Did you read the full chapter on your own this month? Which verses spoke to you? Did you make it a point to spend extra time with them? Did you gain a little intimacy with Jesus in the process?
Did you ask for the intercession of Francis and Clare as you prayed? Did you find yourself thinking about the Gospel and St. Francis at the same time? How might he have reacted to the verses that you chose to concentrate on?
What is it that you know about Francis that leads you to that conclusion? Did you go into the historical documents in search of support for your conclusion? Did you look at the SFO Rule and see how it might relate to the passage you chose?
Is your confidence in your ability to pray over the Gospels growing?
Are you getting excited about spending this time with John and Jesus? Is there a fire building in you?
John Chapter 3, Verses 29 to 30:
“The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore, this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
The speaker is John the Baptist. His friends have observed Jesus baptizing and they tell John “all are going to him.” They seem to be concerned that Jesus is stealing John’s thunder. They are maybe a little jealous that Jesus is displacing or overshadowing John. John tells them just before this, in verse 28, “You yourselves bear me witness that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’” Then he speaks the words above. John recognizes that things are as they should be.
As Franciscans, our ears should perk up whenever we encounter the word “joy.” Our Father Francis was a troubadour. He devoted his life, even before he sought to imitate Christ, to the spreading of joy. We are aware of the parties he threw for his friends in Assisi before he figured out how to follow the call of God. After he figured out his vocation, he matured and became able to separate joy from fun. Teaching the nature of true joy then became one of his passions. His definition of joy matured through his exposure to Jesus in the gospels, and through it all, joy remained one of the highest priorities of his life. One of the greatest gifts he left us was his teaching on joy, but it is not easy to grasp what he was getting at.
In a moment I will give you the entirety of his definition of perfect joy, but first consider this from The Second Life of St. Francis by Thomas Celano, Chapter 88.
St Francis held that the surest remedy against the thousand wiles of the foe is spiritual joy. For he used to say: “The Devil most exults when he can filch from a servant of God his joy of spirit.” He carries dust that he may cast it into the conscience through even the smallest chinks, and defile the candor of the mind and the purity of the life; but when spiritual joy (he said) fills the heart, in vain does the Serpent shed his deadly poison. Devils cannot hurt Christ’s servant when they see him filled with holy mirth. But when the spirit is tearful, woe-begone, and grieving it readily sinks into gloom or else turns to vain enjoyments. He strove therefore ever to be gladsome of heart, and to maintain the unction of Spirit and the oil of joy. He avoided with the utmost care the wretched malady of spiritual sloth, so that if he felt it stealing ever so little into his mind, he flew immediately to prayer, for he said: “When God’s servant (as often happens) is troubled about anything, he ought forthwith to arise and pray, and remain persistently in his heavenly Father’s presence until He restores him the joy of His salvation. For if he tarries in gloom, that Babylonian stuff will increase, and unless it be at length purged out by tears, will produce abiding rust in the heart.”
First of all, let’s acknowledge again the impressiveness of Celano’s language. “In vain does the Serpent shed his deadly poison!” Yes, sign me up for that! I want to know how to thwart the plans of the enemy! “Abiding rust in the heart” is an image that shouts at me. I’m pretty sure I don’t want any part of that, nor do I want to be associated in any fashion with “Babylonian stuff!” If you are not aware, know that Babylon is always associated with worldliness. Babylon is the opposite of the City and Kingdom of God.
I wonder, if you think about your own life, can you empathize with what Francis is saying here? Do you recognize the points in your life where you lost touch with joy and thereby wound up in a not so great place? Did your lack of joy drag other people to that place as well?
Were you separated from God at that time? Did you recognize the separation when it started and grew? Did you ever really recover before you turned to prayer, maybe to the gospels in particular? Was it anything other than prayer that, in the end, pulled you out of it and allowed you to work your way back to joy?
Do you know someone right now who is in that situation? Maybe someone who refuses, no matter how hard everyone around them tries, to claw their way back to a remembrance of joy that would serve as the first step out of the dismal place they currently occupy?
Think even on a larger scale. Is a terrorist a joyful person? How could they do what they do if they were? And where has it led them? Directly into “shedding the Serpent’s poison?”
Francis says near the end that anyone who is troubled should “remain persistently in his heavenly Father’s presence until He restores him the joy of his salvation.” Is joy even possible without being in close proximity to God via a healthy and active prayer life?
Francis, in his wisdom, gave us a definition of true and perfect joy. It’s not an easy definition to grasp or embrace, but that does not mean it isn’t true. Here is Chapter Eight of The Little Flowers of St. Francis in its entirety, because it’s that important.
One day in winter, as Saint Francis was going with Brother Leo from Perugia to Saint Mary of the Angels, and was suffering greatly from the cold, he called to Brother Leo, who was walking on before him, and said to him: “Brother Leo, if it were to please God that the Friars Minor should give, in all lands, a great example of holiness and edification, write down, and note carefully, that this would not be perfect joy.”
A little further on, Saint Francis called to him a second time: “O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor were to make the lame to walk, if they should make straight the crooked, chase away demons, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, and, what is even a far greater work, if they should raise the dead after four days, write that this would not be perfect joy.”
Shortly after, he cried out again: “O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor knew all languages; if they were versed in all science; if they could explain all Scripture; if they had the gift of prophecy, and could reveal, not only all future things, but likewise the secrets of all consciences and all souls, write that this would not be perfect joy.”
After proceeding a few steps farther, he cried out again with a loud voice: “O Brother Leo, thou little lamb of God! if the Friars Minor could speak with the tongues of angels; if they could explain the course of the stars; if they knew the virtues of all plants; if all the treasures of the earth were revealed to them; if they were acquainted with the various qualities of all birds, of all fish, of all animals, of men, of trees, of stones, of roots, and of waters – write that this would not be perfect joy.”
Shortly after, he cried out again: “O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor had the gift of preaching so as to convert all infidels to the faith of Christ, write that this would not be perfect joy.”
Now when this manner of discourse had lasted for the space of two miles, Brother Leo wondered much within himself; and, questioning the saint, he said: “Father, I pray thee teach me wherein is perfect joy.” Saint Francis answered: “If, when we shall arrive at Saint Mary of the Angels, all drenched with rain and trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger; if, when we knock at the convent-gate, the porter should come angrily and ask us who we are; if, after we have told him, `We are two of the brethren’, he should answer angrily, `What ye say is not the truth; ye are but two impostors going about to deceive the world, and take away the alms of the poor; begone I say’; if then he refuse to open to us, and leave us outside, exposed to the snow and rain, suffering from cold and hunger till nightfall – then, if we accept such injustice, such cruelty and such contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, believing with humility and charity that the porter really knows us, and that it is God who maketh him to speak thus against us, write down, O Brother Leo, that this is perfect joy.
And if we knock again, and the porter come out in anger to drive us away with oaths and blows, as if we were vile impostors, saying, `Begone, miserable robbers! to the hospital, for here you shall neither eat nor sleep!’ – and if we accept all this with patience, with joy, and with charity, O Brother Leo, write that this indeed is perfect joy.
And if, urged by cold and hunger, we knock again, calling to the porter and entreating him with many tears to open to us and give us shelter, for the love of God, and if he come out more angry than before, exclaiming, `These are but importunate rascals, I will deal with them as they deserve’; and taking a knotted stick, he seize us by the hood, throwing us on the ground, rolling us in the snow, and shall beat and wound us with the knots in the stick – if we bear all these injuries with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which we would share out of love for him, write, O Brother Leo, that here, finally, is perfect joy.
And now, brother, listen to the conclusion. Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt; for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God, according to the words of the Apostle, `What hast thou that thou hast not received from God? And if thou hast received it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?’ But in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may glory, because, as the Apostle says again, `I will not glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Amen.”
Now, I am not going to assert that I can explain this adequately enough that the meaning will be eminently clear. I doubt I am capable of that. But I do want to draw some parallels between Francis’ definition of perfect joy and the verses that I focused on from chapter three of John’s Gospel. Maybe reflecting on the source of John’s joy will do what I cannot and help us better grasp what Francis was trying to teach.
Note the following items from Francis’ definition that, contrary to what we might expect, do not constitute perfect joy:
- The Friars Minor giving a great example of holiness and edification.
- The Friars Minor making the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the dumb speak.
- The Friars Minor raising the dead.
- The Friars Minor knowing all languages, all science, all scripture.
- The Friars Minor prophesying and knowing the secrets of all consciences and souls.
- The Friars Minor knowing the tongues of angels and the course of the stars.
- The Friars Minor knowing all there is to know about animals, men, trees, stones and water.
- The Friars Minor being able to preach so persuasively that infidels convert to Christianity.
This is a pretty impressive list. It contains not just earthly knowledge and accomplishment, but supernatural knowledge and even the ability to work some miracles. And yet it does not constitute perfect joy. If you gave just one of these qualities to any person in this world today they would be hard pressed not to celebrate it. We celebrate much, much less in the name of joy when it comes to our worldly achievements.
But according to Francis, only the ability to maintain patience, joy and charity in the face of hardship leads to perfect joy. Only the ability to contemplate the sufferings of our Blessed Lord through the lens of our own sufferings, out of love and gratitude for our Blessed Lord, constitutes perfect joy. This is so because the only glory that is our own is a glory embraced as we share the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Any other glory is gift from God that does not rightly belong to us, was not created by us, and thus is not valid as a source of joy for a humble and righteous person.
Francis is telling us that in the end, perfect joy has nothing to do with this world. Joy is, in essence, proximity to God and Jesus, and there is no worldly achievement, no matter how grand, that allows us to gain that proximity. We could never hope to approximate Jesus’ achievements while He sojourned here on earth. Even Francis’ list of things that are not perfect joy pales in comparison to dying on a Cross in order to redeem all of mankind.
We can never imitate, or experience or understand the God side of Jesus that makes our salvation possible. It is only the human side of Jesus we can identify with. And we are able to best connect to His Love when we experience suffering. We draw as close to Him as possible only when we reject worldliness, embrace poverty, and acknowledge that the human suffering He endured while on earth (a suffering we made necessary) is the very thing that we have most in common with Him. He came to us and lovingly partook in our condition (on our behalf) and thus established an intimate link with us. Our suffering is our guaranteed bond with Him, a profound experience that unites us to Him in ways that nothing else compares to.
Paradoxically, suffering, because of the proximity it grants to Jesus, is the path to true and perfect joy if, as Francis says above, “we would share out of love for Him” the torment He endured to assure our salvation. Perfect joy is the proximity we gain to Jesus when our suffering allows us to make an intimate connection to Him as we thankfully acknowledge His distress and, in the best way we can, join in His suffering with Him.
Think of St. Francis at the end, enduring the never healing wounds of the stigmata for more than two years. Now read again his definition of perfect joy. It hardly makes sense, but the stigmata, with all the worldly pain and suffering that it brought to Francis, must have quite literally been a dream come true for him, the ultimately earthly experience that he could have hoped for, an ultimate connection with Jesus. Put yourself in that place. It’s not likely your first instinct, but look for the joy in Francis at the end! He had to have been ecstatic despite (or because of?) his physical suffering.
How else could he have given us such a pure expression of hope and joy as The Canticle of the Creatures while enduring such hardship?
Would it have been possible for Francis to receive the stigmata if he had not first defined true and perfect joy as he did? Does not one lead directly to the other? Is the stigmata not evidence that Francis was right about the nature of joy?
And then, would you be willing to do what is necessary to occupy that same place? Would you actually pray that you might identify so fully with the suffering of Jesus that you would be granted the blessing of the stigmata?
Read again the verses spoken by John the Baptist with Francis’ outlook on joy in hand. Are there parallels?
John’s friends want him to claim the honor of his worldly achievements, but he is not interested. He was chosen by God to be the herald of Christ. To quote the first item on Francis’ litany of things that do not equal perfect joy, he gave “a great example of holiness and edification.” And yet, like Francis, he desires no glory for a job well done because that assignment and his success is all made possible by God, all gift from God. To glory in it would, in the end, lead to the opposite of joy.
You get the impression that if John was never mentioned in the Gospels, if his name never appeared in history, that would be fine with him. He is content that Jesus will be the focus of everything going forward because that is the role that he (we, as well) was (are) meant to play. All are going to Jesus because that is how it is supposed to be! And John, to his credit, revels in Jesus’ prominence and success as a harbinger of an unbounded joy destined to spread well beyond his own personal being.
Jesus has not yet experienced the cross, so John does not identify with His suffering. Nonetheless, what John desires most of all is to be in close proximity to Jesus. As the verse says, if he is simply close enough to Jesus to hear His voice, the voice of the bridegroom, then this is cause for great rejoicing.
When John rejects the need for his worldly successes to be acknowledged, he is accepting the very argument that Francis was making. The only thing he needs to experience joy is to be in close proximity to Jesus. Although his own suffering is on the horizon, he doesn’t accomplish his joy through suffering like we do. Instead, his timing allows him the privilege of actually being in close proximity to the human person of Jesus, and this is enough for him. It is all he desires. He can diminish in contented joy, knowing that his experience of proximity can never be taken away from him.
John said, “This joy of mine is now complete.”
If he had paraphrased Francis and said, “This joy of mine is now perfect,” would that make the parallels easier to find?
Article 19 of the SFO Rule says this:
“Messengers of perfect joy in every circumstance, they should strive to bring joy and hope to others.”
How does this relate to Article 4 and the call to go from “gospel to life and life to gospel?”
We must be joyful before we can spread joy. If we seek joy through proximity to Jesus, is suffering the only path? Or, perhaps, can that path be enhanced and supplemented by pursuing other proximities as well? In the above passage from Celano, Francis exhorts us to prayer as another way to gain proximity to Jesus and God. And, of course, immersing ourselves in the gospels is another wise path to proximity.
At the beginning of this reflection, I asked if you were getting excited about spending this time with Jesus and John? I’ll ask again. If joy is the likely outcome, does that get you even more excited about spending time in close proximity to Jesus by immersing yourself in the gospels?