Once again, we find ourselves in the liturgical season of Lent. This is a time to focus on our growth in holiness and virtue through prayer, penance, and almsgiving as we anticipate the suffering Jesus endured to reconcile us to the Father. As the inspiration for this year’s Lenten reflection series, I am using The Life of St. Francis of Assisi, by St. Bonaventure.

St. Francis (1181-1226) was a wealthy businessman who, by his own admission, led a sinful life and desired earthly glory above all else. His conversion was slow and occurred through a series of events, but eventually, he fully accepted God’s will for his life. He embraced poverty, became an excellent preacher, was ordained a deacon, and founded the Franciscan order – none of which he originally set out to do.

In contrast to St. Francis, St. Bonaventure (1221-1274), by all accounts, had always lived a pure and holy life. It is claimed that during a severe illness in childhood, he was cured through the intercession of St. Francis. Sometime between 1238 and 1243, he joined the Franciscan order. He then went on to study theology with St. Thomas Aquinas, with whom he would later be named a Doctor of the Church. St. Bonaventure wrote his book on St. Francis to create a lasting account of how St. Francis lived a life of profound holiness. However, it does not tell his life story from beginning to end. Instead, Bonaventure uses each chapter to draw attention to a particular aspect of Francis’ virtue and how God rewarded him for his holiness. To demonstrate how we are all called to pursue greater holiness, I have selected six of these chapters to reflect on over the course of Lent.

Chapter Five: Of the Austerity of His Life, and How All Creatures Gave Him Joy and Consolation

Austerity is the sternness and severity with which a person lives one’s life. In the Catholic sense, austerity is living a life of strict asceticism and bodily penance to tame one’s bodily passions, atoning for one’s sins or the sins of others, and creating a disposition that is better able to respond to the will of God. A few weeks ago, I wrote about redemptive suffering and explained that we can facilitate suffering for ourselves and join it to the suffering of Christ for the redemption of souls. Lay people are encouraged to take on certain self-imposed penances. Typically, for the laity, this includes fasting and taking on other minor annoyances and discomforts. However, if one feels as though they are being called to more extreme forms of austerity, it should only be pursued under the guidance of a good spiritual director to ensure the call is, in fact, coming from God. Rather than imitating St. Francis exactly, we can look to him for inspiration to increase our austerity a bit further so that we continue our growth.

St. Francis saw the necessity of controlling one’s sensual appetites to gain mastery over the ability to resist temptations to sin. For this reason, fasting was a central part of his life. Of course, a body needs food and water for nourishment and sustenance, but for Francis, feeding the body delicious food, or more food than is required, appeals to bodily desires and self-gratification. To tame the desires of his flesh, he lived only on what was necessary. He also refrained from eating cooked food as much as possible and would find other ways to make his food not taste as good. He also drank cold water as little as possible to avoid the feeling of physical refreshment. When he traveled, he humbly conformed to the manner of life of those he was visiting and would eat what they set before him but would always resume his personal fasting practices upon returning home.

Also central to St. Francis’ practice of austerity was his imitation of St. John the Baptist; he adopted wearing a tunic of coarse hair and rejected anything made of soft or delicate fabric. If someone gave him a softer tunic, he made it rougher by putting cords inside. In addition to being rough, the tunics he wore were thin and exposed him to the cold. When asked how he could endure such cold all the time, he responded, “If we burn within with a fervent desire for our heavenly country, easy it is to endure this exterior cold.” In other words, St. Francis was internally warmed by his burning desire for an eternity in heaven, making it easier to suffer a little more while on earth.

Francis was continually finding other ways to purge the desire for earthly satisfaction. He continually increased the intensity of his physical exercise despite his fasting practices. He also liked to sleep sitting and would lean his head against a stone or a piece of wood. He said the devils turned away from discomfort and were more likely to “tempt those who indulge in softness and delicacy.” On one occasion, he had pain in his head and his eyes, so a brother brought him a feather pillow. Satan troubled Francis so much through the pillow that his prayer was restrained and so he begged for the pillow to be taken away.

Recognizing how what our eyes gaze upon can also be a source of temptation to sin, he strictly adhered to what is known as “custody of the eyes” and encouraged his fellow brothers to do the same. Most notably, he applied the practice when in the presence of women to avoid being tempted to the sin of lust in honor of his vow of chastity. “So faithfully did he turn away his eyes lest they should behold vanity, that, as he once said to one of his companions, he hardly knew any woman by sight.” Toward the end of his life, St. Francis started to go blind. With primitive medical knowledge at the time, it was believed his blindness was caused by his continual weeping over his sins and a doctor was sent to him to implore him to stop the crying. To the doctor, he joyfully said:

“It is not fitting, Brother Physician, that for the love of that light which we have here below, in common with the flies, we should shut out the last ray of the eternal light which visits us from above; for the soul has not received the light for the sake of the body, but the body for the sake of the soul. I would, therefore, choose rather to lose the light of the body than to repress those tears by which the interior eyes are purified, that so they may see God, lest I should thus quench the spirit of devotion.”

For Francis, it was far more valuable to cry over how he was harming Jesus with his sins and thus increase his interior light for the benefit of self-awareness than to suppress his conscience to preserve him from earthly darkness. He did not merely accept his bodily suffering; he embraced it with an eternal perspective and a deep love for Jesus.

While we may not all be called to St. Francis’ level of austerity, we are all called to seek ways to master self-indulgence and pursue self-control over temptations. This Lent, identify a comfort to relinquish and offer it for the redemption of souls.

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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