After his conversion Francis based his whole life on imitating Jesus as he traveled towards a fullness of life, a completeness of life and a love of life with God.
In the humility of the Incarnation God chose our humanity to show us His divine love. Using our humanity Jesus communicates God’s divine love. He shows us his love for The Father and he shows us His Father’s love for us and everything created – and this love between Father and Son is wrapped within God’s Holy Spirit which dwells within and is around us all.
Thomas of Celano [the first biographer of Saint Francis of Assisi] explains how Francis understood God’s profound humility:
His highest aim, foremost desire, and greatest intention
was to pay heed to the holy gospel in all things and through all things,
to follow the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ
and to retrace His footsteps completely
with all vigilance and all zeal,
all the desire of his soul
and all the fervour of his heart.
Francis used to recall with regular meditation the words of Christ
and recollect His deeds with most attentive perception.
Indeed, so thoroughly did the humility of the Incarnation
and the charity of the Passion
occupy his memory
that he scarcely wanted to think of anything else.
For I wish to enact the memory of that babe who was born in Bethlehem: to see as much as is possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he rested on hay.
By looking at Christ, Francis understood that humanity is created and loved by God. Francis sought to see in all he met, and especially the poor and marginalised [lepers], the Divine likeness of God the Son, the image in whom we’re each made.
The the beginning of his Fifth Admonition we hear Francis saying:
Consider, O human being, in what great excellence the Lord God has placed you, for He created and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body and to His likeness according to the Spirit.
For Francis the evangelical council of Obedience was about listening to God. He heard God in Scripture, he discovered communication with God through the elements, he listened to God’s artistry within the creatures and he encountered God in people he met.
The above paragraph is something which perhaps today our faith has forgotten. We need to show to everyone we meet the example of God, that we are created spiritually in the likeness of His Son and that God’s Holy Spirit dwells within us. We need to be little Gospel verses for others to see and hear. Our lives by example need to be “the only sermon someone may hear today”. We need to stop singing about what “I need” and instead share the wonder of His Divine Love with others. As Francis said in the Letter to the Entire Order [1225-1226]
5Listen, sons of the Lord and my brothers, pay attention to my words. 6Incline the ear of your heart and obey the voice of the Son of God. 7Observe His commands with your whole heart and fulfil His counsels with a perfect mind. 8 Give praise to Him because He is good; exalt Him by your deeds; 9for this reason He has sent you into the whole world: that you may bear witness to His voice in word and deed and bring everyone to know that there is no one who is all-powerful except Him. 10Persevere in discipline and holy obedience and, with a good and firm purpose, fulfil what you have promised Him. 11The Lord God offers Himself to us as to His children.
When we show God to others, when we invite them to feel their createdness and to know that we are each a unique Child of God, we become more like Christ. This is the example of Francis of Assisi. This is part of our own personal conversion process, being Christ-like, seeing the world as he would, seeing with Christ’s eyes.
We each take our own route to conversion, but its purpose is the same for us all; to feel God within us and to become more like Jesus, to become Christ Focused and to be more holy. To be better people. To be people who live in relationship with God and for God. And often on this path we need to remind ourselves daily that a fresh life springs from us. An exciting life full of aliveness because we recognise our original likeness, Imago Dei, is beloved and cherished by God. This is penitence.
Penitence is a daily reminder to focus our thoughts, words and deeds on what is good and right and true. To build our relationships with God’s Holy Trinity, to pray, to praise, to be little sermons for Jesus in quiet ways that are respectful of others. To be confident in our humility before others. And to share a love so wonderful – God’s love for us, and to share with others the gifts God has given us. To share our charisms to bring joy, learning and encouragement to others. To use our charisms to listen to those to hurt, to heal those in pain, to love everyone, to write words of faith and to encourage one another on life’s journey.
Saint Bonaventure explains “There is no place for arrogance in human interactions. Rather, humans need to join in humble service and mutual relationship, grounded in the reality that all of their gifts, talents and resources flow from God, the Fountain Source of All Goodness. As the poor Christ ministered to the poor and the outcasts of his day, so too must humans serve others in their own time and place.” And we do this to share and enjoy with others to goodness of being a Created One of God.
Penitence helps us keep pride in check, it reminds us to apologise and correct our errors, to acknowledge our sins, to love another another and to live good lives in the example of Jesus Christ. The beauty of penitential life conforms us to the likeness of Christ and penitential practices should be about becoming the best we can be. Penance is our whole self praising God – mind, body and soul.
Poverty & Penance
Franciscan penance understands poverty as not over-valuing belongs and not over-valuing our own ego. Voluntary poverty and simplicity is about humility and self-denial but these things are seen in a positive light, freeing our lives and minds, and bodies and souls from things that aren’t really necessary – Poverty and penance returns our thoughts to consider what really is important and essential to life and living.
Penance & God’s Grace
Penance is God’s Grace helping us grow in holiness, through penance we learn to understand and make reparation for our sins and to control passions that please only ourselves or that hurt others. Penance is an act of love that looks beyond our own Self. Penance is seeking joy in being a better person and so it has been said that “a penitential person who does not show joy is no penitent. Penance, love and joy can never be separated from one another”.
The Purpose of Penance
Sometimes penance may involve self-sacrifice, going without, or fasting but its main purpose is to look after our spiritual Self by staying in line with Christ’s footprints. Penance is about living “from Gospel to Life and from Life to Gospel” and involves on-going process of conversion or formation or change of the Self.
The aims of Penance can be found within the Secular Franciscan Rule and Articles and the examples of Clare and Francis of Assisi:
- To strive for perfect charity in our secular state.
- To live a Gospel life as St Francis did.
- To announce Christ to others – To be little sermons by our life-style, words and actions.
- To understand the treasure that humility brings not only to others but to the Self.
- To know the meaning of kenosis and how it frees the self from ego, thereby making more room from Christ-like qualities to develop within us.
- To contemplate on Christ – St Clare’s formula to gaze, to consider, to contemplate and then to imitate is a good example to follow.
- To intentionally chose work or develop a career that helps others.
- To receive the Eucharist as often as possible – to meet Christ at his altar.
- Build a more fraternal and evangelical world.
Penance & Conversion
Penance and conversion are indivisible. They are about forming ourselves into the best human beings possible, following the example of Christ’s humanity. When we try to transform ourselves we question our own bias and preconceived ideas about others, we try to see the imprint of Christ in everyone, and in everyone equally – whatever their age, gender, social status, health, wealth, crime and loves.
Conversion is a continuous path of formation that help us grow and move nearer to God and includes:
- Understanding our own personal biography
- Understanding Scripture
- Receiving the Sacraments
- Attending Mass and Eucharist Adoration
- Understanding insights of psychology and theology
- Being with others to support and who support you on the path of transformation.
As our spirituality matures our life of conversion blossoms, we know that in following Christ we are not meant to pursue Crucifixion, but we are meant to pursue God’s Divine Love. Yes we endure our own sufferings and bear our own crosses during life’s journey but our resurrection is with Christ beside us as we live a life for God’s purpose.
Our Secular Franciscan Rule points out:
SFO Rule 7:
United by their vocation as “brothers and sisters of penance” and motivated by the dynamic power of the gospel, let them conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the gospel calls “conversion.” Human frailty makes it necessary that this conversion be carried out daily.
On this road to renewal the sacrament of reconciliation is the privileged sign of the Father’s mercy and the source of grace.
Exhortation of Saint Francis to the Brothers and Sisters in Penance
In the name of the Lord!
Concerning Those Who Do Penance
All who love the Lord with their whole heart, with their whole soul and mind, with all their strength (cf. Mk 12:30), and love their neighbours as themselves (cf. Mt 22:39) and hate their bodies with their vices and sins, and receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and produce worthy fruits of penance.
Oh, how happy and blessed are these men and women when they do these things and persevere in doing them, because “the spirit of the Lord will rest upon them” (cf. Is 11:2) and he will make “his home and dwelling among them” (cf Jn 14:23), and they are the sons of the heavenly Father (cf. Mt 5:45), whose works they do, and they are the spouses, brothers, and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Mt 12:50).
We are spouses, when by the Holy Spirit the faithful soul is united with our Lord Jesus Christ; we are brothers to him when we fulfil “the will of the Father who is in heaven” (Mt 12:50).
We are mothers, when we carry him in our heart and body (cf. 1 Cor 6:20) through divine love and a pure and sincere conscience; we give birth to him through a holy life which must give life to others by example (cf. Mt 5:16).
Oh, how glorious it is to have a great and holy Father in heaven! Oh, how glorious it is to have such a beautiful and admirable Spouse, the Holy Paraclete.
Oh, how glorious it is to have such a Brother and such a Son, loved, beloved, humble, peaceful, sweet, lovable, and desirable above all: Our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave up his life for his sheep (cf. Jn 10:15) and prayed to the Father saying:
“Oh, holy Father, protect them with your name (cf. Jn 17:11) whom you gave me out of the world. I entrusted to them the message you entrusted to me and they received it. They have known that in truth I came from you; they have believed that it was you who sent me. For these I pray, not for the world (cf. Jn 17:9). Bless and consecrate them, and I consecrate myself for their sakes. I do not pray for them alone; I pray also for those who will believe in me through their word (cf. Jn 17:20) that they may be holy by being one, as we are (cf. Jn 17:11). And I desire, Father, to have them in my company where I am to see this glory of mine in your kingdom” (cf. Jn 17:6-24).
Concerning Those Who Do Not Do Penance
But all those men and women who are not doing penance and do not receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and live in vices and sin and yield to evil concupiscence and to the wicked desires of the flesh, and do not observe what they have promised to the Lord, and are slaves to the world, in their bodies, by carnal desires and the anxieties and cares of this life (cf. Jn. 8,41); slaves of the devil whose sons they are and whose works they do.
These are blind, because they do not see the true light, our Lord Jesus Christ; they do not have spiritual wisdom because they do not have the Son of God who is the true wisdom of the Father. Concerning them, it is said, “Their skill was swallowed up” ( Ps. 107,27) and “cursed are those who turn away from your commands” (Ps. 119,21). They see and acknowledge, they know and do bad things and knowingly destroy their own souls.
See, you who are blind, deceived by your enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil, for it is pleasant to the body to commit sin and it is bitter to make it serve God because all vices and sins come out and “proceed from the heart of man” as the Lord says in the Gospel (cf. Mk. 7,21). And you have nothing in this world and in the next, and you thought you would possess the vanities of this world for a long time.
But you have been deceived, for the day and the hour will come to which you give no thought and which you do not know and of which you are ignorant. The body grows infirm, death approaches, and so it dies a bitter death, and no matter where or when or how man dies, in the guilt of sin, without penance or satisfaction, though he can make satisfaction but does not do it.
The devil snatches the soul from his body with such anguish and tribulation that no one can know it except he who endures it, and all the talents and power and “knowledge and wisdom” (2 Chr. 1,12) which they thought they had will be taken away from them (cf. Lk. 8,18; Mk. 4,25), and they leave their goods to relatives and friends who take and divide them and say afterwards, “Cursed be his soul because he could have given us more, he could have acquired more than he did.” The worms eat up the body and so they have lost body and soul during this short earthly life and will go into the inferno where they will suffer torture without end.
All those into whose hands this letter shall have come we ask in the charity that is God (cf. Jn. 4,16) to accept kindly and with divine love the fragrant words of our Lord Jesus Christ quoted above. And let those who do not know how to read have them read to them.
And may they keep them in their mind and carry them out, in a holy manner to the end, because they are “spirit and life” (Jn. 6,64).
And those who will not do this will have to render “an account on the day of judgement” (cf. Mt. 12,36) before the tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 14,10).