How is your Lent going? Some years, we have good Lenten seasons where we feel spiritually strong and resilient and experience positive effects from prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Some years, our Lent is not as good, and we fail to resist the temptations Satan throws our way in his attempts to distract us and derail our pursuits of growing in holiness. If this Lent has been more of a struggle for you, particularly in regard to practicing the virtues of St. Francis of Assisi, I want to offer some encouragement. Even though we are near the end of our Lenten season, there is always time to try again or find another opportunity to improve. Growth in virtue and holiness is only achieved with consistent practice, perseverance, and complete dependence on the Lord through whom we receive the strength to do all things (Phil 4:11-13). Now, let’s examine the next virtue of St. Francis that St. Bonaventure described: charity.

Chapter 9: Of the Fervor of His Charity and of His Desire of Martyrdom

Before examining Francis’ practice of charity, let’s first define what charity is and how it is expressed in our modern culture. The Catechism says, “Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (CCC #1822). In a practical sense, charity and love are synonymous and expressed through how we interact with others. In the secular world, to love others is to be kind, accepting, and help whenever possible to the extent you can. These are all objectively good things and proper for creating a healthy society, but in and of themselves, they are somewhat superficial.

As Catholics, we approach charity toward others as an extension of our love for God by seeing his image and likeness in all people, and therefore, we treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve. When we look at others through the eyes of Jesus, we see them with eyes of compassion and empathy and act accordingly. When we see suffering, we think of the suffering Jesus endured for our salvation. When we perform the spiritual and corporal acts of mercy, we recall that Jesus told us, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mat 25:40) and that when we love others, we love him by extension. Again, all these things are true and good and ought to be pursued. However, when we talk about the virtue of charity and love, we often tend to overemphasize our love of neighbors. This is not to say that we do not love God or act out of love for him, but only that we are typically caught up in whatever situation is right in front of us at any given moment, which usually involves other human beings.

However, St. Francis approached the virtue of charity by always starting with God and remaining in God, giving God all of his love before giving it to anyone else. This approach then ordered his motivation and foundation for anything he did in his interaction with others. St. Bonaventure illustrates this by dedicating the first portion of the chapter strictly to St. Francis’ love of God without speaking of how he expressed this to others until later.

First and foremost, St. Francis was always aware of God’s burning love for him as he was likened to “live coal in the furnace, in the fame of divine love.” God’s love for him inspired his every thought and deed. He thought that anyone who valued money more than God’s love was foolish because his love was sufficient to purchase the kingdom of heaven for us, which no amount of money in the world could do. Francis’ recognition of God’s love for him would then be reciprocated in the love he gave to God, which he believed was the least he could do. He wanted to love God so much and be conformed to Jesus in order that he might love like Jesus. One of the many ways he expressed his love for God was his adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. He sought to receive the Eucharist and be in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament as often as possible, always wanting to be close to Jesus, whom he loved so much. Because of his deep union with Jesus, he was often gifted with ecstasies, a phenomenon where a person is so imbued with God in his soul that his physical body is overtaken and animated by divine power.

From there, still not ready to discuss St. Francis’ love for his neighbors, Bonaventure moves down the hierarchy, discussing his love for angels, saints, and the Blessed Mother. Francis recognized how all these beings in heaven could see God face to face and, as a result, loved God more perfectly than he did. He loved them because they loved God deeply, and he wanted to emulate that love. The desire for this deep love emboldened his practice of offering his body as a sacrifice to God through fasting and other acts of austerity. If Jesus sacrificed His own body to the point of death on a cross for Francis’ salvation, then joining the great saints in these more minor acts of bodily sacrifice was a small price to pay for love.

It was only after this in-depth examination of St. Francis’ charity for God that St. Bonaventure looked at his charity for others, but perhaps not in the way one might first think. While it is most certainly true that Francis was charitable in offering acts of love to his fellow brothers and others in the community, his love for God inspired so much more than providing for earthly comforts. As a result of his experience of God’s love for him and his return of that love, his deepest desire was that every other person should experience the love of Jesus and obtain their salvation through that love. In other words, St. Francis believed that the most charitable thing he could do for his neighbors was to introduce them to Jesus Christ.

To that end, Bonaventure dedicates the second half of the chapter to St. Francis’ travels and experiences in carrying the gospel message to the followers of Islam who did not know Jesus Christ. He knew this sort of evangelization could cost him his life. He pursued it with a desire for martyrdom because sacrificing his body to the point of death for the purpose of bringing Jesus’ love to others would be the closest that he could get to Jesus’ sacrifice of love for him. It is impossible to know how many of Francis’ interactions were fruitful. Still, Bonaventure does tell us that a particular sultan was greatly impressed by Francis’ zeal for God. Even when you may not see the effects of your efforts, you never know what seeds you may have planted. While he and his brothers did experience many instances of suffering from his attempts at evangelization, he was never granted the grace of martyrdom, perhaps because God had too many other things for Francis to do. However, his desire to love God and others by introducing them to God’s love was certainly not without great merit.

As you contemplate your practice of the virtue of charity this week, ask yourself if it is ordered like St. Francis’ practice – God’s love for you, leading to your love for God, finally extending to others. While worldly charitable acts are good and necessary, we must discern if they are motivated by a more profound desire for others to experience the love of Jesus Christ, who has purchased for them the Kingdom of Heaven. When you love God first and with your greatest passion, everything else falls into place, and it gives your other acts of charity renewed meaning.

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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