A couple of months ago our fraternity was privileged to hold a profession ceremony for three fantastic women. In the midst of Mass, they stood in front of their families, friends and the fraternity and made their Permanent Commitment to the Gospel Life.
These are the words they used to make that commitment:
Ritual of the Secular Franciscan Order, Rite of Profession:
I, (state your name), by the grace of God, renew my baptismal promises and consecrate myself to the service of his Kingdom. Therefore, in my secular state I promise to live all the days of my life the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Secular Franciscan Order by observing its Rule of life.
May the grace of the Holy Spirit, the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and our holy father St. Francis, and the fraternal bonds of community always be my help, so that I might reach the goal of perfect Christian love.
That morning we had ongoing profession as we normally do and we chose to use this statement of consecration as the focus of our discussion. As the leader of one of the small groups, I asked someone to read these words aloud.
I then asked the group to tell me what “perfect Christian love” consisted of. It’s not an easy concept to define, explain or understand. Our discussion lasted for more than an hour but I am not sure that we reached any firm conclusions. Don’t get me wrong. It was a wonderful discussion. Great thoughts were shared and fine examples were cited. But there are some ideas in this world, especially the best ideas, that no matter how much you talk about them, the discussion is never complete. These ideas, by their very nature, ask that we consider them continuously, that we are mindful of them always. They are deep enough that any human attempt to grasp them always runs short, is always incomplete.
It’s like trying to define God himself. In the end, it’s simply beyond us.
I just as easily could have asked the group to tell me what it means to “live all the days of your life the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That idea is just as vast and just as challenging. And yet, as Secular Franciscans, we pledged to do just that when we made our profession. And when we read the Rule of life that we are obligated to observe we are immediately reminded of our pledge. The very first article of Chapter Two, which bears the heading “The Way of Life,” reads like this:
SFO Rule, Chapter 2, Article 4:
The Rule and life of the Secular Franciscans is this: to observe the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of St. Francis of Assisi who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people.
Christ, the gift of the Father’s love, is the way to him, the truth into which the Holy Spirit leads us, and the life which he has come to give abundantly. Secular Franciscans should devote themselves especially to careful reading of the Gospel, going from Gospel to life and life to Gospel.
The Rule requires that the question of how to live a Gospel life must always be present to us, always at the forefront of our priorities. We can never adequately answer it, yet we still most focus upon it. We can never fulfill this desire perfectly, but our pledge to live a Gospel life is at the core of who we are meant to be. We understand that we are called to continual conversion. Our pledge defines the nature of that conversion. We are called to continuously and deliberately and carefully immerse ourselves in the Gospels and then adjust our lives according to the inspiration we find there. It is our never-ending journey. It is a source of great joy for us.
In order to better understand how to do this, we turn to the example of Francis. We are fortunate to have his recorded words to shepherd us. And we also rely on the legends that were written in support of his sainthood and other foundational works that have survived the test of time to guide us.
The context of this decision to use the Gospel of John as our formation material is dependent on these two pillars. First, we have pledged to live a Gospel life. Second, we also pledged to allow the example of Francis to inspire us. Hopefully, the two together, viewed in the light of the words and life of Jesus as presented by John, and of course the Spirit, will teach us to better follow the path of continuous conversion we are called to.
The importance of the Gospels to the outlook of Francis is immediately apparent as soon as you start to investigate his life. The Gospels are a major focus in our journey because that’s what they were for him. The reason our Rule emphasizes the Gospel life is because the Rules he authored himself did so. Here are the introductions to the two versions of his Rule that have come down to us:
The Earlier Rule of St. Francis – 1209/10-1221, Prologue:
This is the life of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that Brother Francis petitioned the Lord Pope to grant and confirm for him; and he did grant and confirm it for him and his brothers present and yet to come.
The Later Rule of St. Francis – 1223, Chapter One:
The Rule and life of the Friars Minor is this, namely, to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own, and in chastity.
You can see that our devotion to the Gospels is directly inherited from Francis. This is what was important to him and as his followers it must also be important to us.
And we can also see without having to hunt very far how Gospel inspired conversion is central to the Franciscan charism. Here then is an example of how Francis reacted to the words of Jesus when confronted by them:
The First Life of St. Francis by Thomas of Celano, excerpt from the First Book, Chapter 9: (This can also be referenced in both the major and minor Legends by Bonaventure and in the Legend of the Three Companions.)
One day the Gospel was being read in that church about how the Lord sent out his disciples to preach. The holy man of God, who was attending there, in order to understand better the words of the Gospel, humbly begged the priest after celebrating the solemnities of the Mass to explain the Gospel to him. The priest explained it all to him thoroughly line by line. When he heard that Christ’s disciples should not possess gold or silver or money, or carry on their journey a wallet or a sack, nor bread nor a staff, nor to have shoes nor two tunics, but that they should preach the kingdom of God and penance, the holy man, Francis, immediately exulted in the spirit of God. “This is what I want,” he said, “this is what I seek, this is what I desire with all my heart.” The holy father, overflowing with joy, hastened to implement the words of salvation, and did not delay before he devoutly began to put into effect what he heard. Immediately, he took off the shoes from his feet, put down the staff from his hands, and, satisfied with one tunic, exchanged his leather belt for a cord. After this, he made for himself a tunic showing the image of the cross, so that it would drive off every fantasy of the demons. He made it very rough, so that in it he might crucify the flesh with its vices and sins. He made it very poor and plain, a thing that the world would never covet. As for the other things he heard, he set about doing them with great care and reverence. For he was no deaf hearer of the Gospel; rather he committed everything he heard to his excellent memory and was careful to carry it out to the letter.
Many of the major themes of Franciscan life are present in this one short excerpt. Respect for the Church and the Priest. Obedience. Poverty. Joy. Penance. Conversion.
But most important is Francis’ willingness to take the words of the Gospel, the words of Jesus, as the pattern for his life. There is no questioning by Francis. His decision is immediate and definite. He has found what he was looking for and there is no hesitation what to do about it.
Understand that we are nine chapters into Celano’s story of his life. His discernment process has been ongoing for some time. He has already made significant progress. He has heard Christ speak from the San Damiano cross and done the work to physically rebuild that church, he has already spent time among the lepers and he has already stripped himself bare and renounced his worldly father in favor of his heavenly one.
And yet it’s clear from the context of this passage that something was missing. Here he seems to find the final piece of the puzzle. When he joyfully exclaims “This is what I want!” he is announcing that he finally has the full picture of what he was meant to do. It is the realization that the Gospels will be his trusty guide that puts him over the top. That exclamation is not about just the one passage that he heard that morning. It is his acknowledgement that he can use the Gospels as a guide to follow Jesus, as a road map toward holiness. Finally his vision and understanding about how to proceed are complete. The Gospels will be his security.
From my viewpoint here in the modern world, it’s very tempting to acknowledge and dismiss this episode at the same time. I can acknowledge Francis as an extraordinary person, as the Saint that he became. I can look upon his unconditional reaction and celebrate it. And at the same time I can dismiss it as unachievable for me. I can maintain my current comfort zone, think about the secular side of my life and come up with all kinds of excuses about why I can’t react to the words of Jesus with the same zeal, abandon and passion that Francis did.
That may very well be true. But the real challenge is to find the middle ground. When I dismiss my own ability to react and change, then I stifle my ability to experience conversion. I may not be gifted with the courage that Francis had, but I have to at least be honest with myself. I have to acknowledge my need for conversion. I have to acknowledge the Gospels as the best possible inspiration for that conversion. And I have to be willing to make changes, even some changes that are out of my comfort zone, if that is what the Gospels call for.
It’s not easy to face the reality that I fail so much more often than I succeed.
Perhaps though, I might have a better chance of success if I know others have succeeded before me. Perhaps I might find courage in knowing that it can be done. There have been followers of Francis who succeeded in embracing the Gospel message according to the example of Francis.
Here is what happens in the next chapter of Celano:
The First Life of St. Francis by Thomas of Celano, the First Book, Chapter 10:
After him, Brother Bernard, embracing the delegation of peace, eagerly ran after the holy man of God to gain the kingdom of heaven. He had often received the blessed father as a guest, had observed and tested his life and conduct. Refreshed by the fragrance of his holiness, he conceived fear and gave birth to the spirit of salvation. He used to see him praying all night long, sleeping rarely, praising God and the glorious Virgin, his mother. He was amazed and said, “This man truly is from God.” So he hurried to sell all he had and distributed it to the poor, not to his relatives. Grasping the title of a more perfect way, he fulfilled the counsel of the holy Gospel: “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell all you won, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven: then come, follow me.” When he had done this, he joined the holy man, Francis, in the same life and habit, and was always with him, until the brothers increased in numbers and he, with the obedience of his devoted father, was sent to other regions.
And then, the same episode in another version by Celano, with even more emphasis on the Gospels and the willingness to let Jesus control the outcome and guide the future.
The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul by Thomas of Celano, excerpt from the First Book, Chapter 10: (This can also be referenced in The Deeds of Blessed Francis and His Companions.)
Bernard said to him: “I know that everything I have was given to me by God and on your advice I am now ready to return all to Him.” The saint replied: “If you want to prove your words with deeds, let us go into the church tomorrow at dawn, take up the Gospel Book, and seek the counsel of Christ.” When morning had broken they went into the church and, after preparing with a devout prayer, they opened the book of the Gospel, ready to act on whatever counsel should first come to them. When they opened the book, Christ openly gave them His counsel: If you wish to be perfect, go and sell all you own, and give to the poor. They repeated this a second time, and found: Take nothing for your journey. They tried a third time, and found If anyone would follow me, let him deny himself. Bernard immediately carried out all these things, without neglecting a single iota of this counsel.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The example of Bernard would not be much easier to follow than the example of Francis himself.
But let’s also consider the details of how Bernard made his decision. First, he observed Francis and found his example desirable. He “observed and tested his life and conduct.” We have done that. We spent time in our initial formation getting to know Francis and the things he stood for. We came to understand his approach to a holy life. Presumably, we also found his example desirable. That’s why we made our profession.
Bernard then declared himself a follower of Francis and asked his counsel. Francis responded by escorting Bernard to the Gospels. They sought the counsel of Jesus together and, when it was revealed to them, they found the courage to follow it.
This, I think, is a good starting point on fulfilling my pledge to faithfully investigate our initial question, how do I “live all the days of my life the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ?” It is also a perfect embarking point for the specific task in front of us as well. As we prepare to immerse ourselves in the Gospel of John through the lens of Francis, we are doing just what Bernard did. We are asking Francis and Jesus and the Spirit to guide us through our own conversion. We might not be able to go as far as Bernard did, but there is somewhere we can go, some first step we can take that will then lead to subsequent steps on the road to an ever fuller conversion.
This is what I hope for, what I long for. Somewhere along the way, I want to experience what Francis experienced. I want to read something in the Gospel of John and I want to joyfully exclaim “this is what I desire with all my heart.”
If I could stay present enough to have that happen just once, and if I could find the courage to follow through on the consequences, then perhaps I could claim the title “disciple.” Disciple of Jesus and disciple of Francis.
Francis authored a prayer inspired by the Our Father. Part of that expresses the desire to be always present and mindful of God. Perhaps that is the best way to end this introduction, for if I could be more mindful, then I think I would have a better chance of being more courageous, more willing to embrace that conversion that might otherwise pass me by, more likely to experience a “wow” moment as I journey through the Gospel of John, a moment that would open the door for more such moments to follow.
I would become more likely to understand, at least enough to be effective and have some measure of success, what it means to lead a Gospel life, to actually live out the instruction of the Rule that asks me to go “from Gospel to life and life to Gospel.”
Excerpt from A Prayer Inspired by the Our Father:
Your will be done on earth as in heaven: That we may love you with our whole heart by always thinking of You, with our whole soul by always desiring You, with our whole mind by always directing all our intentions to You, and by seeking Your glory in everything, with all our whole strength by exerting all our energies and affections of body and soul in the service of Your love and of nothing else.