Capuchin Prayer

Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

Translated by Gary Devery OFM Cap

I want to speak with you about Capuchin prayer as I have come to learn it. It has allowed me, to the glory of God, to be affirmed in my life. For the last thirty-three years or more I have had my hands in literature, bibliographies, Franciscan and Capuchin history and the events of the Order, and from a child I have been nourished with Franciscan and Capuchin food. I have never doubted my vocation, by the grace of God, and I have always rejoiced, even in my troubles and fragility, that I am part of the Capuchin family, so overflowing with holiness and so full of beauty. An ever-stronger conviction has formed in me about our specific identity and our charism. However, it is not a subjective nor ideological conviction, but, along my path of study and research, has emerged clearly from an objective and spiritual view based upon the convictions of our founding fathers, on the dynamic formation developed in the history of the novitiate, on the indications of the supreme pontiffs, on the life of our saints who are like a clear and transparent mirror of our charism, on our spiritual masters who have left writings of extraordinary beauty, and on our specific way of carrying out evangelisation and the missionary apostolate as an overflowing of love in having compassion and mercy towards the poor and marginalised, towards the afflicted and sick, and by comprehending in lucid profundity the experience of Saint Francis, his Rule and his life.

The importance and the necessity of prayer in the life of the Capuchin friars minor is so great that the Constitutions have dedicated an entire chapter to it, the third, entitled: The life of prayer of the friars. It is among one of the better composed chapters and was inspired by the document published from the PCO II held in Taizé. But prayer is a reality that involves all of the Capuchin life and accompanies and gives tenor to all the text of our Constitutions.

In the presentation of the Capuchin identity and the “genuine traditions of our brothers”, as is noted in the text of the Constitutions [2012] at n. 5, that synthesises many pages of PCO IV, prayer is in the first place, before that of poverty and minority, before austerity and penance, before fraternity and evangelisation: “For this purpose we make every effort to give priority to a life of prayer, especially contemplative prayer” (5.3).  It is a precedence that is also reaffirmed in the Rule and after the example of Saint Francis, as referred to in chapter V of the Constitutions [2012], at n. 45.7: “we cultivate “the Spirit of holy prayer and devotion to which all time-bound things must contribute.” We do this to become true followers of Saint Francis, who seemed not so much to pray as to have become the embodiment of prayer.”; and reconfirmed at n. 55.1: “The fraternities and the individual brothers, wherever they may be, must make the primacy of the spirit and life of prayer a reality as required by the words and example of Saint Francis and by genuine Capuchin tradition”.

Now this precedence seems to have been supplanted by another precedent, that of fraternity, that is, “To this end, we should dedicate ourselves to fraternal life in the spirit of holy prayer and devotion”, as was proposed by the [Project 2006 Constitutions draft n. 4.3] revision of our Constitutions. If I may be allowed to state that if today one wants at all costs to put fraternity in the first place, to be concrete, this value is only possible when there is already present an intense life of prayer and the love of God.

Moreover, it is precisely the spirit of holy prayer and devotion that permits and creates in me the capacity of dedicating myself to the fraternal life, and, therefore, stands before the fraternal life and of every other fervent social option for the poor and with the poor. Indeed, it animates and sustains this option. The Holy Father [Benedict XVI] stated this clearly in his first encyclical. Love of the neighbour (and what else is fraternity if not to love one another as brothers in Christ, forming with him one single entity in unity and charitable obedience, as children of God in the beloved Son of the Celestial Father?), as here in the words of the Pope:

Love of neighbour is thus shown to be possible in the way proclaimed by the Bible, by Jesus. It consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend… Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave… The saints… constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbour from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in their service to others. Love of God and love of neighbour are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a “commandment” imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est n. 18).

The genuine tradition of the charismatic initiators of our Order unanimously have always sustained that the purpose of the Rule is to “direct the friars to holy prayer, rejecting everything that impedes and proffering that by which they acquire the true love of God. The principal work that Saint Francis desired that we do in consecrated life is “to always pray to God with a pure heart”.

But how did the Capuchins pray? What was their experience and their method of prayer?

We find the answer in a passage of the ancient Constitutions (those of Roma-S. Eufemia of 1536, foundation charismatic legislation of our Order) in chapter three, where we read: “Let the Friars remember that prayer is nothing other than to speak to God with the heart. Therefore the one who speaks to God only with his mouth is not praying. Hence each should strive to do mental prayer and according to the teaching of Christ, the best teacher, adore the Father in spirit and in truth. Each friar should take diligent care to enlighten his mind and inflame his affection more than to form words” [n. 42]. This original text has passed integrally into the 2012 Constitutions at n. 54.2.

I want to comment upon this brilliant, extraordinary text with some historical and spiritual documents. Let us leave aside this evening, however, our normal “bookish” practice, our culture of doctrinal study and force ourselves to enter into the house of our heart. Because it is this heart that is of interest, it is this conversion of the heart, the prayer of the Heart, it is this interiority of the spirit, it is this search for the place of the heart, it is this overflowing of the heart, it is this purity of heart, it is this interior presence of the divine Trinity, it is this dwelling place of God, it is this place of the intentions and affections, the place of grace and of sin, it is this microcosm on which depends the macrocosm, this interior paradise, this sacrament of the pure heart, of the heart turned towards God, that opens and welcomes him, in which there is room for all.

Brothers, we have the feeling that the modern world, also religious, perhaps, even ours, with all its culture, its affluence, its specialisation, its scientific and technological triumph, has lost this heart, has abandoned this interiority, this solitude and this silence where God speaks. The Holy Father Benedict XVI never tired in underlining this aspect. Here is one of his thoughts among the many, the first that I found: “Silence: It occurs when there is the capacity to listen with the heart to God who speaks. Thinking always has need of purification so as to be able to enter into the dimension in which God pronounces his creative and redeeming Word, his Word ‘came out of silence’, to us a beautiful expression of Saint Ignatius of Antioch.[1] Only if our words arise out of the silence of our contemplation can they have some value and usefulness, and not fall into inflating the discourses of the world, the search for the consensus of the ‘common’ opinion”.[2]

Now let us enter into the charism of the Order, an apostolic charism enlivened by prayer and kept save by evangelical fraternity. As the Constitutions say: “Let us preserve and promote that contemplative spirit that shines in the life of Saint Francis and our forebears. Therefore let us give a greater place to it by fostering mental prayer” (52.1) “Above all let us cultivate among the People of God the spirit and the development of prayer, especially interior prayer, for from the beginning this was a charism of our Capuchin Fraternity and, as history testifies, the seed of genuine renewal” (53.6).

The Capuchin friars, returning to Saint Francis, who they had discovered to be “a man who had become prayer” and, for this reason, in their reading and practice of the Rule wanted to underline two passages in particular as the central point and its heart: the first is in chapter 5: that the friars “may work faithfully and devotedly so that, while avoiding idleness, the enemy of the soul, they do not extinguish the Spirit of holy prayer and devotion to which all temporal things must contribute”; the other is in chapter X: “but let them pay attention to what they must desire above all else: to have the Spirit of the Lord and Its holy activity, to pray always to Him with a pure heart, to have humility and patience in persecution and infirmity, and to love those who persecute, rebuke and find fault with us”.

The two texts of the Rule underline in a certain way two levels of development in prayer: the spirit of holy prayer and devotion underlines more the active aspect of the exercise that the friars need to commit themselves to and develop in themselves by way of a spiritual and ascetical path, and here they need to apply every attention, every commitment, every capacity and effort. That is, to express in a certain way that active exercise of prayer that is experienced in meditation, the fruits of which are conserved in the heart by way of aspirational prayer and continuous attentiveness of the heart that flows into every activity of study, work, apostolate and service. Often in this modern period, this attentiveness is confused with devotionalism, for which many forms and practices of devotion that have always been exercised in our Capuchin tradition have been criticised and then abandoned, with the risk, not hypothetical, of not being able to incarnate in a practical way in everyday life this spirit of prayer and devotion inculcated by Saint Francis.

The spirit of the Lord and his holy operation underlines the more passive aspect of interior prayer where the action of God in the soul has prevalence: the soul is under the influence, the power, the guidance and the attraction of the Holy Spirit. Here the affection of the heart has the upper hand and becomes absorbed by love, which is the holy operation of the Spirit, to which the friar needs to offer himself and by which he needs to leave himself to be guided and carried, without offering resistance (“give themselves into His serene possession”, as say the ancient Constitutions [n. 112]).

On this point we hear a significant procedural testimonial about Saint Lorenzo da Brindisi when he visited the friars and preached for length on the observance of the Rule: The text states: “When reasoning with the friars, he made strong emphasis on the words of our holy Rule: Let those who are illiterate not be anxious to learn, but let them pay attention to what they must desire above all else: to have the Spirit of the Lord and Its holy activity, to pray always to Him with a pure heart… [XI.7-9]. I heard Father Brindisi talk about these words when he was in the act of visiting the friars. He demonstrated that the marrow of our Rule can be reduced to this perfection, and it is this that everyone needs to put into practice”.

The Sicilian Girolamo Errente da Polizzi Generosa, a friend of Saint Lorenzo da Brindisi, in his comments on the Rule, writes that Saint Francis in the Rule:

“holds that the holy operation consists in praying to God always and with a pure heart… etc. He proposes prayer as the principal action of the spirit… He repeats that there is need to pray with a pure heart, not just by abstaining from sensual pleasures and by being sober, but also he refers to purification and the elimination of every nebulous fantasy and seductive imagining, so that the friars can, with clear eyes of the mind and with chaste hearts, pray as if they found themselves in paradise gazing on the face of their God. Keep in mind that the Rule on three different occasions speaks on prayer: in the third chapter so that you know that the primacy of prayer in the worship of God; in the fifth chapter to demonstrate again the primacy of prayer in demonstrating homage to God in and through work; and then in the tenth chapter to underline the primacy of prayer in the study of the Scriptures, it being the sacrament of all wise study. As says the apostle James: If anyone has need of wisdom, ask it of God. In fact, with and in prayer one intimately and wisely possesses and enjoys God. In prayer God is discovered as the supreme Good.[3]

In the legislative documents and in the Capuchin chronicles it is to be noted how the charismatic initiators of the reform gave a privileged place to devotion and the prayer of the heart. In regard to this I will choose two significant testimonies: one taken from a pamphlet written in the first years of the XVII century where the author, an anonymous Capuchin, asks the question of why have the Capuchins had so much success in their history? He responds with, among other things, four motives, which he calls “the four pillars of Capuchinism”, that is, optima iuventutis instructio – an optimum formation and education of the young; bona gubernatio – good governance; frequens oratio – assiduous prayer; fuga saecularium – distancing from familiarity with the world and useless and idle conversations with the laity. What is of interest to us is the motive of prayer, that is described thus:

The third most tenacious cornerstone of the Capuchins is frequent prayer, to which these seraphic lesser brothers dedicate themselves to uninterruptedly day and night; but particularly, in accordance with their Constitutions, every day, without exception, they dedicate themselves to mental prayer for two entire hours in common, one very early in the morning, when it is still dark in winter and at sunrise during summer; the other in the evening after compline all the year round, with all the fraternity together in the choir, with the windows and doors closed, in a semi-obscurity that favours recollection. This community prayer, prescribed for all together and from which no one can be absent without the permission of the superior, is more efficacious and better conforms to that done by the apostles, after the Ascension of Christ, when they were all together in the Cenacle: All met together and were constantly united in prayer, along with Mary the mother of Jesus – as it is written in the Acts of the Apostles – and on the day of Pentecost all were found together in the same place, naturally, I believe, in prayer. Also the place where one meditates is sacred, such as the choir or the church that lends itself to prayer, both because there intercedes the divine promise and thus the particular intercession of the Church facilitates the fulfilment of the prayers made there, and because sacredness of the place increases reverence and devotion. In fact, it is there they see the high altar, the Tabernacle and the Eucharistic throne. This way of praying in common, as far as I know, I have not heard or read that it has ever been done by other religious Orders, but only made an object of exhortation, even to the one who has been prescribed private meditation in his own cell, which can become rather ambiguous. In reality, there is the fear that the more tepid religious will avoid the fruitful effort of prayer, and this would not happen if they had to participate in the common prayer. No one would remain so persevering with oneself that he would not sometimes skip this holy exercise, since man never remains in the same state, and what he wants today, tomorrow he rejects, today he is bursting with devotion and tomorrow the opposite, he is full of torpor. Meditation done this way in common could often be left aside by someone constrained by many commitments. However, the majority of the community now always pray together at the appointed hour, so what one person cannot obtain by praying alone, he manages to do with the others, as is read in Proverbs: The brother helped by a brother is like a strong city [Prov. 18:19].[4]

Allow me here to add something about the actual practice today. The more concrete point, the heart of the discourse is this: the friars need to accustom themselves to the necessity of personal prayer, as can be read in n. 55.2 of the Constitutions [2012]: “It is of the greatest importance to form one’s conscience about the vital necessity of personal prayer. Each brother, wherever he may be, is to make sufficient time each day for mental prayer, for example, one whole hour”. The study of the history of this text would be interesting. It has been much discussed, relying on the indisputable fact of our tradition that from time immemorial has established two hours a day of silent and secret prayer. Then these two separate hours were shortened, becoming two half hour segments, then divided again, then becoming a brief pause of prayer and then… two words on paper. When the Minister General Pasquale Rywalski during a general chapter spoke about the crisis of prayer in the years after the Council and in the first years of the new Constitutions [1968], when even the validity and meaning of prayer were being questioned, he affirmed that this crisis still was not yet overcome, except in the theoretical doubt of its importance. But in a circular letter he noted that, after an objective evaluation, about half of the Capuchins were not absolutely faithful to daily meditation. I believe that also today it could be said to be the same. Now, to be realistic, the literal recovery of the tradition of two hours of meditation is no longer insisted upon, one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. It is said: Each one takes what time is sufficient, at least an entire hour, naturally every day. It is a minimalistic amount. But prayer is not a question of time spent, but of love. The one who loves finds the time and finds plenty of it, in fact, he does not cease in praying as a “true spiritual lesser brother”; but he who does not love never finds the time to pray. At 55.3 of the Constitutions one reads: “Let provincial and local chapters ensure that all brothers have the necessary time for mental prayer, both in common and in private”. If a friar, due to his ministry and service activities is unable to be faithful to daily meditation, in conscience, he needs to have recourse to his minister. What enters into play here is the spiritual observance of the Rule, as Saint Francis says in chapter 10 of the Rule. In this case, the superiors needs to intervene and be of assistance: this is the greatest service that can be done by the superiors to the friars, according to Saint Francis: help them to recover and to live in the spirit of prayer, only by which it is possible to render service to the brothers in Christ. It is a great responsibility.

I have extracted a second document on prayer from a most beautiful booklet of Father Francesco da Chambery, a great apostle who worked in the missions with Saint Francesco di Sales. He retired to a friary where in the last years of his life he wrote a pamphlet in which he gathered together all the rules and religious customs of the Capuchins, among which were, in different chapters, their prayers. One of these, a characteristic one, deals with furtive prayers and he says that:

The prayers that we pour out in places apart and in corners of secluded places, almost hidden, in our spare time, outside of the ordinary prayer times, and stolen with prudence from the spare time that our bodily needs require, are sweeter and more pleasing to God. They are sweeter to us because they are always accompanied by a particular consolation and visit by God; more pleasing to God because, as the Gospel says: Pray to the Father in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. These furtive prayers were most loved by our Saviour: He went up onto the mountain to pray and passed the night in prayer to God. Our seraphic Father Francis frequently gave himself to this practice, as Saint Bonaventure writes: “The man of God, remaining alone and at peace, filled the woods with his sighing, bedewed the ground with his tears, and beat his breast with his hands, and, like one who had gained a secret and hidden thing, spoke familiarly with his Lord. There he made answer unto his Judge, there he made supplication unto his Father…”.[5] These secret and furtive prayers have always been held in great esteem by us and those who cultivated them were always more exemplary to the others. I have seen many such friars, especially in the bigger friaries, where the friars being many in number were not overly busy, were more frequent in this practice. Here is to be recognised the soul which the Lord God has destined to become his spouse. This soul, not content with the ordinary prayer exercises of the Order, perfectly following them, went further, more out of merit than that of holy obedience. The friar would arrive in choir before the hour of the Office and be the last to leave. He would be present for the customary practices. If he was not impeded, he would search out hidden places, steal some time from that of the repose of night to diligently carry out acts of love and furtive prayer. To this end we are invited by the exhortations of the most reverend Father Generals (as did Saint Lorenzo da Brindisi) that strongly recommend to us that the church and the choir, whether by day or by night, should never be found without a friar at prayer.[6]

This practice was a method that the friars, also the illiterate, learnt in the noviciate by way of teaching that was more by practical exercises than of doctrine. Look at our first saint, Saint Felice da Cantalice. Significant are some testimonies left by lay brothers during the process of canonisation. Br Agostino Roncalli da Bergamo, describing the prayer of the saint with evident referral to the oral and practical teaching received during the novitiate year, affirms:

Sometimes I would go to the church at night, and find him in the church at prayer… he was on his knees and holding the rosary in his hand; and he would, when he saw some friar in the church, stay in silence and not make any movement and seek to do in secret that which he was doing. From what other friars said I understood that the said Br Felice often said prayers and made such aspirations; and when he saw some friar in church outside the usual hour, he would say to him: What are you doing not taking a rest?… He would usually say certain prayers, which he said were songs which he usually taught to the children, one being: O Jesus, /little son of Mary, who took care of you /how good to have you”.[7]

Another lay brother Br Domenico da Carbognano describes the prayer of the saint in this way:

The said Br Felice usually was assiduous in prayer, during the day from whatever time was left over from the questing, but at night he was accustomed to continually get up at two or at three at night and go to the church where he would stay until the first bell of the morning. As soon as it rung, he would depart and return to his cell. Once the friars had returned from matins, he would return to the church and stay there until he had heard the first Mass, at which he would serve and communicate… He was very secretive about his things and would do every work so that the friars did not know who had done it. He was accustomed to say to me many times that you need to pray to Christ with love, and the blessed God wanted nothing from us other than acts of love. And he said this to me with great affection, so that I could discover it.[8]

Another friar, Abruzzian, Br Angelo da Penne, put it this way:

He often used the extraction [of text] in prayer, and disapproved of those who, when reading and finding some beautiful passages, do not close the book and stop to meditate. And then he would begin to say the rosary but would not finish it because of the meditation and extraction [of text].[9] He always prayed when doing the questing. He always raised his mind, and it was the mind that worked… He told me that as soon as one enters into meditation, he should raise [his mind] to now contemplating the Passion and then the Nativity of our Lord, according to the seasons. He was accustomed to say that the vineyard of the friars is the church. And according to how well it is embellished and cultivated, it produces well. Wanting to say that in the church it is necessary to pray solemnly and frequently.[10]

However, the most impressive description of the prayer of Saint Felice we can find is in the deposition of Br Alessio da Sezze Romano:

[Br Felice] was such that when dealing with the people and in particular with me, he would say: “Br Alessio, we cannot go on in the day as we do at night. In all the conversation with the people who we meet along the roads or in the houses, we should not leave ourselves without some prayer and in particular some raising of the mind to blessed God, praying to him that he does not abandon us and that he gives us his grace”.

At other times he would say: “Let us make some prayers with the tongue, with the mouth, vocal prayers, saying Our Father or indeed Hail Mary, Blessed be Jesus Christ and his most holy Mother and other similar things, because the devil has great power in tempting the friar who does not pray.

As for the solitary prayer during the night in church, as I observed very many times, he held to this rule. When he would go into the church between one-thirty or two during the night, he would light a candle and search all of the church; and if he found friars, he would humbly say to them that they can go and rest in order that they can be more vigilant in the morning. When he thought there was no one left in the church, he would commence his spiritual exercises in various ways; at times he would be in such fervour that you could not hear anything else than him saying: “Oh, oh, oh!” And this would last for three hours; then he would begin another, saying: “There was no one, there was no one!”[11] He would repeat this many times. “There should have been at least one to say a word in his favour!” Then he would be lifted in spirit and say: “O my Lord Jesus Christ, o my Lord Jesus Christ!”, and say many times, “what abandonment is this!” Then he would begin weeping, this being broken only by so much anguish and distress that it seemed he wanted to die. All the friars who observed this behaviour, all those who heard it, were moved to tears of devotion.

At times he would start walking from the door of the church towards the most Holy Sacrament, softly softly with his arms in front, crossed, and say these words and none-other: “Blessed be God, blessed be God”. And this would endure for a space of around two hours. At other times, he would extend himself on the floor in front of the most Holy Sacrament with his face to the ground and with his arms crossed: he would stay there for the space of an hour or two, without doing anything else. At other times, he would start singing with a very thin voice, like that of a child, and it was not possible to understand what was being sung; but those who were present could well sense the devotion that came from that action. He thought that while doing this he was alone, but sometimes there were 15 or 20 friars present.[12]

To hear, therefore, the illiterate lay brothers speaking of aspirations, extractions, with the use of such technical words, signifies that the novitiate had arrived at the height of being a place of practical and precise teaching, a true school of prayer and of lively devotion. It is clear that there is now the need to recover this affective interiority that purifies the intentions and makes more actual the exercise of love.

In the past, the friars at the end of the novitiate were admitted only to solemn profession. There were not two professions, that of simple and after three years that of solemn, as it is today. This was introduced on 19 March 1857 by the S. Congregazione dei Regolari, with the decree Neminem latet. At the end of the novitiate every friar received a small, pocket-sized booklet in which there were listed together many legislative and spiritual documents, along with the Rule, the Testament, pontifical documents, and spiritual exercises, prayers to be recited in various circumstances and, among other things, aspirational prayer. This was taught by way of practical exercises, that is, by short affective prayers frequently repeated with interior motives of affection, like a song of the heart, that needs to accompany the person throughout the day and during the entire week. It is a prayer that was traditionally called ejaculatory, very brief prayer that is made with great intensity and love that has the effect of reviving the spirit of prayer and of conserving the flame of love so as not to lose the spirit of prayer and devotion.

Aspiratory prayer, therefore, is the soul of Capuchin prayer. The prayer has its heritage in early Christian and monastic practice, taken up with new vitality by Saint Francis, and arriving to the Capuchins both by way of the Franciscan experience of the Bonaventurian devotio, and also transmitted by the devotio moderna and the aspirational prayer of the heart. It was then enhanced by the mystical doctrine of the Observant Henry van Herp, who proposed a spiritual itinerary of interiority through the way of introversion, that is, the search for God in the innermost soul. This way is accompanied by twelve mortifications orientated towards stripping the will of every affection that is not purely according to God. He barely mentions corporal penance, insisting, above all, upon the interior aspects, with sensitivity, self-love and solely human motivations needing to be completely overcome, so as to become completely available to the actions of the Holy Spirit and to bring the spirit to the internal exercise of love. In this way the heart and the spirit arrive at unity by way of a spiritual ascension whereby the lesser powers, that is, the external senses, become purified and the three higher powers, memory, intellect and will, are simplified.

Henry van Herp teaches that the fundamental instrument to this ascension is the exercise of aspiration and of unitive love. The first is the body of contemplation, the other is its soul, its spirit. Whoever decides to walk in the divine and mystical way needs to exercise it above all in the affections, holding the memory ready to use many brief prayers, so called ejaculatory, so as to excite this aspiration that needs to fill the heart, but also continually flow from the lips, speaking to God as if he were present and as often as possible and everywhere. The significance is deduced from the process of respiration: aspirare signifies to exhale the breath towards some object. He also uses it in a figurative sense: that is, to be well disposed towards, to raise oneself towards, but always with burning desire and a vigorous effort. In this last significance the word possesses three important elements: an upward movement, a desire and the manifestation of this desire. This aspiring and yearning (aspirare e sospirare) for God is rooted in the affection of both the will and of the senses themselves, that is, of the body that can express with gestures this affection of the heart.

The new Constitutions have underlined this fundamental element with the choice of commencing Chapter III with the marvellous sentence: “Prayer to God is the breathing of love stirred into life by the Holy Spirit” and have perfectly read the intention of Saint Francis when they almost wanted to comment on the passage of the Rule regarding the primacy of the spirit of prayer and devotion, writing: “Mental prayer is the spiritual teacher of the brothers [54.2] (I would say that many times the friars abandon this teaching and they prefer the school of the newspapers, of the television, of the internet and the reasoning of the world). Moreover, so that the spirit of prayer and prayer itself may never grow lukewarm within us, but may burn more intensely from day to day, we must apply ourselves each day to its practice” [54.4] (and here I would make another comment: Mattia da Salò in his Practice of mental prayer, a best seller amongst spiritual literature of the second half of the sixteenth century, teaches that one maintains access to this fire of devotion by way of the affections of the heart frequently emitted during the day with feeling and enthusiasm. In this way the home of the heart is kept warm and these small affective aspirations are like the wood that feeds the affective fire of the will. These purify the heart of images and from useless thoughts. In this vein, the Constitutions actually state that, “Franciscan prayer is affective, a prayer of the heart, which leads us to an intimate experience of God. When we contemplate “God, who is the supreme Good and all Good, from Whom all good proceeds,” our hearts should burst forth in adoration, thanksgiving, wonder, and praise” [46.6]).

Yet by modern masters aspirations are considered the Cinderella of prayer, while in reality they are the very short-cut to love and of spiritual ascension, privileged by the Capuchin school of devotion.

This is the language of the heart, “to speak to God with the Heart”. Aspirational prayer is like a bellow that blows on the fire to keep it alight and it expresses itself as music of the heart. Music is a symbol used also in the Apocalypse to describe the sublime affections of the saints in heaven. Praying here means loving, to make acts of love, as said Saint Felice da Cantalice, and love has many varied melodies, countless notes, many resonances.

Our seraphic Father possessed a vast affective range, well highlighted in these recent years, particularly in Plenary Council IV held at Rome in 1981, where at n. 53 it affirms that “One of Saint Francis’ characteristics is the richness of his feelings and emotions and his ability to express them”, and that of PCO V, held at Garibaldi in 1986, where at n. 7, among other things, it reiterates that “Saint Francis meets God in contemplation by way of intuition and affection, a way taken up again by the Capuchin tradition”.

The variety of affections is explained with abundance by our ancient teachers of prayer: Giovanni da Fano, Bernardino da Balvano, Mattia da Salò and Alessio da Salò, and not only do they list these affective ways, but some among them construct a certain grammar and syntax of this language of the heart, that is, a rhetoric of the affections, a certain stylistic-rhetorical manual. They say that an aspiration or an ejaculation can be developed by way of soliloquy or by way of dialogue, and in a rhetorical style, where it is expressed in an indicative or imperative or vocative or interrogative or optative or subjunctive or comfortative way. The psalms are the most marvellous arsenal of affection of the heart. All of the affections of the heart converge in love, which is the central and final affection. Its movement is like a yearning, a breath of life, respiratio amoris, breathing of love, say the new Constitutions.

How do we practise this? Another fundamental text to understand the Capuchin charism, an extraordinary text, unfortunately not understood in its original intensity in the new Constitutions, explains how this exercise of love is to be done:

Given that God is our final end to whom everyone should tend and long to see himself transformed in Him, we exhort all the friars to direct all their thoughts to this aim. With every possible impulse of love let us focus all our intentions and longing to unite ourselves to our supremely good Father with all our heart, mind and soul, with our strength and virtue, with actual, continuous, intense and pure love (Const. 1563, n. 63).

We can find a penetrating explanation of this passage in a writing of Mattia da Salò, where he explains in his famous Practice of mental prayer the affections and the operations, or acts, of love. Here are his words:

What is of first importance in the name of love is an ardent desire to unite ourselves with the thing that we love, as the soul enamoured with God, for this love languishes to unite itself with Him, as the bride confesses in the Song of Songs, and so love is an affection. What then is important is an act of the will, by which we freely want the good of someone, just as the soul that loves God wants to love him, that is to say, it wants and is pleased that He has his infinite goodness, an ocean of every perfection. And loving the neighbour, we want that he has the benefit of divine grace and God himself, or also some temporal good. This love is act. Now the affections are born from these acts. The acts are then born from love… Therefore, love is the root of all the movements of our will and so all the diligence of man needs to consist in the good regulation of love”.[13]

Penetrating deeper into the movement of love, he says that this love is, together with act and passion, active and passive, that is, eros and agape, as Pope Benedict XVI explained in his first programmatic encyclical, outlining ascending love and descending love that can never be completely separated one from the other, because, “Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other… bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love” (n. 7).

Mattia Bellintani da Salò calls these two movements of love intratto, that is, to draw within, and estratto, that is, to draw out:

The drawing within happens when the soul is drawn into God by the impulse of love and remains fixed in gazing at him with great delight, holding firm his eyes to those of God (note this gaze), by which one equally sees the other as being seen and fondly gazed upon, and as such they converse together in personal tones (parlano insieme in seconda persona: they speak together in the second person (that is, using the Italian informal tu instead of using the formal third person Lei, as Francis does in Lodi di Dio altissimo: You are holy (Tu sei santo etc.), You are powerful, You are omnipotent, You are love and charity, You are humility, You are joy and happiness, You are beauty, etc.), or simply remain gazing at each other in silence and the soul begins to feel itself pierced inside its heart with mortal wounds of love that makes it languish, just as she herself with her pure glance pierces the heart of God, who, the more wounded he is, the more he wounds the soul.

The drawing out, instead, happens when the soul feels inflamed by a great desire to serve and to be pleasing to God and stimulates itself to serve him and please him; and here, if the soul is still imperfect in this art of love, bears forth acts of sorrow, or resolution, of requests to be freed from its evils. Otherwise, the soul remains elevated in this desire.

In the drawing within, therefore, the soul has only God for its object. In the drawing out, the soul turns in towards herself and urgently spurs herself on, running towards God. These two acts of love are now being carried out now one, then the other, alternatingly (today we would say that it is like the systole and the diastole of the spiritual heart, they are like a respiratio amoris that inhales and exhales, like a piston, like the ebbing and flowing of the ocean of love). The soul, loving God, is aroused in the desire of serving him and this desire once again draws him in to herself, inflaming her with love (FC, III/1 p. 703f., n. 4352-4353).

Brothers, is this love inside of us? Or is this something of abstract speculation, expressed in an archaic language that no longer touches us? Perhaps we are no longer accustomed to living in the recollection of aspirational prayer, swathing all our actions in love, with humble, inflamed ejaculations? If prayer, along with fasting and almsgiving, is the means of the conversion of the heart asked for at the powerful liturgical time of lent, we need to seek to recuperate love for recollection, for silence, for contemplation. If we are continually being assaulted by too much noise, let us re-enter into ourselves, reappropriating our identity, abandoning the chatter and the superficiality of the apparent and ephemeral and restabilise within ourselves a tranquil and interior simplicity. Let us recover the interiority as opposed to exteriority. Let us personalise and spiritualise all our activity. Sensations, thoughts, sentiments, attitudes and behaviour need to find their pivot in the interior “I”, in the spiritual soul, that gives life to everything: that is, with an awakened soul, alert to the truth, rich in love, open to God. From our contact with God, we can open ourselves to our brothers, to the world. This is what Saint Francis has done. He went in pilgrimage from the world to solitude and silence, to an encounter with God, and from there, a return to his brothers: from the “mutual gazing” with God, writes Guardini, comes the attitude of openness towards creatures and universal brotherhood. A simple path, as said Teresa of Calcutta: “The fruit of silence is prayer, the fruit of prayer is faith, the fruit of faith is love, the fruit of love is service, the fruit of service is peace”.

The Virgin Mary helps us in this, who, at the beginning of our Constitutions is presented to us as the model of lectio or audition divina assidua and of evangelical meditation cordis or ruminating on the Word of God which in her Immaculate Heart has become remembrance. Mary listened and conserved them in her heart. Her heart is her library. Mary supplanted or, better to say, absorbed into herself the delicate image of Saint Cecilia used in the primitive Capuchin Constitutions as the exemplary evangelical virgin: “after the example of the virgin Cecilia always carry the sacred Gospel in their heart of hearts”. It is a way and a fundamental attitude of faith in light of the example of Mary, her listening to the Word and her way of meditating on it and conserving it in her heart and discovering the source of her marvellous wonder and her prayer.

It is this, moreover, expressed in the final thought of the Holy Father in his encyclical: Mary “speaks and thinks with the Word of God; the Word of God becomes her word, and her word issues from the Word of God… Mary, Virgin and Mother, shows us what love is and whence it draws its origin and its constantly renewed power” (Deus Caritas Est n. 41, 42.)

So, let us pray: Holy Mary, Mother of God, show us Jesus, guide us to Him. Teach us to know him and to love him, so that we also can become capable of true love and be sources of living water in the midst of a thirsty world”. Amen.

  1. Lett. ai Magnessii VIII.2
  2. Benedict XVI, agli universitari eccl. Romani, 23 October 2006.
  3. Frati Cappuccini I, p. 1106-1108
  4. FC I, p. 1256-1258.
  5. Bonaventure, The Life of Saint Francis, X.4.
  6. FC, I, p.1938-1942, n.1836-1837.
  7. FC, III/2, p. 4655-4656, n. 8167.
  8. FC, III/2, p. 4675, n. 8186.
  9. That is, he was much more accustomed to stop at some words and meditate upon them and contemplate them, rather than formalise the vocal prayers. This was in perfect observation of the Constitutions of 1526, n. 42.
  10. FC, III/2 p. 4719-4720, n.8233.
  11. That is, Jesus was alone, abandoned, during the Passion. Cf. Mk 14:50; Mt 26:56; ect.
  12. Cargnoni, FC III/2, p.4690-4691.
  13. FC, III/1, p. 128f.).