We are now in the midst of the sacred season of Lent.
Early Franciscans saw themselves as part of the great penitential movement of their times: men and women who were hearing the Gospel afresh and turning their hearts to the coming of God’s Kingdom in a deeper way. Therefore, the liturgical season of Lent, dedicated as it is to a profound conversion of mind and heart, naturally occupied a special place in their lives.
And so, Lenten practices occupy a place in the early Franciscan rules (Friars Minor, Poor Clares, and lay penitents). Prominent here is the discipline of fasting, which at the time entailed the communal solidarity of abstaining from meat, meat fats, and dairy products for the Lenten period.
We know that Francis himself almost always retired for the season of Lent with a few brothers to 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).
The hermitage at Greccio where Saint Francis spent Lent
The sanctuary and hermitage at LaVerna where Saint Francis spent Lent with a few brothers
Franciscans still continue to practice Lenten disciplines, even though most of us, committed to many activities, do not take on the burden of physical penances or have the time to spend all of Lent in a hermitage. Yet the challenge for us is still there to create sufficient mental space during this sacred season to “go apart” from our numbing daily activities to discern God’s continuing call, to “know the will of the Lord, how we might please him better.”
Isola Maggiore, Lake Trasimeno, Italy, where Francis spent Lent one year, probably in 1211. The castle there is a 19th-century addition on the site of a medieval friary. (Wikimedia Commons)
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).
The challenge is ours.
Saint Francis challenges us to find mental space and “go apart” during Lent, as he did in this grotto at LaVerna.
Main image: “St Francis in Prayer,” painted by Michele Caravaggio, 1598
Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor.