Last week, I discussed how St. Francis lived an austere life by seeking ways to practice self-control and detachment from physical and worldly comforts. This week, as we continue our Lenten journey with St. Francis according to St. Bonaventure, we will examine two more virtues in which the great saint excelled.

Chapter Six: Of His Humility and Obedience, and How the Divine Majesty Granted All His Prayers

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines humility as: “A quality by which a person considering his own defects has a lowly opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake.” Modern culture argues against having a low opinion of oneself. It encourages building one’s self-esteem by recognizing one’s self-worth and accepting the praise that goes with a job well done in whatever situation it occurs. This position lacks the Christian understanding that humility requires extreme self-awareness, recognizing our sinfulness, and, therefore, unworthiness before God. Jesus promises a reward for authentic humility, saying, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 14:11). So, humility is something for which we must strive because it is required for entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

Obedience is the act of submitting one’s own will to the will of God or another person out of love for God. Again, obedience is not a virtue promoted by modern culture; leadership, power, and control are more highly valued and define what it means to be a strong or successful person. While it is true that we need leaders in every circle of society, if everyone was at the top of the command chain and there were no subordinates, nothing would function properly. Likewise, the motivation to be at the top of the command chain must be considered because everyone is subordinate to Almighty God, and any power a person may have over any other is owed to the glory of him who allowed it. Jesus provided us with a perfect example of obedience saying, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (Jn 6:38). While humility and obedience are two distinct virtues, they are interconnected in that humility is necessary to practice obedience, particularly when the situation does not require obedience, but rather, it is done out of love alone.

St. Francis was a man of profound and abundant humility. According to St. Bonaventure, he was painfully aware of his sinfulness and always sought to see himself in his lowliness compared to God’s greatness. He abhorred receiving praise and preferred the company of those who disliked him or found fault with him because he knew “that reproof leads to amendment, while praises excite to sin.” In other words, while it may not produce pleasant feelings, criticism can lead to self-reflection and change when we are open to it. Francis was also fearless in announcing his own faults while he was preaching. St. Bonaventure does not say, but perhaps one of the factors that contributed to the effectiveness of his outstanding preaching was the humility in sharing his defects that made him relatable to others and not as if he thought himself better than anyone else.

St. Francis believed that praise from others could lead to “vain boasting” to receive more praise, which creates only transitory pleasant feelings, distracting from the true happiness that finds its source in God alone. Because of this, any gifts that the Lord bestowed on him were kept privately in his heart and he did not brag to others about his many blessings. To keep his humility in check, he would say to himself, “Francis, if a robber had received such graces as thou hast received, he would be far more grateful than you.” When we think we are not grateful enough for the gifts we’ve been given, it causes us to strive to be more grateful, which is no less than God deserves.

On one occasion, Francis was in Rome with a friend of his who was a cardinal. The cardinal asked him to stay a little longer, and Francis agreed out of reverence and love. That night, demons visited Francis and beat him. Afterward, Francis went to his friend, telling him that the demons can do nothing without God’s permission, and Francis believed what had taken place was because he agreed to stay in an elegant home while, at the same time, his brothers were living in poverty and humble accommodations. Francis determined his actions were hypocritical and that it was better to set an example of living the way he was asking others to live, so he left and returned home.

Concerning the virtue of obedience, Francis was no less zealous. He always made sure that another brother had authority over him, whether he was with the entire order or just traveling with one other brother. Whenever possible, St. Francis preferred to be a subordinate rather than a superior so that he could obey instead of command. He said of his obedience, “He has granted me this grace — to obey with the same readiness a novice who had been but an hour in religion, were he set over me as my superior, as the most ancient and discreet amongst the brethren.” To use an analogous example, St. Francis essentially thought it to be a gift from God for the vice president of a company to obey an entry-level employee on his first day of work just as quickly as the VP would obey the CEO. His reason for this line of thinking is that anyone who exercised authority over him was given that authority by God alone and Francis was therefore obeying God and not the man himself. As I stated before, one cannot achieve obedience like this without profound humility and a sense of one’s own smallness in relation to the power of God.

When asked how he would measure the faithful obedience of a person, he used the example of a dead body. The body can be placed by someone else and will not so much as move its head into a different position. The body can be dressed by someone else without complaint or resistance to the clothes that have been chosen and it will not cry out if it is left alone or asked to be placed somewhere else. In other words, perfect obedience is utterly passive with no concern for one’s own will or preferences. Then, Francis says that when a man receives a higher office, not through his own pursuit but because someone has decided it should be, he will maintain his humility in receiving the honor.

To live out the virtues of humility and obedience in today’s world is challenging to say the least. If he lived today, St. Francis would be characterized as a doormat or self-deprecating to a terrible fault. However, it becomes a little easier when you consider how his entire behavior finds its root in the knowledge of who God is and who he was in comparison. This week, contemplate how St. Francis’ humility and obedience imitate that of Jesus during his Passion and death. Identify a situation where you can demonstrate these virtues better in thanksgiving for what Jesus endured for you. Perhaps you might be more open to criticism and even ask someone you trust to gently offer you some. You could also try being more submissive in a family or work situation. Whatever it is, do it with a divine perspective rather than a worldly one, and know that you aim to please God and not the world by your actions.

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.

To receive articles and reflections like these directly to your inbox, please subscribe.