St Francis – Suffering, Abuse of Power and the Love of God.

by the Rt Revd Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester

david w

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.

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3 Responses to St Francis – Suffering, Abuse of Power and the Love of God.

  1. John Ryan, OSF says:

    Well said Bishop Walker!

  2. mvernon1966 says:

    The piece has made me think about “imitation spirituality”, the idea that we are supposed to gaze on Christ, replicate him, feel ourselves to be wholly unworthy save to suffer, etc. Like so much to do with Francis, my guess is that this story is taken out of context. After all, he was also a man who could stand up to the pope and the sultan. I think so extracted it needs to be named as pernicious because when preached at the best of times it nurtures spiritual dependency and infantalism, at worst it’s open to exploitation and abuse. “Do not cling to me!” were Jesus’ parting words. He didn’t do life for us but invited us to find life for ourselves, which is no doubt what Frances did when he rejected his father. I suspect it’s theology like this that needs to be reconsidered and almost certainly won’t be. Dependency and deference culture are surely two sides of the same coin.

  3. Thou that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us… Surely we cannot share his suffering, only be abjectly repentant for our contribution to his suffering ‘It wasn’t the kiss, it was the nails’. Peter Ball’s perverted theology that was no more than a cover for his grooming of young men for his own gratification is beyond sickening.

Any thoughts?