Penance, in its traditional definition, means conversion from human ways of doing things to God's ways. During his life, Saint Francis of Assisi passed through certain stages of conversion, common to many spiritual journeys, to a deeper intimacy with God. At any one of these steps, he could have stalled or reversed direction. Instead he continued forward, becoming a saint.
Step one: Lax attitude toward God.
The individual believes that God exists. He may pray and attend Mass, but the relationship with God is shallow. Francis Bernardone was born in Assisi, Italy, in 1182. The son of a rich cloth merchant, Francis was named by his father in honor of the nation which provided the family business
with some of the finest cloth in Europe. Francis grew into a generous, kind lad who loved good times and parties. He was so free with his father's money that his friends often chose him as king of the many feasts he sponsored.
Step two: Desire to follow God in human ways.
A person wants to serve God better so he begins to do what seems good, humanly speaking, yet the person has not asked what God wants done. As he matured, Francis's love of God deepened and mixed with his dreams of glory and honor. Aspiring to become a great knight, he convinced his father to buy him the finest armor. Then he set out, fighting on the side of the Pope in his war against the emperor. Captured following a bloody battle, Francis kept his spirits high while imprisoned and encouraged other prisoners to be cheerful. Finally, after his father's intervention, Francis was released. Ill, he returned home to recover.
Step three: Confusion over the path to follow.
A soul begins to realize that what seemed reasonable did not bring the intended results. Questioning follows. Did I do the right thing? Am I on the right track? Francis had been sure that he was to serve God as a knight, but battle, imprisonment, and illness had dimmed his thoughts of glory. Although he had been fighting on God's side in the papal army, he had encountered, in supposedly Christian soldiers, pride, injustice, brutality, and hatred. In the delirium of his illness, Francis pondered eternal questions. What does God want of me? What am I to do with my life?
Step four: Misinterpretation of God's wishes.
The soul, not yet seasoned in discernment, may misinterpret the answer received in prayer and thus attempt to carry out a faulty agenda. Francis made a slow recovery. One night he had a dream in which he was in an enchanted castle filled with armor and presided over by a stunningly beautiful princess. "All this is you and your knights," a Voice said. Believing in dreams, Francis, with renewed joy, again clad himself in armor and set out for battle. But this time, at Spoleto, Francis's illness returned and with it a second dream and the Voice he had heard before. "Who do you think can best reward you, the Master or the servant?" When Francis answered, "The master," the Voice questioned, "Then why do you leave the Master for the servant, the rich Lord for the poor man?" "Oh, Lord," Francis breathed, "what do You wish me to do?" "Return to your own place," the Voice said, "and you will be told what to do. The dream about the armor must be interpreted in a spiritual sense."
Step five: Taking time to discern.
Having realized previous errors, the soul begins to pray more fervently and to wait patiently for clear direction from the Lord. Francis shocked Assisi by his return. Was he afraid of battle? Was he crazy? The latter seemed more logical, reveling in the street and Francis stopped in a trance, struck by a vision of the princess he had seen in the castle. This time she was dressed in rags. "I have found my beloved bride," he proclaimed to his sarcastic friends, "and she is the noblest, the richest, the most beautiful bride who ever lived on this earth." He called her Lady Poverty. After this, he courted her alone, leaving his friends for the solitude of the woods, for a pilgrimage to Rome where he begged for his food, for the lepers whom he tended. All this time, Francis prayed and waited for God's promised direction. "Lord, what would YOU have me do?" Finally, in the run-down church of San Damiano, the answer came from a huge, colorful icon of the Crucified Christ. "Francis, go and repair My house, which, as you can see, is falling into ruin."
Step six: Acting on the direction God has shown.
Revelation of God's direction may come in many ways, but, when a penitent is certain of it, he or she decisively acts. With an eager, "Yes, Lord," Francis set to work. Taking huge bolts of cloth from his father's store, he set off for a nearby town where he sold both cloth and steed and then walked back to San Damiano where he attempted to give the money to the priest. Explaining that the alms were dishonestly acquired through the sale of Pietro Bernardone's goods, the priest refused the coins. So, legend claims, Francis threw them into one of the windows of San Damiano.
Step seven: Maintaining direction despite opposition.
Set on a path of conversion, the convert soon encounters misunderstanding from those whose spiritual position he has left behind. The soul will either move forward despite opposition or will wither under it and fall backwards. When his father learned what Francis had done, he hauled him before the bishop and demanded that Francis restore the money obtained for the goods. Since the priest had not used the money, it was easily returned. However, Francis recognized a spiritual crossroad. Disrobing in front of the assembled populace, he gave his clothes to Pietro Bernardone and cried out, "Up until today I have called Pietro Bernardone my father. For the future I shall say, 'Our Father Who art in heaven . . . ."
Step eight: Continuance on the path of conversion.
The soul intent on serving God continues to do so joyfully despite hatred, mockery, and opposition. Alienated from his family and dressed in a workman's tunic, Francis followed the direction given him by God. He walked the streets of Assisi, begging for stones which he carried down the steep hillside to tumble-down churches in the valley below. He continued to tend lepers, even washing their wounds and eating from their bowls. His father thought him mad. His mother pitied him. Children pelted him with rocks and mud. To all he grinned, "Pax et bonum." Peace and all good.
Step nine: Exuberance of a new beginning.
Opposition begins to fade as conversion persists. New friendships develop. God seems continually nearer. For two years, Francis labored alone, restoring three country churches. Meanwhile, some of the townsfolk were touched by his persistent fervor and courtesy. In 1208, Bernardo di Quintavalle and Pietro Catani, two prominent citizens of Assisi, asked to join Francis. Others followed. Silvestro. Giles. Rufino. Clare, the daughter of a respected Assisian knight who, with the women who followed her, were housed at San Damiano which Francis and others had enlarged into a cloister. Eventually Francis took his band of twelve men to Rome where the Pope authorized them to preach repentance.
Step ten: Converting others to the Way.
With the support and encouragement of like minded friends, the convert begins to evangelize. Francis and his friars minor (lesser brothers) fanned across Italy in groups of two, preaching a simple message of conversion to Christ. More friars joined Francis; more sisters joined Clare. Lay people wished to do penance so Francis laid the foundations of a lay Order called the Brothers and Sisters of Penance. Francis himself was preaching, going even to the Moslems.
Step eleven: Embracing suffering.
Once an individual is solidly on God's path, his faith is often tested by suffering which, if borne with trust in God's wisdom, perfects belief. In Egypt Francis contracted a painful eye disease that eventually blinded him. As his health deteriorated, he was plagued with headaches and stomach pains. Unable to govern the friars, he turned the Order over to others who began to mitigate the poverty embraced by Francis and his first followers. Depression set in. In 1224, while deep in prayer, Francis was branded in his hands, feet, and side with the stigmata, the painful wounds of Christ. Unable to walk, he who forbade his friars to ride horseback had to use a donkey himself.
Step twelve: Finding joy in whatever life may bring.
The penitent realizes that all that happens is in God's will and for his spiritual good. Thus, with trust and faith, the soul joyfully surrenders to all God's actions. Blind, ill Francis wrote what is perhaps his most famous piece, "The Canticle of Brother Sun." The song praises creation and the Creator and ends with an ode to death. In the early evening of October 3, 1226, death came for Francis at the Porziuncola, the little restored church which he wished to be the headquarters of his Order. Francis had asked to be laid naked on the ground "for as long as it takes to walk a mile unhurriedly," so that he could meet his Creator as he had entered the world--with nothing. As if to announce his entry into eternal life, a flock of sky larks flew over the little cell in which lay his still warm body.
People come to know and follow the Lord by many different routes, but some paths are common to many journeys. Back in the little, tumble down church of San Damiano, when Francis was trying to determine what God would have him do, he had prayed a prayer of personal surrender to God. "Lord, what would YOU have me do?" This was the prayer of Christ in the Garden. "Not My will, Lord, but Yours, be done." When we can sincerely pray that prayer, or something like it, then our own conversion venture will have begun.
--Madeline Pecora Nugent
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Messenger of Saint Anthony, Padua, Italy (originally published October, 1999, in the Messenger of Saint Anthony, pages 14-16)
If you feel that God may be calling you to live a life of conversion and penance, as a lay person in your own home, following the example of St. Francis, please consult the home page of the Confraternity of Penitents on this link and also linked to in the above link bar.