Way of Penance
La Via della Penitenza in Francesco d'Assisi
Vincenzo Cherubino Bigi, OFM
Edizioni Franciscane Bologna, 1988
Translation: Fr. Seraphin J. Conley, T.O.R. & Fr. Patrick J. Quinn, T.O.R.
After so many centuries, and in spite of the different forms of society, there is still a fascination with the life of St. Francis of Assisi. And it is not a waste of time to consider the question that Fra Masseo put to Francis as we read in the Little Flowers, Chapt.X: Why after you, Francis? Why is the whole world running after you? (Read text of chapter in the Fioretti.)
But, after reading the story, perhaps the thought that comes to mind is that it does not explain the reality of Francis. It might be seen more as a pious statement about the humility of the Saint rather than telling us something about his real personality. Such an interpretation on our part is probably mistaken because Francis truly believed himself to be a great sinner.
St. Francis had a profound awareness of sin; so the sense of himself as a great sinner came from his conscience, it was not a pretext or a way of avoiding the task of responding more faithfully to God's call. It was really a more perceptive response: "I am the greatest of sinners"; namely, "I have within me a profound and radical sense of sin ... and this sense of sin places me in some way in the presence of God."
It is this that we will consider as the point of departure for our reflection on the penitential way of St. Francis. It is true that the word "penance" has a very forbidding quality, since it goes against all the fashions and values of our modern society which is deeply marked by desire for pleasure, for profit, for ownership and for power.
The way of penance: Even for Catholics, the life of penance is rarely considered. Thus, Penance might be seen as an extraordinary act, for example during a Holy Year, but generally it does not form a part of Christian life. Moreover this term is burdened with a somewhat masochistic meaning in its long semantic development and in practices of Christian life.
It is important for us today to recover the sense of penance in the life of Francis. This is so in order that we can practice it and to integrate in our own lives the penance lived by Francis. It must be noted that Francis was also the man of perfect happiness, of joy. In him anything seemingly distorted or masochistic such as scourging or other practice of mortification is more incidental than being the purpose or the goal of his life.
It is important for us today to recover the true sense of penance in Francis. And this begins with our own awareness of being sinners before the Lord. Today our view of sin is very superficial.
The consciousness of sin places me before God, because the reality of sin places me naked before God and before Christ. Sin is not guilt. Guilt is concerned with the laws of this world, with duties which we have not fulfilled. On the other hand, sin is concerned with the mystery of God who gives himself to me and I refuse Him: "Only against You have I sinned." And then again especially for the Christian, sin puts him before Christ himself. Sin is not a word of this world, of our worldly culture; it is a word which links us with the divine; antithetically certainly, but it makes a break with the limited world of earthly culture and places us before the mystery of God. We see in the Gospel that the Pharisees, when confronted by a Christ who says:"My child, your sins are forgiven you," are scandalized and say "Who can forgive sin? Only God!."
Sin must be seen in the context of Christ, because the presence of Christ in the world and, therefore. in each one's personal history is ignored and rejected by the sinner. To have a sense of sin means to be conscious of having disregarded God in one's life. The sin of Cain was that he offered to God the leftovers of his labor. Francis, reflecting on his youth, saw it like this: a life which had neglected God. He knew God only by convention but God was not the central value of his life, nor was Christ was the inspiration of his choices.
Note well, that this condition is very common among us in our daily lives because we leave God at the margin of our interests. God is the great outsider both in our personal existence and in our culture. Many times, however, one is afraid to admit the fact that God is emarginated in my life and is distant. The Christian may be considered as Christian in so far as he is attentive to Christ, the God who became incarnate in Christ, the model of life for every person. For the Christian, the abandorunent and neglect of this truth is called sin.
Our great sin is to live without an awareness of God, without an awareness of Christ. Francis was deeply aware of this, so deeply aware that it became a determining truth for him. This enabled him to say truly that he felt himself to be the greatest of sinners because in his youthful efforts for self-realization he had excluded God and His Son, Christ.
He had wanted to be a great knight, he wanted to attain worldly glory, power, preeminence and splendor but he had not lived in the presence of Christ. Christ had no part in his plans for his future. This was his great sin.
When one wants to speak of the way of penance in the life of Francis, it is necessary to begin with this deep awareness. It is not the disciplines, the fasts, the hairshirt or the penances of the flagellanti of his time which characterize or qualify his life of penance.
The way of penance is putting God as the center of all we value so that neither profit, nor personal success direct our lives in this world. What matters now is living in God's Presence, and allowing Christ center place in our lives. To be attentive to Christ as my Model and to try in some way to integrate Him in my life is the point of departure and the continual renewal of the true sense of penance: a continuous conversion which is profoundly internalized. It is not the mortification of the body but the conversion of one's spirit.
To live in the presence of Christ, to live in the presence of God is to assume in oneself the law of love which was expressed by Christ in His life. Beginning from this point, we will seek to discover the essential moments of the penitential life of Francis. The fundamental point already described is that of putting God at the center of our daily life, to refer to God in the continual horizon of our daily choices.
In our daily activities, we can find ourselves in a fortunate condition: we can do, good in our actions. The conversion of Francis is to be found right here: in referring the good we do back to God.
This is the interior poverty of man as against the boast of the Pharisee who attributes to himself the possibility of doing good, of saving himself by means of the observance of the law in his good works.
St. Francis always has this concern at the core: all the good that I perform by my actions is not mine, but is God's work. From here flows the centrality of God in my life. It is not my possessions, not my riches, my prosperity but everything good that I am able to do is a gift from God and so I refer it back to God in thanksgiving and in self- emptying.
The heart of one who does penance is a heart empty of self ... which recognizes that the journey of this world is a gift of God. All the good things one does in the course of daily living are not his riches, his possessions but rather come from the God Who is the Giver of every good gift and so must be referred to, and brought back to Him. Hence, the first characteristic of the penance of St. Francis is purity of spirit, of interiority, is a poverty of the heart.
Referring things back to God implies yet something else, it implies not seeking our reward in this world. "You have received your reward." Many times in life after doing something good we expect to receive the reward for this good act and, when we don't receive it, we complain to God: I chose the good and still I have this sickness, etc.. To be converted means not looking for a reward in this world. Here is the deep reality of the Spirit, namely that if I do good in order to receive a reward, it means that I wish to possess, I wish to enrich myself, I wish to have a lasting place in this world. Often St. Francis in his writings admonishes us on this very point. The gift of yourself must be free just as the gift of God is free. The reference back to God means not seeking in this world one's reward: this is what it means to be free.
When Christ multiplied the bread and when they would have made him king, He hid himself, because if He had agreed to be King then, it would have been this miracle which ruled men. Jesus would be manipulating them through persuading them by satisfying their physical needs. The reward of bread as a promise for meeting Christ would have taken away their liberty.
I am free when I am able to give, not when my conduct is influenced by selfishness. even when it is a spiritual selfishness, which always seeks to be rewarded and gratified. One who acts in this way is not yet converted.
Penance is above all this deep freedom from one's selfish demands in order to be perfectly free for God and our neighbor. It is a profound guiding concept which interiorizes the notion of changing one's mind. Generally our mind is concentrated on ourselves, our power, our benefits, our possessions, our success. We really become the center of our life. Conversion means to put God at the center and myself to the side.
The journey of St. Francis from the beginning to the end consisted in this very movement. One might say that externally nothing changes, but everything changes internally, because in the interior of man God becomes everything, the center of emotions of action, from which I draw and to which I refer all my deliberations and my daily choices.
Therefore, the life of penance in Francis presents itself first of all as an awareness of sin and immediately thereafter as a profound displacement of self as the center of one's existence and allowing God to be the Lord. Cristocentrism is characteristic of the Franciscan school, because St. Francis lived in a real and existential way centered on Christ. His was not an egocentric but a Cristocentric life.
In this study concerning penance a question arises regarding the body. When one speaks of penance, immediately one thinks of disciplines, hairshirts, and mortifications. When St. Francis lived there this form of penance was prevalent. There were the "flagellanti. " The body came to be abused by penances of various sorts that were all directed towards a mortification of the flesh. Many went too far in reducing the meaning of penance to consist in these. The theme of the body in penance is a very delicate one.
There is a need to be very aware of some aspects: St. Francis did not seek corporal penance in itself. He desired the mortification of the body when it rebelled against the law of the spirit, the Law of God. Yet one is not to do penance when it is done to weaken the body so that it can no longer carry out its work. The penance that S. Francis wanted for a man is found in work. "I want to work and I wish that all would work with their hands." It is one of the fundamental points of his spirituality. No idler could appear before him without being strongly admonished; he considered the lack of work as a reason for being sent away from the Order (ex. Bro. Fly).
It is labor which is the true penance he himself practiced and proposed for his friars. St. Fraricis never accepted idleness, considered by the ancient philosophers as a consequence of a superior status, a striking type of idleness which placed a man in a kind of an ivory tower, in a privileged state. Thus, the first penance which is concerned with the discipline of the body is our daily labor. Having said that, we must make a further step in examining the way St. Francis lived this dimension of the life of penance. We see that at the end of his life he asked pardon of his body, "Bro. Ass." St. Francis wished also to submit the body by penance, and by penance he understood vigils, fasts, frequent flagellations and the use of a hairshirt. Yet, in his biography, we see that he did not advocate this type of penance and he even warned the friars against such practices so as not to be regarded as superior to holiness.
But he did desire mortification of the body. In what way and why did he want it? Because the body (the "flesh" as St. Paul expresses it) fights against the spirit. The centrality of Christ in my life can be deposed by selfishness and its desire to dominate, to possess to enjoy, etc. thus making my body subject to selfishness in place of Christ. Thus S. Francis in this dialetical battle between the spirit of the flesh and the spirit of God is very demanding regarding the mortification of his own body so that the body would always in its expression would always reveal the actions of the body of Christ.
St. Francis highly esteemed the human body. In a remarkable exception in Christian literature, in Admonition V, he says: "Remember 0 Man your dignity, namely that you are made in the image of Christ as regards your body and in the likeness to God in your spirit." There is none among the Fathers of the Church who had said this. It is a splendid exception and a great intuition. It can in no way be held that S. Francis had a mistaken sense of his own body. But if his body was opposed to the image of Christ then it was necessary to punish it by means of penance, so that it would become obedient, that it "be conformed" to the body of Christ. For this St. Francis often sought to reproduce in his own life the actions of Christ, from Bethlehem to Calvary, culminating in his receiving the sacred wounds of the Lord.
Concluding, we might ask: What is the goal of the way of penance according to St. Francis? The goal is joy and happiness.
Today we live in a world in which to be truly authentic it is necessary to be distressed, to have an uneasy conscience because of this world's misery. Certainly, our age is not characterized by an evident joyfulness. In Francis, on the other hand, there is this esteem for joy. He explains it by saying that the joy of good works is very important; one gives greater witness to communion with God and to the way of penance through the joy which is communicated to another through the witness of a cood work. The devil has great fear of the joy which comes from a good work. However, until a man possesses such joy he is vulnerable to the insidious temptations of the devil.
We are all familiar with the famous dialogue about perfect joy. It is really a dialogue about penance in the sense that selfishness becomes completely destroyed in the suffering which is accepted for love of Christ. Hence, one can demand of the man who leaves everything: that the end or the purpose which gives meaning to his renunciation or penance, is joy. A penance which does not bring joy cannot come from God and does not lead to God. It is a penance which ends in selfishness. Then it turns hostile because it looks at the other with a sense of judgment and contempt. This attitude, which we might call strict, is none other than an attitude of Egoism. If a sense of joy does not accompany our life of penance then we are very likely operating from a sense of superiority or from a desire for self-security. Joy is the tell tale sign of the presence of God. If we lack this in our efforts at penitential living then we are not doing penance.
In summary: the way of penance is a simple way, but it is not simplistic. It is most profound. It consists in this: metanoia, change. I have an awareness of my sinfulness because I have dismissed God from my life. There is no sinner like myself because I, who have been so loved, have disregarded that love and I have made myself in the central value of my existence. There can be no progress in the way of penance if one has not deepend the awareness of sin in oneself. The beginning of penance is to feel oneself to be truly a sinner before God.
Conversion means above all to put God at the center of all my considerations and Christ at the center of all my actions. Each day my journey in penance must embrace this conversion of spirit and body in such a way that my spirit and body will be one in harmony giving credit to God while claiming nothing for myself. Penance has in itself this radical poverty. It is God Who gives me the possibility and power to do good. It is not my doing and thus any good I do refers back to Him. And in my physical, corporeal life the body is the expression of my spirit which points to God. One accepts this task: the Father works in me and I cooperate. Should the body refuse the dignity of being the Image of the Body of Christ, in that case St. Francis seeks penance, but only so that the body can realize itself.
The goal of this life of Penance of St. Francis is Joy. The joy which is noted especially in humble people, who may not even be aware that they are living in this way of penance. Joy which is so rarely seen on the faces of the powerful and on those who believe themselves to be important in life. Joy is this world thus becomes the joy for which we were created, that joy which Christ in the Kingdom of His Father lives in His spirit and glorified body.
There can be no being on the way of penance if one has not deepened the awareness of sin in himself. The point of departure is to feel oneself truly a sinner in the presence of God. Conversion means, before anything else, this: to put God at the center of all my considerations and Christ at the center of all my interventions. My journey in penance must embrace each day this conversion of spirit and body in such a way that my spirit may be always in agreement crediting God while claiming nothing for itself. Penance has in itself this radiant poverty. It is God who gives me the possibility and power to do good. It is not my doing and thus the good goes back always to Him. In my physical, corporeal life, my body must always be the dynamic sphere of my spirit which refers to God. A dynamic sphere is one which embraces this work: the Father works and I also work. Should the body refuse this dignity of being the image of the Body of Christ then St. Francis also seeks penance, but seeks it so that the body can realize itself.
The result of this penitential life of St. Francis is joy. The same joy which is seen especially in humble people, who may be unaware that they are living in this way of penance. Joy which is always very rare on the faces of the powerful and those who believe they have arrived. Joy in this world is thus the anticipation of the joy for which we were created. That joy which Christ in the Kingdom of the Father lives in His spirit and glorified body.
La Via della Penitenza in Francesco d'Assisi
Vincenzo Cherubino Bigi, OFM
Edizioni Franciscane Bologna, 1988
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