More by Example than by Preaching

The following passages are from St. Bonaventure's 'Major Life of St. Francis', [Part I - Chapter VIII]. They explain the reality of the Poverello's conversionary zeal and the importance he placed on witnessing an authentic Christian life before a word leaves our mouth.

Compassion, as St. Paul tells us, is all-availing, and it filled the heart of Francis and penetrated its depths to such an extent that his whole life seemed to be governed by it. It was loving compassion which united him to God in prayer and caused his transformation into Christ by sharing his sufferings. It was this which led him to devote himself humbly to his neighbor and enabled him to return to the state of primeval innocence by restoring man's harmony with the whole of creation.

The words above cannot fully convey to us what graces filled the saint's heart. Bonaventure and the other early writers often describe Francis in affective terms. We rely on external expressions of emotion, to reveal an inner reality that resides in the heart, over and above the intellect. The suffering of Christ on the cross became the 'school' in which Francis received his spiritual education. His 'knowledge' was 'compassion' and his teaching method was contained in his personal sharing of the suffering of others.

Loving compassion made him regard everything with affection but especially the souls which Jesus Christ redeemed with his precious blood. If he saw one of them being stained with sin, he grieved with such heartfelt pity that he seemed to be in travail over them continually like a mother in Christ.

What Francis learned in the 'school of the cross' was to feel the effect of sin on the sinner; not as an abstract or intellectual calculation, but rather as real loss in the way that a mother experiences the injury of her child. The Seraphic Saint 'grieves' for the sinner. For Francis, the devout Christian succors and aids the sinner as a mother does: caring and restoring health to an ailing child.

This was the principal reason why he had such respect for those who preached God's word—by their labor and zeal for the conversion of sinners and their pastoral anxiety they beget children in the name of Christ, our dear Brother who was crucified for sinners. He was convinced that such a work of mercy was more acceptable to the merciful Father than any sacrifice, particularly if it was done in a spirit of perfect charity, more by example than by preaching, more by fervent prayer than by longwinded sermons. [Emphasis added]

"Preach the gospel; if necessary use words", is a widely circulated saying attributed to St. Francis, (though he never spoke it directly). It's often reduced to a cliché uttered for consolation when Christians can't find inspiring words. But Francis was an outstanding preacher and 'preaching by example' was not a fallback for ineffective words. It was (and still is) spiritual common sense that gospel living is integral to gospel preaching. He regarded the compassionate witnessing of a good life as the instrument of conversion par excellence; as a result he deeply lamented that the grace of conversion could be assaulted by scandal and bad example.

St. Francis used to say that we should feel sorry for a preacher who sought his own glory in his work and not the good of his listeners, or who destroyed by the example of his bad life what he had accomplished by his teaching. Such a man was devoid of any true religious spirit. He maintained that an ordinary friar with no claim to eloquence was in a better position because he encouraged others to do good by his good example.

The 'ordinary friar' referred to here is not a priest but a religious penitent. The testimony of their lives stood out in shining fashion; and together with the heartfelt compassion for those who suffered, these qualities had a great effect on accomplishing the mission given to Francis by our Lord at San Damiano: 'Rebuild My Church'. This witnessing by the friars and their secular penitential associates (the third order) breathed new life into moribund souls.

He explained the phrase. "The barren womb bears many" (1 Samuel 2:5) in this way, "The barren woman is my poor friar who is not appointed to bring forth children in the Church. But at the last judgment he will bring forth many, because then the Judge will set down to his glory all those whom he is now converting to Christ by his secret prayers. 'The fruitful mother is left to languish' (ibid) means that the vain and loquacious preacher who now prides himself on those whom he imagines he has begotten by his own powers will see then that he had nothing to do with their salvation."

In this interpretation, the ordinary Christian who holds no 'office' for preaching and conversion, nonetheless has unseen powers in prayer and sacrifice; and even more power by the example of living a Christian life with love and compassion for others; with mercy and forgiveness. They receive no earthly awareness of the 'children they bring forth' into the Kingdom of God. But the Judge of us all will show us the spiritual life we have helped to pass on simply by living our gospel life fully and with heartfelt concern for others.


teresa_anawim2 said...

Thanks for this reminder today that I live within a Kingdom in another
realm, sphere or 'dimension' for lack of better words.
Obedience is the directive, fruits not worried about. The reality is on the other side...Heaven.

Claudia Stan said...

Can you please direct me towards an online library where I can find the English texts of all biographies of St. Francis?
Many thanks,

Tausign said...

Reply to Claudia;

I'm not aware of any single online source. I primarily use a single volume called St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies - English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis. This was published by Franciscan Herald Press and is a hefty 2000 pages. I understand that it is available in a two volume set today.

One of my hobbies is to stop in used book stores and see if I can find any out of print biographies on the Seraphic Father. Those are always a great find.

Do try some of the links to SFO websites and Google of course. Sorry I couldn't be more helpful