In the 1200s, a new type of religious order began to spring up: the mendicant orders. Rather than remain solely at the monastery in work and prayer, the mendicants, or beggars, traveled out into the world spreading the Gospel and relying totally on the Father’s providence through the generosity of other Christians. Two of the primary new mendicant orders were the Dominicans — of which I am a member — and the Franciscans. They lived their poverty in radical ways, begging from others even the food that graced their tables.
Oct. 4 is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Order of Friars Minor, or the Franciscans. Francis is a popular, beloved saint, and many are drawn to his example of radical poverty after the manner of Our Lord in the Gospels, who had “nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 8:20). I was struck recently, however, with another dimension of Francis’ poverty that I had never really considered before.
Many know of the “Canticle of the Sun” prayer written by St. Francis near the end of his life, praising God for His glories in creation. (It is, interestingly, the first poem we know of ever to be written in the Italian language.) What is perhaps less well know is that Francis wrote this poetic prayer after he had gone blind and could no longer see the wonders of creation.
Especially at the end of his life, Francis suffered tremendously. Added to the physical illnesses — he was bedridden by the end as well as blind — were the stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s passion, which he had received during a mystical experience during prayer.
It occurred to me that in all this, there was a new kind of poverty that Francis experienced at this stage of his life — a poverty of health.
What did the mendicants always do in their poverty? They begged. Yet it was not physical healing that Francis was begging God for (although this is certainly an entirely legitimate prayer) but the healing that is union with Him. Francis embraced poverty of health, as he did every other poverty, for the sake of the riches of another, higher order.
Throughout his life, Francis had found those riches in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He was deeply in love with Our Lord in the Eucharist. He had such a reverence for the role of the priest in bringing us Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament that he felt unworthy to become a priest himself and received only diaconate ordination.
Now, he was able to offer himself more profoundly with that Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. Francis now had an intimate share in those wounds that Christ bore in His Body as He shed His Blood for the life of the world. In his poverty of health, he shared in the splendor of the riches of the crucified and risen Eucharistic King.
Let us imitate St. Francis of Assisi by offering whatever poverty of health we may be experiencing — physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual — in union with Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and in Holy Mass. Let us beg Our Lord for the deepest healing, union with Him. Only He brings meaning and purpose to our suffering and poverty. May we, like Francis, find in the Eucharist the riches of the value of suffering in union with Him!
Sr. Mary Martha Becnel is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.