The penitential life of Francis
Portraits of Francis show him as a worn, emaciated little figure, reduced almost to skin and bone by the severity of his penances. We wonder if this is the model we should follow!
How much importance did Francis give to self-denial, that is to choosing difficult and uncomfortable things when there were much easier options?
One night when Francis and his early companions were living at Rivo Torto, they were awakened in the middle of the night by a voice crying out “I am dying! I am dying!” One of the brothers, over-zealous in his fasting, believed himself to be dying of hunger! Francis immediately had a meal prepared, and so as not to embarrass the brother, he and all the rest shared in it (2 Celano 22).
On this occasion Francis instructed his companions on the need for discretion in their penance. He impressed on them also that fraternal love and kindness is more important.
Another story we like to recall is about Lady Jacoba’s visit to Francis’ deathbed. She arrived just as Francis had asked for a message to be sent to her, and she brought all the things Francis wanted, including ‘some of that sweetmeat she often made for me in Rome’ (Legend of Perugia 101). This information, that Francis had a favourite sweet, softens somewhat the severe image we might have of Francis’ life.
In fact lots of qualities we see in Francis, such as his choice of beautiful places to pray in, his love for the gifts of God in creation, his enjoyment of music, show us that severe penances did not hold an exaggerated place in his life. His life was not one of gloomy endurance but of freedom and joy.
Francis the Ascetic
Yet Francis did live a very penitential life. Why did he do this? What were his motives?
First of all, it seems that in Francis’ singlehearted commitment to God he felt no desire to seek material comforts. He simply had no room in his life for any kind of self-indulgence.
And although he reached such heights of holiness, Francis remained conscious of his own weakness, and always feared that temptation might draw him away from the Gospel life he had embraced. Self-denial was his way of disciplining himself to be ready to respond at once to God’s call – like a finely-tuned instrument, ever ready for the musician’s touch.
Centering his life in Christ gave Francis another motive for enduring the extreme privations we see in his life. Through his meditation on the Gospels, he was touched so deeply with compassion for the sufferings of Jesus that he was totally unconcerned about his own pain or hardship.
A penitential way of life was also integral to Francis’ life of poverty. Rejoicing in everything that was good, he praised and thanked God for the gifts of creation, without wanting to grasp these good things for himself. He was free from any self-seeking.
Our Way of Life
When we see the discipline and the freedom of Francis’ life, we realize that in our lives too, self-denial is not to be an end in itself. Instead we can see it as the consequence of our singlehearted commitment to God, and the means of disciplining our life choices. Self-denial or self-indulgence? Total fidelity to the Gospel or self-seeking? The choice is up to us!