A musician I've worked with on retreats asked if I liked to read, and when I said I did, he promptly handed me a copy of "Franciscan Prayer" by Ilia Delio. I finished it ahead of last weekend's retreat, and I found it to be a wonderful, insightful book.
The basic premise of the work is Franciscan Prayer: the roots, ideals and practices upon the Franciscan way of praying and how it came about. The author, Ilia Delio, does a good job of describing the prayer life of both Saint Francis and Saint Clare, as described by Bonaventure. Beyond prayer, Delio also explains many of the premises for Franciscan life.
Divided into nine chapters, Delio artfully places meditations and questions at the end of each chapter, giving the reader time to consider daily applications of the material in their own prayer life. The chapters themselves are well constructed and academic in some regards, although Delio has a refreshingly lyrical writing style that draws the reader in.
Although I lead retreats at a Franciscan retreat center, I'll admit that I did not have much of a background on the Franciscan principals. Delio does a great job of explaining how poverty and humility help to center and open one up to a fuller relationship with God.
"Poverty invites us to go beyond ourselves, by taking from us everything on which we might tend to lean. It is not a matter of simply being poor but of having nothing that can prevent us from being wholly open to the grace of God. The practice of poverty, therefore, is the condition and sign of our openness to the mystery of God."
Delio also explains Saint Clare's methodology of prayer, which consists of four phases:
I'll admit that these steps are very different than anything I learned growing up Lutheran. Certainly, we did not have images or icons to Gaze upon as Lutherans, so this idea took awhile for me to get used to. The Cross of San Damiano is considered an icon cross because it has the images of Christ and of people within Christ's life, instead of being simply the wooden cross many of us are more familiar with. Truly, as you stand before the San Damiano Cross, you are staring at a Crucified Jesus. And, once you have that kind of imagery present, I do find that it draws you in to the story in a deeper fashion, making the events and crucifiction of Christ more real, personal and understandable.
Having experienced the San Damiano Cross, I can now better understand and appreciate Saint Clare's stepping off point for prayer. It is much easier to begin Considering the life of Christ when presented with a moving image of Him. In Considering, Saint Clare states "If you suffer with him, you will reign with him. If you weep with him, you shall rejoice with him; if you die with him on the cross of tribulation, you shall possess heavenly mansions in the splendor of the saints, and in the book of life, your name shall be called glorious among the people."
Contemplation, Delio says, "leads to a solidarity with all creation whereby all sorrows are shared in a hear of compassionate love, all tears are gathered in a womb of mercy, all pain is healed by the balm of forgiveness." In Contemplation, one considers the connectedness of all things in Creation, and begins to better understand the similarities and beauty that surrounds all of us.
Imitation is the last step, and it allows us to become what we love, and for Saint Clare, that love is represented by Christ. By imitating Christ, in true form, we become more like Him. This involves the totality of the person, in heart, mind, soul, and action - when we are truly imitating Christ, we are fully participating in the mystery of Christ. In following our own passions, we are fulfilling our purpose on Earth.
The ultimate goal of this form of prayer is "bringing Christ to birth." By becoming what we love, we embody Christ for others here, and act as the Body of Christ for each other in a living, breathing form. By Gazing, Considering, Contemplating and Imitating, prayer allows one to embody the foundational principals of love and peace. Delio does a wonderful job of explaining that love and peace are both things that must be lived out. "A person can live in the spirit of crucified love, however, only when he or she believes that he or she is loved. 'The root of Christian love, Merton** wrote,'is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved.'"
I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in learning more about the lives of Saint Francis and Saint Clare, and to anyone who is intrigued by Franciscan Prayer.
*San Damiano also being the church in Asissi, Italy where Saint Francis first had an encounter with Christ.
**Thomas Merton, a Contemplative Christian author