Monday, June 14, 2010

Solitude and Prayer: The Power behind Francis of Assisi's Ministry

“In repentance and rest you shall be saved,
In quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15 NASB).

On the one hand, Francis and the brothers who joined him threw themselves into ministry for others. Preaching the Gospel, tending lepers, caring for the sick and poor, and raising support daily to provide food for themselves and the poor, they were part of the Evangelical Lifestyle of the New Monasticism. They loved Christ and his people, and they sought to serve the Lord with all their strength.

On the other hand, Francis would often pull apart for solitude and prayer. The above photo is of the Hermitage of the Carceri, a wilderness retreat in the mountains several kilometers above Assisi, where Francis would often pull apart for 40 days of solitude. Here he and other friars would pray, wait on God, humble themselves and fast on bread and water. Not only did Francis maintain this rhythm of withdrawing from the world during the 40 days of lent, he did so during advent and other times of the year.

Seeing the Carceri during our pilgrimage in Assisi was so interesting for me personally. Having read about Francis over the years, I seldom ran across much written on his extended times of solitude. These long seasons of retreat were so important to Francis’ spiritual well-being and ministry, however. They were part of the rhythm of his life, and here is the place where he came.

Rugged mountain slopes characterize this protected ravine which stands above Assisi at some 2500 feet altitude. Being there in person helped me to understand Francis as never before. I especially identified with him because I also love to go to the wilderness for solitude. For my whole adult life, wilderness camping has been my place of extended solitude with the Lord. The basic difference between my wilderness retreats and Francis’ is that I use a portable nylon tent, and he and the brothers stayed in wood huts at some point replaced by a stone structure! These provided the cells—Carceri—for solitude where they sought the Lord.

Solitude: Source of Power and Direction
That time alone with God was significant for Francis because it provided the power behind his ministry. It is those who “wait upon the Lord” who “gain new strength,” states Isaiah 40:29-31. Although vigorous young men stumble badly, those who wait on God will “mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary” (NASB).

Francis knew this secret. Even after a long day of ministry, he would often go into the woods at night to be alone with the Lord. There he would spend time in worship and prayer. At times his companions would come to find him, only to see Francis totally rapt in God’s presence. In addition to these daily times alone with God, Francis regularly withdrew for forty-day retreats at the Carceri.

Francis, of course, was simply following Jesus’ model. In Mark 1 we read about Jesus’ full day of ministry at Capernaum. Preaching in the synagogue and then healing people and casting out demons all evening, Jesus must have been exhausted when he went to bed that night at Peter’s home. Nevertheless, before dawn he got up and went off to a “lonely place” for prayer.

When Peter and the others finally found him, they wanted Jesus to return to the gathering crowd at Peter’s place to continue the healing ministry. However, the Lord shocked everyone by declaring that instead they needed to move on to the other villages, because “that is what I came to do.” In the solitude of that morning, Jesus saw things clearly and he received direction for the day. Although he would return to Capernaum in due time, Jesus knew that he had a different call on him for the time at hand.

Francis followed suit and spent considerable time waiting on God for power and direction in his life and ministry. It is estimated that, at least some years, Francis might have spent upwards of 200 days in prayer at the Carceri. That would be over have been over half the year. Far from being wasted time, this solitude was essential to maintaining his relationship with God and rejuvenating his ministry.

Compulsive Contemporary Christians
Many contemporary Christians can identify with the first aspect of Francis’ life—busy ministry. As a whole, we are driven by a compulsive need to “do something,” whether serving in a soup kitchen, sharing the Gospel or keeping programs running at church. Therefore, we need to learn from the counterbalance of Francis’ life—the intentional cultivation of solitude, prayer, fasting and waiting on God. Of times we have relatively little to show for all the effort we expend. Were we to invest more time in intimacy with God—receiving fresh strength and clear direction—we would, like Francis, have far more fruitful ministry!

2010 © Glenn E. Myers

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