St Clare of Assisi Presentation

The Franciscan Tradition: A Rule of Life

In his article on "Hermitage and the Active Life',  BROTHER WALT HUND, T.O.R. writes:


Perhaps the first thing that I should explain is that the following thoughts are not the result of years (or even months!) of research on the subject of Franciscan Hermitage. I am grateful to those who have done that, for they have rediscovered one of the greatest treasures of St. Francis and Franciscan spirituality.


This is, instead, a reflection on the experience of hermitage as it has been integrated into the life of our friary. Of course, this is not offered as the way to live the hermitage experience, but we found this way to be a great source of spiritual nourishment for us.


I should also mention that, by nature, I'm not a "hermitage type" • person. On the contrary, I'm one of those "B" type personalities. I'm sure you've heard the description of us "B"' s: we hate to wait (for anything), love to argue (I discuss), think that all traffic lights should be replaced by "Yield" signs and, when the drawbridge is up to let a boat go by, would rather swim the river than wait for the boat to pass. My point is that I'm not the type of person that you'd expect to want to go off for two days of silence and solitude. But the fruitfulness of the hermitage experience has overcome the tendencies of the "go-getter" in me. Besides, we "B" person¬alities are also opportunists... we know a good thing when we see it.


The original idea to make hermitage a part of our life came from Giles, a brother in our house. He is, in the truest sense of the word, a visionary ... a dreamer. As you may know, this type of a person is not very common in the Franciscan life today. Their insight and vision call us to change, a proposition we usually find quite uncomfortable. But if we can walk down that difficult path with them, we are often rewarded with new and deeper experiences of God and His people. Every house should have at least one dreamer. Anyway, we took the original idea, prayed about it, talked about it, got some valuable insight from a good friend, Fr. Andre Cerino, O.F.M., and then decided to do it (for some ''valuable insight and expla¬nation of your own, .see Andre's article "Hermitage in the City," The Cord, March 1985.).


I myself spent many years as a student and then as collaborator working with our brother André Cirino in Canterbury. At the conclusion of his six month course that he did every year at the International Study Centre on the contemplative dimension of Franciscan Spirituality, I would give input on my own experience of living the life of a hermit before joining the Franciscan family. I count brother André not only as a very dear friend and mentor, but also as a brilliant scholar in this field. Brother Hund continues his story...

When you hear the word "hermitage," do you picture ... a mountain ... a forest ... a babbling brook? Well, that's not exactly our setting. The South Bronx is one of the poorest and most violent sections of New York City. Scattered throughout the day and night, you can hear alarms, sirens loud radios and the sounds of the children at play in the streets. Got the picture? Doesn't sound like the ideal spot for quiet contemplation, does it? But it is. With only occasional exception, we've all found the time to spend in the hermitage to be basically quiet and peaceful.

It seems inconceivable that our experience can he "quiet and peaceful" in the midst of a lot of street noise. But is it the outside noise that real distracts us, or the noise that's inside us? It seems to, me that it's the noise that's inside that can do the most damage. I have felt God's Presence very deeply and peacefully in some of the most chaotic and fast-moving situations imaginable. Conversely, I have prayed in monastic enclosures "far from the maddening crowd," and have been unable to hear the gentle voice of the Lord because the "hustle and bustle" inside me was drowning Him out!

Not all is quiet and peaceful in the hermitage, however. There are times of real testing and temptation. When we slow down and leave our distractions behind, we often find that the devil, as well as the Lord, is waiting to speak to us. Should this alarm us? Should it surprise us? I think not. Rather, it should excite us. Excite us? Yes. As followers of Jesus and Francis, we seek to be like them and to experience the things that they experienced. What happened to Jesus when He went off into the desert to fast and pray? He was tempted by the devil. What did Francis experience as he sought God through fasting and prayer? Temptation. . . at times so strong, that, to fight it, he hurled himself into thorny rose hushes and snow banks. Now, I don't know about you, but rose hushes and snow banks are not my idea of a good time. That's not what should excite us. What should excite us is having the same experience that Jesus and Francis had.. . temptation in prayer and solitude. Francis goes as far as to say, "Do not be afraid because you are tempted. The more you are beset by temptation, the greater servant and friend of God do I consider you. I tell you that nobody in fact ought to consider himself a perfect friend of God except insofar as he passes through many trials and temptations." We should rejoice at being called friends of God!

Of course, there's also the lighter side of temptation. Like the time that a friend of mine found out that I was about to he "cooped up in the little house for two days." He offered to secretly bring me a pizza at midnight, under cover of darkness. I declined, noting that the time would give me it's own "food." To which he inquired, "But is it as good as pizza?" I assured him that it was better, yes."

 Our hermitage is an eight foot by ten foot pre-fabricated wooden build¬ing. Most people probably use them for tool sheds or pool cabanas. It sits in our front yard, in a space that we enclosed to give the hermit a little space outdoors in nice weather. Inside, It's pretty basic: oil lamps for light, a woodstove for heat and mattress for a bed. We go into the hermitage every five to seven weeks, depending on the number of the people in the house. It usually takes half a day to relax and slow down. Then you can begin to move more deeply into the experience of Jesus in solitude. We don't realize all of the things that occupy (and preoccupy) us until we pull back from them and "go off to a quiet place."

Speaking Of going off to a quiet place, we thought about trying the hermitage experience within the house itself. Again, it was our "resident dreamer" who suggested that it would be beneficial, psychologically speak¬ing, to "go away" from the friary. From my experience in the hermitage, I think that he is right. Just as going for a drive can allow you to "get away from it all" for awhile, so also can walking away from your house and going to a small hermitage outside. Also, you're away from all those familiar distractions: phones and doorbells ringing, doors slamming, water running, food cooking (or burning,) etc.  

From listening to my brothers share their experiences in the hermitage, I think that I can safely say that we have found it to be of great spiritual assistance to us, both individually and communally.. It is, for us, a "pearl of great price." But like the "'pearl," the hermitage also has its price. We have to slow down, and that is something that, often, we don't enjoy doing. Running around- distracts us from things we'd rather not think about (our unfaithfulness to God, our selfishness to our sisters and brothers, etc.). Theoretically, we don't question the value of it at all, but we can find all kinds of important reasons for not making the time. After reflecting on the time that I've been in hermitage, I must say that it was the times that I least desired to "go apart" for two days, that were actually the most beneficial for me. And imagine my surprise when, lo and behold, God had managed to run the world for two days without me! And the Youth Group, guidance counseling, problems, successes, etc. were all still there, too. But there was a difference. I felt rejuvenated, renewed; better able to look at all those things in proper perspective. I also felt that I had more energy, more of myself to give to them: I have heard others in the house express the same sentiments. I have also heard them speak of feeling consoled by the Lord, of having the burden lifted, of being renewed, of feeling loved, and also of feeling convicted and called to "turn from your sins and believe in the Good News." Indeed, the Lord speaks in solitude, and His Word is to return, once again, to Him ... to move into deeper union with Him. But, as I listen to us share our experiences in the hermitages, I realize that what excites us is not so much what the Lord says, but that He does speak to us. It is His tender voice, His gentle touch which causes us to know and feel His love.

Many times we find ourselves moving so fast and concerned about so many things that we rarely hear His voice. Our dialogue with God becomes a monologue. We're not asking Him to show us the Way; it's more like were sending Him memos, informing Him of what we've decided to do and would He mind blessing our efforts? Many times we're talking to ourselves! And we can get used to it! Then, when we take the time to listen and hear the Lord speak, His Presence overwhelms us. We feel His voice. It is the experience of His Presence that we long for, That His message is one of congratulations: correction or consolation is secondary compared to the statement that his Presence makes: Our God is real!

It is this experience of God in the hermitage that has convinced me of its importance in the Franciscan life. Francis' Rule for Hermitages is beautiful, as are all of the lectures, writings, etc. about it. But we can find so many reasons for not doing it ourselves, for enshrining it as some¬thing that St. Francis could do but that is beyond us. After allowing the hermitage to slow you down so that you can hear His voice, you no longer seek to avoid it. Instead, you run toward it; you seek to protect it; you cherish it as you would a "pearl of great price. You seek to hear the Lord's voice, and feel His gentle touch. As St. Augustine says, "You have touched me, 0 Lord and I have tasted your sweetness. Now I burn with Your Love, and I hunger and thirst after You."

In the recent article by Tina Beattie, 'Doorways to Faith - the role of mysticism and Sacramentality in Prayer', she spoke of how Blessed Pope John Paul II often wrote about our need to do less in order to be more. In the frenetic scramble of our contemporary lives, the spaces of silence and rest have been crowded out, and our faith seems to have become an incessantly activist and politicised mission to change the world, or to coax and coerce the people around us to change their way of being in the world. 

 With that background, I return to our own home here in South Africa. At the Natal Regional Meeting Held At Coolog House from 30th April to 1st May, 2012, our brother Provincial David noted from the General that        

... our identity was best expressed when we prayed; that our Franciscan charism welled up from the experience of God and had its first and primary expression of our identity in a life of prayer (2 Ch 95;19:2). This was the identity of the true contemplative, starting from spontaneous praise in the beauty of creation (The first Book of Revelation – St Bonaventure), through the Eucharist (thanksgiving), the Word (Gospel), the liturgy of the Hours and prolonged personal prayer, that is the basis of our transformation.

For progress to be made in these areas, it is necessary to prioritize our action plan and to be guided by the spirit of truth and courage. We are also being called to collaboration with others especially the wider Franciscan family.

In this year of Faith, we remember that it was Vatican II that invited us as religious communities to return to the charism of our founders. This was understood as a continuous process of discernment and renewal needed in response to the rapid changes taking place in the post-modern world.

On February 2, 1992, the Holy Father, Blessed John Paul II, in presenting the meaning of the synod on consecrated life, used the following words to offer some initial points on the subject:

...The successors of the apostles will meet to discuss your life, the contribution which your founders, foundresses and their respective spiritual families have made to the church's mission in the past and are making at the present moment. They want to understand the breadth and depth of the plan of the Lord who sanctifies, enriches and also guides his people through the gifts and charisms of the communities of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life. The bishops want to help you to be Gospel leaven and evangelizers of the cultures of the third millennium and the social ordering of peoples.

In the light of these challenges, I wish to offer here some reflections on our Rule of Life.


From the earliest days of his conversion, Francis spent time praying in caves in solitude. From the very beginning he was accompanied by a companion. Being with brothers and sisters in solitude is a unique characteristic of the Franciscan Hermitage tradition. When the Order grew into thousands of brothers, he wrote down his manner of spending time in solitude. More recently this Document on Solitude has been named his “Rule For Hermitages.”

The title given to this opusculum might be misleading, since here we are not dealing with a rule in the juridical sense. This document, which does not have any title in the Assisi Codex, contains some precise dispositions regarding the life and daily routine of those brothers who lived in the hermitages.

The term “hermitage” indicates the early Franciscan places in which the brothers would periodically dwell together. Jacques de Vitry, writing in 1216 from Genoa, on the life of the first Friars Minor, says: “They live according to the form of life of the primitive Church, about whom it was written: The community of believers were of one heart and one mind (Acts 4,32). During the day they go into the cities and villages giving themselves over to the active life in order to gain others; at night, however, they return to their hermitage or solitary places to devote themselves to contemplation.”29

Examples of these early Franciscan hermitages are still to be found in the Italian peninsula. One of the most famous is the hermitage of Le Carceri, just above Assisi. Others include the hermitages of the Rieti Valley, namely, Fonte Colombo, Greccio, La Foresta and Poggiobustone. Another important hermitage is La Verna, the place where Francis received the stigmata in 1224. Le Celle, near Cortona, is reputed to be the place where Francis could have dictated his Testament. Other hermitages include places hallowed by the presence of Francis and the first brothers: Monte Casale, Monteluco, Speco di Sant’Urbano.

In the gradual unfolding of the history of the Order, the hermitage became known as locus, to be distinguished from the conventus, or large friary in the town. These early hermitages are given great importance in the Franciscan Sources of the 13th and 14th centuries. The Later Rule was written in the hermitage of Fonte Colombo; Francis celebrated Christmas in 1223 in the hermitage of Greccio; at the same hermitage he also gave the brothers an example of true poverty in begging alms on Easter Sunday; he received the stigmata in the hermitage of La Verna. These same hermitages became the centres of reform in the Franciscan Order, particularly during the early years of the 14th century, during the time of the Spirituals and Fraticelli, and during the mid-14th century, with the reform of the Regular Observance.

The Earlier Rule provides a clue as to the various places in which the brothers lived, including the hermitages: “Wherever the brothers may be, either in hermitages or other places, let them be careful not to make any place their own or contend with anyone for it.”30

In The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, Thomas of Celano gives us a proof of Francis’ predilection to the way of life in the hermitages: “Once a Spaniard, a devout cleric, happened to enjoy some time seeing and talking with Saint Francis. Among other news about the brothers in Spain, he made the saint happy with this report: ‘Your brothers in our country stay in a poor hermitage. They have set up the following way of life for themselves: half of them take care of the household chores and half remain free for contemplation. In this manner each week the active half moves to the contemplative, and the repose of those contemplating returns to the toils of labor.’”31

The contents of The Rule for Hermitages, provide us with a clear insight into the way of life of the first brothers. The whole structure of the Franciscan locus is based on the Gospel text of Luke 10:38-42, namely, Jesus being welcomed into the house of Martha and Mary. The role of Martha is compared to the active life, while that of Mary to the contemplative life of the brothers. The material structure of the hermitage reflects the description we find in The Mirror of Perfection, 10 (Sabatier edition). The Franciscan hermitage would normally be located on the flanks of a mountain, preferably in a wooded area, but close enough to the arterial roads as to render it fairly easy for the brothers to go into the towns.

The way of life is described as “staying in hermitages in a religious way”, an expression indicating, at least in the Latin religiose stare in eremis, a well-structured, regular life, which is, to all intents and purposes, a way of consecrated life in fraternity.

The roles of the brothers are described as being those of “mothers” (role of Martha) and “sons” (role of Mary). The daily routine of the Franciscan hermitage rotates round the canonical hours of the Divine Office, beginning with Compline (last of the canonical hours just before retiring), after which the brothers are to maintain strict silence all night long until after Terce (the third Canonical hour; about 09:00) the following morning. In the middle of the night they rise for Matins (the first canonical hour at daybreak), and early in the morning they pray Prime and then Terce.

After breaking the silence the “sons” can go and beg for alms from their “mothers”, and afterwards meet again for prayers at Sext, None, and Vespers.

The place in which the brothers live is described as an “enclosure”. In it nobody is allowed to enter, except the Minister or Custodian. The “mothers” have the duty to protect the “sons” from any inopportune intrusions which might disturb their contemplation. Lastly, the role of “mothers” and “sons” is interchangeable, according to the model which Thomas of Celano presents when speaking about the brothers in Spain, in the text we have quoted above.

Regarding the date of The Rule for Hermitages, it comes definitely after 1217, simply because it speaks about the office of Custodian. Now, from 1217 onwards, the Order had Ministers and Custodians in the various entities, just like this document states. There is no proof that the Ministers existed before 1217. Regarding the other end of the time-scale for dating The Rule of Hermitages, Esser proposes 1222. By this date the term “hermitage” had been accepted in The Earlier Rule, as we have seen above. Furthermore, it is strange that The Rule for Hermitages makes no mention of the Eucharist. This is to be understood in the light of what happened in the Order in 1222. In fact, it was only on 29th March 1222, that the brothers were allowed to have their own oratories in which to celebrate the Eucharist and the Divine Office, with the Bull Devotionis vestrae of Pope Honorius III. Therefore The Rule for Hermitages comes from a period immediately preceding this date, during which the brothers still had to go out of their houses in order to celebrate or assist at the Eucharist, and could only have oratories for private prayer.

The Rule for Hermitages is a truly inspiring document for Franciscan life. The Order is nowadays encouraging the brothers, and indeed, all those who would like to experience Franciscan life, to undertake a period of contemplative prayer in the simple settings of a Franciscan hermitage.


Let those who wish to live religiously in hermitages, be three brothers or four at most. Let two of them be mothers and have two sons, or at least one. Let the two former lead the life of Martha and the other two the life of Mary Magdalene. 

Let those who lead the life of Mary have one cloister and each his own place, so that they may not live or sleep together. And let them always say Compline of the day toward sunset,  and let them be careful to keep silence and to say their Hours and to rise for Matins, and let them seek first "the kingdom of God and His justice."  And let them say Prime and Tierce at the proper time, and, after the hour of Tierce, they may break silence and may speak and, when it is pleasing to them, they may go to their mothers and may ask an alms from them for the love of the Lord God, like little poor ones.  And after that, let them say Sext and Nones and Vespers at the appointed time.

And they must not allow any  person to enter into the cloister where they live, or let them eat there. Let those brothers who are mothers endeavour to keep apart from every person and, by the obedience of their custos, let them guard their sons from every person, so that no one may speak with them. And let these sons not speak with any person except with their mothers and with their custos, when it shall please him to visit them with the blessing of God. 4 But the sons must sometimes in turn assume the office of mothers, for a time, according as it may seem to them to dispose. Let them strive to observe all the above diligently and earnestly. 

This Rule presents a picture of hermits living with hermits. The hermitage community was made up of "mothers" and "sons." The mothers took on the role of caring for the needs of the hermit sons. This "Martha/Mary" arrangement was not permanent. The brothers switched roles from time to time, thereby providing each friar with the opportunity to serve the others and also to sit at the feet of Jesus.

Regis Armstrong comments that ‘what is remarkable about this blueprint is that it contains the basic elements of Francis view of life. It is a life based on following the Lords will as did Martha and Mary; lived in celebrating God’s Word in fraternal love and dependence on one another; and dedicated to service and prayer or to the pursuit of God for the sake of others. “Mothers” and “Sons” are some of the texts words and phrases that appear frequently in the writings of Francis.

Thus Francis tells us quite simply how he envisages living a Gospel life centered on the pursuit of God in solitude and fraternal caring for one another that can only be characterized only by a mother’s love and a child’s simple acceptance.’

This description of a mother’s love and a child’s simple acceptance used by Regis left me ‘gob-smacked’ to use this very British idiom. I spent some weeks in the rather weird situation of seeking a philosophical argument for the source of knowledge leading to human rationality, while believing that it is not, in effect, the intellectualized idea of knowledge that leads to rationality. Trying to disprove the proof, using the very arguments of the proof; this circular problem left my head spinning.

My own experience convinced me that there was an experience of love on which we built our knowledge towards rational beings. To find myself up against the teachings of Aristotle as taken up by St Thomas Aquinas as well as Lonergan in contemporary philosophy did not help the situation. The all too solid Aristotelian idea of knowledge moving from experience to knowledge through understanding, then to judgment and the will and finally leading us to love, appeared unassailable.

It was therefore like a child with a new toy, that I discovered the teaching of Blessed John Duns Scotus. It is Scotus states unequivocally that the philosophers are wrong. In his rejection of the over-intellectualized philosophical view of the supremacy of the intellect, Scotus argues that that

Ordered love, not knowledge, defines and perfects human rationality.  Human dignity has it foundation in rational freedom.  In contrast to the philosophical, intellectualist model of human nature and destiny, the Franciscan offers and strengthens the Christian alternative, centred not merely on knowledge but on rational love…The Franciscan tradition consistently defends a position wherein the fullest perfection of the human person as rational involves loving in the way God loves, rather than knowing in the way God knows (Ingham & Dreyer 2004:7-8).

This was the brilliant intuition of Francis in his primitive rule to which Duns Scotus gives the rational explanation.

Scotus asks;’ Does this infer that we can love what we do not know? For Scotus, this is not a licit question because love and knowledge are not of the same order, just as goodness and truth are not of the same order, and therefore the act of loving is distinct from the act of knowing as these acts are distinct faculties. Through knowledge we are informed of the object of our love. By our love we are attracted to the object of our knowledge.

Here, I believe is the Franciscan answer to such difficult questions as the juxtaposition of Mercy and Justice which place God’s actions within our temporal ideas; implying God’s actions taking place in time; as though God first knows and then loves or who first applies justice followed by mercy.  Scripture tells us that God is Love and it is therefore that very same relational Love that knows.

In the Gospel of John this relational aspect of love is made abundantly clear when Jesus gives us a commandment from the Father (Jn. 12:49) which Jesus confirms ‘is life everlasting’ (Jn. 12:50):

‘A new commandment I give unto you: That you love (αγάπη) one another, as I have loved (αγάπη) you, that you also love (αγάπη) one another.(Jn. 13:34)  Three times it is repeated using the very specific Greek form of love ‘agape’. That you (αγάπη) one another, as I have (αγάπη) you, that you also (αγάπη) one another.

Again we have the triadic repetition where Peter is asked by Jesus, ‘do you love (αγάπη) me more than these?’ Peter answers, ‘you know that I love (φιλῶ) you.’ (Jn. 21:15) This is not what Jesus asked. John is hammering home a very specific point. So again Jesus asks, ‘do you love (αγάπη) me’; and Peter again answers, ‘you know that I love (φιλῶ) you.’ It is only at the third response of Peter to Jesus, ‘You know all things; You know that I love (φιλῶ) you’ (Jn. 21:17) that the question is answered. Now Jesus is satisfied with the answer, because he indeed does know all things, and he does know that Peter loves (αγάπη) him, and that love will give demonstration of itself in the ultimate witness.

This gift of divine love (αγάπη) which comes from heaven (Rom.5:5) is a joyful foretaste of blessedness, the Beatific Vision which is that final vision of God and union which is the goal of the Christian life and is mirrored in the gift love of mother to child when found in pure form.

This led me from looking at the intuition of Francis through the arguments of John Duns Scotus to seek some evidence in support of the understanding of ordered or gift love as the basis of rationality through which we are in that image of God.

Starting by looking at the many clinical trials of co-rearing children with chimpanzees (Kellogg & Kellogg -1933; Hayes & Hayes -1951/52) and various other language training trials using also other animals (Herman et al. -1986) it is shown that, the potential for full rationality remains the prerogative of human beings. It is also clear from observations that this potential can be actualized only through relationships with other people. In the case of ‘Hospitalized’ babies in institutions where care is limited to medication and feeding, and where the loving relationship of mother and child is absent, the potential to rationality, or even, the very potential for normal human development, is severely retarded, and even completely destroyed.

Infant mental health is synonymous with healthy social and emotional relational development.  When mental health fails at an early age, the damage lasts a lifetime. A weak mother-baby relationship creates the foundation for a rash of mental-health problems; developmental delays, depression, traumatic stress disorders...and begins paving the way to juvenile court…A prime destroyer of infant mental health is also a major cause of mental retardation, largely because it prevents a baby's brain from fully developing (Nyhan 2006).

Another example of non-actualization of the human potential to rationality is to be found in the study of feral or ‘wild children’ who have been reared by animals in nature. These studies indicate a narrow window period for the development of language and cognitive skills. These children show the same retardation of development and an inability to develop relationships or to come to full self awareness. This really shook me – potential human rationality cannot be actualized in nature apart from human relationships.

Without going into the arguments of the absurdity of an infinite regress, I think we are justified in asking the question; If rationality cannot be actualized by nature outside of human relationships and I became actualized (the ability to love) through my parents and they through theirs and so on through the ages.....where does the first experience of this gift love emerge from. I would concede that the absurdity could be in the eye of the beholder, but I am still awaiting an alternative thesis.

On the other side, it has been observed that babies cared for by mentally retarded or impaired parents in a loving environment, have in no way suffered any impairment in developing their own potential rationality.  This appears to validate the understanding of Scotus that it is gift-love or, as he defines it, ‘ordered-love’, through affirming relationships that is the key to unlocking our potential for rationality. Ordered love, not knowledge, defines and perfects human rationality.



The Franciscan spiritual path involves a number of encounters which St Francis himself interprets as being both of Christ, and initiated by Christ. Everything is perceived as God’s gift. It stems from God’s initiative and guidance who leads Francis to a new relational life, with the Gospel as sustenance, orientation and justification. This is nowhere more evident than in his Testament, where Francis affirms that,

The Lord gave me the way to do penance…The Lord himself led me among the lepers…The Lord gave me such faith in Churches…The Lord gave me such faith in priests…The Lord gave me some brothers…The Most High himself revealed to me that I should live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel…The Lord revealed a greeting to me that we should say, “May the Lord give you peace”…The Lord has given me to speak and write the Rule’(In Armstrong et al, I;121-127).



In the early phase of this contemplative experience of God, Francis initially misinterprets the purpose of these encounters. Not focussing on the relational aspect of the encounter, there is an initial temporal response by Francis, rebuilding derelict churches, starting with the little church of San Damiano.

It is only later, during the illuminative stage that this initial response of Francis is followed by an intuitive understanding of fraternal charity, in the image of Christ’s gift-love of himself. This is the intuitive understanding which we discover in Francis' ‘Rule for Hermitages’ (1217-1221). The text of this Rule is to be found in the oldest manuscript collections of St Francis’ writings (In Armstrong et al, I, 61). Many of the Franciscan scholars consider this ‘Rule’ as being a part of the Admonitions of St Francis. This is where i hear the most authentic voice of Francis speaking.  Esser, for one, called the Admonitions the “Canticle of inner poverty and the Canticle of Christian brotherliness.” He also characterized them as the magna carta of what Francis meant by brotherhood.  Cuthbert of Brighton considered the collection of Admonitions to be the “Sermon on the Mount” of the little poor one. Manselli, too, believes that what we have here are “Francis's essential thoughts.” The Admonitions, he feels, belong among the writings which “aim at summing up the experiences of his whole life.”  (Goorbergh, and Zweerman 2001: 56)

It is from this intuition of Francis that the Gospel way of evangelical life develops and evolves over his lifetime and will finally culminate in the ultimate joyous illumination which Francis experiences in the paradoxical suffering and darkness of his physical blindness; the sight of creation through the Lord’s eyes. Through this vision Francis comes to see that it is good, and to ‘Love as God Loves’. It is from this experience of Francis that our Franciscan theologian Blessed John Duns Scotus, taught in opposition to the overly intellectualized philosophy of the Scholastics of the Middle Ages.

As I consider the women who accompanied and ministered to Jesus and his disciples as well as story of Martha and Mary, it becomes clear these have  became the inspiration for the primitive rule of St Francis. We have seen how this gift love is mirrored by the love of a mother for a child. We have also seen how this gift love within affirming relationships actualizes our potential to become fully rational in the image of God.  I would propose further, that in such affirming gift love relational situations, God becomes present and sensible to us, our families, our communities and our societies.  Making our Franciscan intuition, tradition and insights known and accessible through our practice of such affirming love fraternities in a world of great loneliness is central to giving birth to the Gospel message. 

In the encyclical ‘Deus Caritas Est’ of the late Pope John Paul II, he speaks  of the 'feminine genius, which coincides with the acceptance and communication of love that, from the heart of God, radiates and shines in human hearts.’ It is in this light that we come to contemplate the Virgin Mary as Mother giving birth to Love itself; and being our exemplar in the Church, calling on us also to bring to term within us the message of the Gospel and, as part of our authentic Franciscan calling, to give birth to that love of Christ for the world.



The diverse experiences of Francis have led different authors to propose different experiences as core to the Franciscan spiritual path.

Tavard, for instance, considers the Francis vision at La Verna, of Christ crucified in the form of a winged seraph, which accompanied Francis being imprinted with the stigmata, as being fundamental to his piety and Christology, and therefore being at the core of Franciscan spirituality.  (Theological Studies, Vol. 42. No. 4, 565).  This reflection of the tokens of the Lord’s Passion, which is seen as the perfect imitatio Christi (McGiinn, 51), occurred in 1224, which was only two years before the death of Francis.

In the interpretation of Gallant and Cirino it is the dream of Francis as ‘Herald of the great King; the dream of glory which is contained in Francis' own prayers in the ‘Office of the Passion’.  As ‘The Geste of the Great King’, singing of the hero (Christ) who has been entrusted with a mission leading to acts of great valour, confronting the enemy and culminating in victory (Gallant and Cirino, 21).

Francis sees the path as an imitation of Christ, through suffering leading ultimately to the glory of the resurrection of the hero, because of his obedience. According to the Franciscan scholar, Regis Armstrong, it is the experience of Francis in the meeting with the leper which is the essence of the Franciscan experience (Armstrong, 21).

Yet for others, it is the crib at Greccio which showed the humility and poverty of Christ made manifest in the incarnation; the juxtaposition of transcendence and immanence. The transcendent God of all holiness who is here among us, as a completely dependent baby lying in a manger (Doyle, 57). This humility of Christ who gifts us through himself to each other with universal brother and sisterhood is, therefore, seen as central to Francis piety and thus the fundamental virtue of Franciscan spiritual life. This is the way of renounced ‘self-will’, purged of all lesser loves and attachments so that we may come to live in the awareness of the present moment. In the traditional contemplative and mystical traditions, this is seen as the abandoning former delights or prospective gratification, exclusively seeking God, for the sake of the love of God.


Do all of these different strands of Franciscan spirituality lead back to a central experience which may be deemed the spiritual path along which the disciple may find his way? Can we give some contemporary form to the historic ideal of evangelical fraternity of Gospel living in the way of the apostles and the first Christian communities? Jacques Dalarun points to a problem within the hagiographical writings due to serious inconsistencies between various biographies, the First Life and Second Life of Celano, and especially the Anonymous of Perugia and the Legend of the Three Companions on the one hand, and the Legend of Perugia  on the other.

Even within the genre of hagiographical accounts of the life of St Francis we have complex and often irreconcilable differences. In some instances we have a joyous, easy going Francis portrayed as having a free attitude towards any monastic rule, and especially bodily discipline. He is shown as being opposed to systematic penance and excessive fasting, mortification and asceticism, pointing rather towards the virtue of discernment. He ‘reproved his brothers when they were too harsh on themselves . . . binding up their wounds with the bandages of sane precepts and directions’ (3Comps: 59).

Though he is sometimes reported to have worn a hair-shirt in the early days, he forbade that such traditional devices be used by his friars (Perugia: 2). Writing in his own hand to Brother Leo after his stigmata, Francis advocates, speaking as a mother, that it is neither the biblical models, nor ecclesiastical prescriptions, nor is it the newly established Franciscan tradition that describes the path for the initiate. The path that Francis points towards is in the ongoing, relational dialogue with the living Lord. ‘In whatever way it seems better to you to praise the Lord God and to follow in His footprint and poverty, do it with the blessing of God and my obedience’ (In Armstrong et al,122). In juxtaposition to this view of Francis, we have the portrait of the saint drawn for us who represents the perfect ascetic, rigorous in following the rule of life; demanding complete self renunciation and absolute poverty, sine proprio (Dalarun 2002: 219). The editors of the 1999 three volume series of Francis of Assisi – The Early Documents, also point to other difficulties in studying the Franciscan tradition. There is ‘polishing’ of the ‘simplistic’ writing of Francis in copying of the manu-scripts as well as a blending of the primitive style of Francis with stylized prayers of the Liturgy.


André Cirino points out that images showing Francis at  the foot of the cross, with his gaze fixed on the suffering Christ, which ‘accords’ with the religious sensitivity of the earlier biographers of the period, is misleading. This is the way of indicating ‘compassionate contemplation’ of the cross, which some scholars see being perfected in the stigmata received by Francis (Sheldrake 2005: 311), and which Bonaventure interprets as the validation of the Franciscan road of contemplation. Cirino rather interprets the contemplative way of St Francis directly from the prayers of the saint in the ‘Office of the Passion’. The pattern starts with the praises of the victorious Hero in the glory of the Father; then recognizes in the Antiphon the ‘glorified Hero’ as his ‘Lord and Teacher’; finally to the ‘Hero-Teacher’ showing the way of ‘obedience through opposition and persecution, to the fullness of life in the Kingdom (Gallant and Cirino, 25). In contemplating Christ, Francis has found himself reflected in Christ’s gaze; a mirror image of the encounter with the leper.


This idea of ‘gazing’ on the face of the Lord, as a ‘mother’ and ‘son’ in Francis’ Rule for hermitages, will be taken up by St Clare (1181-1253) in her ‘mirror’ imagery, as she follows Francis' way of life ‘according to the Gospel’. In her imagery, it is Francis who is the mother, and she the child (son) as seen in the Rule for Hermitages..

Lady Clare also related how once, in a vision, it seemed to her she brought a bowl of hot water to Saint Francis along with a towel for drying his hands. She was climbing a very high stairway, but was going very quickly, almost as though she were going on level ground. When she reached Saint Francis, the saint bared his breast and said to the Lady Clare: “Come, take and drink.” After she had sucked from it, the saint admonished her to imbibe once again. After she did so what she had tasted was so sweet and delightful she in no way could describe it. After she had imbibed, that nipple or opening of the breast from which the milk came remained between the lips of blessed Clare. After she took what remained in her mouth in her hands, it seemed to her it was gold so clear and bright that everything was seen in it as in a mirror (Goorbergh, and Zweerman 2001: 108).

In the many disputes about Franciscan poverty following the death of St Francis, it is Clare who remains the most loyal and obedient ‘child’, adhering strictly to the ‘Lady Poverty’ and the ideals of sine proprio, following ‘in the footprints of the poor, condemned Christ’ (Sr Francis Teresa, 68)


Franciscan spirituality has manifested itself in the Church in developing mysticism, in sacred music and art, in a wide intellectual tradition supporting the growth of philosophy and theology as well as science seeking ever to bridge the gap between faith and reason.

The Franciscan understanding of all the rich diversity of creation as our brothers and sisters, bearing the imprint of the creator, meant that their portrayer in truth meant a move towards a more emotional and naturalistic portrayal away from the abstraction and poetic beauty of the Italian-Byzantine style.

Franciscans have remained faithful to their missionary activity and the call for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. Seeing all creation as good, this is a spirituality divested of any form of domination, seeking always to bridge human alienation from nature and the divine. Starting from the second book of revelation, which is creation, the seven steps on the path of spiritual growth in the ‘The Journey into God’, developed by St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (1221-1274), Bishop and Doctor of the Church as well as eighth Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor, remains integral to spiritual direction programmes worldwide.

Through the centuries, Franciscan spirituality has remained centred on the mystical contemplation held in tension with evangelic mission. Through the development of Franciscan devotions, this contemplation of Scripture moves from the incarnation which we see in the crib, the Cross as we see in the ‘Stations of the Cross’, and the living Christ at the centre of human history and culture, as we see in the ‘Crucifix of San Damiano’.


A return to the charism of the contemplative being as envisaged in the Rule that we have inherited, could appear counter-intuitive in the hurly-burly of our current challenges. I would however advocate that the pendulum has swung too far in that historical tension of the active and contemplative lives of the Little Brothers. There is within me a deep conviction and a yearning of and for the fire that burns in the desert; a return to the mountain.  If we do not stop to listen; if we do not return to the experience of the divine, how can we hear; how can we know? What have we to offer the world?

As the contemplative aspect of our religious life contracts and our hermitages fall into disuse in a world forgetful of the sacred, we see our vocations faltering and our Order dwindling.