Francis began his Testament to his brothers with these words: “The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance. . .” And Clare told her sisters: “After the Most High Heavenly Father saw fit by His grace to enlighten my heart to do penance. . .” And the early name for the lay people inspired by their example was the Brothers and Sisters of Penance. All early Franciscans thus saw themselves as part of the great penitential movement of their times: men and women who heard the Gospel afresh and turned their hearts to the Gospel in a deeper way. Therefore, the liturgical season of Lent, dedicated to a deeper conversion of mind and heart, always occupied a special place in their lives.
We know that Francis almost always retired for the season of Lent with a few brothers in a hermitage – his favorites were La Verna and Greccio - where he could step apart and reflect on how God was asking him to deepen his commitment in terms of the ever-changing situation of his life. “When blessed Francis stayed constantly in a place to pray . . . he was always anxious to know the will of the Lord, about how he could please him better” (Assisi Compilation, 118). Most Franciscans today, committed to many activities, do not have the time to spend all of Lent in a hermitage, but the challenge for us is still there to create a mental space during this sacred season to “go apart” to discern God’s continuing call, to “know the will of the Lord.”
That call of Francis still comes to us: “Do penance, performing worthy fruits of penance: Give and it will be given to you. Forgive and you shall be forgiven. If you do not forgive people their sins, the Lord will not forgive yours. Confess all your sins. Blessed are those who die in penance, for they shall be in the kingdom of heaven. . . Beware of and abstain from every evil and persevere in good till the end” (Earlier Rule, 21).