I attended Unity Day a couple weeks ago. This annual early August gathering invites all Secular Franciscans in the Our Lady of Indiana Region (northern half of the state) to a day of formation and fellowship. There is a guest speaker who gives presentations before and after lunch and there is plenty of time for socializing and catching up.
The event also features something called “Regional Resources,” a bookstore that offers Franciscan related books and other items at cost to all attendees.
As I looked through the books, I saw one titled “A Rich Young Man,” which said on the cover it was a novelized version of the life of St. Anthony de Padua. I perked right up. I like to read fiction before going to sleep, so I am always looking for something entertaining and this would be a change of pace from what I normally read. It would also “kill two birds with one stone,” as I could get some Franciscan reading done in the guise of this story.
However, the store only took cash or check and I had neither with me. I continued to browse, but each time I walked past the table with this book, I felt it calling my attention. I decided the Spirit wanted me to read it, so I went and found a friend (thanks Sue!) to help and bought it and a couple other things that looked interesting.
I started reading a couple days later and encountered a paragraph near the end of the second section that refuses to release my attention.
St Anthony began his life as Fernando De Bulhom. He was the only son of the only son of a noble family in Portugal. His father was a successful man, becoming the governor of Lisbon while Fernando was in his early teens. The expectation was that Fernando, as the only heir of a high-ranking noble family, would follow in his father’s footsteps. Fernando, however, had different ideas and decided he wanted to enter religious life. His family, after some discontent, finally agreed. His father felt he might be thwarting God’s will by insisting that Fernando attend to his worldly obligations. There was also hope that Fernando was mostly infatuated with a religious calling and that he would “get it out of his system” if he was allowed to indulge his desire at an early age.
However, Fernando’s calling proved serious, and he remained in formation despite efforts by friends of his father to convince him otherwise. As Fernando prepared to be ordained an Augustinian priest, his father led a crusade against the Saracens in southern Portugal/Spain and was seriously injured. This again led to pressure for him to return home and assume the responsibilities of his noble birth. But Fernando persisted, was ordained, and discovered a gift for preaching.
At the same time, a group of Franciscan Friars found there way into the good graces of the Queen of Portugal and took up residence in a wayside chapel near Fernando. Most of Fernando’s fellow Augustinians felt only disdain for the poor friars of Francis, but he held his tongue when asked to condemn them and became friends with the Prior of the group. There came a day when the Prior brought strangers to visit Fernando. As they were introduced, Fernando learned they were headed to Morocco to preach to the Saracens and that their leader was a nobleman who had given up all his possessions to join the Franciscans.
Not much later word came back that the group had been martyred. This event effected the entirety of Portugal, nobles, freemen, and serfs, deeply. Fernando was so moved that he struck a deal with the Franciscan Prior. He would transfer to the Franciscans, but in exchange he demanded to be sent to Morocco so that he might also be martyred. The Prior agreed and Fernando obtained his release.
He only stayed with the friars in Portugal a short time. Everyone knew his lineage and they brought so much food to “Don Fernando” and the friars unsolicited that he felt his presence was jeopardizing their devotion to Lady Poverty. In an attempt at anonymity, he adopted the name Antonio and departed for Morocco.
He fell ill during the trip. When he and his companion arrived, he stayed in bed for an extended time to recover. During this time of convalescence, he found himself considering his desire for martyrdom and discerned that the desire was his, not God’s. He had seen the impact that the previous martyrs had on the people of Portugal, and he wanted to have the same impact. But he wanted it not for God’s glory, but to fulfill his own pride. His heart was not in the right place. He consulted with his companion and determined they would head back to Portugal. However, their boat was caught in a storm and capsized. They were rescued but wound up in Italy.
It was at this point in the story that the words which caught my attention appeared.
Here is the paragraph:
There are two steps to God, his heart told him. The first, when a man renounces the world and its pleasures as he had done at San Vicente; and there was this other step he struggled now to ascend, when a man relinquishes himself completely to God. This was the step that determined whether man’s will or God’s would prevail.
The last sentence made me stop.
It is very easy to believe that we are aligned with God’s Will and that we are not preoccupied, even if it is subconsciously, with our own desires.
But the language here challenged me to think twice. Have I really given myself over completely to God? Or am I, despite the impression that I might give to those around me, still stuck very much in doing what I want to do?
Reading this selection is part of a larger effort to engage more consistently in spiritual reading. I have lately read several books about contemplation. The titles include “The Cloud of Unknowing,” “Centering Prayer” and “The Way of a Pilgrim.”
This subject matter amplified a desire for encounter with God that was already present in my heart. The mysticism I was reading about had attracted me from the very beginning of my journey toward Christ, but I had never sought it with any measure of diligence. These authors could not describe their experiences with precision, but they all said, “you will know it when it happens to you.” I have long believed that an extraordinary encounter with God constitutes the pinnacle of a successful prayer life and now I thought I was ready to pursue it.
Therefore, I immediately attempted to replicate the contemplative techniques I was reading about only to find that I could not control my distraction. I could not stay focused for a minute, let alone the twenty minutes one of the books recommended. I determined I needed guidance and sought out a spiritual director in the hope that I might learn contemplation and achieve the mystical interaction with God that these authors describe and I long for. (I have my second appointment with her this Friday.)
Please be aware that these books are clear that these encounters happen only via God’s grace. There is no way for a man to initiate such an encounter. They also are clear that a great deal of patience is required and that there are no guarantees. It is a considerable act of faith to persevere and progress in this way of prayer. Not everyone is called to it. There is even some danger associated with it, thus the emphasis they give to the need for spiritual direction. (Which contributed to my decision to seek help.)
Nonetheless, I waded right in, confident that I could exhibit the patience required and sure that I would succeed, especially now that I had a guide.
Then I read the paragraph above. As I reflected on it and my desire to learn contemplative prayer, I found that my own will was front and center in my modus operandi.
If I am truthful with myself, I must admit that I expected to control and master this situation. Despite the warnings, I proceeded on the premise that I could ensure my own success. I looked at my personal history and judged myself to be a good person who has experienced success in developing his spiritual life. I concluded that this is the next logical step in my development, and I assured myself that it would come, likely sooner rather than later.
Read that last paragraph again. Notice how it is all about me? There was no consideration in my process at all relative to the Will of God. I want this mystical encounter and therefore I expect that God will grant it to me.
Which, I suppose, is the reason that I have had no success whatsoever so far.
And perhaps also the reason why the Holy Spirit drew me to this book at Unity Day.
In all honesty, when I dig deeper, I find this pattern everywhere in my life. Much of what I do seems to be according to my will and not God’s. I am not doing anything that would be judged bad by most cultural or religious standards. But there is a certain absence when I reflect on my decision-making process. It seems to lack awareness and recollection relative to God’s Will. I am content to do my best to avoid sin, even largely successful on that front, and yet I am hardly (if at all) aware of God’s Will as I make my choices.
A prime example of this might be the large gap between this post and the last one, which is dated June 7, three full months ago. I have been telling myself that I need to get some things behind me and then I can concentrate fully on writing. But it seems that in three months I have made little progress. My list is still long, and it seems that for every item I cross off, another gets added.
This is the way of worldliness. It is not the way of Franciscan Poverty. On the surface it seems fine, but looked at critically, it fails to pass the most basic test of my Franciscan calling.
The words from the story have not left me and I have focused on them (especially the word “prevail) as I have prayed about the Will of God for the last several weeks.
I find myself recalling the example of Jesus from His Passion (Matthew 26:39) again and again.
“Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
I also find myself praying the Our Father regularly, even spontaneously:
“Thy Will be done.”
There are many other passages that would suit, but these are the two that have occupied me so far.
This morning, I woke before the alarm clock, left the bedroom so I would not disturb my wife, and sat down to pray. As I considered the words of this paragraph and the problem of discerning God’s Will, I was inspired to not plan anything for the day beyond the very next activity. When my prayer ended, I tried to stay quiet as I decided what to do next. I had several options, but going for a long walk seemed best, so I did that. When I returned, I sat down and stayed quiet again, trying to determine what to do next. Again, I had several options, but I was traveling last week so I needed to catch up on mail and pay a couple bills. This seemed right so that’s what I did. Then I fixed some breakfast, did the dishes, and took a shower. I went quiet again. Several options presented themselves, but it seemed to me the next right thing to do was complete this post, which I started late last week.
I am not saying that I chose these activities because I discerned that this was the exact thing God wanted me to do in the moment. But I am trying, at least for today, to take the time to be aware of “relinquishing myself” to God’s Will. I am trying, in the quiet, to seek His Will out and unite mine to His in the Holy Spirit. Hopefully that informed in some measure the choices I made even if I was unaware of the impact.
Once the post is made, if there is time before I need to fix dinner, or after dinner is complete, I will try it again. I will just take a few moments in quiet to decide what to do next.
And then maybe I will try it again tomorrow. And the day after.
Maybe I can make some progress in orienting myself to God’s will more successfully. Maybe I can develop a habit of being conscious of God’s Will as I make decisions throughout the day.
Maybe I can learn to let God’s Will prevail in all my decisions?
And then, maybe, I can hope at some point in the future, to have the mystical encounter I long for with Him, when He is ready to initiate it according to his Will, as opposed to me demanding it from Him as an expression of my own willfulness.
Please, pray for me as I seek this conversion. I doubt it will come easily to an old man so set in his chronic, sinful ways.