Secular Franciscan Order

December 13 2021 | by

THIS YEAR, 2021, has been the 800th anniversary of Rule of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance. Eight hundred years ago, these lay people voluntarily embraced lives of prayer, penance, and works of mercy. Their way of life has persisted to the present day, bettering lives and creating saints like Elizabeth of Hungary and Louis IX of France. The Rule went through a few revisions to be adapted into the current Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order. The original Rule, updated with modern constitutions, is being lived internationally today, as closely as possible to its original intent, by members of the Confraternity of Penitents.


Extensive contact


Today as well as in 1221, penitents seek to surrender their own desires and plans to God, and to follow His promptings through self-discipline. The Rule of 1221 provided specific directives for penance (conversion) in the areas of prayer, fasting, abstinence, clothing, fraternity, peace, the sacraments, oaths, weapons, and works of mercy. A cursory reading of Saint Anthony’s Sermon notes indicates that he and the friars, for whom the notes were written, had extensive contact with penitents. The friars were meeting with penitents, most likely in their monthly gatherings, and instructing them in the spirit of conversion.

Anthony considered a life of penance to be a line of demarcation. The penitent stands between two spiritual terrains. “The prophet Joel says: The land is like a garden of pleasure before him, and behind him a desolate wilderness. [Joel 2.3]” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals I, p. 161; translated by Fr. Paul Spilsbury; Edizioni Messaggero Padova). Imagine standing on a boundary where, on one side, the land is lush with flowers and plants while on the other side stretches an endless dry desert wasteland. Which side denotes a life of penance?


Inner transformation


First, consider the land itself. Anthony reminded the penitents that the “land… is the mind of man, contrite for sins. While it is ‘before him’ (God), it is like a garden of pleasure. What greater pleasure or joy can there be for the human mind, then, to be ‘before him’ with whom, and in whom, is all that is true; and without whom everything that seems to be is nothing, and all abundance is only a lack?... This land, as long as it is before him, is truly a garden of delight, in which grow ‘the rose of charity, the violet of humility and the lily of chastity’… The garden of the Beloved is the mind of the penitent, in which is ‘the bed of aromatical spices.’ It is a small bed, signifying humility, the seed-bed of those spices, the virtues. Into this garden he goes down, in this little bed the Beloved takes his rest.” (Sermons I, p. 162).

Penance, Anthony believed, changes a person’s mind from a desolate wilderness devoid of God into a spiritual garden where “the human mind stands before the face of God, contemplating his blessedness and tasting his sweetness.”  (Sermons I, p. 162). No wonder God seeks rest there.  

Behind the repentant soul is the desolation of “transitory and temporal things… the sterility of the mind… the malice of the devil. The devil makes a desert of the mind he dwells in, sterile of good works.” (Sermons I, pp. 162-163). Thus, Anthony makes penance inviting by calling the sinner from a fruitless, wasted life to a garden of spiritual peace and joy. How broken a mind would be to prefer desolation to delight!


Four comings


While it is joyful to contemplate God and perform the good works which penance inspires, Saint Anthony reminded penitents to keep in mind not only the present good, but also the final judgment. Christ’s first coming as the Babe of Bethlehem is tied to his final coming at the end of time. If we have not lived during the first coming and if we die before the final coming, Christ still comes to each of us personally. “Note that there are four Comings of Jesus Christ. The first was in the flesh, of which it is said: Behold the great Prophet comes, and he will renew Jerusalem. The second is in the soul: We will come to him and will make our abode with him [Jn 14.23]. The third is at death: Blessed is that servant, who when the Lord comes, etc. The fourth will be in majesty, whence it says in the Apocalypse: Behold he cometh with the clouds, and every eye shall see him [Apoc 1.7] (Sermons III, p. 204).

Penitents who have Christ abiding in the garden of their souls [cf. Jn 14.23] will be ready to welcome him when he comes for them in death. They have nothing to fear from the final judgment, but will rejoice to see Christ manifested in glory.


Call to humility


This final glory, when Christ will come on the clouds of heaven, was foreshadowed in Christ’s first coming, when his humanity hid his glory even from Satan. Anthony compares God’s cunning to a person fishing. “The hook of divinity was hidden under the bait of humanity, that he might slay the dragon (the devil)… The humble one catches the proud; our little child catches the ancient serpent… Our Child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, draws with his powerful hand the asp or basilisk (the devil) from his hole or den (the conscience of sinners)… O First! O Last! O Highest! O humble and lowly!” (Sermons III, p. 206).

The call to humility, littleness, and meekness permeates the Rule of 1221. Penitents are to dress, act, and pray humbly without calling attention to themselves. No matter what their social status, they are to imitate Christ. “O poverty! O humility! The Lord of all is wrapped in a scrap of cloth! The King of angels lies down in a stable! Blush, insatiable avarice! Be ashamed, human pride!” (Sermons IV, p.6). Emulation of Christ in this, his humble birth, is the basis of the life of a penitent.

Updated on December 13 2021