The Writings of St Francis

Fortunately we have many writings of St. Francis. They include writings which are admonitions, rules, letters and prayers. Two of them are written in his own hand, The Praises of God and The Blessing for Brother Leo, are on both sides of the one small parchment, and the other is The Letter to Brother Leo. Three are written in the Umbrian dialect, The Canticle of Brother Sun, The Exhortation to St. Clare and her Sisters, and perhaps The Prayer Before the Crucifix. The rest are made up of The Admonitions, The Rule of 1221, The Rule of 1223, The Rule for Hermitages, The Testament, The Last Will for St. Clare, The Testament Written in Siena. He also wrote letters to the Clergy, to Custodians, to the Entire Order, to the Faithful, to a Minister, to the Rulers of the People, to St. Anthony, to the Citizens of Bologna, to Lady Jacoba, and prayers including The Office of the Passion, A Prayer Inspired by the Our Father, The Salutation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, The Salutation of the Virtues, The Praises to be Said at all the Hours, The Exhortation to the Praise of God.

There are twenty-eight Admonitions which cover a number of topics and seem to address situations which developed as the number of friars increased within the Order and which were not adequately provided for in the Rule or decisions of the Chapters. The Admonitions treat themes such as the Eucharist, Obedience, Poverty, Chastity, Purity of Heart, Vanity etc., in a style which resembles proverbs or adages.

The Rule which was completed in 1221 was never presented to the Pope for his approval. It is long and rather strict, but it gives a good picture of the way in which the early friars lived when, before the establishment of friaries, they lived and worked in the houses of other people. Some devoted themselves to praying, some to preaching and some to working. Those who worked were not to be supervisors or accountants, nor could they argue over wages, but were supposed to bring home enough to care for the sick and elderly. The concluding chapters of the Rule as we have it today do not belong to the original text, but provides us with an example of the way the early friars preached as well as a farewell message from St. Francis based on Christ's farewell as described in the Gospel of St. John.

The Rule of 1223 was approved by the Pope. It is much shorter than the 1221 text and caters for new canonical requirements such as novitiate. It is not so much a set of regulations because the Rule of the Friars Minor is the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, but a review of the way the early friars lived the Gospel in the early days of the Order. It deals with the requirements for receiving and clothing the friars, how they are to go out and come back again to chapters in the Order, to fraternise and seek forgiveness and be sent out again perhaps to foreign missions. It advocates that ministers serve rather than dominate the friars.

St. Francis also wrote a Rule for Hermitages in which he asked the friars who wished to go to a hermitage to pray to take turns in praying and looking after the running of the Place.

St. Francis wrote many Testaments at times when he felt he might be going to die. Chapter twenty-two of the Rule of 1221 was written in 1219 when Francis set out for martyrdom in the East. The Testament written in Siena, six months before his death, was composed when his health was deteriorating so seriously that he thought he might die. The friars asked him for his blessing and his last will. His final Testament has always been associated with the Rule of 1223 as an exhortation to observe it spiritually.

Finally, St. Clare tells us in chapter eight of her Rule that St. Francis composed a simple way of life for the Poor Ladies.

Quite a number of Francis' letters have come down to us. One of the most beautiful is The Letter to Clerics in which he tells us of his reverence for the Body of the Lord and begs clerics to remember their privilege of being Eucharistic ministers.

We possess two versions of St. Francis' Letter to the Faithful, which contains catechetical instruction, encouragement for living the Christian life and a graphic admonition of how we will have to face death and judgment.

Once again the Letter to the Entire Order is an appeal to show all possible reverence and honour to the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The letter ends with a majestic prayer to the "Almighty, eternal, just and merciful God", which some manuscripts give as a separate writing. The Letter to the Custodians concludes three letter which deal with the Eucharist, exhorting the ministers within the Order to lead people to penance and awaken them to their need for the Eucharist.

We have a letter which St. Francis wrote to St. Anthony (of Padua) regarding the study of theology. St. Francis approved of the work which St. Anthony was doing as long as it did not extinguish prayer and humility. Humility and patience are also the lesson behind the famous episode about Perfect Joy in which St. Francis talks about his friars locking him out on a very cold night. Joy does not come from worldly success but from a grounding in patience and poverty. Perhaps the whole spirit of St. Francis is summed up in his Letter to the Rulers of the People. He admonishes them not to get lost in worldly affairs and concludes.

Therefore I firmly advise you, my Lords, to put aside all care and preoccupation and receive with joy the most holy Body and the most holy Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in holy remembrance of Him.

The prayers of St. Francis give us an insight into his spirituality which is based upon the praise of God his Father and the adoration of the Blessed Trinity. His Prayer Before the Crucifix, said to have been recited at San Damiano, addresses the "Most High good God…" and requests enlightenment of heart, correct faith, certain hope and perfect charity (love), all of which are suitable requests for anyone discerning their vocation. Like many saints, St. Francis wrote an explanation of the petitions in the Our Father, but portrayed them as involving the whole Trinity with Jesus as Saviour, and the Spirit as Consoler. In this prayer St. Francis sets out a whole program of love enlightened by God and involving "all our energies and affections".

Perhaps the most moving of all the prayers of St. Francis are on the parchment given to Brother Leo after the Stigmata when Leo was so bitterly depressed while Francis was so full of an experience of God. One side of the parchment contains praises of God, while the other is a blessing intended to lift Leo's depression:

May the Lord bless you and keep you;

May he show his face to you and be merciful to you.

May he turn his countenance to you and give you his peace.

May the Lord bless you, Brother Leo.

In his Praises of God Francis reflects on the living God and describes attributes of God which meant so much to Francis. An Exhortation to Praise God appears on a wooden antependium at Terni where Francis had someone paint the symbols of creatures on wood while he composed the verses himself.

Francis had a great love for the Divine Office and composed prayers to be said before each hour. He even composed a long Office of the Passion, bringing together pieces of the Psalms in original combinations to celebrate what the Passion revealed to him of God's love. The work shows how much the Liturgical texts of the Office, the Eucharist and Scripture were the very substance of Francis' prayer.

Francis has also left us two beautiful Marian prayers, one to be found in the Office of the Passion and the other called The Salutation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For Francis, Mary is the example of what the Church and each one of us should be: people who are prepared to say "yes" to what God asks of us. He calls her "Virgin made Church". In Our Lady of the Angels, the little church on the plain below Assisi, Francis contemplated Our Lady surrounded by the Angels who personified the virtues and composed his hymn The Salutation of the Virtues. He sees poverty as the virtue whereby we empty ourselves of selfishness to follow Christ more completely.

Thus from the writings of St. Francis we learn that in prayer he loved to praise the Father, recall the Passion of His Son and call upon the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. We also see his appreciation of the Mother of God as the model of the Church. His letters and rules encourage the following of the poor Christ in the Gospel.

The best translation of the writings of St Francis can be found in the three volume work:

Francis of Assisi: Early Documents edited by R. J. Armstrong, J. A. W. Hellman & W. J. Short (New York: New City Press, 1999).

Next: St Francis and the Global Family