Brother Francis, what is perfect joy?

by Rich Heffern

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Editor’s Note: Oct. 4 is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

“If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
—Mark: 9:35

This famous story is told of St. Francis of Assisi, that he was traveling with his assistant, Br. Leo. It was winter and they both shivered from the cold. Francis called to Leo: “Brother, if it were to please God that the friars should give, in all lands, a great example of holiness and edification, write down, and note carefully, that this would not be perfect joy.”

A little further on, Francis added: “Brother Leo, if the friars were to make the lame to walk, if they should make straight the crooked, chase away demons, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, and, what is even a far greater work, if they should raise the dead after four days, write that this would not be perfect joy.”

As they walked, Francis kept adding to this litany, describing places where perfect joy would not be found. Finally after several miles it is said that Br. Leo “wondered much within himself,” and then blurted out: “I pray thee, teach me wherein is perfect joy.”

Francis, thinking perhaps “Thought you’d never ask!” answered Leo, “If, when we shall arrive at our destination, all drenched with rain and trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger; if, when we knock at the convent gate, the porter should come angrily and ask us who we are; if, after we have told him, ‘We are two of the brethren,’ he should answer angrily, ‘What you say is a lie. You are two impostors going about deceiving the world, and taking alms from the poor; begone I say.’

“If then he refuse to open to us, and leave us outside, exposed to the snow and rain, suffering from cold and hunger until nightfall, then, if we accept such injustice, such cruelty and contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, believing with humility and charity that the porter really knows us, and that it is God who makes him to speak thus against us, write down, Brother Leo: This is perfect joy.”

Francis wouldn’t leave it alone, adding further: “And if we knock again, and the porter comes out in anger to drive us away with oaths and blows, as if we were vile impostors, saying, ‘Begone, miserable robbers, for here you shall neither eat nor sleep!’ If we accept all this with patience, with joy, and with charity, O Brother Leo, write that this indeed is perfect joy.”

Like Jesus’ parables, I think this Franciscan story about the joy of loss is meant to completely upset our apple cart and get us on the road to an authentic and boldly effective spiritual life. It’s a story too that illumines the falsity of our desire for continual happiness as well as shedding light on the Gospel tenet that the first shall be last, and the last first.

Poet Robert Bly has talked at length about this spiritual dynamic. He said once in an interview:

“The question is: Who is this whiny one inside us who wants to be happy all the time? In the Muslim tradition, that whiny one is called the nafs, which is the greedy soul. You can also call it the insatiable soul, the rapacious soul. That’s who’s running the war in Iraq right now, for example. The Sufis say the nafs is part of our ancient animal-soul, which is determined to have food, power and sexuality and to stay alive, even to the detriment of those closest to us. So our spiritual life is a constant battle between the part of the soul that loves others and the part of the soul that will gladly eat them up in a moment.”

In his book of poems The Night Abraham Called to the Stars Bly writes:

“I live very close to my greedy soul.
When I see a book written two thousand years
Ago, I check to see if my name is mentioned.”

This emphasis on the struggle between the rapacious and the true soul is found within our Catholic spiritual tradition as well.

A key tenet of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, written in the 1500s, is that the human soul is continually drawn in two directions: both drawn towards Godliness, and at the same time tempted toward selfishness and baseness. Consistent with Roman Catholic theology, the Exercises make numerous references to the belief that humankind’s highest purpose is to glorify God, and not one’s self. Accordingly they provide several illustrations of how one might best be able to refrain from satiating one’s lower desires and instead how one might find a means to redirect one’s energies toward the fulfillment of one’s higher purpose in life.

The greedy soul is abashed when we lose. Yet what feeds the true soul, over and over, is something being taken away. It stands our American values of competitiveness and winning, of always wanting to be happy, on their head.

(Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is


Here’s another reflection on St. Francis St. Francis and the way of nonviolence, this one by Fr. John Dear.

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