Several weeks ago we described Francis’ love of the Eucharist. For Francis the Eucharist is the primary way in which he sees Christ’s continuing Incarnation in the world. It is the sign of the presence of Christ with the Church in his continuing salvific role. That presence was respected by Francis and was shown by the directions he gave to his own brothers regarding Eucharistic reverence, and that he even directed his missionary brothers to carry pyxes, so if they encountered the Eucharist not properly cared for, they would be able to provide a suitable means to reserve the consecrated hosts.
This gives a window into Francis’ developing spirituality. As Augustine Thompson writes:
“His earlier piety had focused on praying before the Crucifix, repairing or cleaning churches, and reverence for priests. All involved symbolic or mystical manifestations of the Crucified Lord: churches as the place where God chose to dwell, and priests because they have the power to draw Christ down from heaven during Mass. Francis’ piety … focused on God’s most tangible manifestation in the world: the Host itself.”
At the same time, Francis also showed a great reverence for Scripture – be it in the form of a Bible, contained in the missals used in the celebration of Mass, or even a scrap of parchment upon which someone had copied a part of Scripture or even the Holy Name of Jesus. Thomas of Celano writes that Francis would gather up any pieces of Scripture – even if but a copy by human hand. Whether he found it on the road, in a house, or on the floor, Francis would gather up the writing and put it in a sacred place because the name of the Lord or something pertaining to it might be written there. (1 Cel 82) This was not an isolated passage recorded by Thomas of Celano. Francis himself exhorts a wide array of church people in his own letters: letters to the clergy (1LtCl and 2LtCl), to friar guardians (1Lt Cus and 2LtCus), to the entire Order of friars (LtOrd), and even at the end of his life in his final writing, the Testament.
The modern mind might find Francis’ concern about the writing on scraps of parchment somewhat embarrassing or perplexing as they imagine him frantically rooting around to find these scraps of paper. But then Christians today do not carry this same sense of the concrete divine presence. For Christians of Francis’ age, the words of Scripture were not simply reminders of past events of biblical history or the divine prescriptions of a moral life. These were the words of God and as divine words, they were a focus of power.
In Francis’ day a large part of life was agricultural and so during the harvest times the Church celebrated Rogation days when the bishop would lead the community in prayer for a good harvest. The bishop read the beginning of the four Gospels toward the city gates facing the four points of the compass to put demonic powers to flight and ensure a good harvest. The words of Scripture were words of power. The simple act of pronouncing those words carried power. When the city of Arezzo suffered from a virtual civil war, the words of Scripture were proclaimed over the city. The divine words, by their very power, ended civil strife.
A perplexed brother once asked Francis about his practice of collecting such scraps of parchment, and he replied: “Son, I do this because they have the letters that compose the glorious name of the Lord God, and the good that is found there does not belong to the pagans nor to any human being, but to God alone, to whom every good thing belongs.” (1 Cel 82) This identification between names and the realities they signify was not only a commonplace in medieval sensibility; it spoke to Francis’ profound sense of God’s presence in the concrete here and now, and in the most commonplace of things and events.
In a way, Francis was the living Emmaus road experience: his heart burning within for love of the word of God; fully recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread.