Living with Joy: Spiritual Companions Across the Centuries

When I first encountered St. Francis of Assisi, I was struck by many similarities in our situations despite the 800 years separating us. He lived in a time of war, displacement of peoples, injustice, prejudice, religious strife, and illness, to name a few. Shaken to its core by political and religious conflict, his society had lost its moorings. Once-trusted institutions had fallen from grace.

Yet in the midst of all this, St. Francis lived with joy. In the midst of suffering, he drew from a deep well and invited others to do the same. How did he do this? Not a superficial optimism, St. Francis’s joy expressed a clear-eyed view of reality. Even as he faced the world’s pain, he went deep into God’s heart and felt God’s pain for the brokenness of the world. His heartfelt lament joined God’s lament and led him more deeply into the pain. Through entering the heart of God and sharing God’s pain, fully feeling the cosmic heartbreak, Francis began to get a glimpse of what was his to do. He watched and waited until the vision emerged. As he embraced his call, he moved from pain to joy. And then, to complete the process, God gave him a community in which to live out his call, a community called to live in joy.

The first time I visited the little church of San Damiano outside the city walls of Assisi, my heart stirred as I prayed in the place where Francis had received his call.  I felt drawn into deeper and deeper contemplative prayer as I felt the prayerfulness of the simple, clear, uncluttered space. After Francis rebuilt this church, Clare of Assisi and her community of sisters settled there. They formed a contemplative community, and they and their spiritual descendants bathed the space in prayer for centuries.  The walls were permeated by prayerfulness. The space invited me to pray like I had never prayed before. I felt deeply grounded in God. Francis and Clare became my spiritual companions. They invited me to bring my heartbreak for the world into the heart of God, to listen for what was mine to do, and to emerge to live in joy.

Visiting and praying in physical space that has been hallowed by our great saints and centuries of pilgrims can have that effect on a person. These physical spaces are the “thin places” of our world, where heaven and earth meet, where the divine seems more accessible. Walking in the footsteps of the saints can be a tremendous blessing in our own spiritual journeys. In April 2024, we will take a group of pilgrims to visit the sites where Saints Francis and Clare spent their lives praying and serving. We invite you to give some prayerful consideration to joining us on this amazing journey.

Across the centuries, across traditions, in different lands, God speaks. I was reminded in Assisi that our spiritual companions can come from any time or place.  God’s deep work in the lives of Francis and Clare touched my life and invited me to go deeper. I tasted a depth of prayer I had not tasted before and a pure joy I had never experienced. I have not been the same since.

(Part of this article is a further development of an article that originally appeared on the SDI Blog in December 2011. Used with permission.)

November 11, 2023 by Margaret Benefiel
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