Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Francis and the Word of God

I am here in our friary in Ennis, Co Clare, for my monthly visit of a few days to give classes on spirituality to our novices. These three young men are full of energy and enthusiasm as they continue their journey on the Franciscan way. The topic for the next few days is the Word of God, our "relationship" with the Sacred Scriptures. Today we looked at a lengthly letter by our Minister General, José Carballo, written in 2008. Entitled Mendicants of Meaning: Led by the Word, it reflects on the Word of God in our lives

In particular today we read and discussed the section that speaks of how Francis himself approached the Word and through it allow the Lord to transform his life. Some passages from the letter express the depth of his reverence and joy in the gift of the Scriptures.

Marked by the Word
"It is amazing to see the great knowledge Francis had of Sacred Scripture and the great love he nourished for the Word. His life, in fact, was totally marked by the Word. At the beginning of his evangelical journey it was the word which showed him what he had to do, and at the end of his days it would also be the word which accompany him in his glorious passing over to God. The Word was, for him, his travelling companion at all times, even allowing himself be totally penetrated by it. It is not strange that all his writings, from the Prayers to the Rules, the Letters and Admonitions, are full of biblical quotes; they are real and proper Scriptural mosaics. The Word of the Lord is 'perfumed' and Francis was inebriated by its fragrance. The 'ignorant and stupid' Francis, as he used to present himself, was without great instruction, that is, without a formation proper to the clergy or to the learned of the time. But he had such knowledge of the word as to, as St Bonaventure wrote: 'penetrate hidden mysteries. Where the knowledge of teachers is outside, the passion of the lover entered.'"

Known only by Love
The Minister General asks: How was it possible that Francis, who had no formal learning, could gain such a deep insight into the Scriptures? He then goes on to give three reasons:

*  "If God is only known by loving Him, Francis knew God and the secrets of God hidden in the word because he loved.
 *  If the Father reveals His secrets to the simple (cf. Lk 10, 21-22; Dn 2, 22; Si 4, 18), Francis knew those secrets because he listened to the Word with a poor and disposed heart, just like Mary (cf. Lk 2, 19. 51).
*   If the Word is known in the measure in which it is put into practice, Francis knew it because 'he was not a deaf listener' to the Word, but hurried to live it without delay: as he himself cried out: 'This is what I want to do with all my strength.'"

"His knowledge of Scripture was not a speculative knowledge, but wise. For him, the Word was not a text from the past, but of the present, and for the present, as he showed when he wrote so often: 'the Lord says in the Gospel', and not 'Jesus said at that time', as was usual on quoting the sayings of Jesus. Francis had not studied, but had lived the word in simplicity and purity, just as he said he had written his Rule, which he wished to be merely an echo of the Gospel."

Word and Eucharist
In our discussion of the letter we were particularly struck by the passage that shows how Francis saw the close link between the Word and the Eucharist, both gifts of Christ's presence among us. This linking of the Word and Eucharist was something rediscovered only recently by the Church as a whole.

“The holy words were, for Francis, tangible, actual and life-giving signs of the real Presence of Christ, as the Eucharistic Bread and Wine are. For him, the Word, like the Eucharist, was a prolongation of the Incarnation. In the Word, as in the Eucharist, God reveals Himself and acts. The Word, like the Eucharist, brings us close to the heart of God and saves us. To receive the Word is to receive Life, to reject the Word is to reject Life which is also offered to us, above all, in the Eucharist. Even we, used to reading this truth in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, are surprised by such comparison. For Francis it was a proof of faith: ‘And let all of us know for certain that no one can be saved except through the holy words and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which the clergy pronounce, proclaim and minister.’"

"This faith in the real presence of Christ in His word is what explains Francis’ profound veneration of the word: ‘I, therefore, admonish all my brothers and encourage them in Christ to venerate, as best they can, the divine written words wherever they find them. If they are not well kept or are carelessly thrown around in some place, let them gather them up and preserve them, inasmuch as it concerns them, honouring in the words the Lord Who spoke them.’ And he himself did what he asked on the friars, as Br. Leo noted in his own handwriting in the breviary which is preserved in the Proto-monastery of St. Clare in Assisi: ‘Having heard or read the Gospel, blessed Francis always kissed the Gospel with the greatest reverence for the Lord.’ And we see no sign of fundamentalism or of integralism in this attitude of profound veneration of the sacred text. It was an external expression of a profoundly believing attitude before the word of God.”

As the novices and I reflected on these passages and discussed them today we were given a deeper awareness of the gift of the Scriptures and a desire to make them more central in our journey with the Lord.