Winter 1986, Vol. 38, pp. .

Patrick F. O'Connell:
      St. Francis of Assisi: The Spirituality of Conformation

The fundamental appeal of Francis' spirituality flows from his selfless conformity to Christ as the human presence of God, corporally identified by his passion with the poor, outcast, and infirm.

Widely published in the area of spirituality and literature, Dr. O'Connell earned his doctorate in English from Yale and in theology from Fordham. Married and the father of four, he is a member of the Dept. of Arts and Humanities at Villa Maria College, Erie, PA.

A STORY is told (1) about St. Francis that one day a friar came to him and asked, "Why after you? Why is the whole world coming after you, wanting to see you, to hear you, to follow you?" More than six hundred fifty years later, this question is more pertinent than ever. What is it about this unpretentious figure from the early thirteenth century which continues to exert such a perennial fascination for Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and agnostics alike? What is it that has made Francis the subject of more books than any other saint, which has inspired artists from Giotto and Bellini to Fritz Eichenberg, which has led ecologists, peace activists, and advocates for the poor to claim him as a patron? As Brother Masseo pointed out, Francis possessed no outstanding beauty, or nobility of birth, or great depth of learning. He was neither a scholar, nor an organizational genius, nor a conscious innovator in any of the arts or sciences (though all of these have been numbered among his followers through the centuries). Yet the whole world continues to be drawn to the little poor man dressed in his nondescript brown robe. What is the source of his attractiveness?

Francis' own response to Masseo's question may not seem to shed much light on this phenomenon. He claims God has chosen him because of his vileness and insufficiency, so that the Creator and not the creature will receive the credit. This sounds at first like a stock response, the almost stereotypical humility of medieval piety. But transposed into a more modern idiom, the answer is quite revealing. He seems to be saying that to focus too exclusively on Francis is to miss Francis, for two reasons. Part of his charism is his very ordinariness, his closeness and accessibility to the average person. Though his early biographers make clear that his winning personality and qualities of leadership were evident well before his conversion, these traits do not set him above or apart from others, but draw him closer to them. But more importantly, Francis is an ordinary person who takes the gospel seriously: his identity is so bound up with his commitment to Jesus that unless through him one sees beyond him, unless the Lord and Creator shines through the creature, the pattern of Francis' life, and the secret of his genuine attractiveness, remain a puzzle. A consideration of this spirituality of conformation as it is found in Francis' own writings and the early accounts of his life reveals that the question "Why after you?" is transformed into "Why after Him?" -- and confronts readers with the challenge to undertake this journey of discipleship themselves.

The essentials of the Franciscan vision had already begun to be articulated in the numerous meditations on the life and passion of Jesus which became increasingly popular in the mid and late twelfth century. Yet Francis never wrote a meditation, and there is no certainty that he even read any. What he did, rather, was to personify the process of identification with Christ proposed by such works; he brought this Christocentric spirituality to life, made it real in a way no one had before, or has since. The desire to adhere totally to Christ which was being put into words by the writers of meditationes was put directly into deeds, into action, by Francis. Rather than explain what it meant to become one with God through conformation to Christ, he demonstrated it, with an intensity and simplicity, a spiritual power, which has continued long after his death to inspire others "to follow in the footsteps (2) of Christ. Francis became a living icon, an incarnation, of this meditative spirituality.


The radical commitment of Francis to his Lord was nourished above all by the scriptures. His method of approaching the Bible was not one of analysis, but of immersing himself in the Word, of seeing and living it "from the inside." In the seventh of his Admonitions, he explains the difference between the letter and spirit of Scripture:

St. Paul tells us, The letter kills, but the spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6). A man has been killed by the letter when he wants to know quotations only so that people will think he is very learned and he can make money to give to his relatives and friends. A religious man has been killed by the letter when he has no desire to follow the spirit of Sacred Scripture, but wants to know what it says only so that he can explain it to others. On the other hand, those have received life from the spirit of Sacred Scripture who, by their words and example, refer to the most high God, to whom belongs all good, all that they know or wish to know, and do not allow their knowledge to become a source of self-complacency (Writings, p. 81).(3)

His earliest biographer, Thomas of Celano, writes of Francis, "he had a deep understanding of the Scriptures. For his genius, free from all stain, penetrated the hidden things of mysteries, and Where the knowledge of the masters is something external, the affection of one who loves enters into the thing itself."(4) This is of course precisely what meditation is intended to do, to break down the separation between the reader and the Scriptures by drawing one into the scene and thereby allowing one to experience it with immediacy. The converse is of course equally true; the reader takes the Word within himself, makes it a part of himself, and is transformed by it:

At times he would read the sacred books and what he put into his mind once he wrote indelibly in his heart. His memory substituted for books for he did not hear a thing once in vain, for his love meditated on it with constant devotion. This he would say was a fruitful way of learning and reading, not by wandering about through thousands of treatises (2C 102; p. 446).

Thus there develops a kind of congruency between the written Word and the faithful reader: not only does meditation on the Scriptures transform one's actions, but putting the Word into practice brings a deeper penetration of its meaning. Concerning the first, Celano writes that Francis "was not a deaf hearer of the Gospel, but committing all that he had heard to praiseworthy memory, he tried diligently to carry it out to the letter" (1C 22; p. 247). St. Bonaventure writes about the second in his Major Life of Francis; after relating how Francis interpreted certain difficult questions for a learned theologian, Bonaventure comments, "Nor should it sound odd that the holy man should have received from God an understanding of the Scriptures, since through perfect imitation of Christ he carried into practice the truth described in them, and through the abundant anointing of the Holy Spirit, had their Teacher within himself in his heart."(5)

Perhaps the incident which most illuminates the response of Francis to the Word comes during a severe illness, probably toward the end of his life. When a companion suggests that a reading from the Bible might give him some consolation, Francis replies, "It is good to read the testimonies of Scripture; it is good to seek the Lord our God in them. As for me, however, I have already made so much of Scripture my own that I have more than enough to meditate on and revolve in my mind. I need no more, son; I know Christ, the poor crucified one" (2C 105; p. 448). Here is testimony not only of the degree to which Francis had come to know the Scripture "by heart," but also of the end to which such reflection had led him, not to know about Christ, but to know Christ, to encounter him existentially in the Word.(6) There is in his response to Scripture a kind of singleness of focus, a purity of heart, which totally absorbs and transforms Francis:

Indeed, he was always occupied with Jesus; Jesus he bore in his heart, Jesus in his mouth, Jesus in his ears, Jesus in his eyes, Jesus in his hands, Jesus in the rest of his members. O how often, when he sat down to eat, hearing or speaking or thinking of Jesus, he forgot bodily food, as we read of the holy one: "Seeing, he did not see, and hearing, he did not hear." Indeed, many times, as he went along the way meditating on and singing of Jesus, he would forget his journey and invite all the elements to praise Jesus (1C 115; p. 329).

Francis' whole life, then, becomes an endeavor to "translate" the Scriptures, to communicate not only their meaning but the Life contained within them. He writes in Admonition XXI, "Blessed that religious who finds all his joy and happiness in the words and deeds of our Lord and uses them to make people love God gladly" (Writings, p. 85). This process is perhaps most evident in the famous story of the Christmas crib at Greccio, which according to Thomas of Celano was a direct consequence of Francis' meditation on the Nativity:

He would recall Christ's words through persistent meditation and bring to mind his deeds through the most penetrating consideration. The humility of the incarnation and the charity of the passion occupied his memory particularly, to the extent that he wanted to think of hardly anything else. What he did on the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ near the little town called Greccio in the third year before his glorious death should especially be noted and recalled with reverent memory (1C 84; p. 299).
Rather than writing down his reflections, he had them represented in a life-setting: "I wish to do something that will recall to memory the little Child who was born in Bethlehem and set before our bodily eyes in some way the inconveniences of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he lay upon the hay where he had been placed" (1C 84; p. 300). And so it was done according to his specifications: "At length the saint of God came, and finding all things prepared, he saw it and was glad. The manger was prepared, the hay had been brought, the ox and ass were led in. There simplicity was honored, poverty was exalted, humility was commended, and Greccio was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem" (1C 85; p. 300).

Here we find a sort of "three-dimensional" meditation, which allowed the people to "be present" at the scene of the Incarnation. But the most important aspect of the celebration is easily overlooked. Here is not simply an early instance of the now familiar "manger scene: or "Christmas pageant." We find no statues or players representing Joseph, Mary, or the Bambino. Rather, Francis arranged to have Mass celebrated over the manger, and preached himself on the Christmas Gospel. His interest was not merely to provide a sentimental re-creation of past events, but to connect the Nativity with the present "incarnation' of the Lord as Word and Sacrament. Greccio becomes a symbolic expression of the teaching found in the first of the Admonitions:

Every day he humbles himself just as he did when he came from his heavenly throne (Wis. 18:15) into the Virgins womb; every day he comes to us and lets us see him in abjection, when he descends from the bosom of the Father into the hands of the priest at the altar. He shows himself to us in this sacred bread just as he once appeared to his apostles in real flesh (Writings, pp. 78-79).
Even the detail of the vision which one of the onlookers had of Francis embracing the Child is interpreted by Celano as a sign of Francis reawakening devotion to Christ: "This vision was not unfitting, for the Child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of many; but, by the working of his grace, he was brought to life again through his servant St. Francis and stamped upon their fervent memory" (1C 86; p. 301). Such a task is precisely the mission of Francis, not only in this paradigmatic scene, but through his en tire life, which becomes a symbolic declaration that Christ is indeed alive, indeed present, and impresses the image of Christ upon the "fervent memory" of those who encounter him. It is from this perspective, then, that Francis effort to live the Gospel life literally is best seen. It is not merely an external conformity, a kind of legalistic literalism,(7) but a way both of bringing about inner conformation to Christ and of embodying that conformation outwardly: "He grasped all of reality in its concrete totality. He did not separate interiority from the material, but bound them tightly together . . . . Consequently, to be united, to be conformed to the Lord . . . is also to take on the same state, the existential conditions in which his life unfolded."(8) Francis way of life is an expression of his profoundly sacramental imagination: just as all creation, from the lowliest worm to "My Lord Brother Sun," is for Francis an outward sign of the power and love and compassion of the Creator, so Francis makes his life a sign, a sacrament, of the presence of Christ in his people, his Body the Church.


Thus Francis takes as his watchword the Synoptic invitation to follow Christ, to do as he did so as to become as he is. In his Testament Francis recounts simply the origin of the Franciscan way: "When God gave me some friars, there was no one to tell me what I should do; but the Most High himself made it clear to me that I must live the life of the Gospel" (Writings, p. 68). The first of the Rules in the earlier (1521) version is simply a reiteration of the call to discipleship:

The Rule and life of the friars is to live in obedience, in chastity and without property, following the teaching and the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ who says, If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come follow me (Mt. 19:21); and, If anyone wishes to come after me let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me (Mt. 16:24). Elsewhere he says, If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Lk. 14:26). And everyone who has left house, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall possess life everlasting (Mt. 19:29). (Writings, pp. 31-32).
Here in the very ordering of the biblical texts the basic pattern of leaving all to follow Christ, along the road to Calvary, and beyond death to eternal life, reveals the deeply Paschal orientation of the Franciscan vision.
It is this willingness to follow Jesus Christ . . . and to imitate him according to the letter and the spirit of the Gospel, this steadfastness in reproducing his deeds and the conditions of his earthly existence (2 Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:8), which gives to Francis' adherence to Christ its own special nuance, and which situates it within the overall history of devotion to the incarnate Word, traditional in the Church from Origen to St. Bernard.(9)

The typically Franciscan virtues of poverty, humility, obedience and penitence are therefore to be understood as means by which the follower of Christ at once adheres to his Master and reveals him to others: "Faithful to his original experience, Francis proposed to be conformed to Christ perfectly through the exercise of the Christian virtues."(10) Thus poverty is fundamentally a way of being like Christ: "Often, indeed, speaking of poverty, he would propose to his brothers this saying of the Gospel: The foxes have dens and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (2C 56; p. 411). It is also a sign of solidarity with the poor in whom Francis preeminently recognized the presence of Christ:

the poverty of deprivation he saw in anyone he immediately referred to Christ in his heartfelt compassion. In every poor person he met, he saw the image of Christ and he insisted on giving them anything which had been given to him, even if he had urgent need of it; indeed, he believed that he was bound to give it to them, just as if it belonged to them.(11)
Likewise Francis treasured humility as a way of obeying the one who said, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart" (Mt. 11:29). Bonaventure notes that for Francis, the Incarnation itself, that self-emptying by which the Son of God took the lowly form of a servant, is the supreme example of humility: "He used to say that it was for this reason that the Son of God came down from the height of his Father's bosom to our lowly estate, so that our Lord and Teacher might teach humility in both word and example. Therefore as Christ's disciple, he strove to appear worthless in his own eyes and those of others" (LM 6:1; p. 228). When Cardinal Hugolin proposed to Francis the possibility of making some of the friars bishops, he replied: "Lord, my brothers are called minors so that they will not presume to become greater. Their vocation teaches them to remain in a lowly station and to follow the footsteps of the humble Christ, so that in the end they may be exalted above the rest in the sight of the saints" (2C 148; p. 481). But as commitment to poverty leads to compassion for the poor, so devotion to humility leads Francis, as it did Jesus, to service of the lowly. Bonaventure writes:
Francis the model of humility, wanted his friars to be called Minor and the superiors of his Order to be called servants, in order to use the very words of the Gospel which he had promised to observe and in order that his followers might learn from this very name that they had come to the school of the humble Christ to learn humility. Jesus Christ, the teacher of humility, instructed his disciples in true humility by saying: "Whoever wishes to become great among you, let him be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you will be your slave" (LM 6:5; pp.232-33).

This conformity to the person and teaching of Christ is likewise the foundation of Franciscan obedience. In his Letter to a General Chapter, Francis writes, "Our Lord Jesus Christ gave his life rather than fail in the obedience he owed to his most holy Father" (Writings, p. 108). Religious obedience is a concrete application of the dedication shown by Jesus to the Fathers will: "For Francis, obedience . . . is founded on the example of Christ, 'who surrendered his will to the will of the Father and offered himself on the altar of the cross (Letter 1). It is adherence to Christ which brings forth 'true and holy obedience' (Rule 1, ch. 5)."(12)


But of course all these virtues which enabled Francis to walk the path Christ walked were ultimately intended to lead him where Christ was led. For Francis, the way of Jesus was above all the way of the cross. His life was ruled by "compassion for the passion of Christ" (2C 127; p. 467). Bonaventure summarizes the meaning of the virtues for Francis:

What was his extreme gentleness his austerity, his deep humility, his ready obedience, his absolute poverty, his perfect chastity; what were his bitter contrition, his gift of tears, his heart-felt compassion, his ardent zeal, his longing for martyrdom, his unlimited charity; what were all the outstanding virtues which made him so like Christ, if not the signs of an ever-increasing likeness to him and a preparation for the reception of his stigmata? The whole course of his life from the very beginning was marked with the glorious mysteries of Christ's cross (Minor Life 6:9; pp. 825-26).

From the early days of his conversion, when he heard Christ speaking to him from the crucifix in the ruined church of San Damiano, it was above all conformity to the Passion of Christ which Francis sought: "From then on compassion for the crucified was rooted in his holy soul, and, as it can be piously supposed, the stigmata of the venerable passion were deeply imprinted in his heart, though not yet upon his flesh" (2C 10; pp. 370-71). Even before this event, according to Bonaventure, Francis was transformed by consideration of the Passion. Praying in a secluded spot, Francis received a vision of Jesus crucified:

Francis soul melted (Cant. 5:6) at the sight, and the memory of Christ's passion was so impressed on the innermost recesses of his heart that from that hour, whenever Christ's crucifixion came to his mind, he could scarcely contain his tears and sighs, as he later revealed to his companions when he was approaching the end of his life. Through this the man of God understood as addressed to himself the Gospel text: If you wish to come after me, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me (Mt. 16:24) (LM 1:5; p. 189).
Characteristically, this experience had as its outward result a solicitude for lepers, in whom Francis perceived the image of the suffering Lord: "he rendered humble service to the lepers with human concern and devoted kindness in order that he might completely despise himself, because of Christ crucified, who according to the text of the prophet was despised as a leper (Isa. 53:3)" (LM 1:6; pp. 189-90) .

The theme of imitatio Christi runs through all the early accounts of Francis life. Thus Bonaventure sees the gesture of stripping himself of his clothes before the Bishop of Assisi as a way of following Christ: "Thus the servant of the Most High King was left naked so that he might follow his naked crucified Lord, whom he loved" (LM 2:4; p. 194).(13) Conversely, his habit was also an image of the cross: "He designed for himself a tunic that bore a likeness to the cross, that by means of it he might beat off all temptations of the devil; he designed a very rough tunic so that by it he might crucify the flesh with all its vices and sins" (1C 22; p. 247). This devotion to his suffering Lord was the origin of his austerities and mortifications: "Wounded with love for the Crucified, Francis proposed to follow only the way of the cross, and to complete 'what is lacking in Christ's afflictions' within his Mystical Body (Col. 1:24). He presents himself to his contemporaries as the penitent of Assisi.(14)

Even in the early days of his conversion, according to Bonaventure, "He paid great attention to the mortification of the flesh so that he might carry externally in his body the cross of Christ which he carried internally in his heart" (LM 1:6; p. 190). But in his apostolic activity he was likewise "a most holy mirror of the sanctity of the Lord and an image of his perfection. All his words, I say, as well as his deeds are redolent of the divine" (2C 26; p. 285). His choice of an apostolic life rather than that of a hermit is modeled on Jesus: "he chose to live for all men rather than for himself alone, drawn by the example of the one who deigned to die for all (2 Cor. 5:15)" (LM 4:2; p. 208). The motivation for all this is nothing but fervent love, which desires to share perfectly the experience of the beloved, to be united completely with him: "Jesus Christ crucified always rested like a bundle o f myrrh in the bosom of Francis's soul (Cant. 1:12), and he longed to be totally transformed into him by the fire of ecstatic love" (LM 9:2; p. 263).

This conformity to Christ in his Passion culminates, of course, in the events of September, 1224, on Mt. Alverna, when the body of Francis is marked with the wounds of Christ:

By the Seraphic ardor of his desires, he was being borne aloft into God; and by his sweet compassion he was being transformed into him who chose to be crucified because of the excess of his love (Eph. 2:4). On a certain morning about the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, while Francis was praying on the mountainside, he saw a Seraph with six fiery and shining wings descend from the height of heaven. And when in swift flight the Seraph had reached a spot in the air near the man of God, there appeared between the wings the figure of a man crucified, with his hands and feet extended in the form of a cross and fastened to a cross .... Eventually he understood by a revelation from the Lord that divine providence had shown him this vision so that, as Christ's lover, he might learn in advance that he was to be totally transformed into the likeness of Christ crucified, not by the martyrdom of his flesh, but by the fire of his love consuming his soul (LM 13:2-3; pp. 305-6).
Thus it is the love of Francis for Christ which draws him into a participation in the Paschal mystery in an unprecedented way, but this outward manifestation is simply an external sign, a sacrament,(15) as it were, of that passing over into Christ taking place at the depths of his being. "Crucified with Christ, he consummates his sacrifice of love in mystical union .... Francis is the image of the suffering Christ, but a living image, brought to life by grace."(16)


The extraordinary emphasis on the cross in the life of Francis should not be interpreted as a cult of suffering for its own sake, a truncated or distorted perception of the full Paschal pattern. Francis characteristic prayer from his earliest days is that found in his Testament: "We adore you, Lord Jesus Christ, here and in all your churches in the whole world, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world" (Writings, p. 67). For Francis, the cross was never a sign merely of suffering but of redemption, and his vision of a redeemed world complements his devotion to the cross and accounts for his emphasis on joy as a sign of genuine discipleship (cf. 2C 125-29; pp. 465-68), and his love for all God's creation. It was after receiving the stigmata that Francis composed his beautiful "Canticle of Brother Sun," as a result, the early sources tell us, of being assured by the Lord that he would be included in the Kingdom:

"Well, Brother," the voice said, "be glad and joyful in the midst of your infirmities and tribulations: as of now, live in peace as if you were already sharing my kingdom."
     The next morning on rising, he said to his companions. ' . . . God has given me such a grace and blessing that he has condescended in his mercy to assure me, his poor and unworthy servant, still living on this earth, that I would share his kingdom. Therefore, for his glory, for my consolation, and the edification of my neighbor, I wish to compose a new "Praises of the Lord," for his creatures.(17)
Thus the canticle is in some sense a resurrection hymn, a hymn of the new creation.

Perhaps the strongest documentary evidence for Francis' sense of the unity of death and resurrection in Christ is his "Office of the Passion," which Francis composed by arranging verses from the Psalms as a pattern of prayer according to the liturgical hours. For the opening of the office, the verses selected for Compline suggest the betrayal and arrest of Jesus; for example, "All my foes whisper together against me (40:5);(18) and take counsel together (70:10)" (Writings, p. 141). Those chosen for Matins, Prime, Terce and Sext stress the sufferings of the innocent, though even here, especially in the "psalm" for Prime, the note of hope is not absent. The first part of the "psalm" for None, the hour of Christ's death, combines verses from Lamentations, Psalm 21 (which Jesus recited on the cross) and Psalm 68 (which includes the reference to drinking gall and vinegar). But after a reference to "the dust of death" (Ps. 21:16), the tone changes radically, and the rest of the prayer is an exultant hymn of praise, largely to be spoken by Christ himself:

When I lie down in sleep, I wake again, and my Father, most holy, has raised me up in glory (3:6).
Holy Father, with your counsel you guide me, and in the end you will receive me in glory.
Whom else have I in heaven? And when I am with you, the earth delights me not (72:24-25).
Desist! and confess that I am God, exalted among the nations, exalted upon the earth (45:11).
But the Lord redeems the lives of his servants with his own most precious blood; no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him (33:23).
He comes to rule the world with justice and the peoples with his constancy (95:13) (Writings, p. 146).(19)
In the "psalm" for Vespers, all creation is characteristically drawn into the rejoicing:
All you peoples, clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness
For the Lord, the Most High, the awesome, is the great king over all the earth (46:2-3).
The Father of heaven, most holy, our King, sent his beloved Son from on high before all the ages, the doer of saving deeds on earth (73:12).
Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice; let the sea and what fills it resound; let the plains be joyful and all this is in them (95:11).
Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all you lands(95:1).
For great is the Lord and highly to be praised; awesome is he, beyond all gods (95:4).
Give to the Lord, you families of nations, give to the Lord glory and praise; give to the Lord the glory due his name! (95:7-8).
Prepare your hearts and take up his holy cross; live by his holy commandments to the last.
Tremble before him, all the earth; say among the nations: The Lord is king (95:9-10)       (Writings, pp. 146-47).

Here, surely, is testimony to Francis' "resurrection-consciousness," a proclamation of the Kingdom of God both future and present. But it is noteworthy that just before the conclusion,(20) Francis has inserted a verse of his own as a reminder that it is only through the cross, through uniting with Christ in his death, that one enters into the Kingdom of God and joins in the "new song" of praise arid thanksgiving. In the Office, which the friars prayed regularly, we find the clearest indication of how fully grounded Francis was in the full development of the Paschal mystery. With St. Paul he could say, "All I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to share his sufferings by reproducing the pattern of his death. That is the way I can hope to take my place in the resurrection of the dead" (Phil. 3:10-11).

Thus Francis of Assisi is in many ways the culmination of medieval devotion to the life and passion of Christ. "He has such a profound conviction that the life of Christ is the only road by which the Father has come to man and by which man returns to God, that citing St. Peter continually (1 Peter 2:21), he proposes only to follow Jesus in all things."(21) In his spirituality of conformation, Christocentric devotion reached a new intensity. But Francis was not only an end but a beginning, the impetus for spreading and deepening this devotion throughout Christendom. In the figure of the Little Poor Man, who bore in his body the marks of Jesus (cf. Gal. 6:17), the spirituality of conformation finds its most vivid and enduring emblem, a sign not only of the depth of one person's identification with Jesus but also of a universal invitation to union with Christ and incorporation into his Body.

As someone intimately identified with ordinary humanity and with Christ, Francis continues to serve in our own time, as in his, as a sign of God's gracious presence in His people -- and by so doing continues to reflect his Lord, whose divine Sonship was proclaimed at the very moment he united himself completely with poor, broken, sinful humanity at the Jordan. To discover Christ in Francis is not an end but a beginning: as Francis was able both to see Christ in others and to be Christ for others, so he challenges Christians of the present day likewise to see the Lord in the poor, the alienated, the "lepers" who continue to live in our midst, and to be a sacramental presence, at once sign and instrument, of the compassion and joy of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.

  1. The story is found in the tenth chapter of Little Flowers of St. Francis, trans. Raphael Brown, in St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies, ed. Marion A. Habig, O.F.M., 3rd ed. (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973), pp. 1322-23. Subsequent references to this volume will refer to Omnibus of Sources.
  2. Francis of Assisi, Writings, trans. Benen Fahy, O.F.M., in Omnibus of Sources, p. 105; subsequent references to Writings will be incorporated into the text.
  3. Théophile Desbonnets comments succinctly, "Francis did not read the gospel 'to the letter' but 'beyond the letter,' in other words, according to the spirit": "The Franciscan Reading of the Scriptures," in Francis of Assisi Today, Concilium, vol. 148 (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), p. 43.
  4. Thomas of Celano, Second Life of St. Francis, trans. Placid Hermann, O.F.M., section 102, in Omnibus of Sources, p. 446; subsequent references to Celano's two Lives will be abbreviated 1C and 2C and will be included in the text with section and page numbers.
  5. Bonaventure, The Life of St. Francis (Legends Major), trans. Ewert Cousins, Chapter 11:2, in the Bonaventure volume of the Classics of Western Spirituality series (New York: Paulist, 1978), p. 281. Subsequent references to this work, abbreviated LM, will be included in the text with chapter and section and page numbers.
  6. Compare the discussion of biblical knowledge by J. C. Murray, S.J. in The Problem of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), pp. 22-23: "Acknowledgement rather than knowledge would be the word here. The knowledge of God is an affair not simply of cognition but of recognition. It has to do not only with propositions and the admission of their truth but also with freedom, decision and choice. Moreover, the Biblical knowledge of God, like the biblical existence of God, is historical-existential. To know God is to recognize his action in the situation whether it be a deed of rescue or of wrath, and it is to respond to his action by a turning to the Lord, a 'going with' him."
  7. See Étienne Ledeur, "Imitation du Christ: II. Tradition Spirituelle," Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, 7:1576: "Some have found in this imitation only a complacency in suffering and abasement, or a narrow literalism. It is true that there is in Francis an asceticism, a detachment, which he wishes to push to the limit, and that he observes the Gospel to the letter . . . . But literal imitation is something quite different from literalist imitation . . . . Francis was so open to all the forms of imitation that he wrote to Brother Leo, 'Whatever way of pleasing the Lord God and following his footsteps and his poverty seems best, adopt it with the blessing of the Lord God and my permission' (Letter 7) (my translation).
  8. Ephrem Longpré, S. François d'Assise," Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, 3:1286; my translation.
  9. Ibid., col. 1277.
  10. Ibid., col. 1285.
  11. Bonaventure, Minor Life of St. Francis, trans. Benen Fahy, O.F.M., Chapter 3, lesson 7, in Omnibus of Sources, p. 809.
  12. Longpré, col. 1291.
  13. For this theme, see Jean Châtillon, "Nudum Christum nudus sequere. Note sur les origines et la signification du thème de la nudité spirituelle dans les écrits spirituels de saint Bonaventure," in S. Bonaventura, 1274-1974, ed. J. G. Bougerol, 5 vols. (Grottaferrata: Collegium S. Bonaventuriae, 1974), 4:719-74.
  14. Longpré, col. 1292.
  15. Bonaventure uses the term "Domini sacramentum" to describe the stigmata in LM 13:4.
  16. Flavio Di Bernardo, "Passion (Mystique de la)," Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, 12:328; my translation.
  17. Legend of Perugia, trans. Paul Oligny, O.F.M., Chapter 43, in Omnibus of Sources, p. 1021.
  18. Psalms are numbered here according to the Vulgate.
  19. Underlined words are additions by Francis himself to the verses of the Psalms.
  20. 20 Three more verses are added for the period between Ascension Thursday and Advent; see Writings, p. 147.
  21. Longpré, cols. 1278-79.