Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone
by Susan Pitchford
I'm standing in a tiny room carved out of the rock face of a cliff outside Assisi, looking down at the bed St. Francis slept on eight hundred years ago. My guidebook says that Francis liked an uncomfortable bed; feeling that time spent sleeping was time stolen from prayer, he liked to wake up often during the night.
— Susan Pitchford,
from the Preface, Following Francis
Susan Pitchford was not visiting Assisi on a whim. As a member of the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis, Pitchford had dedicated her life to following Jesus Christ, using Francis to point the way. Drawn to St. Francis because of his joy-filled and unencumbered passion for God, Pitchford, "an affluent, married, professional woman in twenty-first century America," had joined a community of lay individuals who structured their lives according to the Franciscan rule. Her travels to Assisi and other destinations resulted in Following Francis, a book written to acquaint others with Franciscan spirituality and suggest how it can illumine a path toward Christ in the midst of life's modern-day struggles.
Below is an excerpt from Pitchford's chapter on the second element of the Franciscan rule: prayer. Here she explores some of Francis's approaches to prayer and suggests ways that we too might use them to enrich our own prayer lives.
The following excerpt is used with permission from Morehouse Publishing, an imprint of Church Publishing, Inc.
Excerpted from Chapter 3
Prayer: Ocean Pouring into Ocean
There’s another story about Francis’ practice of prayer that’s recounted in The Little Flowers.11 Once, before Francis had begun to attract followers, he was invited to dinner by Bernard of Quintavalle, one of the principal citizens of Assisi. Bernard was curious about this man who was already gaining some attention in the town, so he often invited Francis to his home to observe him, and test his sincerity. On this occasion they talked late into the night, and upon retiring both men immediately pretended to be asleep, Bernard snoring loudly. Soon Bernard saw Francis rise quietly and kneel to pray. He remained caught up in prayer the entire night, repeating again and again, “My God and my all!” The next day Bernard renounced his possessions and became a follower of Francis, who throughout his life gave himself to intense and concentrated periods of prayer in which some mighty strange things were known to happen.
Francis is clearly hiking above the timberline here, and the prospect of trying to follow him can be intimidating. How do we begin? This is not the place, and I am not the person, to provide detailed instruction on prayer. But wherever we do get our instruction, and whatever methods we follow, there are a few virtually universal challenges people face in learning to pray, and some very basic principles that help us meet those challenges.
The first is that if we’re serious about our relationship with God, and serious about learning to pray, we need to make a serious commitment of time to it. Like Christ, Francis frequently paused from active service and withdrew to remote places to be alone with God. He established a collection of hermitages where he and his brothers could pray in seclusion, and he spent about half the year in solitude.12 Very few of us living a Franciscan vocation “in the world” can accompany Francis this far, but we should remember what Jesus said of the widow’s mite: it’s not how much we give, but how much we give of what we have to give, that counts. Those of us with families, jobs and ministries can’t disappear for months at a time, but if we want to experience spiritual growth, we’ll have to make prayer a priority.
How much time that means will vary from one person to the next, and it can also vary from one season to the next. The rhythms of the academic year mean that my life also alternates between periods of intensive service and slower times that have more room for prayer. If we can identify these rhythms in our lives, we can avoid having the busy times push us to panic when we can’t get alone as much as we’d like, knowing that we’re in the best of company. The Third Order Rule recognizes that how much time we can give to prayer depends on our circumstances. As with our monetary giving, however, we’ll know we’ve made a start when our time commitment makes us a bit nervous. I first began to sense that I’d grown serious about prayer when I realized that my prayer time was going to cost me a promotion. That may not be the standard for you—God may want you to be promoted—but if the time you spend in prayer doesn’t require some level of sacrifice, you may need to re-think your level of commitment.
Second, once we’ve set aside the time and said our prayers of confession, petition, intercession, thanksgiving and whatever others we may be led to say, we need to stop talking. This may seem incredibly obvious, or it may not. Luckily for me, my parents never taught me to “say my prayers,” so I didn’t have to get over the idea that prayer consists of me presenting God with a list of errands, and then walking away. This doesn’t strike me as the best way to form a close relationship; in fact, having fallen in love several times in my life, I can’t recall a single time when it happened like that. Mostly the pattern has been a good bit of conversational to-and-fro, and then quiet, rather heated, togetherness. Prayer, too, passes from dialogue to silent, attentive delight, from asking to adoration. The Curé d’Ars (a French saint and Tertiary who died in 1859) met a peasant in church once, who practiced a very simple but profound method of prayer: “I look at him, and he looks at me.”13 Anyone who’s been in love knows that the look exchanged between lovers is a powerful thing; in Charles Williams’ words, it is “ocean pouring into ocean and itself receiving ocean.”14
Third, something must be done about the fact that, for most of us, trying to be silent in the presence of God feels very much like being trapped inside a pinball machine. Ping! What am I making for dinner? Ping! When am I going to get that review done? Ping! I wonder if the dog needs to go out? It’s probably good for the over-inflated ego to discover how little control we have over our own thought processes, but it can be sorely frustrating. Teachers of prayer have known this forever, which is why they’ve developed a wide variety of ways to deal with it, including the rosary, prayer ropes, mantras, a “sacred word,” walking a labyrinth, weaving a basket or knitting an afghan. The method doesn’t matter much, so long as we have something to which we can anchor our restlessness. When our restless minds and bodies are given some task to focus on, then our spirits can quiet down and be available to God. I look at him, and he looks at me. And while it’s useful to experiment with different methods until we find one that works for us, it’s important then to settle into that method, and not flit around from the rosary to the Jesus prayer to something else.
Fourth, when we’re ready to be attentive to God, most of us find that we need a “way in” to prayer. That is, even when our minds have been stilled, we still need something to draw us into the presence of God, and the masters of prayer have known this, too. Lectio divina (sacred reading) is one way of doing this, in which a short passage of Scripture or some other spiritual reading is read slowly and attentively, allowing the words to sink in. Then you meditate on the passage, allowing God to speak through it to you. Finally, you allow the meditation to lead you into prayer. I learned a sort of amateur lectio as a teenager and practiced it for years before I ever heard the term, and I can vouch for its usefulness. This isn’t the reading that one does for study, to analyze the text; rather, it’s to allow the text to become in a sense a “living word” that God speaks directly to you. Music can be another very effective way into prayer; indeed, I’ve found that certain pieces can actually become prayer, and I can “pray” the same two songs over and over again for months. Music like this never fails to capture my wandering attention, and redirect it to God. Icons are yet another way into prayer. There are some excellent books on how to pray with icons, and I’ve found certain films, especially that rare thing, a really well done life of Christ,15 to be extremely useful as “moving icons” that invite me into the presence of God.
To stop talking, to anchor our restlessness, and to find a way into prayer: these are all important things for us to do, if we want to draw closer to God. But the greatest teachers of prayer tell us there’s a point where our efforts in prayer cease and God takes over. This is a principle that also applies to the spiritual disciplines more generally. The disciplines of Eucharist, study, penitence,retreat and so on that make up the Franciscan Rule are not things we do to transform ourselves; rather, they are our way of putting ourselves in a position where God can effect the transformation.16 As with surgery, the patient is responsible for showing up and getting on the table, but the real work will be done by the surgeon. And what is true for the disciplines in general is doubly true for prayer: if we stay faithful to the practices we know, and do what we can, a time will come when God will do what we can’t. Teresa of Avila, Evelyn Underhill17 and many others have described this moment as an early step toward contemplation, and the point where the soul progresses not through its own efforts, but by the direct action of God.
This may or may not be accompanied by any conscious experience of the nearness of God—“consolations,” as Teresa would have said. It’s important to recognize that many lifelong contemplatives never experience any particular pleasure in prayer, and those who carry on for years without such encouragement must be a great delight to God. I need to avoid the temptation to be mercenary in my relationship to him; although he’s patient with the mixed bag of motives I bring, ultimately I want to love him for himself, and not for the gifts he can give. Yet there are some contemporary teachers of prayer who so downplay the gifts that I think they’re in danger of insulting the Giver. I think of a father who comes home from a business trip with gifts for his children. Obviously he doesn’t want to be greeted by a gaggle of brats whose first utterance is, “What did you bring me?” But surely he would be disappointed if, having greeted him properly, they scorned the gifts altogether. One spiritual director advised Teresa of Avila
to meet any vision of Christ with a rude gesture, which caused her great suffering. She complained often and with feeling about overly timid, unimaginative confessors who were scared senseless by the smallest sign that God might actually be alive and have something to say.
There are those who have been socialized into such mistrust of emotions that the “exuberant mysticism”18 of Teresa is deeply suspect—let alone the romantic or frankly erotic mysticism of Bernard of Clairvaux, Marguerite Porète, Mechtilde of Magdeburg, Hadewijch of Brabant, Beatrijs of Nazareth and their ilk.19 Probably because of his immersion in the medieval romantic tradition, Francis seems very much at ease with lavish expressions and experiences of love for God:
“[W]hen the saint was alone in prayer, he would give free rein to his emotions: laughing one minute and crying the next, singing mystical love songs in French at the top of his lungs one instant, and praying in hushed silence the next.”20
Francis’ perseverance through times of deep spiritual darkness and near despair shows that there was nothing mercenary about his love. But he was a man whose spiritual life was filled with delight, and he accepted both the songs of birds and of angels as gifts from God. What kept both Francis and Teresa safe from deception through the unusual experiences they had in prayer was that they were both steeped in the Scriptures, and they were both always under spiritual direction. They knew the written word of God well enough to know if it were being contradicted, which would have been grounds for immediate dismissal of anyone trying to pose as an angel of light.21 And their prayer lives were always subjected to the discernment of their confessors—a crucial protection against going off spiritually half-cocked. A wise spiritual director will examine our experiences in light of the fruit being borne in our lives,22 knowing that the smallest act of charity outweighs a dozen visions: as a line from Les Miserables puts it, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” It is impossible to overstate the importance of these protections, simply because we are capable of filling our own minds with the most absurd notions, and flattering ourselves that we are spiritually “advanced.” And yet to close ourselves off completely from the work of God in our hearts is merely to fall off the other side of the horse.
There is no specifically Franciscan method of prayer. But it seems safe to say that prayer is more Franciscan in style when it is characterized by the central traits of Franciscan spirituality: humility,love and joy. Franciscans are driven to prayer by a deep sense of inner poverty: “My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is” (Psalm 63:1, KJV). This poverty is by no means cringing or shameful, but delights in our dependence on one who delights in giving. Our prayer is also passionate; we are drawn to Christ because we are, in Goethe’s words, “insane for the light.”23 And our prayer is joyous, in the deepest sense: it relishes the best wine at the wedding feast, but it also welcomes the cross when it comes. This is because, as the Principles of the Third Order remind us, “Jesus calls those who would serve him to follow his example and choose for themselves the same path of renunciation and sacrifice. To those who hear and obey he promises union with God” (The Principles of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis, Day Three; my emphasis).
It is this union that is the goal of all that we do as Christians, both our prayer and our active service. When I was newly returned to the faith, I used to think of heaven as A Place Where. A place where bodies would always work properly, and never break down. A place where all one’s little neuroses would be cured. A place where everyone would have a house on the beach, and there would be no sharks in the water. In short, a place where all problems would be solved, and everything would be perfect. But there does come a time to put away childish things, and I now see that heaven is not a place at all, but a Person. People more grown-up than I have talked about the “beatific vision,” and this begins to make sense to me now: I look at him, and he looks at me. When my mother-in-law was dying, I sat by her bedside one day and we speculated a bit about what was to come. I told her I believe that when I see the face of Christ, every desire and every longing I’ve ever had will be satisfied. She closed her eyes, nodded and whispered, “Yes.” I understand now that heaven is not A Place Where. Heaven is being in God—together with the whole communion of saints—and hell is not being in God. In prayer, when we are graced with a foretaste of that union, it is like rain falling into water: sometimes with a great splash, sometimes softly, but always plunging in and becoming one. Ocean pouring into ocean, and itself receiving ocean: I look at him, and he looks at me.
Questions for Reflection
1. What are some of the challenges and frustrations you experience in prayer? When has prayer not been challenging or frustrating? What do you think made the difference?
2. Are there certain times when you find it especially easy or hard to pray? Are there places that are especially conducive to prayer, or places where you find it difficult to pray?
3. What are the rhythms of your prayer life? Do you experience periods when prayer comes easily, and periods when it’s difficult or impossible to pray? If so, how do you respond when God
seems far away?
4. How has your practice of prayer, or your relationship with God, evolved over time? Do you see changes in the types of prayers you pray, in the time you spend in prayer, in the depth of your
prayer life? How have these changes come about?
5. Is there anything in your life that seems to be impeding your prayer? Grudges, addictions, apathy, self-loathing and a host of other things can make us feel “stalled” on our way to God. How might you deal with things in your life that have become barriers between you and God?
6. Francis exemplified “contemplative action,” the creative synthesis of prayer and service in the world. How do these two elements come together in your life? Do you feel a call to be more attentive to one or the other? How might you begin to explore this call?
Steps into Prayer
1. Start by setting aside a time and place each day to be alone with God, and show up. Put it in your calendar if you need to, and make it good time—not the bits of the day that are left over when everyone else has taken their piece. Don’t be overambitious; if you start with the kind of schedule Francis kept, you’ll give up before the first day is out. But do make a commitment that will stretch you a little.
2. Look for “dead time” in your day that you can reclaim for prayer. Time spent commuting to work, riding the elevator or waiting in line can either be a nuisance or an opportunity to touch base with God.
3. Test drive the Daily Office. If you don’t have a Book of Common Prayer, you can find both morning and evening prayer online at www.tssf.org. Experiment with saying an Office each day for a week; how does it feel to introduce this kind of structure into your prayer life? Once you know the Office by heart, you can say it in the shower, walking the dog or doing the dishes—more “dead time” reclaimed.
4. In addition to your regular list of intercessions, trying “praying the news”: offer prayers for the lost children, the victims of crime and natural disasters, the leaders of the world and those whose
lives they affect. Experiment also with short prayers for the people you encounter during your day: a lonely neighbor, a worried-looking rider on the bus, a coworker who’s going through a tough time.
5. To keep returning to prayer throughout the day, make a habit of starting each new task with a prayer. I keep it simple: when I pick up a stack of exams or sit down to respond to students’email, I cross myself and say, “To the glory of God and in the name of the Father, and of the Son,and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” As I head to class, I pray: “Let the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord our strength and our redeemer.”These prayers don’t take a lot of time or thought; they’re a kind of shorthand for my standing request that my work might be acceptable to God, that he would make up for its deficiencies, and use it to accomplish some good in the world.
6. If distractions during prayer are a problem, experiment with praying while doing some repetitive motion. Running or walking, knitting, washing dishes and weeding the garden are all ways of anchoring our restlessness so our spirits can be still. You might also want to try such time-honored techniques as the rosary. Uncomfortable with Hail Marys? Try the Anglican rosary(see www.franciscan.org.au/anglicanrosary.html), or any string of beads. Choose any short prayer you like; the Psalms are a good place to begin (I like the rhythm of Ps. 63:1: “My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee”).
7. Try lectio divina as a way of praying the Scriptures. Choose a text and read it slowly several times, attentive for any word, phrase or image that seems to speak to you. Then sit quietly with it, and allow it to draw you more deeply into God’s presence, until you can rest in the silence together. Again, the Psalms are particularly suitable for this (try Psalm 27, or 139), as are the gospel narratives. Lectio divina can also be practiced with any spiritual reading, with music or with nature. A friend of mine can spend hours with a tide pool; once you develop the habit of looking for them, you’ll see God’s invitations everywhere.
8. Try sitting still and returning Jesus’ gaze. Look at him, while he looks at you. See your image in his eyes; do you look different there from the way you habitually see yourself? Start small—if you’re not practiced at adoration, try it for five minutes. You may find it helpful to begin by focusing on an icon of Christ. Tired of blond-haired, blue-eyed Christs? See www.bridgebuilding.com for images of Jesus with a refreshing bit of color.
9. Finally, don’t forget to pray in community. The next time you’re praying with a group, notice how it feels to join your prayer to theirs. There is a special power in praying as part of the body of Christ. Francis recognized this, and made corporate prayer a significant part of his life. We should not fail to do the same.
Oh God, you have searched me and known me. You inhabit the desert and the oasis, the darkness and the light. You inhabit the praise of your people, our highest joy and our deepest pain. Kindle in my heart the fire of Francis’ passion, so that I too will search and know you, in your creation and in the least of your brothers and sisters. Amen.
12. William J. Short, OFM, Poverty and Joy: The Franciscan Tradition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999) 84-85.
13. The Eucharistic Meditations of the Curé d'Ars, "Visit to the Blessed Sacrament—a method of making it," Meditation 22, www.camelites.ie/Archive/euchmed2.htm#Med%2022.
14. Charles Williams, The Greater Trump, ( London: Regent, 2003), 16.
15. My all-time favorite is The Gospel of John starring Henry Ian Cusick as Jesus, released in 2003 by Visual Bible International.
16. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (San Francisco: Harper, 1978).
17. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle; Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism: a Little Book for Normal People ( London: Dent, 1914).
18. Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart, 11.
19. Many of these mystics' writings are helpfully summarized in Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Minneapolis: Fortress 2001, trans. Barbara and Martin Rumscheidt). See also Saskia Murk-Jansen, Brides in the Desert: The Spirituality of the Beguines (London: Dartman, Longman and Todd, 1978), and Elizabeth A. Dreyer, Passionate Spirituality: Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch of Brabant ( Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005).
20. John Michael Talbot with Steve Rabey, The Lessons of St. Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily Life (New York: Plume, 1997), 234.
21. 2 Corinthians 11:14 NRSV.
22. Matthew 7:20 NRSV.
23 Wolfgang von Goethe, The Holy Longing, translated by Robert Bly and quoted in Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality ( New York: Doubleday), 1.
Used with permission from Morehouse Publishing, an imprint of Church Publishing Inc. Excerpt from Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone by Susan Pitchford. Copyright ©2006 by Susan Pitchford.