by the Rt Revd Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
The popular image of St Francis of Assisi is that of a gentle lover of nature; a man who preached to the birds, tamed an aggressive wolf, and even picked up worms from the path so that they wouldn’t be trod upon. The love of Francis for every part of the creator’s handiwork lies at the heart of his spirituality. It’s one of the reasons why he continues to inspire me and many others, who make vows and promises within the Franciscan Orders, 800 years after he walked this Earth. Yet an equally important, if less immediately attractive, aspect of Francis’s Way is his deep devotion to the suffering Christ on the cross. As we enter the season of Passiontide, heading solemnly towards Holy Week, I believe this medieval saint has something profound to teach us.
Late in his life, Francis prays one of the most challenging prayers I have ever come across. He asks that he might feel in his own body, as much as he can bear, the suffering of Jesus on the cross. If it had ended there, the prayer might be construed as belonging within the family of monastic masochism practised in the flagellant movements of his era. But Francis goes on. His desire to share in the suffering of his Lord is entirely in order that, thereby, he may experience in his body as much as he can bear of the love for which Christ willingly went to the cross. It’s that entering into the divine love of God for the world which is the heart of his prayer.
Love is what matters, suffering is the price that it willingly pays.
I don’t pretend to have anything approaching the spiritual depth of the saint whose example I attempt to follow. But, when I gaze at the figure of the crucified, I seek to look through and beyond the agony, and to encounter the love that saves the world.
Debased theologies of suffering abound as much today as they did in Francis’s world. Often, they are associated with the maintenance of regressive imbalances of power. The poor and marginalised are told to see their plight as holy suffering. They are to accept their lot rather than to protest or rise up against it. Moreover, alongside this justification of the acceptance of generic oppression, the same corruptions of theology take place at a very individual level. I have read with horror of how some of the victims of Peter Ball testify that he groomed them for abuse by inviting them to embrace punishment and suffering as part of their spiritual growth, even alluding to St Francis as his example.
I am more and more convinced that any understanding, religious or otherwise, of suffering which does not have the overwhelming love of God, shown in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, at its heart, runs the risk of offering camouflage for the exploitation of the weak by the ruthless. Yet Francis offers a better way. He has met in the face of his Lord on the cross, an invincible and overpowering love that no amount of suffering can sunder. Far from seducing him into stoicism, it fills him with compassion for the pains of others. He clothes the naked, embraces the leper, and undertakes a personal peace mission to end the crusades.
May our devotions this Passiontide be grounded in love, pursued in love and graced by love, that like Francis, we may be formed more deeply in the image of Christ.