Autumn 1987, Vol. 39, pp. 241-249.

Louis Davino:
      Francis of Assisi: Metaphor of Franciscan Maturity

In his reliance on community, care for his followers, and willingness to let go and start anew, Francis of Assisi models for Christians today the path to authentic spiritual maturity.

Fr. Louis Davino, O.F.M., is currently finishing a Doctor of Ministry degree at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, Indiana, in the area of Christian education and lay ministry. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, and an M.A. in Franciscan Studies from St. Bonaventure University.

IT is not what you are nor what you have been that God looks at with his merciful eyes, but what you desire to be."(1) This quotation from The Cloud of Unknowing reflects the basic notion that the human person is on a journey toward the unknown, or as stated in Philippians 3:14, one is racing for "the prize toward which God calls."

James Fowler attempts to prove that every person can mature or journey in faith, moving from primal to universalizing faith.(2) Fowler, and other developmental theorists, tell us what is possible, not necessarily what actually occurs. With Christian concepts of freedom and choice, the individual is able to choose not to progress, not to work along with God's grace, that urges toward the "finish line." As St. Paul continues, only those who are spiritually mature will continue to move forward, no matter what stage has been reached (Phil. 3:14-16).


Spiritual maturity is a process, not a finished product. We encounter difficulties, complexities of life seem too great for us to deal with, and tensions are too unpleasant to acknowledge. Yet, as we move through the desert of uncertainty and the unknown, what lies ahead could be greater freedom, a sense of self and accomplishment, becoming an adult. The great mystics, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, the author of The Cloud, all have experienced darkness around them. But even in the darkness, in the struggle, the light of understanding and faith guides them through. While the uncertainties and the struggles continue, the passage toward greater clarity is made easier because God is there, walking with us in our own Exodus, on the way to our own Jerusalem, on the road to Emmaus.

On our individual and unique journeys, we walk also with others. The Exodus people had Moses and Aaron, Jesus had his disciples, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus had each other. We have our friends, our religious communities, our spouses. These significant individuals, some of whom may be mentors, help us to discern the meaning of the journey in order to be able to respond to the question: what is God asking from me (us) now? The human individual is a becoming individual, a believer becoming. To become is to be alive; anything else is death, the death of the spirit which urges us forward.

As someone begins to understand the nature of journey, that person seeks out models or metaphors to help clarify and understand what is being experienced and how to reflect on the experience. He or she seeks a guide or a mentor, a spiritual friend and companion that helps the journeyer find meaning beyond the self, which, paradoxically, deepens the spirit within: "The power of meaning, then, involves a self-transcendence, a passing beyond oneself in giving oneself away or a deepening of one's spirit by an openness to a transcendent Spirit beyond."(4) Then there comes the time when the one helped by a mentor becomes the mentor to another on the passage toward spiritual maturity.

Shared intimacies are established not only to form, but to interpret and re-interpret the meaning of one's dream and vocation, to continue the conversion process. "The converting person is constantly leaving a past behind in order to be open for something more."(3) Shared intimacy helps one discern what needs to become lost in the past and what is to be retained and renewed for the present. Shared intimacy also opens one to the darkness of the unknown and the possibility of change with courage, even though the fear of uncertainty is still present. It is a childlike trust and hope and play because the person does not seek to control. Rather, with spontaneity she or he seeks to rediscover meaning creatively by tearing down and building up life structures.

This process of reconstruction is possible only within a supportive context: friends, community, spouse. Unless shared intimacy and mutual trust exist, one regresses into isolation rather than relationship, into absorption with the self rather than care for another, into a destructive rather than a creative stance toward life's meaning.


For Franciscans, the metaphor in the journey toward spiritual maturity is Francis of Assisi himself. In Francis we have a model of becoming adult, becoming mature, and becoming Christian. Through his story, we rediscover the meaning of relationship in a community context. Through the re-telling or the re-expression of his story the Franciscan tradition again comes alive even though the re-telling is fraught with our own "flawed experiences and in our own halting voice."(5)

In telling the Franciscan story we pass on not only our tradition but ourselves as well. In telling our story, we only hope to be touched again: to try to feel what Francis felt as his dream became a reality in his first followers; to re-live with the first Franciscans that sense of joy in moving into some new form of apostolic life, yet as old as the Gospel itself; to experience the loss of the founder, and to move hesitantly into new expressions of living out the Gospel, even though these new expressions cause struggle and fear. In retelling the story, we, too, may sense a personal loss, a loss of familiar customs and comfortable ways of living our life, yet it is through the quiet listening as a group that we can continue to go with God:

The last words of the Teller of Tales rang in the air. There was a hush upon the crowd, a hush so charged with emotion that the listeners avoided one another's eyes. In the profound quiet a single sound spoke volumes: there was a tiny sob from a woman in the front row, a woman who wept now, quietly, giving vent to an emotion that mixed sadness with joy. It was an emotion all shared.(6)


During the two years of his lingering dying, Francis often had the brothers gathered around him. He prayed with them, blessed them and those who were to come after. He continuously taught, encouraged, and guided his brothers toward their own goal, toward their own unique finish line. Two years before his death, he told them: "Let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord, for up to now we have made little or no progress."(7) In relating this event, Thomas of Celano continues the account with his own commentary: "He [Francis] did not consider that he had laid hold of his goal as yet, and persevering untiringly in his purpose of attaining holy newness of life, he hoped always to make a beginning."(8)

Francis seemed always to interpret anew his call from God. From literally rebuilding San Damiano to preaching the gospel of peace, Francis thus ritualizes for us what it means to live out an ideal that constantly needs reinterpretation in light of present conditions and within the context of a supportive community. The values of community relationships and support, of prayer and ministry to others, of reconciliation and hope provide the milieu for future generations of Franciscans to develop their own creativity. Not to perpetuate these values would cause stagnation, the eventual death of our Franciscan way of life. As Fowler states, the adult generation "provides conditions that will provide the possibility for members of the oncoming generations to develop their personal strengths at each stage."(9)

The vision and goal of Francis is our vision and goal, lived, however, uniquely, in our own sitz im leben. The vision and goal of Francis are implemented in mutuality, in the context of shared intimacy, not dogmatism or authoritarianism. In Francis' dealing with the brothers, he always invited a response, never cajoled one. "I have done what was mine to do; may Christ teach you what you are to do."(10)

Like Francis, we let go and give our blessing so the next generation is enabled to do its part. In a metaphorical sense, by our own open, receptive stance toward discerning the new, we are "birthing" a renewal of our Franciscan way of life. In the beginning of Francis' letter to Brother Leo he compares himself to a mother: "I speak to you, my son, as a mother. I speak all the words which we spoke on the road in this phrase, briefly and as advice."(11) As Fowler states: "The dynamics of that openness and the extraordinary openings that come occasionally with 'saving grace' -- operate as a lure and power toward ongoing growth in partnership with Spirit and in the direction of universalizing faith."(12)


The antitheses of universalizing faith is attachment. Attachment leads not to creativity but fear of oneself and others, even God. If one remains in the darkness, this cave of indecisiveness and, at times, bitterness toward the new, the process of growth and maturity in adulthood is aborted. The 'we-have-always-done-it-this-way' syndrome conveys a false sense of security. A malaise of inactivity results in our terminating the journey by looking back, like Lot's wife, only to be rooted in the mire of stagnation.

Francis, too, had his moments of fear. In another story from Thomas of Celano, Francis is distressed by those brothers who are not living the Gospel life but are satisfied with public praise and the "mere appearances of religious life." In Celano's account, Francis is rebuked by the Lord for this distress, this lack of faith: "Why are you disturbed, little man? Did I not place you over my order as its shepherd and now you do not know that I am its chief protector?" After this reassurance, Francis is consoled and "the deepest darkness is dispersed by even a single ray of light."(13)

In the few years before his death, Francis realized he could not care for the brothers as he once did. He resigned as superior, but the brothers were distressed that they would be left orphans. Yet Francis would not allow for this pity; rather, he used this moment to teach the friars that the Order, the community, was a partnership, each member was to assume ownership of its values. Francis passes on the leadership of the community to another friar, and in so doing states to his brothers, in the form of a prayer:

Lord, I commend to you the family that you heretofore have entrusted to me. But now, because of my infirmities, as you know, most sweet Lord, I am unable to care for it and so I entrust it to the ministers. Let them be obliged to render an account before you, Lord, on judgment day... (14)

Once again Francis provides conditions for growth. He let go in order to move forward. James and Evelyn Whitehead remark in this regard, "We mature as adults by learning how to prevail and how to lose. A dynamic in human development that facilitates this learning is the dialectic of control and letting go or of active and passive mastery."(15)

Because of Francis' own humility, his own earthiness, he was able to be a metaphor of reconciliation between friars and political factions in towns. He lived and was able to die gracefully, a person of integrity and hope. His receptivity to creation as God's gift allowed him to liberate in himself and in others the nurturing aspects of human relationships, the revelation of not only the Divine Fatherhood of God, but also the Divine Motherhood of the God who cares and brings forth life. Thomas Merton refers to this integration of polarities as the insight of complementarity: "with this view of life, one is able to bring perspective, liberty and spontaneity into the lives of others."(16)


What does Francis' life journey say to those of us who are Franciscans now and to those who will come after us? What does Francis' spiritual maturity tell us about our own growth toward maturity and adulthood as Franciscans? Francis was never satisfied with a stagnant sense of vocation. His dreams of knighthood at the beginning of his life and at the beginning of his conversion experience, to rebuild the crumbling church of San Damiano underwent re-interpretation and change. His desire that he and his brothers follow the Gospel in purity was conditioned by the needs of the time and the growing number of followers. His thirst for the contemplative life had to be incorporated into his concern to liberate the lepers from an oppressive system that exiled them from the society in which they lived.

Francis offered hope to those near him and to those of us who come after. He has passed on to us a model of maturity that calls us not to domination, manipulation, and dogmatism, but rather, to a maturity that calls for a life of shared intimacy, mutual partnership, and a respect for uniqueness. Francis has given us a biblical notion of wisdom, one that was "present from creation... playing at the side of God."(17) To put it simply, friars are to play! To play is to rejoice, to imagine, and to express in creativity the meaning of one's life. To play is to take a risk, to attempt to put the ideal into the real. As Franciscans we play in our communities by trusting one another in mutual partnership. We play in our ministry by inviting others to play along with us, to dream possibilities of peace and justice. We play with our vocation by challenging those who would "limit the freedom of action of the group with meticulous regulation."(18)

As Franciscans we do not avoid the world, we embrace it as God's expression of joy in us. Is this utopianism? I hope so! "Utopia expresses all the possibilities of reality in their concrete form."(19) Even if our playful imaginings do not become realities, they elicit from us the virtues of trust and hope to continue the journey:

The Gospel seriousness of Francis is surrounded by lightheartedness and enchantment because it is profoundly imbued with joy, refinement, courtesy, and humor. There is in him an invincible confidence in humanity and in the merciful goodness of God. As a result, he exorcises all fears and threats. His faith does not alienate him from the world; nor does it lead him to a pure valley of tears. On the contrary, it transforms him through gentleness and care in land and home for the fraternal encounter, where persons do not appear as 'children of necessity, but as children of joy.' We can dance in the world because it is the theater of the glory of God and of his children.(20)


As Franciscans move towards the future with trust in the ever-creative presence of God, and as any Christian seeks to mature in faith, the process itself, as journey, should be filled with hope. As the Exodus event was a time of reinterpreting the past for the Israelites so they could move forward with new images and metaphors of their relationship with God and each other, the Church today continues to reevaluate and renew itself. Just as Francis of Assisi refined and redefined the Order to respond to his own situation before God, so we also respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in our own day and age. Difficulties will arise; yet, as Francis assured us, Christ journeys with us always.

  1. James Walsh, ed., The Cloud of Unknowing (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), p. 265.
  2. See, for example, Stages of Faith (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981), and Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984).
  3. James McNamara, The Power of Compassion (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), p. 57.
  4. Raymond Sudzinski, Spiritual Direction and Midlife Development (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1985), p. 56.
  5. John Shea, "Storytelling and Religious Identity," in Chicago Studies 22:1 (Spring, 1982), p. 33.
  6. Peter Danielson, Children of the Lion (New York: Bantam, 1980), p. 463.
  7. Marion Habig, ed., "The First Life of St. Francis" by Thomas of Celano, in St. Francis: Omnibus of Sources (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973), p. 318.
  8. Ibid.
  9. James Fowler, Becoming Adult, p. 28.
  10. "The Second Life of St. Francis" by Thomas of Celano, in Habig, ed., p. 534.
  11. Regis Armstrong and Ignatius Brady, eds., Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), p. 48.
  12. Fowler, Becoming Adult, p. 75.
  13. Habig, ed. cit., p. 490.
  14. Ibid., p. 478.
  15. James and Evelyn Whitehead, Christian Life Patterns (Garden City, NY: Image, 1979), p. 231.
  16. Thomas Merton, "Final Integration," in Conversion, Walter Conn, ed. (New York: Alba House, 1978), p. 269.
  17. Xavier Leon-Dufour, ed., Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 2nd ed. (New York: Seabury, 1967), p. 659.
  18. Lazaro Iriarte de Aspurz, The Franciscan Calling (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1974), p. 58.
  19. Leonardo Boff, St. Francis: A Model of Human Liberation (New York: Crossroad, 1982), p. 157.
  20. Ibid.