Capuchin spirituality is about the desire of the heart – not so much about the head and thinking, but about the heart and loving. And the most important core of Capuchin spirituality is the person of Jesus Christ, and in particular, Him Crucified.
St Francis of Assisi
One cannot appreciate Capuchin spirituality without knowing something of St Francis of Assisi – for Capuchin spirituality flows from Francis’ way of knowing, loving and imitating Christ. He was someone who became totally transformed in Christ. He was not a great intellectual, but simple and a man of passion. He had a great heart and great love and is someone we can all aspire to be like.
In his life, Francis came to know the deep love of Christ. Through prayer and through reflection on the Gospels, he came to know Christ. He was struck by three things in particular: firstly, that the God of the whole universe humbled Himself to become one of us in the Incarnation – and He became a helpless, vulnerable little baby at that (completely dependent on others); secondly, that He suffered and died a cruel death on a cross; and thirdly, that He humbles Himself for us in the Eucharist in the form of a small piece of bread. Francis completely fell in love with this God of humble love manifested in Christ and desired with all his heart to imitate Him. Whilst all spiritualities focus on Jesus, Capuchin spirituality emphasises this self-emptying humility of God. The fancy word for this self-emptying is “kenosis”. Francis saw God’s poor and humble kenotic love in the whole of Jesus’ life: from being born in a smelly stable beside farm animals and being placed in a manger (a food trough); to His submission to a horrific death on the cross even though He is Life itself and Lord of Glory. Francis found this poor and humble love of God to be true love. And he desired with all his heart to imitate it.
Francis was not content with only weakly, remotely or partially imitating Jesus. He did not merely want to follow instructions. He wanted to become totally one with Jesus – to make Christ’s ideas his own, to feel, think and act like Christ. Not only following Christ when things were going well, but especially by following Him even into fellowship with His sufferings. Francis wished to experience in his body and soul what his Lord and Saviour had lived through and this is typical of one who has fallen completely in love with another.
Such an attitude is evident in his prayer before he received the stigmata. A biography records his prayer like this, “Lord Jesus, I ask of you two things before I die: first, that in my lifetime I may feel in my body and soul, insofar as is possible, the sufferings which You, dear Lord, had to endure in Your cruel Passion; secondly, that I may feel in my heart, insofar as is possible, that fathomless love with which You, the Son of God, burned and which induced You to suffer willingly so much pain for us miserable sinners”. Here we see Francis is not being driven by some morbid desire for pain, but for complete union in love with the One who gave everything for him.
Love of Christ became the ultimate reason for all Francis’ actions. It drove him to repair churches, to serve lepers and the poor, to preach, to do harsh penances, fasts and practices of poverty, to care for his brothers, to pray, to be itinerant – always moving about, and to love the Church.
Francis read the Gospels with attention to detail and found everything about Jesus lovable. But he particularly found Jesus’ self-abasement lovable.
And it is Francis’ love and devotion to the Passion of Christ, to Christ Crucified, that is the basis of Capuchin spirituality. Francis had an early vision of Christ on the cross during his period of conversion that had a lasting and profound effect on him. It was the crucifix of San Damiano that spoke to him and commissioned him to rebuild the Church, and it was the marks of Christ’s passion that were imprinted on his body two years before he died.
Let us consider, for a few moments, Christ on the cross... It is here that we learn so much about life. Quite a few of our early Capuchin saints were illiterate and uneducated but they learned the wisdom of God through gazing at the cross. For St Conrad of Parzham, the crucifix was his book of life. It is here on the cross that we can read about and learn every virtue for every situation. It is here we see the greatest expression of love the world has ever seen – laying down His life for His friends. Here we see obedience unto death; patience despite being mocked and persecuted; we see meekness; gentleness; humility as God is judged by Pontius Pilate; perseverance in trial; fortitude; prayerfulness; forgiveness. It is here we gain knowledge of God and of self; the depth of God’s love for us; the value of our souls; the seriousness of sin; the vanity of the world; and anticipation of the life to come.
Such lessons are not just ideas or concepts that sound good but something we must immerse ourselves in. It’s got to go deep and take root and become part of us (that’s what prayer makes possible).
Love of the cross is so ingrained in Capuchin spirituality that it is even manifested externally. If a friar puts on his hood and holds his arms out, his habit forms the shape of a cross. Francis so wanted to live Christ’s words: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me” (Lk 9:23) that he literally cut out material in the shape of a cross and sowed it together to form the habit.
The Passion, for Francis, was the great school of love and renunciation. It is here that we learn charity and poverty.
Jesus said that “man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). Let us look again at Jesus on the cross. Here we have God laying down His life for our sake. He was stripped of any physical beauty as the scourges tore away his skin. Yet, throughout his passion, he did not resent those who attacked him, he did not curse, he did not even complain. Instead he loved them and prayed for them. This love was so pure, so generous, so forgiving. His love revealed what true beauty really is. When we look at the cross, we must never cease to recognise the most beautiful love the world has ever seen. It is here that we learn what real charity involves. St Bonaventure, a great Franciscan theologian, wrote, “[Jesus] withstood all these sufferings to set you aflame with love for him, to move you in return to love him with your heart, soul and mind. We are invited to love him and in loving him to follow his example.”
However some of the desires of our heart are not for what is truly beautiful. Sin has twisted our desires. Practices of penance such as prayer, fasting, almsgiving, meditating on Scripture, denying yourself something, doing something extra for someone, help to bring us back to true love and purify our desires. These are important because if we can’t do the penances that we impose on ourselves, how are we going to do those that someone else lays on us?
Francis encountered penance of this latter kind during his conversion as a young man in his mid-twenties. He was travelling along a road, at a time when he could not stand the sight of lepers – and if you’ve ever smelt something dead before, you’d have some idea about what coming across lepers was like. He used to travel miles out of his way to avoid coming across them. This particular day, he’d come round a bend and on the road before him was a leper. He had nowhere else to go. It was at that moment that God’s grace entered his heart in a profound way. He saw the leper before him as his brother, and more than that, he recognised Christ in him. Far from abhorring the leper, he went up, embraced him and kissed him. And all of a sudden, what had seemed bitter to him had been changed into sweetness of soul and body. Francis saw Christ Crucified in the disfigured leper, and that beautiful love transformed him. Christ gave freedom to his heart because Francis faced his fears and overcame them; he faced his cross and embraced it. And in embracing the cross, is where he found Christ. This is also where Christ wants to meet and embrace us.
The cross is also where Francis learnt Poverty. Of all the saints, Francis is probably the one who is most famous for how he lived poverty. And poverty is very central to Capuchin spirituality. Franciscan poverty is not about destitution or friars starving to death. Instead, Franciscan poverty involves a deprivation of things that are unnecessary, and a simple use of things that are. It also goes much deeper, and it is an attitude that all Christians – not just friars – must have to some degree, even if not to the extent of Francis.
Franciscan poverty is called “seraphic poverty” because it begins from burning love and burning love is its only product. Francis sought poverty, not because of what it is in itself, but solely because Jesus was poor: “Although he was rich, he became poor for your sake, so that you should become rich through his poverty” (2Cor 8:9). Jesus’ burning love for us drove Him to empty Himself to become poor for us, even to the point of being abandoned by His closest friends and left poor and naked on a cross. Such love inspired Francis to imitate his Lord in this self-emptying.
Poverty is much more than not having many material possessions (like houses, cars, playstations etc). Franciscan poverty is about having nothing that can prevent us from being wholly open to the grace of God – and this includes spiritual possessions as well as material things. You have heard the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). Being poor in spirit entails not having any spiritual possessions – no attachments of your will to anything.
For example, if you put your own interests over and above others’ interests so that you’ll follow yours no matter what the cost to others – this choice of action, this attitude destroys community – whether that community is your family, workplace, friends, youth group etc. It is therefore important that we see our interests as intimately tied up with and connected to the interests of others, and therefore be ready to sacrifice our own interests for love and for the good of the community.
In this example, the spiritual possession is that of one’s own interests and will. And for Francis, this was one of the worst offences against poverty. He saw our will as the most precious gift we’ve been given by God and therefore the one we must make a gift of back to God first of all.
To sacrifice unites us to Jesus Crucified; we sacrifice for love, and this love builds community. Doing so displays poverty of spirit and we don’t take our own ideas as a possession. We choose love of family/community over our self – good choice! Francis calls this: “loving obedience because it pleases God and neighbour”.
Another important feature of Capuchin spirituality is minority. Francis named the Order he founded, the Order of Friars Minor. Minority means being lesser in our relationships with others. It means identifying with the poor and being of service – washing the feet of others. Hence Francis said things like “let the brothers serve and obey one another voluntarily. This is the true and holy obedience of Jesus Christ”. In the Gospels, Jesus serves and obeys those who come to Him making requests. Why should God obey us? Yet He came as one who serves. This attitude of obedience shows genuine love for the other and such an attitude is incredibly important in our families or in our community of friends, workers, youth group etc.
A hallmark of Capuchin spirituality is fostering and preserving peace in the heart, “for anger and disturbance impede charity in themselves and in others” (Rule). Francis often used the word “disturbed” because he saw clearly that when our hearts are disturbed or frustrated, it impedes charity, it prevents love and thereby prevents us from imitating Christ. Francis would tell his brothers, “As you announce peace with your mouth, make sure that greater peace is in your hearts. Let no one be provoked to anger through you, but may everyone be drawn to peace, kindness, and harmony through your gentleness. For we’ve been called to heal the wounded, to bind up the broken, and recall the erring”.
The Global Family
Francis also recognised that it is not just us humans who are poor in the sense that we are in need of God. All of creation, the sun, the moon, the birds, the trees, everything, shared the same source in their Creator. This led Francis to a fondness for all creatures as he saw them as brothers and sisters under the one Heavenly Father, all recipients of God’s generosity. Poverty opened Francis’ eyes to the interconnectedness of all things in God and even his own dependence on other creatures for warmth, food, shelter, air. And through all these things he gave glory to the Creator.
Whilst imitating Christ Crucified by being prayerful, poor, humble, simple, obedient, gentle, peaceful and joyful, Francis was a man of great desire and enthusiasm and encouraged his brothers “to desire above all else to have the Spirit of the Lord and His holy activity” (Rule) – for the whole of the Capuchin life stems from responding to the activity of the Holy Spirit in one’s heart. This is the importance of the place of Franciscan prayer within our spirituality.
“Franciscan prayer is affective, a prayer of the heart, which leads us to an intimate experience of God. When we contemplate God the Supreme Good from Whom all good flows, our hearts cannot but break into adoration, thanksgiving, admiration and praise.” (Capuchin Constitutions). Franciscan prayer is contemplative, for through nurturing our relationship with Christ in mental prayer, our gaze penetrates more deeply to perceive the hidden presence of God in our everyday lives. Franciscan prayer is therefore Christ-centred and incarnational. This means that through our deepening union with Christ, we become transformed into the image of Christ. Hence the goal of Franciscan prayer is to bring Christ to birth in our lives through the action of the Holy Spirit.
Joy is another characteristic and fruit of Capuchin Spirituality. Joy comes from union with Christ; from sharing everything with Christ, even the cross. A lot of people are willing to share the good with Christ yet complain when faced with their cross. However, it is only in sharing in the cross of Christ that we come to know the depth of Christ’s love for us, and this love brings true joy. Even before we consider how our suffering affects us, our minds should immediately turn to how the One we love suffered similarly, though He was God and innocent and suffered for love of us. This close relationship with Christ inspires compassion within us. And joy is the fruit of the love Christ shares with us through his cross and the love that is found there.