The Franciscan path of prayer that leads to peace is a path of transformation and witness. Christ is proclaimed not by words but by the example of one’s life, one’s willingness to suffer or perhaps offer one’s life for the sake of another. Christ lives in that Christ lives in us––in our bodies, our hands, our feet and our actions. This is the challenge for our time with its emphasis on rationality and materialism, the challenge of divine risk, of allowing God to enter our lives and lift us out of the doldrums of mediocrity, privatism and individualism. We are called to be vulnerable to grace so that we may be transformed into the living Christ.
Prayer that allows the mystery of Christ to change our lives, is a high-risk enterprise—an uncontrollable experience. Yet, the power of God’s grace is such that one who, like Francis of Assisi, is able to trust God sufficiently can enter into the “cave” of the heart, the place where Incarnation takes place, and be transformed into the triumph of love. Franciscan prayer, therefore, is Christ-centered, affective, contemplative, cosmic and evangelizing. The goal of prayer is to make Jesus Christ alive in the believer. To bring Christ to life is the way to peace.
The life of Christ is the life of all life––the peace of creation, the justice of humanity and the unity of humankind. That is why the Franciscan path of prayer must ultimately lead to peace because it leads to the compassionate love of the crucified Christ. Peace is the fruit of love. Francis became a person of peace because he became a person of love—a love shown in his body and in his willingness to spend himself for others.
Franciscan evangelical life strives to live in this mystery more deeply through a life of unceasing prayer. God is to descend and take on flesh anew in our lives through the indwelling Spirit that joins us to Christ and expresses itself in the body of the believer. Prayer is the breath of the Spirit within us, the Spirit who brought about the Incarnation of the Word of God and who continues to incarnate the Word in our lives. The one Spirit who joins together the Father and Word in love brings us finite creatures into this infinite relationship of love. Because the one Spirit is sent by the one Christ, the fullness of Christ is the fullness of love that is the work of Spirit. The Spirit not only forms one to Christ but brings all into unity in Christ.
Spiritual desire is the longing of the heart for relationship with God that brings happiness and peace. Francis of Assisi was a passionate person, a dreamer, a lover and a person of desire. When he felt his desire filled in hearing the gospel, he found the answer to his deepest longings and changed his life accordingly. He became a follower of Christ. Francis’ life shows us that we must be attentive to our desires if we are to find the fulfillment of our lives in God.
Food freely given exacts from us a promise to go beyond its selfish reception to the unselfish realm of deep gratitude. There we commit ourselves to give to others what we have received. My food mentors—grandmother and mother—cooked not because their sense of dignity depended on others’ opinions of them but because they knew that treating tablemates to the best they could offer was the backbone of every family and nation. Though ingratitude and indifference might have come to their table, it disappeared when they left it. Poured forth from previously pursed lips was a litany of gratitude complemented by what these good souls always wanted to see: sighs and smiles of contentment.
We need to reawaken the art and discipline of what it means to “taste and savor.” Instead of swallowing our food almost whole, we may have to ruminate upon it as we ought to do with a favorite text. When a dish is as delightful to see as it is to eat, it ought not to embarrass us to ask for a second helping. Rather than rushing to leave the table, we may discern that slower eating is as necessary for bodily nourishment as slower reading is for spiritual enlightenment.
Jesus left no formal religious rule for his followers. The closest he came was his proclamation of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers….
Francis took to heart this spiritual vision and translated it into a way of life. In various ways, other saints before and since have done the same. But for many men and women since the time of Francis, his particular example has offered a distinctive key to the Gospel—or, as Pope Francis might say, “a new way of seeing and interpreting reality.” Among the central features of this key: the vision of a Church that is “poor and for the poor”; a resolve to take seriously Jesus’s example of self-emptying love; the way of mercy and compassion; above all, a determination to proclaim the Gospel not only with words but with one’s life.
A good spirituality achieves two huge things simultaneously: It keeps God absolutely free, not bound by any of our formulas, and it keeps us utterly free ourselves and not forced or constrained by any circumstances whatsoever, even human laws, sin, limitations, failure, or tragedy. “It was for freedom that Christ has set us free!” as Paul writes (Galatians 5:1). Good religion keeps God free for people and keeps people free for God. We cannot improve on that.
To keep our bodies less defended—to live in our bodies right now, to be present to others in a cellular way—is also the work of healing past hurts and the many memories that seem to store themselves in the body. The body never seems to stop offering its messages. Fortunately, the body never lies, even though the mind will deceive us constantly. Zen practitioners tend to be well trained in seeing this. It is very telling that Jesus usually physically touched people when he healed them; he knew where the memory and hurt were lodged: in the body itself.