We Franciscans love to tell stories. It’s part of who we are. Have you ever told a story to a child? Children love stories.
Their eyes light up and widen in expectation of what’s coming. They smile, they laugh; sometimes they cry. They can hear the same tales again and again without growing tired of them. Stories fascinate children. They learn through them. When a good storyteller relates an engaging tale, children’s passions are awakened and their hearts are stirred.
Stories arouse emotions. They can be entertaining, exciting, upsetting, or even frightening; and more often than not they come with a lesson that is important for the child to understand. From the stories we tell them, our children learn that actions have consequences. They learn which behaviors are acceptable and which ones are not. Our stories shed light on the mysteries they are unconsciously grappling with and often reveal hidden, eternal truths that suddenly become easier to grasp and to apply to the child’s world.
But children are not the only ones who benefit and learn from stories. Adults do it all the time. Each time we read the news, watch a movie, or listen to a juicy piece of gossip, we are learning from another person’s story. We learn what to do and what not to do. We look to the hero of each tale we hear and make our own decisions or draw our own conclusions as to what should happen based on their experiences. We ponder how we might have acted were we ever thrust into a similar situation. We consider what the protagonist did right and what they did wrong, each time allowing ourselves, perhaps unconsciously, to be shaped by the stories we hear.
Franciscans have a “story spirituality.” Our self-understanding, our identity, is tied directly to the stories that we hear, learn, and pass on. Saint Francis of Assisi was a dramatic, imaginative man who liked to tell stories. Unlike other religious groups throughout the centuries who had more well-organized founders, the Franciscan Order was started by an excitable little guy from Italy who did not care much for structures. Rules and regulations were simply not his thing. Instead, more often than not, Francis of Assisi told stories that touched people, moved their hearts, and inspired them to live the Gospel.
Whether preaching in the town square, addressing his brothers around a campfire, or even going before the pope, Francis often taught and described the graces he had received from the Lord with the help of images, symbols, and stories. Listen to this story:
Francis, the holy lover of profound humility moved to the lepers and stayed with them. For God’s sake he served them with great love. He washed their wounds and even cleaned out the pus of their sores. He said later: “When I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see people with leprosy, but the Lord led me among them and I showed compassion to them.” For he used to say that the sight of lepers was so bitter to him that in the days of his youth when he saw where they stayed, even miles away, he would cover his nose with his hands. But then one day, when he started praying and thinking about holy things, with the grace and strength of the Most High God, he met a leper one day. Made stronger than himself, he came up and kissed the man. He then began to consider himself less and less, until by the mercy of the Redeemer, he came to complete victory over himself.
The is perhaps the most famous story of Saint Francis. His biographer tells us about Francis’ first personal encounter with a man covered in the sores with leprosy. This is an important story that tells us much about the saint and his spirituality. If we knew nothing else of Franciscan spirituality but had this story, we’d know a lot about it.
According to this passage, Franciscan spirituality involves change or conversion. It is about humbly being open to change and to serve others for the love of God. There is a challenge in this story to show compassion to those who suffer and to truly start thinking about holy activities. Francis listened to the movement of God in his soul and was able to change and leave the values of his world. He was, as the author says, “made stronger than himself.” He conquered his own fear and prejudice by offering a loving kiss to someone who once disgusted him. Thus he gained victory over himself.
Here’s another story: When Saint Francis had a number of followers, he felt the need for more Church protection and went to Rome to petition Pope Honorius III, for a special Cardinal that would be more of a hands-on figure in the life of the Friars. How did he make this additional request? He told the pope a story, it was the story of a chicken.
The night before his audience with the pope, Francis “saw a vision of a hen that was small and dark, with feathered legs and the feet of a dove. It had so many chicks that it was unable to gather them all under its wings. The next day, he shared the image with the pope and said, “I am that hen, I’m short in stature, and dark by nature…The Lord in his mercy has given, and will give me, many sons, so many little chicks, whom I will be unable to protect with my own strength. I am, therefore, commending them to you and the holy Church to protect and guide them under the shadow of her wings.”
The point of this is simply that Francis understood himself and his mission and explained it to others with the help of images and stories. He shared the chicken story with Pope Honorius III who was “greatly edified” by what he heard and granted his request.
Saint Francis thought in, prayed in, and preached in parables and images that moved the heart of his listener instead of simply informing the mind. We might ask ourselves where Francis would get such a simple but profound idea as to use stories to convey deeper truth. The answer, of course, is from Jesus Christ himself. In the Gospel, our Lord too used images and stories to teach the people. The Lord had even used the image of the mother hen centuries before Francis did to explain something of his mother-like love for his children. Jesus had said:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you refused.” (Luke 13:34 ).
The greatest teacher there ever was, the King and God-man that Francis looked to daily and patterned his life after, was a storyteller. During his public ministry, Jesus Christ had used stories, parables, and images to enflame the heart and to bring the eternal truths of salvation to within the comprehension of the common, everyday believer.
To get his message across, Jesus never used complicated language or any of the great theological terms that would come into Church vocabulary later on. His audience was simple and so his message was wrapped in the simple. To farmers he spoke about seeds, trees, fruit, weeds, and wheat. He called himself the vine and challenged them to cling on to him as the branches must cling to the vine for their very life. To fishermen, he spoke about fish, boats, nets, waves, and storms. He called them to go out deeper and invited them to become fishers of souls. To shepherds, he spoke about goats, sheep, wolves, sheep gates and hired hands. He called himself the Good Shepherd and invited them to come to know and follow his voice without hesitation, as a sheep is drawn to wherever its shepherd’s voice originates.
Jesus used words, images and parables from everyday life in first century Palestine to communicate all that his audience needed to know for salvation. In short, he told stories. Then after his time of preaching had ended; after his death, resurrection and ascension, he himself became the greatest story that could ever be told.
Something similar could be said of Saint Francis of Assisi. With stories and parables, Francis proclaimed the Gospel in thirteenth century Europe and after his death he too, like Jesus, became a story to be shared again and again by those in search of the truth. So to understand something of Franciscan spirituality, we need to know that we are never going to grasp it by reading a treatise or memorizing a list of do’s and don’ts. Franciscan spirituality does not work that way. Rather, it is something that we intuit when we personalize our stories.
So I invite you to think and pray about the story of the leper. Who is the “leper” in your life? Is there a person that disgusts you, or frightens you? Or maybe there is a situation you are avoiding because you cannot imagine God being in it. What would happen if you prayed and asked God’s strength to embrace your “leper”? What if you allowed God to “make you stronger than yourself,” stronger than your prejudice, so that you could “kiss your leper” and gain victory over your fears? Let’s take some quiet prayer time to think about our own story and ask the Lord to take us more deeply into his heart.
Francis’ first biographer tells us another story:
“Sometimes a sweet melody of the Spirit bubbling up inside Francis would become a tune on the outside. God’s voice, which he heard interiorly, would move him to break out in a song of joy. Other times, he would pick up a stick from the ground and put it over his left arm, while holding another stick in his right hand, drawing it over the first as if it were a violin, performing all the right movements, and would sing and dance for the Lord. All this dancing often ended in tears, when his song of joy was transformed into compassion for Christ’s suffering. Then the saint would sigh and weep without ceasing.”
I love this story of Francis picking up a couple of sticks to pretend they are a musical instrument, dancing before his brothers, and singing with joy. We may have thought that playing the “air guitar” was an innovation of our generation, but there it is, centuries before us, Saint Francis playing the “air violin” to the praise of God and to the entertainment of his brothers. What a great visual image for us to keep in mind as we try to understand what Franciscan spirituality is all about! We can picture this poor little man dressed in rags, walking along in the woods with his brothers, thinking of God and smiling as a tune begins to form within him. It bubbles up within him, as his biographer says, and pours out in song, dance, and what we can be sure must have been a very contagious joy.
We are so blessed to have stories such as this recorded in our Franciscan tradition. They remind us of the role that joy plays in the spiritual life. One may be tempted to think that following Jesus Christ is such serious business that the truly dedicated disciples of Christ must never let their guard down by smiling or laughing. When we explore it further, however, we see that the holiest of souls throughout the centuries were men and women of great joy who loved people, enjoyed a good joke, and knew how to have some fun.
For Francis of Assisi, joy was not simply a nice feeling that he hoped to experience from time to time; it was a virtue to be pursued, something absolutely essential to being a follower of Christ. Francis saw deep spiritual joy as the fruit of a true relationship with the Lord and even as a weapon against the attacks of the evil one. His biographer tells us more:
“Francis insisted that spiritual joy was an infallible remedy against a thousand snares and tricks of the enemy. He used to say: ‘The devil is most delighted when he can steal the joy of spirit from a servant of God. He carries dust which he tries to throw into the tiniest openings of the conscience, to dirty a clear mind and a clean life. But if spiritual joy fills the heart, the serpent casts its poison in vain. The devils cannot harm a servant of Christ when they see him filled with holy cheerfulness. But when the spirit is teary-eyed, feeling abandoned and sad, it will easily be swallowed up in sorrow, or else be carried away toward empty enjoyment.’ The saint therefore always strove to keep a joyful heart.”
There is such wisdom here! I am sure that most of us know these words to be true from our own experience. We may have seen that we too are vulnerable to spiritual attack and more prone to getting ourselves into some kind of trouble, to pursue “empty enjoyment,” when we are feeling abandoned or sad. But spiritual joy stops us from heading down those dangerous paths and stops the evil one in his tracks. Empty pleasures are not as tantalizing when our hearts are already filled with the joy and love of Christ.
The book of Revelation calls Satan the “accuser” who, as Francis highlights, attacks our self worth. The evil one wants to discourage us by “throwing dust” into the conscience, to make us think we are bad people unworthy of God’s love, and “to dirty a clear mind and a clean life.” Spiritual joy, however, is like a strong cement that seals up the cracks and keeps the “dust” from getting inside.
We also may know from experience that both sadness and joy are contagious. Spiritual joy or “holy cheerfulness” is easier to hold onto when we are surrounded by others who see it as a value as well. Both sadness and joy spread easily among any group, especially among those who share the same living space like the early Friars did. Francis knew this and wanted his brothers to go to Jesus with their sorrow, that he might transform it and allow them to regroup with the brotherhood in a spirit of joy. Here is another story:
Saint Francis noticed that one of his companions went around with a sad and depressed face and, not taking it kindly, he said to him: “It is not right for a servant of God to continually show himself to others sad and upset, but rather he should strive to be pleasant. Deal with your offenses in your room, weep and moan before your God. But when you come back to your brothers, put away your sorrow and strive to bring joy to the others.”….He so loved the man filled with spiritual joy, that at one point he had these words written down as a general admonition: “Let them be careful not to appear outwardly as sad and gloomy hypocrites but show themselves joyful, cheerful, and consistently thankful to the Lord.”
Let’s not misinterpret this story of the sad brother who is sent back to his room. Francis is not insisting that his brothers continually be in a good mood. Requiring followers of Christ to always be happy and in a good mood is neither realistic nor possible. The saint himself was not always dancing or smiling. This story is, however, a call to the deeper joy that goes beyond moods. It is a call to the joy of spirit that lasts even despite the storms of life and can only come from being in an intimate relationship of love with the Lord.
When we embrace the truth of the Gospel, we find that it contains some amazingly good news that should be celebrated. God has come into our world and redeemed us through Jesus Christ. We have been saved from sin! We are children of God destined for heaven and for union with a God of love. This is all wonderful news that should fill us at the deepest level of our being with great joy. Moods will come and go, but a Christian who does not take the time to reflect on salvation and to rejoice in all that the Lord has done for us is doing something wrong. Such a person could even be considered, as Francis’ points out, a “hypocrite” who is missing the whole point of the faith. Believers in Christ have great reason to rejoice. The Christian who does not see this is probably not spending enough time with the God who freely shares all that he is and all that he has.
And here we come to an important constant that we see again and again in the stories of Francis. Nearly every story that we have of the saint can be seen as an invitation to us to pray. Francis’ words and actions always challenge his followers to be men and women of prayer. The Friar in the story is being sent back to prayer before joining the brotherhood, to go to God when his heart is sad and to “weep and moan” before the Lord instead of his brothers. No matter what problem we are facing, no matter what virtue we are pursuing, Francis’ example and advice will always point us to prayer as the most important part of the solution. Here, prayer is shown to be the secret to a true and lasting joy that nothing in the world can take from us.
Returning to the earlier story, Francis’ biographer paints the picture of Francis playing the “air violin” and dancing with a joy that eventually turns into tears when he thinks about Christ nailed to the cross. Initially this may seem like two unrelated stories, a story of joyful dancing and a story of sorrowful weeping that somehow ended up fused into one. Yet in linking these two moments of Francis’ life together, the author is using Saint Francis to emphasize an essential Christian truth and a key to Franciscan spirituality. We are being reminded that true and perfect joy is linked to the cross. It comes only from relationship with Jesus Christ crucified.
Joy comes from pondering the cross of Christ in prayer and reflecting on the gift of salvation that the Lord has won for us. Francis’ joy was ironically a result of his tears. It came from meeting Jesus in prayer, thinking about all that Jesus suffered for us, and from taking the time needed to hear the Lord’s voice tell us that he did these things because of love for us.
The prayerful lovers of Christ have eternal perspective. They can face whatever difficulties come their way with a spirit of joy because they know that these difficulties are not the end of the story. Our own crosses and difficulties get us closer to Jesus Christ crucified and therefore closer to heaven and the joy that only He can offer. It all comes down to keeping our eyes on Jesus in prayer. In one of the twenty-eight Admonitions he composed to apply the truths of the Gospel to his brotherhood, Francis writes:
Let all of us, brothers, consider the Good Shepherd who bore the suffering of the Cross to save his sheep. The Lord’s sheep followed him in tribulation and persecution, in shame and hunger, in weakness and temptation, and in other ways; and for these things they received eternal life from the Lord.
Prayer, pondering the story of the Gospel, and continually considering the suffering of our Good Shepherd will put everything else in perspective. It will help us understand our own suffering. The cross reminds us that the Lord is near to those who suffer; and he can transform whatever difficulties we face into opportunities to draw closer to his heart. It is this reality that should cause us to smile more as we anticipate being with Jesus in heaven. Keep your eyes on the Good Shepherd like Saint Francis did, think about the gift of eternal life he promised to the little sheep that follow him, and he will fill you with true and perfect Franciscan joy.