cow, a donkey, some sheep and some shepherds. How do we know this? Well, first of all, Holy Scripture tells us so, but our own Saint Francis, popularized the setting up of a Christmas crib as a reminder of this great happening, this supreme Grace that befell us at that time in history, where our Lord became one of us, a man of human stature, named Jesus of Nazareth. St. Francis re-enacted the scene at that stable in the crib at Creccio, in a most beautiful way. And when the Angel Gabriel announced that Mary would have a son, conceived by the Holy Spirit, we all celebrate the "Annunciation" which was, in fact, the point of Conception. That is why we believe that life begins at the moment of conception. Maybe some day the rest of the world will get that message too. We hope and pray.

St. Francis talks about "Lady Poverty," and Francis lived a life of poverty and desolation in emulation of Our Lord. He said: "Only Lady Poverty could go all the way with Christ, following him even up on the cross in total deprivation and nakedness before the Father." Let us pray that we will come before the father in deprivation and nakedness, when we are judged, without the added baggage of sin that will define our course - life with Him in eternity, or the other way. The other way is too awful to contemplate. We pray for His mercy and forgiveness.

In the next reflection on "Seeking Franciscan Perfection," we will discuss how some of the aspects of poverty Secular Franciscans can routinely practice to stay closer to the Franciscan ideal, and we'll also speak about humility.

Fred Schaeffer, SFO
Article #4, 11/01/2008, 2014

1. "The Third Order Vocation" Leonard Foley, OFM and Jovian Weigel, OFM.1976 Published by St. John the Baptist Province of the OFM (my writing follows the subjects in this books, to guide me along a certain path in this writing).

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