St Francis


St Francis was a great mystic and spent over half of each year in hermitages or remote places where his primary focus was to give himself to God in prayer.


There is his love of Creation which led him to rejoice and praise the Creator; his loyalty to the church, despite its worldliness and wealth; and so the list goes on as we gaze into this beautiful jewel that God has given us in the person of St Francis.

His early life

St Francis was born in 1182 and died in 1226. It was a short life but there is a timelessness about St Francis. For eight centuries, he has inspired men and women in every age, and today he has spiritual sons and daughters on every continent and in every situation imaginable, including us here in rural Australia at Tabulam. So, you may well ask, what is it about him that makes him as relevant today as he has been in the intervening centuries? There are so many dimensions of his life that it's like looking at a multi-faceted precious jewel.

His young adult life

He lived in an age when Europe was engaged in military campaigns, not only to prevent a Muslim invasion of Europe but also to drive them out of the countries and the peoples they had conquered and converted to Islam. Unlike his fellow citizens, he refused to take up arms or to encourage the use of violence, believing it was against the teaching of Christ. He set off, unarmed, to the Middle East where, eventually, he was granted an audience with the Sultan. His evident holiness and his deeply-held love of Christ, unlike the crusaders, won the respect of the Sultan. Thus he was given permission and protection by the Sultan to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem which were under his control, while his fellow countrymen suffered a severe military defeat at his hands.

His ministry

Lepers and the great fear of this terrible disease meant that those who were afflicted with it were outcasts of their society, not unlike the fear associated with AIDS in its early days in this country. Lepers had a burial service read over them before they were banished to live outside the villages and towns and, on approaching, other people had to ring a bell and announce their presence with a cry "Unclean, unclean". Not only did Francis go and wash their rotting flesh and share in their rejection, but he saw Christ in these poor despised human beings.

The great preacher

He was a great preacher so that, when he entered a village or town, people would flock to hear him, sometimes in their hundreds and even thousands. Telling a brother that they were going to a certain village to preach, you can imagine his consternation when Francis wandered through the village greeting and talking to people. He neither preached in the village square nor in the church which was his normal custom. When they had passed through the village, the brother asked him about this. Francis replied, "But, dear brother, we are the sermon."

The Angelus

Around the world, the Angelus rings out at sunrise, midday and sunset. The bell invites us to pray and ponder the great mystery of our faith; that is that God entered human history in the person of Jesus Christ.The Franciscans have been prominent in spreading the tradition of the Angelus since the 13th century.

The Angelus has taken the form of a bell being tolled in three sets of three and then one of nine with a pause between each set. There are prayers that can be said with the ringing of the bell. Most important of all is the directing of our attention at the beginning of the day, at midday and at sunset to the mystery of the Creator entering his own creation in order to reveal His great love for us. The Angelus then invites us to join St Francis and countless others to be lost in love, wonder and praise at this great mystery.

The Desert Fathers

The earliest monks lived in the deserts of Egypt and the Middle East from the third century onwards. They were known as the Desert Fathers and lived a simple but rigorous life in discipleship of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is upon the foundations established by them that the monastic traditions of the Christian Church, with which we are familiar, were developed, especially by John Cassian and Benedict.

The teaching of the Desert Fathers, passed down through their disciples, is in the form of anecdotes, the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers”, and in the biographies or “Lives” written by those who wanted to preserve the traditions of the “old men and women” of the desert. Although the early monks led an austere ascetical life, there is at the same time a radical simplicity and commonsense in their teaching. It was said of St Anthony that one day he was relaxing with his brothers outside the cell (hermitage) when a hunter came by and rebuked him. Anthony said, “Bend your bow and shoot an arrow” and he did so. “Bend it again and shoot another”, and he did – and again and again. The hunter said, “Father, if I keep my bow always stretched, it will break.” “So it is with the monk” replied Anthony: “If we push ourselves beyond measure we will break; it is right from time to time to relax our efforts.”

At the heart of the life of the Desert Fathers was the commitment to prayer. If a life is oriented to the things of God, the driving force of that life is prayer. The aim was a quiet reflective prayer complemented with simple work that would provide for the monk’s basic needs – weaving ropes and mats or making sandals. They aspired to live the Gospel life in a straightforward and uncomplicated understanding of Christ’s teaching. Their gentle evangelical charity was the pivot of their work and the test of their life in the desert. Their pattern of hospitality was to receive guests as Christ would receive them. To pattern ourselves on Christ is their challenge to us.
The Carceri near Assisi; a hermitage on the site of a cave where St Francis sought to be alone with God

The Quest for Solitude

There are two sides to seeking solitude. There are those who are running away from something; and there are those who are running after something.

The first are those who seek solitude as a relief from their frenetic and busy lifestyles in the city with its crowds, noise, the stress of the workplace and hectic social life. They seek times and places of solitude for rest and renewal. For them, solitude is an end in itself.

Then there are those who seek solitude because they are running after something. Monks, nuns and hermits seek solitude to find someone.

My soul is a thirst for God, athirst for the living God. (Psalm 42:2)

Dry as a thirsty land, I reach out to you. (Psalm 143:6)

Detachment from competing interests is necessary, both externally and internally. So solitude provides that environment for this to happen in our desire for a more intimate relationship with God.

Sometimes when we approach a person and wish to speak with them personally, we will ask them “Are you busy?” or we will knock on the door of the office and ask “Are you alone?” meaning “Are you free and disengaged?”. This is what is being sought in solitude.

The privacy of the room, to which our Lord bids us to go and to shut the door to seek God’s face in prayer, has a depth beyond a warning against spiritual pride. The room, like solitude, is a necessary place of separation conducive to being attentive and focussed on Him speaking to us.