In the hills around Assisi are spectacular rock formations and caves where St Francis and his followers used to go to pray for days on end. I am no geologist, but it would seem obvious to me that the natural explanation for the shape of the hills in Umbria is volcanic activity. St Francis was not convinced, however, for according to the traditions about him Francis was often afforded supernatural insights into the history of certain places. At Monte Alverna there was a cave that Francis believed to have been created by the earthquake which the Scriptures say accompanied Jesus’s death on Good Friday. For this reason, St Francis loved to pray in caves and rock fissures.
It’s another important reminder that Francis wasn’t in love with nature; he was in love with the God of Creation. He believed that the natural world was sacramental: it yielded not the secrets of some New Age ecological balance from which man could learn how to centre himself for optimal thriving, but the evidence of God’s loving act and presence.
Man can discover God in creation through the bounty of God’s desire to enter into the world of nature and redeem it through the Incarnation, death and Resurrection of his Beloved Son. Thomas of Celano, Francis’s first biographer, wrote of him: “He delighted in all the words of God’s hands and from the vision of joy on earth his mind soared aloft to the life-giving source and cause of it all. In everything beautiful he saw Him who is beauty itself and he followed his Beloved everywhere by his likeness imprinted on creation.”
I am profoundly struck by Francis’s myth (in the positive sense of that word) of these geological features created by the earthquake at Jesus’s passing and how it reveals his devotion to the Passion of Christ. For Francis, as with all great saints, Christ’s sufferings were vividly, painfully real, as real as the ground on which he stood. For Francis, the world was charged not only with the grandeur of God alone but also with the suffering of the Incarnate Son. Both, not either, reveal the Creator’s loving plan.
Poets and lovers have bequeathed us variegated raptures about “Brother Sun and Sister Moon” for centuries, but no one but Francis, who bore the marks of the Crucified, dared to call the cauterising fire which burned him “Brother Fire” or the quenching of his strength “Sister Death”. They are familial to him because they come from the hands of One who has also shared in their pain to redeem it, to render them docile. They are welcomed by Francis not from sentimentality or from a love of suffering, but from the desire to share with Him who suffered out of love. It takes an awesome faith to recognise the presence of the Divine in suffering and death, and a fearsome supernatural charity to kindle in hearts like Francis’s the desire to have solidarity with Jesus in his suffering, to hear the cry of the Crucified as he cries out “I thirst.”
St Francis believed that by praying in caves formed by that impact of the Crucifixion he was entering not just into the earth, which was split at the moment of Christ’s death, but also into the heart that split them as it was broken wide open. He desired to enter into Christ’s wounds, to hide himself in the heart of Jesus’s love. Only by being thus hidden could he understand the secrets of this love unleashed on the universe. He felt the impact of the pain and yet was mysteriously shielded from it by entering into the space it carved out. Francis understood that there was a likeness between the drama of Jesus’s death on Calvary, which split the rocks asunder, and the impact that this event must have on the heart of the would-be disciple, which must also be broken open under the impact of Jesus’s sacrificial self-emptying and open him to new depths of love and compassion.
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