Saint Clare of Assisi once said: “We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become.” Saint Francis and Saint Clare loved each other as dearest friends, as spiritual companions, and as children of the Most High God. They also loved the Crucified Christ and sought to imitate his Gospel with every thought, word, and deed. They devoted their whole lives to him in prayer and good works, and in poverty, chastity, and obedience. It is fitting, then, for us to reflect again and again on the faith, littleness, and prayerfulness of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi.
In this story from the Second Life of Saint Francis by Thomas of Celano, Francis responds to Clare’s desire for spiritual direction by offering a profound lesson in humility. Francis teaches that no matter how holy we may seem, we are called to embrace our humanity. We are called to acknowledge our brokenness. And we are called to ask for God’s forgiveness. May we remain mindful of this wisdom and steadfast in our life of prayer.
Circle of Ashes – A Story of Francis & Clare
While Saint Francis was lodging not far from San Damiano, he was asked often by the local priest to visit that cloister and preach the Word of God to Saint Clare and the Poor Ladies. Francis was satisfied with the spiritual progress of the sisters in their lives of prayer and penance, but Clare wanted more guidance from their spiritual father.
Finally, Francis agreed to visit the convent. The Poor Ladies gathered in the chapel as they normally would do to hear the Word of God, but they were most eager to see Saint Francis. Francis began by raising his eyes toward heaven, where he always directed his heart, and he prayed silently to the Poor Christ. Then Francis asked for a pale of ashes. He made a circle around himself on the floor. He poured the rest over his own head. As the sisters waited for Francis to preach, he remained silent and perfectly still within the circle of ashes. Amazement grew among the sisters as they looked upon the Poor Man of Assisi. Francis suddenly stood. He surprised the sisters by not preaching a sermon. Instead, he recited this psalm of contrition (51):
Have mercy on me, O God, in your kindness.
In your compassion, blot out my offense.
O wash me more and more from my guilt
and cleanse me from my sin.
My offenses, truly I know them;
my sin is always before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned;
what is evil in your sight I have done.
That you may be justified
when you give sentence
and be without reproach when you judge,
O see, in guilt I was born,
a sinner was I conceived.
Indeed you love truth in the heart:
then in the secret of my heart
teach me wisdom.
O purify me, then I shall be clean;
O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me hear rejoicing and gladness
that the bones you have crushed may revive.
From my sins turn away your face
and blot out all of my guilt.
A pure heart create for me, O God,
put a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
nor deprive me of your holy spirit.
Give me again the joy of your help:
with a spirit of fervor sustain me,
that I may teach transgressors your ways
and sinners may return to you.
O rescue me, God, my helper,
and my tongue shall ring out your goodness.
O Lord, open my lips
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
For in sacrifice you take no delight,
burnt offering from me you would refuse,
my sacrifice, a contrite spirit,
a humbled contrite heart you will not spurn.
In your goodness, show favor to Zion:
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with lawful sacrifice,
holocausts offered on your altar. Amen.
When Francis finished the psalm, he departed quickly. Nourished by God’s Word alone, the sisters were filled with sorrow for their sins. They shed many tears and could hardly restrain from punishing themselves. By his simple gesture, Francis taught the Poor Ladies to consider themselves nothing more than ashes. He taught them that nothing was closer to his heart than the virtue of humility.
This was the way that Francis behaved among the holy women. This was his way of visiting them: seldom, reserved, but so very effective. This was his will for those he was called to serve for the sake of the Poor Christ whom they also serve: that they might always, like little birds, beware of the snares of this world.
Thomas of Celano (1185-1250) wrote the first biographies of Saint Francis. He was part of the first generation of Lesser Brothers; and he was personally received into the Order of Friars Minor by Saint Francis. The preceding legend is taken from the Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul (Chapter CLVII), Celano’s Second Life of Saint Francis. It is translated here from an Italian text and updated for contemporary readers and listeners. Centuries after its composition, it still has so much to teach us about Saint Francis and Saint Clare, and the opening of our hearts and minds to God’s universal call to holiness.
Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. Saint Francis of Assisi, pray for us! Saint Clare of Assisi, pray for us! Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
ABOUT THE PRESENTER
Cliff Garvey is a co-founder of the Assisi Project. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine, Saint John Seminary College, and the Catholic University of America. Cliff is a writer, retreat leader, spiritual director, and university lecturer. He also serves as Associate Minister of the Catholic Community of Gloucester & Rockport in Massachusetts where his ministry focuses on adult faith formation. Thank you for listening to the Assisi Project Podcast. These audio recordings are produced by the Assisi Project, Inc. For more information about the Assisi Project and our programs and ministries for adults of all ages and backgrounds, please contact Cliff Garvey at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2023. All rights reserved. May the Lord give you peace!
Art Credit: Photo 142077785 © Vetre Antanaviciute | Dreamstime.com
Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit with friends and followers around the world. We are dedicated to helping Christian believers of all ages more faithfully live the Gospel of Christ in the spirit of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi. The Assisi Project is a non-profit, tax exempt charitable organization. All are welcome to support our ministry via PayPal; or by mailing a tax-deductible donation to the Assisi Project, Post Office Box 3158, Gloucester, Massachusetts 01931-3158. For more information about the Assisi Project, please contact Cliff Garvey at email@example.com. May the Lord give you peace!
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