By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.
(From Article 540 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church)
In this six-part series, Kevin Burns selects a book for each week of Lent. Each book speaks to one of the great traditions within Catholic culture. Each book also shows how its author struggles to apply that tradition. Six different approaches to the same journey through the desert of Lent to the Easter promise of resurrection.
Week Three: Dan P. Horan OFM explores the Franciscan path.
It’s difficult to build an accurate portrait of Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone, a.k.a. St. Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226). Of all the saints he continues to suffer more than most from romanticized reconstructions. Somewhere behind those blue-eyed, rosy-lipped, soft-focused portraits on holy cards through the centuries, his crisply laundered robes, a cheerful chirping bird in hand, there lurks a real vulnerable, demanding, and complex individual.
The Franciscan source materials offer a few glimpses into the human side of Francis. Chapter 7 of The Little Flowers of St. Francis presents a cautious “celebrity” hiding from throngs of needy people, trying to escape the demands of the wobbly new organization that has grown up around him, and who is seeking a rare opportunity to be alone, get himself together, and to reframe his thoughts as Easter approaches:
He was inspired by God to go and make that Lent on an island in the lake. So Saint Francis asked this devout man that, for the love of Christ, he carry him with his little boat to an island of the lake where no one lived, and that he do this on the night of the Day of the Ashes, so that no-one would notice. And this man, out of love – from the great devotion he had for Saint Francis – promptly fulfilled his request and carried him to that island. And Saint Francis took nothing with him except two small loaves of bread. Arriving at the island, as his friend was departing to return home, Saint Francis asked him kindly not to reveal to anyone that he was there, and that he should not come for him until Holy Thursday. And so that man departed, and Saint Francis remained alone.(Francis of Assisi – The Early Documents, Volume 3: The Prophet, edited by Armstrong, Hellmann, and Short, New City Press, 2001)
Daniel P. Horan is an American Franciscan who is revitalizing the image of Francis, reaching back through the distortions of the past to reveal a more human figure. Horan studied systematic theology at Boston College which he also teaches the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He contributes to America magazine, is a veteran blogger, and the author of critically acclaimed works on contemporary Franciscan spirituality.
Horan entered the Holy Name Province of the Franciscans in New York in 2005, and was ordained in 2012. An early adapter, in 2007 he launched his popular blog, Dating God which was also the title of his 2012 breakthrough book and the basis of this article.
(Please note: rather than digress here with a sidebar explanation of what Horan means with that ambiguous word “dating”, after reading THIS article, take a look at his blog where he explains it very clearly. )
Back to the Franciscan path. In Dating God Horan writes: “One way the Franciscan tradition should shape or influence our lives is to remind us that our relationship with God is not all that different from our other forms of relationship.” It’s a relationship that is human and real and which is at the heart of the Franciscan tradition, a tradition that survives today because it is built on the legacy of a very human individual who struggled throughout his short and pain-filled life to make sense of his relationship to God.
One lesson that emerges from the formation of the Franciscan movement is the universal nature of God’s call for all to take seriously the challenge of living the gospel. Another lesson that arises from the early Franciscan movement is the communal nature of gospel life. While Francis may have desired only to live out his baptismal commitment in humility, simplicity, and prayer, he quickly discovered that such a life could be lived only in community. To be a Christian does not mean to be in relationship with God alone but to live in loving relationship with others. (Dating God – Live and Love in the Way of St. Francis, p. 4)
Horan outlines eight different thematic exercises designed to help people to take some time out of busy schedules and to focus in on the experience of prayer, of personal relationships, and their relationship with God. His themes are classically Franciscan: Pilgrimage, Pursuit of the True Self, Loneliness, Solitude, Contemplation, Scripture, Social Justice, and Respect for all Creation.
He describes his book as
a reflection on how to relate to God and one another in our contemporary setting. While not an answer book, it does offer a new look at the timeless condition of human longing for a deeper relationship with the Creator and points a way, in the spirit of Francis and Clare of Assisi, toward that experience of the Divine. (p.13)
Horan reminds us that St. Francis took a distinctive and creative approach to that relationship with the Divine:
He basically cut and pasted snippets from the Hebrew psalms but arranged them in a new collage of his own prayer. …What this seems to reveal is that in, in his relationship to God, St. Francis, like all of us, struggled with periods of time that led him to feel overwhelmed by sorrow, abandoned by God, or distant from the Creator. (p. 50-51)
In the Franciscan tradition, actions are simultaneously symbolic, personal, and always have consequences.
When Francis broke with his social class, he made a statement to the world about what it meant to him to follow in the footprints of Christ in the pattern of the gospel. His desire was not simply to serve the poor and marginalized, not only to adjust his lifestyle to better reflect his Christian values, but to renounce the world’s power so as to be in solidarity with the powerless, the voiceless, and the forgotten in society. (p.105)
In 2014, in The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton: A New Look at the Spiritual Influence on his Life, Thought, and Writing Horan bridges two great traditions and looks at the life of Thomas Merton and how the Franciscan tradition influenced his eventual Trappist vocation.
Ultimately, it was by means of pursuing this particular way of living in the Franciscan charism that Merton discovered his true monastic call and was encouraged along the way by those Franciscan friars he came to love and admire at St. Bonaventure University. (p. 189)
Dating God – Live and Love in the Way of St. Francis (2012) is published by Franciscan Media, as is Daniel Horan’s most recent book God Is Not Fair and other Reasons for Gratitude (2016).
Timothy Radcliffe OP on the Dominican path: “Every wise person has always known that there is no way to life that does not take one through the wilderness. The journey from Egypt to the Promised Land passes through the desert. If we would be happy and truly alive, then we too must pass that way. We need communities which will accompany us on that journey.”