It is now the final Sunday in Lent and Palm Sunday. Next week is the joyful celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. First, we must journey through this dark Holy Week because, without the Passion and Crucifixion, there can be no Easter. We all go through dark times in our own lives. Afterwards, we can often recognize how God was working through it all, providing us with our own little easters to celebrate. Just as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before his Passion, we will all fare better when we stay close to God while carrying our crosses. This leads us to the final virtue of St. Francis in this Lenten series.

Chapter Ten: Of His Fervor and Diligence in Prayer

Up to this point, we’ve covered five virtues St. Bonaventure found exemplary in St. Francis: austerity, humility and obedience, poverty, piety, and charity. As well as being able to master these virtues, Francis rightly understood that none of it was possible by his own desires or capabilities but only through the grace God provided for him. Awareness of this fact motivated him to cultivate a superior prayer life, the fruit of which was the divine grace necessary for his pursuit of holiness.

Bonaventure tells us that Francis prayed “without intermission” and “endeavored to keep his spirit in the continual presence of God.” Knowing the tendency of error in the human will, he kept his thoughts with the Lord during every waking moment, turning over his own will and trusting God to guide his words and actions. There was no rest in St. Francis’ prayer life. “[W]hether walking or sitting, at home or abroad, laboring or resting, he was ever intent on prayer so that he seemed to have dedicated to it not only his heart and body, and all that was in him, but also his work and his time.” Imagine how the world would change if we prayed as much as St. Francis did! St. Bonaventure doesn’t mention this, but I imagine that when someone is so consumed in conversation with God, they speak less than the average person. When they do speak, their words are more likely words that somehow bring glory to God. Words are often the source of so many sins, so to be consumed entirely in prayer can only reduce opportunities to sin.

While prayer can be loosely defined as conversing with God within your heart, the Catholic Church provides many ways to pray. St. Francis was particularly fond of praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Whether he was home or traveling, no matter what he was doing, he would stop to pray each of the hours, considering the prayer to be essential nourishment, saying, “If quiet is needed to eat the bread of the body, which, with what it eats, shall become the food of worms, with how far greater peace and tranquility ought the soul to receive the nourishment of its life!” In other words, our bodies are temporal and will eventually return to the earth, but our souls are eternal. Therefore, the care and nourishment we give to our souls in prayer should far exceed that which we provide for our bodies.

St. Francis prayed so fervently that he was often unaware of things happening around him. If crowds surrounded him, he could not feel the people pushing up around him. During his travels, he frequently asked when they would arrive, not realizing they had already reached the destination because time and space disappeared for him. St. Francis thought that to be distracted from prayer by “vain fancies” was very problematic, and St. Bonaventure reveals one particular time this happened. One Lent, he had decided to make a small vessel. He stopped to pray the Tierce hour of the Liturgy of the Hours and was distracted by his work on the project for just a moment. He immediately threw the vessel onto the fire and said, “I will sacrifice to the Lord that which has hindered His sacrifice.” For us today, likely often distracted by our to-do lists and other things, it will probably not do us much good to throw the list into the fire, but Francis does provide an example of how active we must be in putting things out of our minds to focus on God. The to-do list won’t matter in heaven, but our prayers will.

Another feature of St. Francis’s prayer life was how he protected his conversations with God and the things revealed to him within his heart, sharing only what he felt compelled to share out of charity to the extent it would benefit someone. He considered any word God offered to him a great treasure to be cherished and protected. He would advise his brothers to do the same because flaunting what one has received in prayer could lead to a desire for man’s admiration, which is contrary to humility. Therefore, he also avoided external expressions of emotion during prayer, like sighs or groans. The most important thing about prayer is communicating with God in your heart. According to Francis, it is a gift of intimacy between you and God alone.

Of course, as we hear in stories of many other saints and even experience in our own prayer lives, the demons like to get involved. The more the demons can get into the middle of a conversation between God and a person, the more havoc they can wreak, so it is one of their favorite things to do. In St. Francis’s case, the demons would physically attack him in his senses (this also notably happened to Padre Pio) to derail the holy man’s prayers. In response to these attacks, St. Francis would first say to God, “Protect me under the shadow of Thy wings from the face of the wicked who afflict me.” Then, he would turn to the demons and say, “Do your worst, malignant and false spirits, for you can do nothing but what you are permitted to do by God, and I am ready to suffer with all joy whatsoever His divine goodness has decreed for me.” St. Francis’s approach to these attacks is a good reminder for us. Demons are on a very short leash and can only do what God allows. So, if you find yourself under attack in your prayer life or otherwise, it is because God wills it for some benefit of yours. Trust God, ask him to protect you, and be joyful that your efforts threaten the demons.

We live in a world today with far more distractions than St. Francis had in medieval times. We have jobs, cell phones, televisions, real-time access to news and world events, booked calendars, and so much more. Keeping our thoughts on God at every moment is a challenge. However, we can strive to devote more and more time each day to converse with God; it just takes intentional practice. We can certainly carve out a specific time to devote to quiet prayer each day. By praying throughout our day, we can quickly recognize distractions and how they negatively impact our souls and the pursuit of virtue. We will then be able to dismiss them more readily. Suppose we put in the effort to connect with God more deeply and more continually. In that case, we will experience the same growth in virtue and holiness that St. Francis did, because the more connected you are to God, the more difficult it is to find opportunities to sin. This coming Holy Week, focus on fervor in prayer as you accompany Jesus through his Passion and Crucifixion.

Click here to see my interview about this series, Lent with St. Francis, with Will Wright from Good Distinctions.

You can find Lenten chaplet playlists here to help facilitate meditation on the Passion of Christ.

Read Lenten reflection series from past years here.

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