Francis of Assisi on Pride, Humility and Creation
Among the writings of Francis of Assisi that we still have is a collection of twenty-eight short sermon-like teachings called The Admonitions. These texts generally treat a particular theme in the spiritual or religious life and were directed at Francis’s brother friars. Each admonition is rich in both the spiritual wisdom it contains as well as the practical guidance it offers.
The following admonition is titled by the editors of the critical English translation of Francis’s writings, “Let No One Be Proud, but Boast in the Cross of the Lord.” There is a sense in which this admonition could be read as a guilt-inducing reflection on the Passion, with its occasional focus on the collective responsibility of humanity in every generation — not just those in the first century who were immediately responsible for the crucifixion — but there are also several other aspects of this admonition that mitigate an exclusive reading of that sort.
At the heart of Admonition V are two themes: humility and creation.
Francis’s discourse on pride and the way in which he rejects all reasons for individual boasting is a correction that seeks to remind his hearers of Gospel humility. God is the source of every good thing, gift, talent, event, experience, and so on. We are not the sources of our selves, the originators of our own existence, but beneficiaries of the free and gratuitous love of God. Therefore, when we accomplish great things, when we do good works, when there is something in which we might like to take pride, we are admonished to recall the true origin of that goodness.
One of the ways, almost in passing, that Francis illustrates this is to make mention of the rest of creation’s ability to live according to its respective created nature. There is an obvious echo here of the thematic thread that runs through Francis’s famous Canticle of the Creatures, in which we read that all the rest of the created order gives praise and glory to God by simply being what it is and doing what it was intended to do. It is, however, humanity that fails at this task. Our responsibility is to be peacemaker and reconcilers, to which Francis includes a sense of humility in this admonition. Too often we cause trouble, division, and break relationships.
Here is what Francis says:
Consider, O human being, in what great excellence the Lord God has placed you, for He created and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body and to His likeness according to the Spirit.
And all creatures under heaven serve, know, and obey their Creator, each according to its own nature, better than you. And even the demons did not crucify HIm, but you, together with them, have crucified Him and are still crucifying Him by delighting in vices and sins.
In what, then, can you boast? Even if you were so skillful and wise that you possessed all knowledge, knew how to interpret every kind of language, and to scrutinize heavenly matters with skill: you could not boast in these things. For, even though someone may have received from the Lord a special knowledge of the highest wisdom, one demon knew about heavenly matters and now knows more about those of earth than all human beings.
In the same way, even if you were more handsome and richer than everyone else, and even if you worked miracles so that you put demons to flight: all these things are contrary to you; nothing belongs to you; you can boast in none of these things.
But we can boast in our weaknesses and in carrying each day the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Admonition V)
Because we are still near the beginning of a new calendar year, it’s not a bad thing to listen to Francis’s wisdom and consider the ways in which we might better live out our Christian lives in a spirit of humility. As Francis says at the beginning of this text, we should recognize our inherent goodness, dignity, and value as creatures made in the image and likeness of the Most High. Yet, this honor and responsibility requires much of us. It requires our humbly striving to be more authentically human according to God’s plan for creation.