Jon Sweeney is one of the leading interpreters of the life of St. Francis. He is author of a dozen books on St. Francis, St. Clare, and the early Franciscans. Through Spirituality & Practice, he offered an e-course on "The Spirituality of St. Francis," which is now available on-demand.
Portions of this book were previously published in The St. Francis Prayer Book, The St. Clare Prayer Book, and The St. Francis Holy Fool Prayer Book. It's nice to have this material, with some additions and deletions, gathered together in one handy paperback, especially for those looking, for, as Sweeney puts it, "a substitute for your regular prayer practice whenever you find yourself stagnating or needing special inspiration."
From the title, you might think that this is a collection of all the prayers written by or attributed to St. Francis, St. Clare, Brother Juniper, St. Anthony of Padua, and other early Franciscans. And many of those prayers are included here. But what Sweeney is doing in this little volume is inviting us to pray with, in the style of, and about the central themes in these Franciscans' lives.
The book is divided into three sections: St. Francis: Begin a Life of Conversion; St. Clare: Listen for God's Leading; and Brother Juniper, the Protomartyrs, and St. Anthony of Padua: Love God in Humility. Another chapter talks about the "Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace" prayer, often called the "Prayer of St. Francis," although it was not written by him. This doesn't bother Sweeney at all. He notes that the beautiful lines of the prayer closely reflect the spirit of St. Francis and "Whoever did write these words had taken to heart the true charism of Franciscanism."
Each section begins with an introduction about the lives of these Franciscans and explanations of their prayer life. St. Francis, for example, prayed both in community and alone; his prayers originated in the Scriptures, especially the Psalms and the Gospels; and his prayer life was regular and daily. It was often vocal. St. Clare embraced the silence of contemplative prayer and also engaged in visual meditation. While working, she often offered intercessory prayers. Sweeney describes her as a down-to-earth mystic: "Her power of concentration was intense, but hers was a mysticism that had feet and intelligence, in addition to heart."
To illustrate these styles of prayer, Sweeney provides a week of liturgies for use in the morning and evening, each with scripture passages, songs, confessions, and prayers that would have been used by Francis or Clare. He also offers seven themes for the week that illuminate the focus of Franciscan spirituality. As you use these in your own prayer life, you can imagine that you are praying alongside Francis and Clare.
The third section is our favorite as it focuses on prayers from the early Franciscans, especially Brother Juniper, the monk closest to Francis, and their holy foolishness. Sweeney traces the strands of this counter-cultural holy foolishness in Christianity, Judaism, and Zen Buddhism. He includes stories of Francis and Juniper's foolishness as innocence and as protest. "Francis and Juniper remind anyone of what is the heart and soul of Jesus's teaching," he notes. "You can't learn the gospel simply in books. You have to put these things into practice." He goes on, then, to offer a week's worth of liturgies for "how fools might pray." These cover seven themes (see excerpt) and each ends with a spiritual practice.
For us, the practices were the most fun. Here's one we used at the ceremony when we unveiled a steel icon, St. Francis and the Birds, by Frederick Franck at our house in Pilgrim Place in Claremont, California. As background, we had been listening to our neighbors complaining about how squirrels kept eating out of their bird feeders:
"Today, alone, somewhere outdoors, try preaching to the birds. If it happens to be winter and there are no birds to be found where you are, preach to the squirrels. Begin by speaking silently, if you prefer, in your mind. But stand before them and express yourself from your heart. Record how it felt. Do it again tomorrow."