Journey thru John, Chapter 1: The Will of God

As we begin our immersion in the Gospel of John, I would be remiss if I did not start with just a few words about process and format.

The Chama River, the Santa Fe National Forest, Christ in the Desert Monastery, Abiquiu, New Mexico

I am beginning my reflections by reading the chapter in its entirety several times. As I read, I am looking for the single verse or couple of verses that stand out to me, that speak to me. Once the Spirit points me to those verses, I am then trying to spend extended prayer time with them. In particular, I am attempting to place myself in the scene. And then from within the scene, I am praying that God might help me connect that particular scene to the life and charism of St. Francis so that I in turn might apply the fruits of my prayer to my own process of conversion.

The type of prayer I am describing applies principles from the practice known within the Church as Lectio Divina. That term goes all the way back to the year 220 or so. I think it is fair to assume that Francis prayed over the Gospels in this fashion. Doing the same is for me an integral part of living out my profession. It’s one way I experience “the intercession of my holy father St. Francis,” to quote the Rite of Profession again. I ask for his help as I do this and I like to believe that he supplies it. I want, as we get started on our journey into the Gospel of John, to encourage you to do the same. I and hopefully others will be providing reflections for your use in ongoing formation based on this prayer style, but you should be reading the Gospel and making your own reflections as well.

I would even encourage you, if you are willing, to share those reflections with the fraternity. What an incredible resource it would be for the future if we could gather and hold these reflections so that we might visit them again and again as our mutual journeys of conversion unfold.

My reflection will start with the verses that I settled on and prayed over. I will then supply quotations from the writings by Francis and about Francis that seem to speak to these verses. I will give the direct references for the quotes as taken from the compilation Francis of Assisi:  Early Documents.

The Gospels (along with the rest of scripture) combine with the writings in this compilation to form the two core resources we depend on as Franciscans for our knowledge of St. Francis and the way of life we professed to follow. Hopefully, by drawing from them both simultaneously, along with the OFS Rule, we can make progress in better understanding what we are meant to be about.

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John Chapter 1, Verses 35 to 38:

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”  When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”

We know that Francis built his entire ministry and approach to God within a personal point of view that was highly dependent on the Gospels. Momentarily, I will share with you a passage from Thomas of Celano that speaks about Francis’ wish to know and do the Will of God. Francis used the Gospels as his primary source for discerning that Will. I think it is safe to say that Francis’ answer to the question Jesus is asking above (to all of us, right now, by the way) is essentially this:

“I want to do the will of God by following your example as closely as I possibly can!”

When I place myself in this scene, when I picture myself on the edge of the river with John watching Jesus walk by and then getting up to follow, I can’t help but feel uncertain. As soon as John points out Jesus, I long to follow him. But when Jesus turns and asks his question, it’s intimidating. I can almost feel, in the moment, that if I give the wrong answer, I might lose the opportunity. I know, of course, that Jesus will never stop calling me to follow, that no matter how many times I stumble he will always mercifully invite me to continue the journey. But still, the first encounter with Jesus is awesome and even a little scary. That the first words he has for me is “What do you want?” is meaningful. I realize that I do need to at least have a starting point. I need some answer to that question, even while at the same time expecting that the answer will evolve as my exposure to Him increases.

It is, of course, comforting to have the example of Francis to draw on. Francis had this same experience. Early in his discernment process he struggled to discern the answer to the question “What do I want?”  And, because he was human, he answered incorrectly before he found the right track, an error that makes me feel right at home with him since I have made and keeping making that same error over and over again.

In chapter two of the First Book of The Life of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano describes this slip by Francis in his early discernment process:

Thus Francis still tried to avoid the divine grasp, and, for a brief time losing sight of the Father’s reproach while good fortune smiled upon him, reflected upon worldly matters. Ignoring God’s plan, he vowed, out of vainglory and vanity, to do great deeds. A certain nobleman from the city of Assisi was furnishing himself on a large scale with military weaponry and, swollen by the wind of empty glory, he asserted solemnly that that he was going to Apulia to enrich himself in money and distinction. When Francis heard of this, because he was whimsical and overly daring, he agreed to go with him.

Francis, early in his journey of discernment and conversion, loses his way. God has called him, but Francis is lured back by “worldly matters.”  Francis has a dream that shows him a room full of weaponry and interprets it completely wrong, assuming it is an affirmation of coming worldly success instead of a work of distraction. He is sure that he will be a great warrior, a knight, and that he will receive rich worldly rewards as a result. He wants those rewards. He wants that glory. He loses site of God completely in his desire to obtain them.

Celano, in a moment of supreme instruction on how to discern the difference between consolation and desolation, says this:

He should have been able to see that his interpretation of it was mistaken. For, although the vision bore some semblance of great deeds, his spirit was not moved by these things in the usual way.

Francis, because he is early in the conversion process, doesn’t know what to look for. He doesn’t know how to tell the difference between what his sinful human nature wants and what God wills for him. He, just like you or I, assumes he has it hand and proceeds accordingly without having any idea that he has lost his way. Fortunately for him and for us, Francis receives another dream that sets him straight and he responds to it astutely. He gets it and catches himself. He abandons his journey to Apulia and returns to Assisi to await the further instructions that this second dream promised.

He begins to spend time with a friend in and around Assisi. In chapter three, Celano tells us of this significant moment where those instructions seem to take hold:

There was a cave near the city where they often went and talked together about the treasure. (Treasure is a reference to Francis earlier speaking to his friend about the pearl he had found and his desire to sell all he had to obtain it.)  The man of God, who was already holy because of his holy intention was accustomed to enter the cave, while his companion waited outside, and inspired by a new and extraordinary spirit he would pray to his Father in secret. He acted in such a way that no one would know what was happening within. Wisely taking the occasion of the good to conceal the better, he consulted God alone about his holy purpose. He prayed with all his heart that the eternal and true God guide his way and teach him to do His will………He was burning inwardly with a divine fire, and he was unable to conceal outwardly the flame kindled in his soul. He repented that he had sinned so grievously and that he had offended the eyes of majesty………Therefore, when he came back out to his companion he was so exhausted from his struggle that one person seemed to have entered, and another to have come out.

Francis wants to do the right thing. When Jesus asks “What do you want?” he longs to respond correctly. He searches, discerns and prays that God will show him the answer and here he finally is able to consolidate his reply. He wants “the eternal and true God to guide his way and teach him to do His will.”  Note that as the answer solidifies, themes that will dominate his ministry are immediately apparent. He begins to repent just as he will call his followers to ongoing repentance. He begins to experience conversion just as he will call his followers to ongoing conversion.

Hopefully, all these components are familiar to us as Franciscans. Hopefully, we all have said to God “guide my way and teach me to do your Will.”  Hopefully, we all want to “repent our sins” and be converted to one who “burns inwardly with your flame, one who can’t conceal that flame” from others as we move through the world.

But this is just the beginning of Francis’ answer. There is more to come. His understanding of God’s will matures before chapter three is over. He comes to comprehend not just the broad and generic idea but also the specific task he must succeed at to fulfill his answer to Jesus’ question. Chapter three ends like this:

He said that he did not want to go to Apulia, but promised to do great and noble deeds at home. People thought he wanted to get married, and they would ask him:  “Do you want to get married, Francis?”  He replied:  “I will take a bride more noble and more beautiful than you have ever seen, and she will surpass the rest in beauty and excel all others in wisdom.”

No doubt the people of Assisi thought this answer a little strange. What woman was Francis referring to here?  Who in Assisi would fit this description?  We, because we have access to the full story, are privileged to know and understand the meaning behind this cryptic answer. Francis has already determined that Lady Poverty is the key to what he is planning. Lady Poverty is the means by which he will fulfill the answer to Jesus’ question. It is Lady Poverty that he will wed. Read that description again and you can see it clearly.

It is again Thomas of Celano who gives us the full measure of Francis’ devotion to Lady Poverty. This time it occurs in The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, Chapter 25. I have to tell you that I find these words nothing short of spectacular. Remember Jesus’ question is “What do you want?”  Read the below and tell me if you have any doubt what it is that Francis wants, what his answer to the question is.

Placed in a vale of tears the blessed father scorned the usual riches of the children of men as no riches at all and, eager for higher status, with all his heart, he coveted poverty. Realizing that she was a close friend of the Son of God, but nowadays an outcast throughout the whole world, he was eager to espouse her in an everlasting love. He became the lover of her beauty and not only left his father and his mother but gave up everything he owned so that he might cling to his wife more closely, and the two might be in one spirit. He held her close in chaste embraces and could not bear to cease being her husband even for an hour. He told his sons that she is the way of perfection. She is the pledge and guarantee of eternal wealth. No one coveted gold as avidly as he coveted poverty; No one was as careful to guard a treasure as he was to watch over this pearl of the Gospel.

Pay special attention to the richness of the language. Reread words like scorn, eager, all, covet, everlasting and cling. Celano is not describing Francis wanting something ordinary. Francis does not want a turkey sandwich and a coke. Celano is telling us about Francis’ most deeply held passion. He wants Lady Poverty not as an aside, but as the embodiment of the will of God that he first yearned for firmly during his experience in the cave. Francis finds the will of God and the espousal of Lady Poverty to be one and the same thing. They are the treasure, the pearl, that Jesus tells us to sell all for and Francis does exactly that.

His ability to give himself fully to Lady Poverty is what makes him a Saint. Everything else is built upon it. It is the source of his discipline and strength.

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The challenge is immense. To enter the first chapter of the Gospel of John, to meet Jesus face to face, and to hear his question is daunting. To witness Francis’ total surrender in how he answers the question is equally daunting.

I can’t help but wonder how I could ever be up to the task. How can I ever emulate Francis and imitate Jesus?  How can I ever adequately answer the question Jesus puts to me? 

“What do I want?”

Just like Francis, I want to do God’s will by following the example of Jesus in the Gospels as closely as I can.

But, if I were to put myself on the same timeline as Francis, I have to admit that on my best days, I am just emerging from the cave. I have experienced the interior fire that Francis experienced but I have yet to find the courage or the strength to translate it into my life with the intensity and passion that he did. I’m trying, but I’m not there yet. And, in all honesty, there are still days where I regress to the point of declaring myself ready for the journey to Apulia to pursue worldly matters.

I guess I need to amend my answer with something like the following:

“Jesus, I want you to continue to love me, and support me, and uphold me. Guide me and convert me. When Francis lost his way, you kept faith with him. Just as you did with him, please continue to send me your grace and mercy no matter how many times I fail. Please Jesus, never stop calling me until I have gained the strength and wisdom to answer you the way I am meant to answer you.”

What would your answer be?

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