Francis of Assisi’s “Prayer Before the Crucifix” does not start with “Woe is me” or some dark misery of the heart. Rather, it focuses on the glory and sublime beauty of God.
“Most High, glorious God”: Just by saying the words in a spirit of praise, my heart grows lighter. I feel as though I’m swept up into the glorious presence of God! The prayer starts—as all prayer does well to start—with words of adoration.
Adoration has a way of lifting me out of my self-absorption and anxiety. Adoration itself helps enlighten the darkness of my heart.
I’m pleased that Francis uses the word heart rather than mind when he prays: “Enlighten the darkness of my heart.” The word mind takes me too much into my head. And that is not the real Saint Francis. Heart is very much Saint Francis. Heart suggests the complexities of human love and the mystery of one’s innermost yearning—with all its related joys and sorrows.
A Vision of Christ’s Burning Love
Francis, of course, had a heart very much attuned to the mystery of God’s overflowing love. Once, while praying in a solitary place, Francis had a vision of Christ looking at him from the cross with such intense and burning love that “his soul melted,” according to his biographer, Saint Bonaventure (1221-1274). One can only believe that, after this soul-melting event, every time Francis prayed before a crucifix, he experienced a similar outpouring of God’s incredible love.
And when Francis asks in his prayer, “Give me right faith,” this right faith would somehow entail—or encapsulate—this same heart-transforming vision of God’s overflowing love, a love whereby God holds nothing back from us! That’s the kind of right faith that Francis—as well as you and I—requests in this prayer. And does not this right faith, which is the glorious core of God’s self-revelation, enlighten the darkness of our hearts?
Next, we pray with Francis for the “sure hope” that flows from “right faith.” And where is there a better place to find this sure hope than in the resurrection of Jesus? The disciples literally witnessed sure hope when the risen Christ appeared to them on that first Easter Sunday. I think especially of the Apostle Thomas in this regard. The risen Jesus so illumined this apostle’s doubt-darkened heart that Thomas, in adoration, proclaimed without hesitation: “My Lord and my God!” (see John 20:28).
This enables Francis to respond to God’s love with the same kind of total generosity. Francis further asks Christ to “fill me with understanding and knowledge that I may fulfill your command.” This “command” is really God’s glorious plan that all God’s children persevere in the love of Christ and someday rise with Christ into God’s loving embrace.
The San Damiano Cross
Franciscan documents of the 13th century indicate that the crucifix before which Saint Francis prayed this prayer was none other than the famous crucifix in the little chapel of San Damiano, near Assisi. This beloved crucifix, familiar to followers of Saint Francis worldwide, is known as the San Damiano Cross.
The body of Christ, as painted on this cross, is not bloody or twisted in anguish. Rather, his body is quite luminous, as if it were already risen, radiating the fullness of God. Instead of a crown of thorns, this image of Christ has a glorious halo. And his body with outstretched arms appears to be ascending to heaven. In short, the image clearly suggests the risen Jesus.
If, indeed, this was the image of Christ upon which Saint Francis was gazing as this prayer arose in his heart, it makes perfectly good sense that Francis would address Jesus as “Most High, glorious God!”
O glorious God of overflowing love, enlighten the darkness of my heart!
Francis’ Prayer Before the Crucifix
Most High, glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of my heart;
Give me right faith, sure hope, and perfect charity.
Fill me with understanding and knowledge,
that I may fulfill your command.