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What St. Francis teaches us about discernment — beyond vocation


Courtesy of Fr. Brian Cavanaugh , T.O.R.

St. Francis window at St. Francis Friary, Loretto, PA

Fr. Brian Cavanaugh, TOR - published on 10/03/22

A famous prayer of the great saint gives us insight into how he understood the quest for God's will.

Here at Franciscan University, we speak jokingly of discernment as the “D” word because it is an especially supercharged word. Often it brings to mind an immediate focus on priesthood or religious life, or we think of puzzled students trying to discern God’s will. So, what is discernment? 

Let us take a closer look at St. Francis of Assisi’s“Prayer to Discern God’s Will Before the Crucifix.”

St. Francis’ Prayer to Discern God’s Will
Before the Crucifix
Most High, glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of my heart,
and give me true faith,
certain hope, and perfect charity,
sense and knowledge, Lord,
that I may carry out
your holy and true command.

Usually, this prayer is titled “Prayer of St. Francis Said Before the Crucifix,” and there is a line toward the end that is translated as “sense and knowledge.”

I started to question just what might be St. Francis’ understanding in the use of these two concepts — sense and knowledge. Also, I was a bit confused because, frequently, I’ve seen this line translated as “wisdom and understanding.” I wondered what did St. Francis actually pray?

I mentioned my confusion to Fr. Rick Martingetti, OFM, a Franciscan scholar who lived with us at the time; he went to get his books on St. Francis’ writings. Looking at the Italian copy of Francis it reads: “senno et cognoscemento” which doesn’t quite translate. The Latin text uses the phrase “sensum et cognitionem,” which Google translates as “sense and knowledge.”

I wondered if by using “senno” St. Francis might have been thinking of praying for “common sense and understanding,” which would add a different nuance to the prayer, at least in my understanding. Common sense is a lost gift and most mis-named; it is not that common after all. Could St. Francis be praying for the sense and knowledge to think through situations with discernment?

What about the Italian of Francis’ day?

Not long after, Fr. Paolo Benati, TOR, former TOR Secretary General, now Provincial of the Assisi Province, and moral theology scholar, came to visit Franciscan University. Before he left, I asked Fr. Paolo just what did Francis say in Italian. He wrote back:

“‘Senno’ is still an Italian word but has a slightly different meaning … ‘prima faciae” senno equals sense. Adjusting it to the use of the time, I should say that senno means ‘Why I should do something?’

“‘Cognoscimento’ does not exist any more. It is a typical 13th-century vulgare word, the common language spoken before Italian. The most similar Italian contemporary word is ‘conoscenza.’ Once again I will say that ‘cognoscimento’ means ‘How to do something?’”

Fr. Paolo concluded, “So according to my studies and Italian literature background, I suggest you translate senno and cognoscimento with something like ‘sense’ and ‘knowledge.’” St. Francis was asking the Lord for the sense to understand why he has to act and the knowledge of how to act in this situation. 

This helps to understand that St. Francis is praying for the practical/common wisdom of what needs to be done and the knowledge of how best to accomplish that goal. How to think things through, to get through things.

St. Francis window at St. Francis Friary, Loretto, Pennsylvania

Discernment is more than vocation

This prayer is really an expression of Francis of Assisi’s discernment throughout his life journey. Early in his life, Francis was discerning, but not a discernment informed by the Spirit of the Lord, and yet the Lord was preparing him. 

It could be said that Francis’ conversion began with a wrestling to discern God’s will for his life. After his time of failed military service, imprisonment, convalescence and slow recovery, Francis is led to desire more strongly the will of God in his life. At the same time, he begins to be drawn to the countryside chapels that dominate the Italian landscape. It is said this prayer was prayed by Francis within the crumbling wayside chapel of San Damiano in Assisi.

Fr. Conrad Harkins, OFM, another Franciscan scholar who taught at Franciscan University for a number of years, adamantly told me that this prayer was not a prayer to be said just before the Crucifix, as it is so commonly called, but it was St. Francis’ normal way of praying to discern God’s will in his life; often while before the Crucifix, he would pray this prayer.

This helps to understand that Francis’ usual manner of prayer is praying for practical, common sense of what needs to be done and the knowledge of how best to think through situations with prudence and discernment.

This prayer is a prayer of discernment throughout our lives. Discernment didn’t end throughout the life of St. Francis, and it doesn’t end for us either. We continue to ask God for discernment in this moment to follow what he is asking of us now.

Francis of Assisi himself had an experience of failure when he was injured on the battlefield and realized that his aspirations of knighthood, his dream, would not come to be. This failure became a doorway in which he could discern the greater things God had in store for him. 

Discernment can be a disturbing process; it is not always well-defined and comfortable.


See here for more information:

Saint Francis of Assisi, “The Prayer before the Crucifix” (1205/06), Francis of Assisi – the Early Documents, 40.

And dive deeper into this theme with the author’s 3-part video series here.

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