The Reception in the Order of the Eremitical Life Proposed by Francis:  Alternating between Hermitage and City


An excerpt from the document Listen, and You Will Live: Guidelines for the Establishment of a Hermitage Fraternity or a House of Prayer

 The life of Francis of Assisi has been described as a pattern of alternating between Hermitage and City[1] and, according to the saint’s hagiographers, the Fraternitas of lesser ones had to address the question of how to live early on.  In fact, Thomas of Celano in the Vita beati Francisci states that they wondered what kind of life they should choose; “whether they should live among people or go off to solitary places.” St. Francis “chose not to live for himself alone, but for the one who died for all. For he knew that he was sent for this: to win for God souls which the devil was trying to snatch away.[2]” From this it appears that there was no tension between contemplation and preaching, but that these alternated — and this not only as a fraternitas, but personally in the life of the saint: “That is why he often chose solitary places to focus his heart entirely on God. But he was not reluctant, when he discerned the time was right, to involve himself in the affairs of his neighbors, and attend to their salvation.”[3] The wish of Francis was “to divide the time given him to merit grace and, as seemed best, to spend some of it to benefit his neighbors and use the rest in the blessed solitude of contemplation” and he used to take “with him only a few companions—who knew his holy way of living better than others—so that they could shield him from the interruption and disturbance of people, respecting and protecting his silence in every way.[4]

Bonaventure, in the Vita beati Francisci (the Legenda Maior), took up what was said by Thomas of Celano about the question of whether Francis should give himself to contemplation or to preaching, but concludes by saying that Francis’ response was that it should be preaching: “[…] the will of God was that he, the herald of Christ, should go out and preach.”  A different position is taken by Peter John Olivi, who expresses himself in very balanced terms and in fidelity to the substance of what was the original inspiration for the original Fraternitas of lesser ones.  He declares that the more perfect life is that of Christ, the Apostles and of St. Francis, in which some of the time is dedicated to eremitical solitude, and some to preaching[5].

Bernardine of Siena says of St. Francis: “Christ took on a mixed life, attending to God and to neighbor.  […] So likewise did St. Francis […] who considered both God and man, giving part of the time to one and then to the other.[6]  The way of life attributed by Bernadine to Francis was the model of life for the Friars Minor of the Observance, so it is not surprising that in 1457 Girolamo da Udine wrote about John Capistran, his preaching companion, following the latter’s death the previous year: “the whole of his life was transformed into action. It was expressed either in prayer, preaching, reading, or worthwhile activities.  Nothing can convince me that a more blessed man could be found, being able to practice contemplation in activity, or taking action during contemplation.[7]

While discussing the way of “alternation”, we should also make reference to Peter of Alcantara (1499-1562), who successfully promoted reform in the Order, recalling the friars to their Franciscan origins.  His numerous writings, the best known of which is a Treatise on Prayer and Meditation, are proof of his exceptional holiness of life.  Peter is known for the extraordinary example of his life, and the very high degree of contemplation, personal austerity and mystical gifts with which God favored him.[8] He says in the Treatise that “the servant of God must consecrate some certain time of the day to recollection. But now, besides the ordinary course, they must sometimes liberate themselves from all business and employments, as much as is possible, and give themselves over wholly to devotion, the better to nourish their soul with the abundance of spiritual food, recovering the daily losses due to their shortcomings, and gaining a new force to go forward on the spiritual journey.[9]

The Capuchin Mattia Bellintani da Salò in the Life, Death and Miracles of the Blessed Felice da Cantalice says that “he was an intermediary between the world and religion, taking to one the needs of the other, and bringing the provisions of the other in return. Thus, he was an intermediary between God and human beings, offering their needs to God, and bringing graces from Him to them”[10]. For the hagiographer, being an intermediary or “go-between” also characterizes the personal lifestyle of St. Felix of Cantalice: “He shared out nighttime and daytime; the night he gave to God, the day to his neighbor, and in both he was similarly sanctified.[11]

The example of these saints not only influenced the lifestyle the friars adopted, but also colored the stories told by hagiographers. For example, Pacifico da Rimini narrates The Life and Heroic Virtues of the Venerable Father Leopold da Gaiche who, following St. Leonard of Port Maurice, popularized the Way of the Cross, desiring that through it people be brought to new life. Pacifico writes that Leopold “had the occupations of the day and night wisely arranged” and remarks on how he fulfilled the different offices of the sisters Martha and Mary to their mutual advantage.[12]

In the twentieth century, the practice of alternating between contemplative life and preaching is seen as a crucial aspect of Franciscan life. For example, Gerardo Cardaropoli, writing of Fr. Gabriele Allegra, says: “What is the essential charism of the Franciscan vocation? Fr. Gabriele has spelled it out often: the relationship between its contemplative roots and its embodiment in the apostolate — contemplation, understood as seeking the will of God, and the apostolate as a concretization of the mandate received.” A prayer to Blessed Leopold da Gaiche speaks of his seeking the Lord in solitude and working for salvation in the midst of God’s people. This prayer, according to Fr. Gabriele Allegra, indicates “his life plan”, or “the four graces” of the Franciscan charism — that is, holiness; the apostolate; wisdom; martyrdom. “In solitudine Deum quarere et in medio populi tui salutem operari …”[13]

[1] Cf. F. Accrocca, Dall’alternanza all’alternativa Eremo e città nel primo secolo dell’Ordine francescano: una rivisitazione attraverso gli scritti di Francesco e le fonti agiografiche, in Via spiritus 9 (2002), 7-60.

[2] 1Cel 35

[3] 1Cel 71

[4] 1Cel 91

[5] P. G. Olivi, Lectura super Matthaeum, cit. in G. L. Potestà, Storia ed escatologia in Ubertino da Casale, Milano, 1980, 214.

[6] Bernardino da Siena, Predica XLIV,47-48.56-57, in Id., Prediche volgari sul Campo di Siena 1427, a cura di C. Delcorno, II, Milano 1989, 1324-1327.

[7] G. da Udine, Vita di fra Giovanni da Capestrano, 11, Curia Provinciale dei Frati Minori – Convento S. Bernardino, L’Aquila 1988, 31-32.

[8] Postulazione Generale OFM, Frati Minori Santi e Beati, a cura di Silvano Bracci e Antonietta Pozzebon, Roma 2009, 233-235.

[9] San Pedro de Alcántara, Tratado de oración y meditación, Ed. Comunidad Franciscana del Palancar, El Palancar 2009, II parte, V capitulo, V aviso.

[10] Mattia da Salò, Vita, morte e miracoli del beato Felice da Cantalice, 8, a cura di V. Criscuolo, Istituto Storico dei Cappuccini, Roma 2013, 66. C. Calloni, Gli «stati» della riforma cappuccina (1528-1596), in Italia Francescana 84 (2009), 445-476 gives an account of the context of that work.

[11] Mattia da Salò, Vita, morte e miracoli del beato Felice da Cantalice, 13, 96.

[12] Della vita e delle eroiche virtù del Venerabile padre Leopoldo da Gaiche […] del p. Pacifico da Rimini dell’ordine stesso e alunno della medesima provincia, Tipografia Tommassini, Foligno 1835, 86

[13] G. Cardaropoli, P. Gabriele Maria Allegra un francescano del secolo XX, Ed. Porziuncola, Assisi 1996, 35-37.