By Robert D. Miller II OFS
The 1978 Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order begins with Francis of Assisi’s Exhortation Concerning Those Who Do and Do Not Do Penance. This text, with its graphic description of the fate of those who do not do penance, is certainly an arresting opening to the Rule, and may strike some readers rather negatively. Yet it is very important that the Rule opens with this exhortation, as penance is at the heart of Secular Franciscan spirituality.
Within the Franciscan family, different branches have spiritualities focused in different areas. For the Friars Minor, there is emphasis on minority. For the Poor Clares, it is profound poverty. For the Third Order, the focus has always been penance. Francis himself called his Third Order the “Brothers and Sisters of Penance.” Early after his death, they were the “Penitents of St. Francis.” So if within the Catholic Faith Secular Franciscans are to emphasize a Franciscan Spirituality, then within the Franciscan family they are to emphasize penance. It remains, then, to discover exactly what Franciscan penance means.
Penance is synonymous with conversion. The Official Commentary promulgated with the 1978 Rule defines “a person who does ‘penance’” as “a person turned toward God” (§1b). “Conversion,” metanoia, literally means “turning toward God.” Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§1431) speaks of “a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace.”
The Church has perhaps failed to emphasize conversion sufficiently in recent centuries. Not so the Franciscans. Throughout the centuries, Secular Franciscans have always regarded conversion as a vital aspect of gospel living. Conversion was what Francis’ disciples did; it was what Francis did. Thus the Rule (#7) calls for “radical interior change which the gospel itself calls ‘conversion.’” It must be established first that it is possible that someone may grow into the external practices of the faith without a deep and personal relationship to Christ, and that such a person is in need of conversion in a most evangelical sense.
But of course conversion is also daily. The Official Commentary continues that “a person turned toward God” is “living in union with Jesus: constant spiritual renewal, awareness of God’s power and presence” (§1c). Here Francis’s Exhortation is important. In his classic of Secular Franciscan formation, Catch Me a Rainbow, Lester Bach OFM Cap says, “It’s not a nice letter, but one that challenges us to be true to God’s call to conversion . . . Franciscans ignore these words of Francis at their own risk . . . God calls us to this way of life” (italics original). The Rule, also, reminds the Secular that “Human frailty makes it necessary that this conversion be carried out daily” (#7).
Penance is therefore conversion, and conversion is of necessity daily. Apart from such conversion penance, all other “penances” are useless. The Catechism affirms (§1430): “Jesus’ call to conversion and penance does not aim at first at outward works, ‘sack-cloth and ashes,’ fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false” (italics original).
Conversion penance is specific, at least for the Franciscan. Francis held that sin had one root: the inordinate love of self. He called himself and others to make the revolution from self-centeredness to move outward toward God and neighbor. What we need is a self-denial. This does not mean denying our self of things — it means denying us of our selves, rendering up our wills. When Jesus says, “Deny your self,” it does not mean giving up candy for Lent. “It means,” according to Leonard Foley OFM in To Live as Francis Lived, “giving up every claim to our own will, every assertion of independence, every ounce of self-sufficiency” — the total opposite, clearly, of the American Way.
Owing to our fallen natures, we have the innate desire to be gods. We seek relative omnipotence, as Thomas Merton describes in The Silent Life: the power to have everything the way we want, the need to have everyone else accept our control and better knowledge. To be “out of control” is the most threatening prospect for many Americans, and a defensive and self-protective need to be in control has pervaded our experience even in the most ordinary affairs of day-to-day living. Never mind suffering and sorrow: we are unable to accept inconveniences! So daily conversion penance means a daily, perhaps hourly, dying to the pressing impulse of selfishness, of self-will, of “doing it my way.” Thomas Merton said in New Seeds of Contemplation, “In order to become myself I must cease to be what I always thought I wanted to be, and in order to find myself I must go out of myself, and in order to live I have to die.”
Yet, if our life of penance is the result of our own religious resolution and effort, that would be simply another assertion of the false controlling self in pious disguise. It seems an insoluble paradox. St. Bonaventure wrote in The Triple Way, “One must approach Truth with the attitude of relinquishing his very will to it.”
Blessed Pope John XXIII issued an encyclical in 1962 entitled Paenitentiam Agere and in it he said that this life of penance consists primarily of “accepting from God with a resigned and trusting spirit, all the sorrows . . . inconveniences . . . of our condition in our daily life.” This is the Franciscan pill. Francis saw fatigue, inconvenience, and the like not merely as to be accepted patiently from God but as opportunities to share an intimacy with Jesus, as the famous story of his teaching Brother Leo about perfect joy profoundly illustrates.
The origin of so much stress and so much emotional suffering is the refusal to accept what is out of our control: namely, what life is presenting us right now The Apostolic Constitution Paenitemimi of 1966 states: “The Church urges first of all that everyone practice the virtue of penance by constantly attending to the duties pertaining to his state in life, and by patiently enduring the trials of each day’s work here on earth, and the uncertainties of life that cause so much anxiety of mind.” Surrender is not to be confused with quietism to the problems of everyday life or resignation to evil and injustice. We must still take charge of our responsibilities, still fight against evil and promote love. Nevertheless, we renounce the need to be in control and instead surrender to God with confident faith (Habakkuk 2:4; 3:16-19). Lester Bach again says:
The Secular Franciscan way is not a serene, unencumbered journey through an enlightened world. It is a messy, dangerous journey that can bring tension and the demand to face difficult issues. It brings its share of joy and delight as we grow aware of how deeply we are loved by God. If you choose to follow the Secular Franciscan way of life, your journey will be a grab-bag of experience. Wide open to reality, you will discover the surprising, mysterious and loving ways of God.
So much of the Secular Franciscan charism flows from this kind of penance: poverty as defined as eliminating anxiety about temporal things (Rule #11), an environmentalism based on recognizing God’s lordship over creation and not trying to replace it with our own (Rule #18), a Marian spirituality based on imitating her confident self-giving (Rule #9). But to say with Mary, “Be it done to me according to your Word” seems a very dangerous prayer in view of some words we know God has spoken (e.g., “he who saves his life shall lose it,” “sell what you have and give it to the poor,” etc.). It would be easier to give up some big thing for Lent, to impose some harsh mortification upon ourselves, than to say, “Do what you like with me.” As Caryll Houselander in her great Marian book The Reed of God wrote, “If God does not make us poor and disreputable and unworldly, He is at least certain to make us ridiculous.”
Living in an affluent society, our culture seems to take for granted that pleasure, ease, comfort, and softness are almost the goals of life. It says, “Take charge.” Francis says, “Let go.” Jesus gave up control completely, let those he loved decide for him, even when he really did know better and really was as divine as we think we are. And herein lies a key. We have to unite ourselves to Jesus’ self-denial. We cannot practice conversion penance ourselves, cannot practice such perfect self-denial or kenosis as only Christ could. And he has already done it, we simply have to unite to it, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer was wont to say. And this is why a life of conversion penance calls for frequent reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, so we can keep strong our awareness of God’s mercy rather than our own penitential effort (cf. John 17:19; Hebrews 7:25; 9:12). Our whole life is ongoing conversion, an attempt to turn control over to God more and more. We do this in the sacrament that concentrates our need for reconciliation and the ever-present willingness of God to give it.