Prologue: Exhortation of St. Francis to the Brothers
and Sisters of Penance (circa 1210-1215)
Concerning Those Who Do Not Do Penance
But all those men and women who are not doing penance and do not receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and live in vices and sin and yield to evil concupiscence and to the wicked desires of the flesh, and do not observe what they have promised to the Lord, and are slaves to the world, in their bodies, by carnal desires and the anxieties and cares of this life.
These are blind, because they do not see the true light, our Lord Jesus Christ; they do not have spiritual wisdom because they do not have the Son of God who is the true wisdom of the Father. Concerning them, it is said, "Their skill was swallowed up" and "cursed are those who turn away from your commands". They see and acknowledge, they know and do bad things and knowingly destroy their own souls.
See, you who are blind, deceived by your enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil, for it is pleasant to the body to commit sin and it is bitter to make it serve God because all vices and sins come out and "proceed from the heart of man" as the Lord says in the Gospel. And you have nothing in this world and in the next, and you thought you would possess the vanities of this world for a long time.
But you have been deceived, for the day and the hour will come to which you give no thought and which you do not know and of which you are ignorant. The body grows infirm, death approaches, and so it dies a bitter death, and no matter where or when or how man dies, in the guilt of sin, without penance or satisfaction, though he can make satisfaction but does not do it.
The devil snatches the soul from his body with such anguish and tribulation that no one can know it except he who endures it, and all the talents and power and "knowledge and wisdom" which they thought they had will be taken away from them, and they leave their goods to relatives and friends who take and divide them and say afterwards, "Cursed be his soul because he could have given us more, he could have acquired more than he did." The worms eat up the body and so they have lost body and soul during this short earthly life and will go into the inferno where they will suffer torture without end.
All those into whose hands this letter shall have come we ask in the charity that is God to accept kindly and with divine love the fragrant words of our Lord Jesus Christ quoted above. And let those who do not know how to read have them read to them.
And may they keep them in their mind and carry them out, in a holy manner to the end, because they are "spirit and life".
And those who will not do this will have to render "an account on the day of judgment" before the tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Well, St. Francis really lowers the boom in this second half of the Prologue to our modern Rule. The first section, Concerning Those Who Do Penance," explained a really pleasant, wonderful existence for those who followed Jesus words as Francis has prescribed. But the contrast in this second half is really stark, a kind of a Twelfth Century "fire and brimstone" elocution.
For Francis it is not just avoiding penance nor receiving Holy Communion that is the problem, but it is falling into a secular lifestyle that basically says, "Whatever feels good, do it." Francis is fairly explicit about his definitions of this profligate life as well:
"...and live in vices and sin and yield to evil concupiscence and to the wicked desires of the flesh, and do not observe what they have promised to the Lord, and are slaves to the world, in their bodies, by carnal desires and the anxieties and cares of this life."
This description pretty clearly outlines a dissolute life, one that is far from the Gospel message of self giving sacrifice for others. But, it's not just these fleshly desires that are the heart of the problem. Francis excoriates them for being slaves to the "anxieties and cares of this life" as well. You see, Francis clearly supports the view that we must give over everything to God and trust Him completely as we go through our lives. Recall the passages in Matthew about the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air. Francis expects those who "do Penance" to fully and completely trust God in everything they do, to hold nothing back in reserve, and to give themselves over to service of God. In today's society, that is just the antithesis of everything that we see happening.
Placing God first over everything else is so uncommon today that it seems counter-cultural. Well, it is! And that is the point that Francis is making here. We must turn against the world and rely on God for everything. We must witness the total goodness, grace, and mercy of the Creator through our own self sacrifice and gift to others.
Those who are completely wrapped up in themselves and their own gratification are "blind" according to Francis. They do not, even cannot, see the true light which is Jesus Christ. Because of this blindness, they are not able to receive the true wisdom that only Jesus brings. They have only the wisdom of the world, and, as we see from Francis' point of view, that's not the best way to go. But it is even worse than that, because these people "see and acknowledge" but go ahead and make the decision to live the dissolute lifestyle anyway. These unfortunate souls effectively know what to do, but choose to do otherwise. These choices effectively "destroy their souls" and bring them ultimately to a sad ending.
Francis lists the causes of this deceptive thinking: your enemies, the world, the flesh, and the devil. So, instead of listening to the Word, they adhere to all of these others sources of input and are led on the wide path instead of the narrow. As we have already seen, they make these choices themselves and create the conditions for their own demise.
But, Francis shows that there is a better way when he explains the purging effect of properly making the body serve God. It can be a hard and bitter way to live, but ultimately, it is much better that sending your soul to hell. He even reminds us that to not follow the way of Penance is much like the farmer who had the bumper harvest and thought that he would live a long life and get to enjoy it all. Francis' admonition reminds us that upon death all of that worldly accumulation stays behind and one's soul goes to the reward of its making; and, because one spends their entire life accumulating things and wonderful feelings, they have nothing in the next world either. So, the life of Penance that helps us focus on the Good of God and helps us purge the attractions of this world doesn't really look so bad after all.
Despite this wonderful accumulation of goods, experiences, and good feelings, the eventual time comes when God calls us home. No one escapes this final event of earthly life. It is then that the deception of the world comes home to roost. The person who has not practiced Penance has missed the many opportunities to rectify their situation, in fact they have deliberately chosen to not take advantage of this important sacrament. Then, comes the "brimstone" part: "The devil snatches the soul from [their] body with such anguish and tribulation" and they end up without anything at all, no goods and no soul, and get to enjoy the "fires of hell."
The stark contrast between the two sections of this Rule of Penance from 1215 is enough to scare you to death. Well, maybe not that, but Francis clearly explains the dramatic difference between living a life of Penance and choosing to live the way of the world. We may not think in this way much anymore, but Francis point should still be well taken. The Gospel of Life is just that: Good News that leads to eternal Life. If we choose "... to accept kindly and with divine love the fragrant words of our Lord Jesus Christ ...," we can expect an eternal reward commensurate with the kind of life that we have lived. So, with this in mind, we can examine the precepts of our 1978 Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order with a view of learning how to live the life that St. Francis recommends and to avoid the consequences of making really bad choices. God give us the grace and wisdom to choose wisely!