Pope Francis has spoken out about our need to draw near to one another. He has done so from Rome, in the heart of a nation well-known for its current reliance on “social distancing”–the medically necessary phenomenon that tames contagions but challenges us in body, mind, and soul.
In his March 18 Mass at the Casa Santa Marta, Francis made valuable pastoral contributions to the growing conversation about how we all can use the mandate for social distancing to derive spiritual growth and wisdom for the future. The sadness of distancing and related COVID-19 containment strategies, which have grown in scope to include the heart-breaking cancellation of gatherings for Mass, is like a huge resolution to give up something for Lent; it demands to be accompanied by hope, trust, and the desire that a greater good will result from this sacrifice.
One splendid outcome would be greater awareness, among Catholics and all people of good will, that the “distanced” life we’re experiencing is the embodiment of an ongoing social trend we must resist. That trend is social polarization, the phenomenon that Pope Francis and many secular observers of public affairs are condemning as a dead-end for constructive communication, inclusive civic cooperation, the “dignitarian” principles of Catholic Social Teaching, and relationships with the Lord through missionary discipleship.
This most remarkable Lent must become a teachable moment when we wake up to the fact that we should not step closer toward the precipice. We retreat from the Kingdom of God by drifting into isolation, defamation, closed-minded outrage, relativism, and escapism through artificial realities. These and other contagions have been growing in the breeding grounds of politics, information media, the digital culture, and secular post-modernism.
Living through today’s experiences of interrupted togetherness, we need to find, and nurture, renewed preferences for the solidarity found in common pursuits, agreements about truth, and the joyful wholeness of a healthy human ecology. “Love always communicates,” the pope wrote in his 2019 message for World Communications Day. Social distancing is an oddly unfortunate but welcome instrument of survival that combines practical wisdom with the impulse for charity–the humbled recognition that we’re all in this together. It’s a taste of sacrificial love that should leave us wanting more and realizing that love deserves a brighter future.
If we’re willing to learn its lessons, this realization can strike us in new ways while we’re enduring the vulnerable suffering of man-made separation. Pope Francis captured this message of a fruitful attitude adjustment in his homily for the Mass he celebrated on March 18. Our uplifting pastor at the Vatican reaffirmed that we can learn lessons and skills now that will help pull us away from the precipice of polarization. The lessons come from a God who loves to be near to us even when we seem to have chosen isolation.
Here are a few points he made about the wonderful instinct to draw near to others, as reported at the Vatican News website:
“The Lord gives His people the law by drawing near to them.” The laws he gave to Moses “weren’t prescriptions given by a far-off governor who then distances himself.” We should be drawn to seek a deeper relationship with this God amid our loneliness–the kind of loneliness that arises from social distancing, as well as from social polarization.
When God draws near, we too often pull away. “Sin leads us to hide ourselves, to not want nearness. So many times, we adopt a theology thinking that He’s a judge….” People want to be in control of relationships because they don’t want to be vulnerable. God knows this, so he makes himself weak in approaching us–with a weakness which was seen on a grand scale when Jesus came to earth in a manger and sacrificed himself through the shame of the cross.
“In this moment of crisis, because of the pandemic we are experiencing, this nearness asks to be manifested more…. Perhaps we cannot draw near physically to others because of the fear of contagion, but we can reawaken in ourselves a habit of drawing near to others through prayer, through help. There are many ways of drawing near.”
That’s the poignant challenge of this most remarkable Lent. How can we spend our moment of intense earthly separation–a separation that even extends to the cancellation of Masses–by bringing the heavenly Kingdom to ourselves and others? Not through physical nearness, but communication through our spirit and human senses–a smile we share, a song we sing, a thoughtful word, a period of listening, a tear we shed over someone’s pain. The March 13 post in this OnWord blog suggested some ways to refresh our talent for such nearness.
Thank God, we’ll see and hear many people offering an array of guidance for this act of repentance, a turnaround from isolation to fellowship, community, and communion. In addition to prayer and general acts of compassion to the elderly, sick, and otherwise troubled, we can resist the temptation to hoard material goods in a survivalist-style stockpile. Make a list of good alternatives. We can embrace our family and relearn its lessons of patient love. We can become more mindful of the meaning of everyday tasks that we might have performed carelessly, even hurtfully, during busier, distracted times. We can become more aware of, and thankful for, all the people who bless our lives–or other people’s lives–and then develop timeless ways to show that gratitude.
Since this is a teachable moment to remember later when social polarization is percolating, here’s one thing we might give up for this remarkable Lent: our habit of taking things for granted. It blinds us to lessons the Lord wants to teach us as He draws near. We can ask, What’s the Lord trying to teach me right now? During these days of social distancing, it’s perfectly understandable if we talk to ourselves.
Sometime last fall I was on a short trip to French Lick, IN, where we have a small house that is due to be renovated as an Air B&B for summer use and winter escape. Most people would not think of southern Indiana as a location for winter escape, but when you live in northern Indiana, right in the middle of the lake effect snow band from Lake Michigan, the four hour drive south is enough to get you out of persistent snow and to average temps that are in the low 40s instead of the low 30s. Doesn’t sound like a big difference but its enough to leave behind snow on the ground and get outside to walk in relative comfort. This project was supposed to be completed by now, but the pandemic put a wrench in those plans and we are just now getting reorganized to get the work underway.
I took a drive a little further south to St. Meinrad’s Archabbey. It’s a place I have been aware of for a long time because of the retreats they offer, but I had not been there previously. While there, I went into both the gift store and the separate bookstore, which is associated with the seminary.
In the gift store, a book entitled Exalted: How the Power of the Magnificat Can Transform Us caught my eye. The subtitle is Mary’s Song Verse by Verse. The author’s name is Sonja Corbett. She is a convert to the Catholic faith who leads bible studies in several different formats all based at her website, Bible Study Evangelista. I bought this book for my wife as a Christmas present since she has a predilection for following Mary in her own faith life.
As I was praying over the Magnificat for the last post, I noticed this book on her nightstand. When I asked my wife about it, she said she enjoyed it so I started reading in support of my own reflection. When I got to the chapter on the verse (Luke 1:48) I had selected as my concentration point, I found much of what I was thinking about the poverty of Mary confirmed by Sonja.
So, I thought I would share the meat of what she wrote with you. If this passage resonates with you, you will probably enjoy the full book.
Sonja talks about her own humble beginnings as a lead in to her discussion on Mary and the verse:
“I just had to laugh. I was a nobody from nowhere who had fallen in love with God. Yet I could not deny that he was at work, and all I could do was sit back and watch with amazement as God brought about the crazy thing he had once given me.
I think one of the most precious realities about life with God is that throughout the Bible and salvation history when he desires to do “a new thing” (see Isaiah 43:19) he always uses some insignificant, startled human creatures, terrifying them with the exhilarating invitation to do their hearts’ secret longing.
He scours them from inside out: gouges glorious holes in their souls with his unpredictability; impossible demands, and burgeoning presence; and one day long, long after, they all find themselves blinking with stupefied wonder at what he has finally wrought: “He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have seen” (Dt 10:21).
So it was with Abraham, Moses, and David and with poor, plain Joachim’s daughter from Nazareth whom the world calls Our Lady. Surely in Jerusalem there were daughters of scribes and chief priests who were rich, lovely, unvowed, young, cultured and held in high esteem. Is it not the same today with the highborn, the daughters of kings, princes, presidents and persons of wealth? Even in her own town of Nazareth, Mary was not the daughter of one of the chief rulers but a peasant girl, whom no one important knew or esteemed. And yet she was regarded by the One who made her powerless and poor for eternally important reasons. Her poverty was the anonymity that provided the protected space in which the Incarnation was to happen.
The biblical definition for regard is “to look upon, have respect for.” To be regarded is to be noticed. “Low estate” is a rank, or inferior position or place. We might say Mary was a nobody.
Perfect for a new creation, though, “for the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show his might in behalf of those whose heart is blameless toward him” (2 Chr 16:9). Caryll Houselander says that God “noticed” or regarded Mary because she let God have his will with her: “She was not asked to do anything herself, but to let something be done to her.”
Isn’t this the most difficult part, not doing anything to make something happen? Most of us decide what we want to do or be or what we want to happen, and then we set and work toward goals that will get us there: educational goals, financial goals, career-ladder goals, health goals, and retirement goals. This is all reasonable and rational and even necessary. Yet Mary’s Magnificat, here, seems to present a challenge: Who among us asks God, first, before all necessary planning and doing, what he wants for us? Which of us simply serves in place with no expectation, ever, of anything else?
And even if we receive a specific word or vocation from God, who simply says “May it be done to me” without planning or setting out to make it happen or at least trying to help God make it happen? What simplicity is required for this degree of trust?
Mary’s attitude is not one of laziness or passivity but intense, active faith. And yet she exhibits a discipline against action that can only be a work of grace. The only action she undertook was rushing to serve Elizabeth. Mary served God from her lack of position or resource as a “handmaiden,” without ever knowing her service was so highly esteemed by him. She claimed nothing, pursued nothing, but left all God’s gifts freely in his hands, no more than a willing servant or slave.
Here’s the point: there, serving everyone around her, Mary finds herself the Mother of God, exalted above men and angels, and remains so simple and calm that she points only to her “low estate.” Mary teaches us that being exalted can be, and often is, as simple as serving in place until and unless we are called to step out into more complicated waters. Maybe I should stop the planning, stop the grasping, stop the hustling, and pray to know what God wants for me, first. This is what it means to magnify God, to count only him great, with all one’s being, and lay claim to absolutely nothing else.”
In the last post in this series, I noted how I had prepared to write about Mary’s “yes” by going back to the first Chapter of Luke to review the story of the Annunciation. As part of the process, I read the verses on the Annunciation and then expanded my reading to the entire chapter to gain context. This resulted in me being drawn to the story of Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah and ultimately to writing a post comparing the two visits.
As I began to prepare for the next post on Mary, I repeated this process. Again, I was drawn to something else in the chapter. This time it was the Magnificat, the Song of Mary spoken in response to John the Baptist leaping for joy in the womb of Elizabeth.
Here is the entire Magnificat from Luke, Chapter 1, verses 47-55:
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
It was verse 48 that caught my attention and became the focus of my prayer:
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
As soon as I read and understood it, I felt that the assertions I had made about Mary and her embrace of Spiritual Poverty had been confirmed by her own words. And then, as I read and reread the entirety of the Song through the lens of this verse, a pattern of praise of poverty emerged that I had never identified before. I was not unfamiliar with these verses, but I had never concentrated on them previously in prayer, and thus had never realized how profound they were in relation to the Franciscan ideal of Spiritual Poverty.
This is the power of taking the time to completely immerse yourself in the gospels. I patiently abided in this scene, watching Elizabeth react to Mary’s visit and then Mary’s response, and I was overwhelmed. How had I never caught the references to poverty in Mary’s Song before? Every time I had heard this gospel read at Mass or recited as part of the Liturgy of the Hours, I missed it!
The richness of the gospels makes it impossible to catch everything as you experience them in routine encounters. But when approached from a patient and prayerful perspective, they never disappoint. There is always something new, waiting to be discovered, waiting to take one deeper into the mystery of God and the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. God’s plan for eternal salvation is offered to us unconditionally and unceasingly through His Word but we must make ourselves present to that Word to internalize it.
Spiritual Poverty is the key to integrating and maintaining this presence. It is what allows us to separate ourselves from the distractions of the world and focus our attention on God. We must work at it rigorously as part of our conversion process just as our Rule urges us to do.
Mary knew this long before Francis did. She used poverty as a tool for placing God foremost in her life and it changed her future utterly. Her example almost certainly encouraged Francis to his embrace of poverty, and it impels us to the same. Our charism pushes us toward poverty so that our futures can be changed as completely as hers was. We long to experience God as intensely as she did.
There is no limit to the joy that we can know as God reveals Himself to us again and again in the gospels and the balance of holy scripture. But we must be there, regularly, attentively, to secure that joy. When we first commit ourselves to poverty and the quest for a deeper relation with God, we do not have the wisdom to know what to expect. Then the Holy Spirit (along with Mary) acknowledges our desire and meets it. He nurtures our commitment and guides us to successes unlike anything we have known before.
We progress in our conversion. Looking back, we begin to understand what Mary meant when she said, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”
We begin to appreciate what it means to allow our souls to “glorify (or magnify) the Lord.”
Please read through the full Song again. Do so multiple times using Mary’s poverty as your focal point. Pick out the words and phrases that speak to humbleness, mercy and service. Juxtapose them against those that speak to the fate of the proud, the rulers, and the rich.
As I allowed these verses to work on me, I found myself wanting to rearrange them in order to emphasize the message of poverty’s power. I began to read the verses specifically affecting me in these two groupings:
He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones and has sent the rich away empty.
He has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has lifted up the humble and filled the hungry with good things. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful…………….
Spend some time on the rearranged words, then narrow down again and concentrate on the verse originally suggested:
“He has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”
Recognize that when Mary says “his servant” she is speaking about herself. The words “humble state” describe her own orientation to God. The He is God Himself.
Mary is clearly asserting that the reason “the Mighty One has done great things” for her, the reason she is to become “the mother of my Lord,” to quote Elizabeth, is her humility.
She has successful positioned herself as a wholly dedicated servant of God via a complete embrace of humility. God is “mindful” of what she has freely chosen. He recognizes the perfection of her humility and servanthood and judges her worthy to become the Mother of Jesus.
The worthiness of her humility then extends to her position in history. “All generations will call her blessed” because she has freely embraced fear of God. We often think of fear as being defined by distress, anxiety, or even terror. Fear does not mean those things in this context. Instead it indicates respect. We do not shrink from that which we fear. Instead, we venerate that which we are meant to venerate and draw closer to it. This fear does not paralyze. It liberates us to fully love that which we were meant to fully love. It brings us into close communion with our Creator. It unites us to God with an intimacy that is otherwise impossible.
God’s mindfulness of Mary’s absolute humility and willingness to serve causes Him, in His Mercy, to extend His arm and lift her up, filling the one who trusts Him completely with good things. Mary knew her embrace of positive fear safeguarded her from all concern. To quote article twelve of the Rule, Mary “set herself free to love God” and found that in the end she had nothing to fear, at least in terms of the negative connotations we typically associate with that word.
Her trust, confidence and veneration of God translate into Mary becoming, as the Office of the Passion describes her, “the Daughter and Handmaid of the Most High, Sovereign King, the Heavenly Father, Mother of our most Holy Lord Jesus Christ, and Spouse of the Holy Spirit.”
Daughter. Mother. Spouse. Her intimacy with God is unparalleled and perfect. All made possible by an absolute embrace of Spiritual Poverty from a position of humility and servanthood.
Mary is our ultimate model. If we choose as she chose, if we assume humility, servanthood, trust, and veneration as she did, what wondrous things might happen to us?
In the Annunciation and the Magnificat, Mary calls herself “servant” twice.
At the end of the Annunciation, she says directly, “I am the Lord’s servant” and asks that the “word to her be fulfilled.” She is ready to serve God respectfully and fearlessly, relying on Him completely, willing to do and experience whatever may come (including difficulties as predicted in article 10 of the Rule) despite the uncertainty of what the favor of the Lord means for her future.
As we have discussed in detail above, in her Song she references “the humble state of his servant” in response to the words of Elizabeth.
And then, at the end of the Magnificat, there is a third use of the word servant as she acknowledges God’s “remembering to be merciful” as He “helps his servant Israel.”
In the post on Chapter 12, I maintained that servanthood is the mark of maturity in one’s relationship with God. We begin by following but following is not enough. Only when we adopt servanthood does our relationship with God fully ripen. Only then can we unlock the potential for understanding the mysteries of God and Creation in a new and deeper way.
Labeling herself as servant reveals Mary’s maturity. She unveils herself as the epitome of what is possible when servanthood is perfected. She exemplifies maturity fulfilled to its greatest extent. Her total embrace of Spiritual Poverty translates to a level of relationship with God that is flawless, so faultless we consider it to be Immaculate. It leads to such a deep communion that she becomes Daughter, Mother and Spouse to God all at once.
Her maturity also gives her unequaled insight into the workings of God and Creation. Despite her young age, she possesses the spiritual wisdom to speak the Magnificat and thus reveal to us, well ahead of the time of Francis, the nature and importance of what Francis would ultimately label Lady Poverty. (Its hard to imagine that Francis was not influenced by the Magnificat in his choice of words.)
She is not only the Mother of Jesus, but in some sense, at least in this moment, she is also a Prophet of God, revealing to us a most important Truth about the nature of Creation. We would all be wise to embrace the Truth of Spiritual Poverty entirely if we wish our relationship with God to come to full maturity.
Perhaps we should consider The Magnificat the beginning of her career as Advocate? In it she reveals and confirms for us the foundation of her own “yes” to the call of God. She lets us know directly that it is humility and servanthood that led to her becoming Daughter, Mother and Spouse. At the same time, she invites us to follow her example into our own deep and productive relationship with God. Inherent in her invitation is the promise that she will be our guide on a journey of continual conversion to the way of Spiritual Poverty that she has revealed in her Song.
In other words, she pledges to be our Advocate as we seek to find our own way into profound relationship with God. Like her Son, she will shepherd us as we go. She will incessantly beseech God to assist us as we seek Him out via the freedom of Spiritual Poverty. She will be there always, as faithful to us as she is to God, providing Motherly support as we seek to move beyond simple following into the wisdom that she achieved and models and desires for us.
She will be our tireless advocate as we seek the mature relationship with God that will ultimately result in our eternal salvation.
The only possible response to her invitation and advocacy is to seek to wholly emulate her “yes” as presented in the story of the Annunciation and reinforced by the Magnificat.
If we possess any wisdom at all, we acknowledge in humility that imitating Mary is not an easy thing to do. We know that we suffer from human frailty. We know that the enemy and the world will seek to distract us from this purpose. We know that we need the strength and support of Advocates (not just Mary, but the Holy Spirit and the Communion of Saints as well) if we are to have any hope of succeeding in our quest to exemplify Mary’s profound “yes.”
The only way to aspire to that “yes” is to embrace her position of humility and servanthood and acknowledge our need for her assistance.
Lucky for us, we know her to be boundless in her capacity to be our steadfast help. As we seek to imitate her trusting “yes,” we know we can pray to her for guidance and assistance and that she will respond by unceasingly carrying our prayers to the Father.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for this sinner, now………………!”
Not just at the hour of my death, but now as well, that I might better apprehend the “yes” you said to God at the Annunciation in response to the word of Gabriel.
Now, that I might gain enough insight into the “yes” that allowed you to speak the Magnificat that I can learn and grow from it.
Now, that I might fathom and embrace the humility that was integral to your “yes.”
Now, that I might realize and welcome servanthood as you did so that my “yes” might be more complete and perfect in the eyes of the God as I seek an ever deepening relationship with Him according to your example.
Now, that through the imitation of your “yes” I might move one step closer to my ultimate goal of eternal salvation!
I did not, so I looked it up. It is a plant that is native to the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal, China, and India. Its use as a perfume, a medicinal plant, and for religious ceremonies goes back well before the time of Jesus. It was a valuable import into ancient Egypt (a jar containing spikenard was found in the tomb of King Tut) and it is mentioned multiple times in the Old Testament. Its exotic origins help to explain why it was so valuable. It would have found its way to the Middle East from the Himalayas in a trade caravan that would have taken months to make the journey. The three hundred denarii mentioned at the beginning of this chapter is more than a year’s wages for a typical worker in the time of Jesus.
If you think of perfume as liquid, that would be different than how the Jews of Jesus’ time would have experienced nard. In its typical form, spikenard would have traveled as an oily solid in a stone box or jar of some kind. It was distilled from the root of a plant and mixed with rendered animal fat, which when cooled would create the solid form in which it was sold. Solid coconut oil would be the proper comparison in our time. The oil then turns viscous as it is heated. Rubbing it in your hands would be enough to allow to spread. For Mary to have poured it, it was likely heated first. Thus, the aroma of nard fills the entire house.
The smell is not floral in nature. The words used to describe it are a complex combination of musky, earthy, spicy, and organic.
Why tell you this? Does it have anything to do with following the Franciscan charism? Perhaps not. Perhaps we might even see Judas Iscariot’s objection as having merit. Why not sell the oil and give the poor the proceeds, even if that suggestion was a deception on his part?
The reason to give the detail is because it provides a wonderful opportunity to investigate the scene in different fashion. We have typically been using the eye of our imagination as our vehicle for venturing into these scenes, but here is a chance to try something fresh. Can you place yourself in the scene in such a way that you experience the fragrance in the house? What does a complex combination of musk, earth, spice, and organics smell like? Can you conjure something from your past that will recall the smell of nard, helping you perceive the scene more intensely?
Does smell help you envision Mary using her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet and subsequently resting there as her actions are questioned?
Can you occupy her place, experiencing the intensity of the aroma as Jesus affirms her and then continues teaching the disciples gathered in the house?
John Chapter 12, Verses 25-26:
“Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”
In the last chapter, we focused on the idea of “living in Jesus.” Here we can explore a couple of closely related words. We are invited to pray over the ideas of following Jesus and being His servant.
As I spent time immersed in these gospel verses, I found myself thinking about what it means to make choices in my life. Over and over, moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, I am continually making choices. How often, as I face those choices, even if they are seemingly mundane, do I have the parameters of Jesus at hand as I make up my mind?
Jesus talks here about loving life, losing life, hating life, and keeping life in the context of the opposing ideas of “life in this world” and “eternal life.” Immediately after that, He talks about following Him and serving Him. This close association indicates that these concepts are connected. What are the correlations that inform the choices I make?
I placed the connections in these terms in an effort to better understand them:
If I am to follow Jesus, then I must lose my life to Him. I must be willing to set aside my perspective, my need, and my very own will to conform myself to His perspective, His need, and His very own Will. If I could accomplish that, I would then, in fact, know what it means to correctly love eternal life as opposed to worldly life. In following my Creator, my life moves toward fulfillment, and that movement is critical to learning to properly love the potential for eternal life I have been graced with.
If I am to serve Jesus, then I must hate my worldly life enough that I am willing to sacrifice all the desire and temptation born of this world in order to conform myself completely to His desire and Will. If I could accomplish that, I would then, in fact, know how to keep and preserve the eternal life that Jesus calls me to. When I serve my Creator, my life becomes fully mature, and that maturity propels me toward keeping and preserving my most precious possession, my hope for eternal life.
If I am being mindful as I make my choices, these principals and these connections should guide me. Every decision I make should be grounded not in worries about money, or prestige, or any other worldly factor, but only in the Will of Jesus for my life.
The last chapter emphasized continual movement from death to life (continual resurrection) via continual conversion as the practical method by which the goal of “living in Jesus” is accomplished.
That continual conversion is essentially an unending string of choices. Will I, with the help and encouragement and grace and strength of Jesus, be transformed in such a way that the choices I make this time are different than the choices I made last time, when I erred and sinned?
It is entirely up to me. I can spend hour after hour reading and meditating on the gospels. I can read the legends and writing of St. Francis and St. Clare from cover to cover. I can profess to live my life according to the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order.
But in the end, it is all about the choices I make.
Will I follow and ultimately serve Him, or will I continue to put my worldly sinful self first?
Francis knew and embraced this idea of individual responsibility.
Near the end of his life, he wrote this short note to one if his original followers, Brother Leo:
Brother Leo, health and peace from Brother Francis!
I am speaking, my son, in this way — as a mother would — because I am putting everything we said on the road in this brief message and advice. If, afterwards, you need to come to me for counsel, I advise you thus: In whatever way it seems better to you to please the Lord God and to follow His footprint and poverty, do it with the blessing of the Lord God and my obedience. And if you need and want to come to me for the sake of your soul or for some consolation, Leo, come.
Francis gives Leo leave to “follow” Jesus in “whatever way seems best.” Despite the propagation of a Rule for his followers, Francis knew that they had to have a measure of freedom as they lived out their calling. Francis does not see his role as dictating to Leo the proper way to follow or serve. He leaves Leo free to discern the Will of Jesus for his individual life and then to follow through on that discernment. Francis recognizes that even though Leo is his follower, Jesus will give Leo individual instructions (rooted in his individual graces) that differ from the instructions that Francis received himself.
Despite being a brother of Francis, Leo is given the autonomy to follow the One we are all ultimately meant to serve, Jesus. Francis, in his minority and wisdom, does not seek to usurp the position of Jesus in relation to Leo. He feels so strongly about the need for Leo to follow his own path that he even promises obedience to the decisions that Leo makes. Francis’ role is not to command Leo, but to support him in whatever way Leo requires. Francis will be available to Leo if he needs counsel or guidance or consolation in his discernment, but the decisions are left to Leo.
There is only one caveat. Leo is instructed to “follow His footprint,” but he is also instructed to follow poverty. This then is the essence of the Franciscan charism shining through. We each have an individual calling when it comes to discerning the Will of Jesus in our lives, but that discernment will inexorably fall under the umbrella of the Franciscan concept of Spiritual Poverty. This requirement is non-negotiable if our discernment is to be successful.
This, however, is not Francis enforcing a rule that Francis came up with. This is Francis enforcing the verses of the gospel that we are considering. By telling Leo that his discernment must be done under the auspices of poverty, Francis is echoing the words of Jesus in verse 25.
Francis telling Leo to use poverty as a guiding principal is the same as Jesus instructing us that we must lose our life to love it, or “hate our worldly life to keep our eternal one.”
Of course, something so fundamental as the need to follow and serve Jesus will be expressed in the SFO Rule. Article 10 of Chapter Two, the Way of Life, instructs us thus:
Let them also follow the poor and crucified Christ, witness to him even in difficulties and persecutions.
Take a moment to compare these words to the words from Francis to Leo in the letter. Note the word follow appears in both places, as well as the reference to poor/poverty.
The rule in this instance is very much an echo of what Francis was telling Leo. Just as Francis left Leo free to discern his individual calling within the constraint of poverty, our Rule leaves us free to do the same. We understand and embrace the notion that we have a responsibility to go beyond the Rule, while staying within the Rule, to discern the personal call that Jesus has for each of us.
How is Jesus calling you to serve at this very moment? What does He Will for your life? He wants you to live the Rule, but what else, what more? What are the specifics? What ministry are you to serve in? Are you called to work at Our Lady of the Road? Or perhaps at Bridge of Hope? Or in some other fashion, perhaps in your parish structure? Might you be called to a leadership role in the fraternity? Is there a ministry that Jesus has placed in your heart that you need to bring to the fraternity for action? What individual task is He calling you to?
Also look at article 14 of the Rule, which concludes with these words:
Mindful that anyone “who follows Christ, the perfect man, becomes more of a man himself,” let them exercise their responsibilities competently in the Christian spirit of service.
When I discussed serving Jesus above, I used the word maturity. I think it is safe to say that there is a certain progression that takes place as our relationship with Jesus develops. We begin as followers, but in the end, following is not enough.
Put yourself again in this gospel. Imagine yourself as a spectator in the room. Breathe deeply the smell of the nard. You have been following Jesus across the countryside, but you have had no real encounter with Him yet. So far, he has not really acknowledged your presence with more than a glance to see if you are still there. Then he looks over at you and speaks to you. He asks you to do something for Him. I cannot say what it is that He asks, because His request is based on your individual gifts.
How do you react? Perhaps you are a little fearful? But likely you are also extremely excited? This request is a step forward in your relationship. Jesus has asked you to do Him a service, and that deepens your connection to Him. Do it well, and He will ask again. If you could serve Him well every time He asks, how deep would your relationship with Him go?
This is how our relationship with Jesus matures. He calls us again and again until we respond. Our first decision is to follow Him. He then ups the ante by revealing His Will for our individual lives to us. Now we must decide again. Following has not asked much of us, but service likely requires us to begin sacrificing. Will we embrace His Will and become His servant?
Read the quote from article 14 of the Rule again. Note how it develops. We follow and we become “more of a man or woman.” That progression is an act of maturing. The more mature we become, the more able we are to “exercise our responsibilities competently in a spirit of Christian service.”
We go from followers to servants as our relationship with Him deepens.
Again, it is all about the choices I make.
Will I choose to follow Him? Will my following mature into serving Him?
Or will I continue to put my worldly sinful self first?
The fully mature servant of God is described by Francis in these texts from Admonitions XII and XVII.
A servant of God can be known to have the Spirit of the Lord in this way; if, when the Lord performs some good through him, his flesh does not therefore exalt itself, because it is always opposed to every good. Instead, he regards himself the more worthless and esteems himself less than all others.
Blessed is that servant who no more exalts himself over the good the Lord does through him than over what He says or does through another. A person sins who wishes to receive more from his neighbor than what he wishes to give of himself to the Lord God.
Does this describe you? I know I do not meet this definition. Even if on the outside I succeed in hiding my pride at having served Jesus well in some task, I still fight on the inside to quell the need to congratulate myself.
It is not that I am not pleased to have achieved that success. It is that when I look at myself honestly, I know I have so much farther to go. Despite any successes I might achieve, the truth is I remain a sinner in need of mercy and conversion. I will always be so. If I were to exalt myself, then I would be denying that truth, and the success would become self-defeating.
This is also a representation of Francis’ instruction to Leo to “follow poverty.” As Franciscans, our embrace of poverty on every front means we always place ourselves in a position of humility. To quote the rule from last month again, we always strive to embrace our human frailty. Our evolution is never complete. We are always in that state of continual conversion and resurrection. If we do not remain humble, then the ability to lose our lives to save them and “to hate our lives to keep them” will be forfeit. And, as these verses instructs us, that forfeiture will also compromise our ability to live in Jesus, to follow Jesus, and to serve Jesus.
Again, how will I choose? Are poverty, minority and humility at the core of my relationship to Jesus?
Am I properly positioned to be His servant?
Look back for a moment and consider the second half of the quote from Article 10 above.
…..witness to Him even in difficulties and persecutions.
Take time to acknowledge and accept that these decisions to “live in Christ,” to follow Christ, and to serve Christ are not regularly seen by the world as desirable or acceptable. The world and the enemy do not like to be rejected in favor of service to Christ. They will fight back. Indeed, the desire to exalt ourselves when we succeed is one of the tools used to derail us.
Just as Christ was persecuted for who He was, we can also expect to encounter persecution as we work through the conversion process that leads toward a wholehearted embrace of our need to follow and serve Him. Jesus warned us it would be so in the Beatitudes.
We can, however, take solace in the fact that Francis experienced much of the same thing, and not just from random citizens of Assisi, but from his own father.
Early in his conversion process, Francis’ father sought to deflect him from the path he had chosen. Francis had taken some cloth to Foligno, sold it, and was pondering what to do with the proceeds. He decided to turn the resources completely to the work of God, and he tried to give the money to a poor priest at San Damiano. The priest did not accept the money, so Francis left it in a windowsill. He did, however, convince the priest to allow him to stay at the Church.
Chapter 5 of The First Book of the Life of St. Francis by Thomas Celano begins like this:
While the servant of the most high God was staying there, his father went around everywhere like a diligent spy, wanting to know what happened to his son.
Note the title that Thomas of Celano has given Francis at this stage. He calls him “the servant of the most high God.” In earlier chapters, Celano refers to Francis as “the man of God” one time. Other than that, he is simply Francis. But in this chapter, Francis is referred to as “servant of God” three times. That same reference will not appear again until Chapter 20.
Francis’ father hears word of his location and “races to the place where the servant of God is staying.” Francis anticipated that this time would come and prepared a pit as a hiding place for himself so that his father could not find him. He dwells in the pit for a month, praying that the Lord will free him from his persecutors. He experiences “indescribable happiness” in this prayer, prompting him to leave the pit and set out for the City.
The citizens of Assisi experience him as completely changed. They shout that he is insane and persecute him, throwing mud and rocks at him.
But since the patient person is better than the proud, God’s servant showed himself deaf to all of them, and neither broken nor changed by any wrong to himself he gives thanks to God for all of them.
For in vain do the wicked persecute those striving for virtue, for the more they are stricken, the more fully will they triumph. As some say, “Disgrace makes a noble mind stronger.”
Francis’ prayer in the pit did not free him from his persecutors. The source of his happiness came from learning the Will of Jesus for his life and then living into that Will despite the persecution. He leaves his hiding place and goes to the City to preach the gospel to the people because that is what Jesus tells him to do. As a true servant of God, he does not condemn those who are oppressing him. Instead, he thanks God for them, even praying for them in his own way. They have done him a service. Their persecutions have helped him to increase his resolve and to solidify the certainty that he has chosen the right path.
Francis is showing the maturity of the servant. No longer just a follower, but now a true servant of God, he is not distracted from the Will of Jesus by the harassment he encounters. Instead, his desire to serve multiplies unimpeded. He has chosen to serve Jesus over anything the world has to offer despite the attendant hardship. He has thus, as Jesus promised in these verses, kept his hope for eternal life inviolate by embracing the invitation to service.
Shortly after this, his father “pounces on him like a wolf on a lamb,” imprisons him in his home and even beats him to get Francis to return to his former life. His mother frees him, and his father then meets him before the Bishop to at least retrieve the money from the sale of the cloth. Francis not only returns the money, but strips himself bare, giving his father back even the clothes off his back, renouncing him forever in favor of his Father in heaven. “Life in this world” is emphatically left behind.
Is it coincidence that Celano calls Francis servant for the first time in the middle of these events? Or does Celano deliberately associate the title “servant” with the suffering of this persecution? I do not know for sure, but it seems to me appropriate either way. When following matures into serving, then the servant becomes more dangerous to the world and the enemy. The maturity of the servant as demonstrated by Francis is what we as Franciscans are asked to strive for.
If we achieve persecution, perhaps this confirms for us that progress has been made.
As we close, read the verses again. Jesus is calling us to follow Him as His servants and to be where He will be.
The verses of this chapter happen on the eve of the Passion of Jesus. As we move next to Chapter 13 of John, we will begin to follow Jesus through his own persecution and ultimately to the Cross. If our faith is mature, then we will welcome the chance to serve at His side in the time of His hardship, and we will, according to His example, learn to experience and embrace our own crosses along the way.
His path is our path. We will be where He will be. Our place as His servants is at His side, no matter what hardships may come.
If we can succeed, if we are mature enough to truly be His servants not only during the good times, but also during the difficult ones, what will our reward be for our faithful service?
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.”
At the end of our verses for this reflection, Jesus says this in relation to “anyone who serves Him”:
My father will honor him (or her).
If the Father honors you, is that not the ultimate experience of joy you can hope for?
That would be “perfect,” wouldn’t it?
What is the weight of earthly persecution in comparison to the “perfect joy” that Francis defines for us, and Jesus promises us, if we consent to accept the role of “servant of the most high God?”
David Seitz recently celebrated 18 years of life as a professed Secular Franciscan. That, in combination with an upcoming retreat he was about to lead for some Candidates preparing to make their own permanent profession to the Secular Franciscan Order, caused him to reflect and ask a hard question:
Has he let the Rule be a tool for his conversion, or has he tried to “re-invent” the Rule in his own image?
I have been diagnosed with squeamish cell laryngeal cancer (cancer of the vocal chords). I know from past experience that having a family member or friend tell you about a diagnosis like this causes many questions. In order to answer those questions as completely as possible, I am putting all the information at my disposal in this post.
The first thing to know is that my prognosis is as positive as it can be. I have had a PET scan and a neck CT scan and they have confirmed that the cancer is stage 1 and has not spread to my lymph nodes, which is the first place it would go if it was more advanced. This means that the cure rate is 95% plus. I have had no other symptoms beyond hoarseness in my throat and have been functioning normally. This includes regular exercise, which for me means at least a 40 minute walk just about every day.
This cancer has nothing to do with the skin cancers that I have previously had removed. It is most often associated with long term heavy smoking and drinking. It can also be associated with the HPV (Herpes) virus. The biopsy was tested for the virus and came back negative and I do not have a history of smoking and drinking that would cause this issue. Thus, there is no firm explanation for the occurrence of the disease.
The lesion is dampening my vocal chords and this is why my voice is hoarse. Think of it as someone laying a hand over the strings of a guitar. The vocal chords vibrate just like the guitar strings in order to create the sound of your voice and the cancerous growth puts pressure on them, keeping them from vibrating properly.
Here is the basic chronology:
In late May or early June I started experiencing hoarseness in my throat. This persisted and did not go away. After six weeks (give or take), I called my doctor and asked for an appointment. Rather than seeing me himself, he referred me directly to an ENT. I had to get tested for COVID before I could go to that appointment. That test came back negative.
July 22, Initial appointment with Dr. Hamdan, ENT. He stuck a scope threw my nose and into my throat and told me that I had a hemorrhagic lesion on my right vocal chord. He scheduled a biopsy in order to check for cancer. I had to be checked for COVID again before the procedure. That test was also negative.
August 7, Biopsy performed.
August 17, Phone call with the preliminary news that the lesion was cancerous.
August 20, Initial consult with Dr. Ansari, Oncologist and Dr. Tran, Radiologist. They both examined me and told me that the lack of any other symptoms or lumps in my lymph nodes meant the disease was likely stage 1 and thus highly curable. Follow up tests were scheduled to confirm the staging.
August 25, PET and CT Neck scans
August 27, Follow up with Dr. Ansari with confirmation that I am stage 1.
The local head and neck tumor board has their monthly meeting on Wednesday of this week. My case will be discussed and treatment recommendations will be finalized. I have another follow up appointment with Dr. Ansari that morning where the final decision on treatment will be made.
Treatment will be either laser surgery or radiation.
Surgery is less likely because it has the potential to damage the vocal chords permanently. The determination to do surgery would only be made if the doctors are completely confident that they can perform the procedure with no risk of permanent loss of my voice.
It feels 90% likely that the treatment selected will be radiation. I have already gone through pre-planning in the expectation that this will be case. They fitted me with a mask that will hold my head steady during the treatments by laying a piece of pliable plastic over my face (felt like a warm towel) and forming it tightly to my features. I get to keep it at the end so I will never have to wonder how to dress for Halloween again.
The doctors refer to this as the organ preservation option, meaning that it does not pose a serious risk to my vocal chords. This treatment would likely cause a long term change in my voice, making it deeper, but the voice should recover to near normal.
The treatment involves going into the office every day at the same time, Monday thru Friday, for seven weeks with weekends off. The treatment itself lasts about 15 minutes. I can drive myself back and forth so Denise’ day to day schedule will not be interrupted.
Side effects are fairly minimal and I should tolerate them without much problem.
There is typically no diarrhea or vomiting.
I will not be at an increased risk for COVID.
Hair loss will be limited to the treatment area, so just the part of my beard around the Adam’s apple.
My skin will be irritated in the area of the treatment. I will likely not be shaving my neck as I normally do and may look a little extra scruffy. I will be trying different lotions to see what helps best with the irritation.
I will get dry mouth and will be using lozenges, etc. to try and alleviate that.
At times, I will be more tired than usual. When that happens, I am just supposed to rest.
For the first three weeks, I may actually feel better and my voice may improve as the cancer cells are destroyed.
The closer I get to the end, the more the irritation in my throat will grow. My voice will come and go and my appetite will be effected. I have been told to feel free to bulk up a little ahead of starting the treatment but I can expect to lose a little weight by the end of the treatment cycle. (This is all good as I have already lost twenty five pounds on purpose with diet changes and exercise in the last few months and have ten more or so to go.)
Once the treatment is over, the expectation is that I will be completely cured. I will have to be monitored regularly going forward (the details of that have not been discussed yet), but I should recover completely and return to a normal life.
Last November, I took a leave from my job as a construction project manager and never went back. I am effectively retired from the construction industry and currently have no plans to re-engage. I am a kept man and house husband with the very great blessing of a wonderful wife successful enough in her own right that she can provide our basic needs.
This leaves me free to explore a calling I have felt deep in my heart for some time now. While I am retired from the construction industry, I do not view myself as formally retired. This note comes to you from the blog I have started as the beginning of a second career as a writer on religious formation and whatever other topics such a vocation leads me to.
(Although I am describing this as a second career, in keeping with my vocation as a Secular Franciscan, I have no intentions of monetizing this blog. It will remain add free and focused only on providing the best content I can manage. This second career is one that I will not expect to ever retire from.)
This blog is targeted at ongoing formation for Secular Franciscans, but it is also intended to be of broad use to anyone interested in investigating a life of faith. It should be of help to any person, Catholic or not, looking to deepen their relationship with God. But it is also proving to be of interest (I have several subscribers already who are not deeply religious but curious about faith or self improvement in general) to seekers who simply want to better understand what runs through the mind of someone actively engaged in a life of religious questing.
The ultimate success of this venture depends on my ability to attract an audience. The best way to demonstrate that audience is to be able to point to subscribers. If you are at all willing to support me in this endeavor, I would ask that you subscribe to the blog using the link at the bottom of the home page. (I am only posting a couple times a week so you will not be inundated with an annoying number of emails or texts on an ongoing basis.)
The other update on me to be aware of is, as the video above indicates, I have recently fitted out my van for camping. One of the advantages of my new career is it can be done from anywhere. I have intentions of going on multiple “drive-abouts”, so if you live a long distance from me, you might find me asking to impinge on your hospitality. (You might also see me add material to the blog related to the diversity and beauty of Creation, also a very Franciscan theme.)
After the loss of Aidan and Christy, and now this development in my health, I am keenly aware of how fragile life can be and the need to live it to the fullest. This includes following what I discern as my true calling, but it also includes catching up with many of you. We are approaching the point in our lives where we need to make moments count in the most meaningful ways possible. It still seems like we have plenty of time left, but it will pass fast. I’m hoping to see many of you soon despite the pandemic.
Right after the initial news, my dad asked me how I was doing. I told him, “I feel fine.” He said, “I meant your mental state.”
As it happened (if you are religious, you will see this as more than coincidence), the next blog post I was due to write was on Chapter 11 of the Gospel of John. This post discusses in some detail the idea of “Sister Death” in the Franciscan charism.
Writing this post the day after I got the preliminary diagnosis was restorative to me. I was in a position of waiting. I was optimistic based on the little bit of reading that I had done that the prognosis would wind up as it has, but I knew it would take time to get there. With the news still fresh, it was impossible not to feel anxiety and I did not sleep very well the night of the initial phone call.
But the next day I edited (the basic post was actually written a couple years ago in my role as formation director for my OFS fraternity) and published the post. This proved curative in and of itself. Delving back into that material reminded me that even if I wound up with worse news than I was expecting, I was still loved unconditionally by a God who wants me to spend eternity in His presence.
In some sense, I felt like there could be no such thing as bad news when the final prognosis came. I was reminded that I am destined for eternal happiness and that I am working hard to fulfill that destiny. I believe I am on my way and that God will sustain me in reaching this goal. The only thing the news could tell me is that I might be getting there sooner than I originally expected.
I made the post and forwarded it to my Dad so he would know I was in a good place mentally. The prognosis I received makes it easier to stay in that good place. But I expect that even when the treatment gets a little tough, I will be able to stay in a positive state of mind by rereading that post or being inspired to write others. In many ways, this feels like it will be much easier than what I went through losing Aidan or Christy.
I know without asking that I will be the recipient of an unparalleled onslaught of prayers. This is because I am fortunate beyond description in the people that God has placed in my life. Thank you in advance for every thought and prayer that you will send my way.
Be assured that I will be praying for each and every soul that is thinking of me in turn.
I have recently spent considerable time in my prayer life and spiritual reading considering Mary’s “yes.” But in order to begin writing what I expect will be multiple posts on this topic, I decided to go back to the initial source of the story, the Gospel of Luke, Chapter One. The story of the Annunciation runs from verses 26-38. The idea was to spend several days praying over these verses, allowing them to sink in and speak to me all over again. As was suggested at the beginning of my reflection on the first chapter of John, I worked at entering the scene in order to enhance my prayer experience.
As I got started with this process, I read the verses of the Annunciation a couple times. I then expanded my reading to the full chapter to provide better context for the story. Few chapters in the gospels are as rich as this one. It includes Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist, the Annunciation to Mary, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the Magnificat, the birth of John the Baptist and the Canticle of Zechariah.
As I read the full chapter, I found that my decision to go back to basics was quickly rewarded. I noticed an interesting parallel between Gabriel’s discussion with Zechariah and the Annunciation. The verses that caught my attention were Luke 1:18 (Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.)and Luke 1:34 (“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”).
In both stories, Gabriel is sent to announce the birth of a child. Zechariah’s reaction is described as “startled and gripped with fear.” Mary’s is similar. She is termed “greatly troubled.” In both instances, Gabriel responds by saying “Do not be afraid” and proceeds to describe the purposes the children will fulfill in the plan of God. Zechariah and Mary then respond with the questions quoted above.
On their face, the responses seem to be about the same. Both persons have been confronted unexpectedly by an angel. Both are not sure how to react to this development. Both are in positions in their lives where the prediction of the angel seems out of place and unlikely to come true. Both are wondering what this means and how it will come to pass.
Up until this point, the stories have followed a similar track. But now they diverge. In response to Zechariah, Gabriel says “you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words.” There is condemnation and perhaps punishment assigned to Zechariah for his response. But in response to Mary, Gabriel is compassionate, patient, and sympathetic, providing her with this explanation: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
The inference is that there is a difference between the two questions even though they appear parallel. After praying over this several times, I decided that Mary’s question (How will this be….) is inquisitive and has a certain amount of faith-filled humility associated with it. She is not doubting. She just wants to understand how the words of Gabriel might be fulfilled. Zechariah (How can I be sure of this…..), on the other hand, demonstrates a lack of faith and a desire to control the situation.
(If Mary’s faith were as deficient as Zechariah’s, the conversation likely would have ended, and we never would have heard of her. The story would have quietly disappeared into history and God would have had to wait for another opportunity to fulfill His plan to come into the world.)
Mary’s question thus has an air of acceptance about it. She’s just being curious even though she has already decided to say “yes” to the proposition she has been given.
This conclusion then led me to consider the differences between Mary and Zechariah. What made Zechariah prone to faltering in his belief when this moment came? What made Mary ready to accept, ready to say “yes”?
The easy answer is to refer to the Immaculate Conception, which appears to predestine Mary to saying “yes.” I will address the topic of the Immaculate Conception in detail in the next post in this series. For now, I am going to ask you to accept that Mary, like all human beings that have ever existed, was not predestined to accept and was indeed free to choose in this moment. She could have said yes or no to Gabriel. (Think of this in terms of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. In the garden, Jesus says “not as I will, but as you will.” Mary’s yes is similar. Both she and Jesus had the choice, and both chose God when the pivotal moment occurred despite the appearance that their decisions were predetermined. The dependence of love on free will within the nature of Creation makes this necessary.)
What do we know about Zechariah? What do we know about Mary? What is the difference between them that led one to doubt and the other to believe?
From the text of the gospel, we know that Zechariah is old, he’s male and he’s a priest from the division of Abijah. As a priest, he is in a position of prominence. He is selected to burn incense in the temple, making him the focus of attention of the people assembled to worship, who wonder was has happened to him when he is delayed leaving the temple. In verse six, he is described as “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s decrees and commands blamelessly.” Despite this description, a few sentences later, in verse twenty, Gabriel describes him as “not believing.” (I suppose this should make us feel a little better about ourselves. Even the father of John the Baptist was not immune to lapses despite being a righteous man.)
Mary is young, female and, unlike Zechariah, without prominence in her community. While she is described as “highly favored,” this favor exists in anonymity. She is a young girl from a small town who no one would have been aware of no matter how highly favored she was. She was set to embark on a life that was no different than any other young Jewish girl of the time. She was betrothed to Joseph, a working-class carpenter despite being a descendant of David, and would enter his house as a typical wife and eventually mother. She was certainly very pious and may have been known for that in her small community, but up until the day of the Annunciation there was nothing that would have drawn attention to her in a larger context.
We have little record of her life before the Annunciation, but we can speculate based on her selection as the Mother of God and our own experiences.
If we reflect on our own calls to the Franciscan life, we will likely see the same pattern developing again and again. Few if any of us would report a single great encounter with the Will of God that caused us to seek out the Franciscan life. Instead, we would more likely relate a nagging feeling that developed and matured over an extended time. God called us often and continually and it took us time to respond. He pursued us unceasingly and we are grateful for that. Even though we are professed, we know that we often falter. We rely on His resolute call to bring us back from our lapses and to help us recommit to an ever-deepening relationship with Him. We are thankful that He is supremely patient and that His Love for us is so encompassing that He never stops calling us into His presence.
Francis’ early experiences are similar to ours. The event in Francis’ life that is analogous to the Annunciation is the image of Christ speaking to him in the church of San Damiano. This event is relayed to us in Chapter Six of The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul by Thomas Celano. That chapter begins like this:
With his heart already completely changed – soon his body was also to be changed – he was walking one day by the church of Sam Damiano………….
Before his direct encounter with Christ, Francis’ “heart was already completely changed.” God had been calling Francis continually, most likely from when he was a boy or a young teenager. Francis, in the beginning, did not respond at all. He was too focused on parties and becoming a knight. He is captured and spends a year in the dungeons of Perugia. During that time, he begins to hear and respond to the call. When he is released, he tries to go back to his old life but cannot. He spends time praying and seeking the meaning behind the compulsion he feels. It takes an extended time for him to develop into the man that is ready to hear the voice of Christ speaking from the San Damiano Crucifix.
Next we apply our knowledge of our own calls and the calling of Francis to the life of Mary. We can speculate with certainty that she also was called from a young age. She likely did not suffer the same distractions as Francis, or if she did, she mastered them much sooner than he did. (At the time of the Annunciation, she was likely younger than Francis was when he went into the battle of Perugia.) We can assert that she was already a deeply prayerful person by the time the Annunciation occurred because she had already been faithfully answering the call of God for an extended time. Despite her youth, she had already found her way into a certain separation from worldly concerns that made her ready to say a profound “yes” when the time came. Like Francis, God had called her from an early age and given her time to develop into the person who was prepared to handle a visit from an Archangel without panicking.
What I want to suggest is Mary’s long-term prayerful response to God’s call helped her learn to be minor by the time the Annunciation occurred. She was, in fact, already the first Franciscan.
As an unassuming young woman in an out of the way town, she had already embraced the life of minority that Francis cherished before it was possible to follow the example of Christ into that life. The entire life of Spiritual Poverty that Francis developed and left us as his legacy is the life that Mary led even before the birth of Christ. Thus, unlike Zechariah, who in the moment of his encounter with Gabriel fell victim to his own prominence and worldliness, Mary was able to maintain the integrity of her Spiritual Poverty and virtue.
This is why I preceded this post with the post Mary as Holy Lady Poverty. In that post, I suggested that Mary learned the life of Spiritual Poverty from her Son. I want to now amend that thought by saying she was already well along the path to Spiritual Poverty before she became the Mother of Jesus. Her long-standing prayerful answer to the call of God prepared her for the Annunciation and oriented her to a life of poverty and simplicity, thus making her the perfect candidate to become the Mother of Jesus.
The life she experienced with her Son then perfected in her the discipline of Spiritual Poverty. It prepared her for everything that was to come and allowed her to endure the pain of seeing her Son Crucified. It allowed her to remain steadfast in faith and the knowledge that the plan of God would be fulfilled despite what her Son was asked to suffer.
I often think of the Passion of Christ in terms of the response I hope it engenders in me. When I think about the Love of Christ as represented by the complete self-giving of the Passion, I know that I must attempt, no matter how many times I falter, to always reply to that Love with an unequivocal love of my own that offers every fiber of my being to the Will of God. This is the essence of what it means to say a complete and unambiguous “yes” to my own call from God.
Now I find myself thinking of the pain of Mary during the Passion. Do I owe that a response as well? Her “yes” led inevitably to that pain. How do I honor that? How do I offer my love to her as clearly as her love was offered to me when she said, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.”?
Article 9 of the Rule says this:
The Virgin Mary, humble servant of the Lord, was open to his every word and call. She was embraced by Francis with indescribable love and declared the protectress and advocate of his family. The Secular Franciscans should express their ardent love for her by imitating her complete self-giving and by praying earnestly and confidently.
I think the answer is found here. The instruction of the Rule to “imitate her complete self-giving” is a request to honor the “yes” of Mary. We have all heard the saying “imitation is the highest form of flattery.” In imitating Mary’s “yes,” not just at the moment of the Annunciation, but also in all the preparation that preceded that moment, we honor what she did for humankind by agreeing to be the Mother of Jesus. We reciprocate the love she continues to bestow on us. We revere and perhaps to some small extent share the pain that her “yes” cost her.
She was “open to the every word and call of the Lord.” We must be as well. We must be willing to imitate this in her as we go through our daily lives. We must be willing to set aside worldly concern and embrace a life of Spiritual Poverty as surely as she did with the intention of offering her the love that is her due.
Perhaps we can only hope for a momentous event in our spiritual lives when, or more precisely if, we achieve a deep enough relationship with God that we are ready for it as Mary and Francis were. Although we might think their “yeses” happened at the time of these events, in actuality, their “yeses” developed over an extended time. They were prepared when the momentous event presented itself and thus were able to respond with a final climatic “yes” that turned out for them to be irreversible.
This is what I am seeking for myself. I am seeking to develop such a deep commitment to God, such a deep relationship with Him, that He might see me as fit for a wondrous encounter of my own. I know that this is unlikely. I know that I may never achieve such a state. But there is no way to approach it if I do not set it as my goal.
I long to someday make my own irreversible “yes” just as Mary and Francis did. I know I am not there yet, but I pray for the strength to persevere. There is no harm in dreaming such a dream.
As I open my daily prayer, I ask specific saints to pray for me. This always includes Francis, Clare, John the Baptist, Augustine, Peter, Paul and Andrew. I then, just to be safe, invoke all the saints with this phrase:
“All you holy men and women pray for me that one day I might join your ranks.”
Perhaps if I persevere long and well enough in my quest to join their ranks I might also hear Christ speak to me from a Crucifix or be visited by an Archangel.
This is what I hope for.
I invite you to hope the same as you consider how to say your own “yes” in imitation of Mary’s.
We know that the events of the gospels took place a long time ago. For us, they are part of a distant history. Our scene is very different than the one Jesus occupied. We have electricity and everything that comes with it. He had only candles for light when the sun went down. There was no such thing as television or telephones or social media. We can know what happens in Rome in an instant. It would have taken weeks for the news of Rome to reach Jesus, and He would have had only word of mouth to rely on for its authenticity. No pictures or film.
Because of these discrepancies, we often feel more like spectator than participant as we read the gospels.
But we also know that the gospels are current. They speak to us about our lives today despite the differences in the world from then until now.
Entering the scene is a method for bridging this distance. By entering the scene, we hope to participate, not just review from the far-off position of historical spectator. We expect that our participation will reinforce the gospel’s currency and inform us how to discern the Will of God for our lives.
What was it like to be a disciple of Jesus? Thomas says in this chapter, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Can you put yourself in his place? Can you be a companion of Jesus, struggling to understand the meaning of the events around you, and yet willing to get up and follow Him even though that following might lead to death?
Can you take the place of Martha and Mary, who both said to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Do you have so much faith in the person of Jesus that you believe anything is possible to Him, including the curing of the seemingly incurable?
Eternal life is central to our creed as Catholics. Even so, can you take the place of Lazarus? Can you imagine what it would be like to wake from the dead, find yourself in a tomb wrapped in burial clothes, and then to be led out only to hear Jesus say, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go?”
We have nothing in the gospels about how Lazarus reacted. We see his sister Mary fall at the feet of Jesus, but what about Lazarus? Did he fall at the feet of Jesus as well? Perhaps he was too dumbfounded to do anything but be led away?
How would you react if Jesus called you out of that tomb?
Do you understand that this is not a hypothetical question? Someday, hopefully, it will be current for you as you are called to eternal life! Can you imagine yourself in that scene?
John Chapter 11, Verses 25-26:
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
When I first read verse 26, I read it like this:
“Whoever lives” and “whoever believes in me” will never die.
Then, after I read it a few times, I began to read it like this:
“Whoever lives in me” and “whoever believes in me” will never die.
It may be a subtle difference, but in the end, it was the difference that gave me my reflection for this chapter.
What does it mean to “live in Jesus?”
How does the action of “living in Jesus” relate to the word resurrection?
What does “living even though he dies” mean? That phrasing does not seem to reference resurrection, but instead “never dying” at all, which is how the wording occurs in the restatement of the idea at the end of the sentence. Is “never dying” the same thing as resurrection, or something else, related to resurrection and yet distinct? If it is distinct, how can someone live and die at the same time?
The relationship between resurrection and life seems to be clear. We know that Jesus died on the Cross, was placed in the tomb, and then rose from that tomb. This is the Resurrection, capital “R.” In this chapter of John, we are also given the story of Lazarus, who died and is called from his tomb by Jesus. These are two instances of resurrection where the defining characteristic seems to be the passage of time. Resurrection is not instantaneous, which seems contrary to the inferences of “living even though he dies” or “never dying” at all.
When Jesus calls Himself “the resurrection and the life,” is He just declaring himself capable of raising Lazarus as a prefiguration of his own Resurrection to come later? Is He referring only to these two incidents? Or is there an expanded meaning to the word resurrection implied here, a meaning related to “never dying” at all?
In the last chapter, we found a deeper meaning to the idea of laying down one’s life. It started with the historical incident of the Crucifixion, but it expanded to encompass Jesus laying down His Divinity and our call to emulate this action by Jesus with the assistance and inspiration of Francis.
Is something similar going on with the historical incident of Jesus’ Resurrection? Is it also something we need to delve into more thoroughly before we can understand the full implications of this gospel teaching?
In the culture that we live in, death is an entirely negative concept. It is something to be avoided at all costs. Few of us can think of death not as an ending, but instead as a transition. We are too distracted from our spiritual lives to be comfortable and sure about the meaning of death.
Thus, death becomes something that is mostly defined by fear.
But as Franciscans, we are called to a different point of view. Our father Francis, at the end of his life, made it clear that he was not afraid of death at all. Francis was so comfortable with his coming bodily death that he embraced it as an opportunity for one last chance to teach. He wrote the final verse of his most famous work, The Canticle of the Creatures, while he was literally on his death bed.
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin. Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will, for the second death shall do them no harm.
Note that Francis is “praising God through death.” No one can escape death, but, nonetheless, it is an occasion not for fear or anger, but for praise. The love that Francis carried through his life for God is not diminished at the end. The faith that was built during his life carries him joyfully to the close, making this expression of praise not only possible, but appropriate.
Given the way he lived his life, no other approach to death by Francis would make sense.
Also note the words “in your most holy will.” It should be safe to assume that one of the reasons that Francis is able to praise God through death is he knows himself to have resided in God’s Will throughout his life. As a result, he feels not afraid, but confident and even blessed. He does not fear his death as an end or a potential condemnation, but instead sees it as an opportunity to move closer to God. He may not know precisely what the next life will entail, but he is looking forward to the transition to that next life because he knows, whatever he finds, that he will be safe from harm because he pursued God’s Will so diligently during his stay on earth.
If Francis had instead written “blessed are those whom death will find living in You,” would the meaning be any different?
Francis is confident about being blessed in death because he knows he has fulfilled the words of Jesus found in the above verses of John. He has “lived in Jesus” because he has devoted himself to the gospel life and thus to following God’s most holy will. Francis reasonably expects to “live even though he dies” and/or to “never die” just as this gospel passage promises.
Living in God, living in Jesus, can be understood to be the same thing as living according to God’s Will. We still need to understand how to do that, but because we know that Francis accomplished this goal, we can be confident that he can show us the way.
It is not something I would ever have expected to do, but I am also going to give you the footnote related to the above passage from Francis of Assisi: Early Documents.
Fulgentius of Rome comments on these verses in his treatise on forgiveness. “Here on earth they are changed by the first resurrection, in which they are enlightened and converted, thus passing from death to life, sinfulness to holiness, unbelief to faith, and evil actions to holy life. For this reason the second death has no power over them….As the first resurrection consists of the conversion of the heart, so the second death consists of unending torment.
I have chosen to do this because the footnote contains the word resurrection twice. The verses from the Canticle themselves do not seem to reference resurrection at all, yet the footnote centers on it.
However, the context of the word resurrection is atypical. It is not focused on the historical act of Jesus rising from the tomb as we might expect. Instead, the context centers on conversion during the time we are living on this earth.
“They are changed by the first resurrection.”
“The first resurrection consists of the conversion of the heart.”
This suggests to us that we should begin looking for the deeper meaning of the gospel passage.
The implication is that the first Resurrection, the Resurrection of Jesus, is not a piece of distant history to be observed from the outside. Instead, it is something internal to us, something that will work within us to “enlighten and convert” us on a day to day basis if we let it. It is, to use the word from the introduction to this chapter, current in our lives.
Jesus’ Resurrection, when it is made present in our prayer lives, is a catalyst for conversion. If you think about it, that makes perfect sense. How could we contemplate the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus and not be changed if we take it seriously?
The footnote describes this conversion centered resurrection as “passing from death to life.” This then hearkens to the ideas of “living even though he dies” and/or to “never dying” from the gospel verses. The further inference is that “passing from death to life” (resurrection) is not a one-time occurrence that happens at the end of our bodily lives but is instead something meant to happen on an ongoing basis.
As Franciscans, the word “ongoing” should set off bells and whistles in our heads. It should remind us immediately of our profession and our commitment to ongoing conversion as part of that profession.
The SFO Rule, in article seven, says this regarding conversion:
…..let them conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the gospel itself calls “conversion.” Human frailty makes it necessary that this conversion be carried out daily.
The gospel instructs us to “live in Jesus.” Francis instructs us to place ourselves “in God’s most holy will.” The rule, in relation to conversion, tells us to “conform our thoughts and deeds to those of Christ.” All statements of the same concept.
I would just ask you to consider whether it is possible to “conform your thoughts and deeds to those of Christ” if you are not consistently immersed in the gospels?
The answer is, of course, no. This means that the act of “living in Jesus,” the act we are called to in this chapter of John, is at the core of the Franciscan charism. Our rule, in article 4, calls us to go from gospel to life and life to gospel so that Jesus becomes the center of our life. This act of immersion, which leads to conformance and conversion, is what “living in Jesus” is all about and it must be “carried out daily” because of our “frail human nature.”
The daily nature of our need for immersion then fits snugly with the discussion of resurrection and conversion suggested by the footnote. Resurrection is not a single event that happens once at the end of our life if we manage to be good girls and boys. Our sinfulness always leaves us in some lesser or greater state of death. Therefore, we are always in need of resurrection, in need of moving from death to life. The Resurrection of Jesus is a beacon that inspires us to fulfill our ongoing need for continual conversion and resurrection, for a continual movement away from death toward life, away from sin towards the Will of God.
Our Franciscan efforts at continual conversion then translate into a state of ongoing resurrection. When we work at this through gospel immersion, we are fulfilling the instruction from this chapter of John to “live in Jesus.”
It is how we can be alive and dead at the same time. It is how we can ultimately never die at all.
If we acknowledge our frailty as the rule suggests and embrace continual daily conversion, a cycle develops. Our frailty causes us, at times, to swing back toward death. But immersion and conversion take us toward an ongoing resurrection that moves us back toward life again. There is then resurrection on both ends of this definition of conversion. Resurrection both leads to conversion and is the result of conversion. There is a circle at work, conversion and resurrection building on one another.
We may take two steps forward and one step back, but so long as we are always committed to immersion in the gospels, we should be able to stay on a course of conversion and ongoing resurrection that ultimately leads us to the position where, by the end, we can be confident that we have followed in Francis’ footsteps and can praise God as he did as we meet Sister Bodily Death when our individual time comes.
The SFO Rule, in article 19, at the very end of Chapter Two, The Way of Life, speaks directly to this possibility. It says this:
Since they are immersed in the resurrection of Christ, which gives true meaning to Sister Death, let them serenely trend toward the ultimate encounter with the Father.
I did not place the word immersed in the Rule in this location. Nor the word resurrection. I would like to be able to take credit for these words coming together, linking the verses of the Gospel, the Canticle of the Creatures, the footnote and the sections of the rule to each other, but I can’t. Still, there they are, neatly summarizing the entire reflection.
When we immerse ourselves in the gospels, we are immersing ourselves in resurrection not just as we read this Chapter of John or the Passion accounts but in every chapter of every gospel. The entirety of the gospels is an instruction on how to “live in Jesus,” and therefore on how to experience the ongoing conversion and continual resurrection that leads to living while dying and ultimately never dying at all.
This is what Jesus means when He says that He is the Resurrection and the Life. He is not the Resurrection only on the day of Resurrection. His every movement, His every teaching, His entire being is a guide to an ongoing resurrection that leads to continuous conversion away from sin, from death to the continuous Life found when we choose to reside in Him, to follow His Will, and to conform ourselves to Him via the gospels.
Just as in the last chapter, where the meaning behind laying down one’s life was expanded, the same thing happens here with the idea of resurrection. Resurrection is not a single event in history, but instead part of the ongoing process that leads us from death to life at all points in our existence.
For conversion to be possible, we must immerse ourselves in Jesus via the gospels. To the extent that we do so, the door to a life based on ongoing resurrection is opened to us. We “live even though we die” in so much as we practice the cycle of resurrection and conversion rooted in the decision to “live in Jesus.”
That then gives true meaning to Sister Death as the rule suggests, not as an end, but as a loving companion during a lifetime of transition. It is what allowed Francis to praise God as Sister Death approached and what should allow us to do the same. It is what allows us to understand that ongoing conversion gives us the full confidence we need to “serenely trend toward the ultimate encounter with the Father” not just at the end of our lives, but throughout them.
Sometimes words are just inadequate. I have read and reread my reflection many times now and I know that the words I used to describe what I experienced by immersing myself in this gospel chapter are insufficient.
I used the word “death” to describe my state of sinfulness because no other word seems to suffice. The word resurrection describes an event in history, but I have attempted to extend its meaning here to describe something else, no doubt poorly.
I hope this does not lead to confusion. Death and resurrection seem to be straightforward words, but they turn out to be anything but. Somehow, because of the brilliance of Jesus, they have extended meanings which other words in our language struggle to encompass.
In Volume Three of Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, there are two versions of a work called A Mirror of Perfection. The work is based on material from the time of Francis that was discovered in hermitages and residences of the Order in the early 1300s.
Because my words feel so inadequate, I am going to rely on the very end of the second version of this work to summarize this reflection for me. Hopefully, it begins to describe what you and I will experience when our bodily life comes to its end, assuming we manage to “live in Jesus” as we are called to do.
Feel free to reread and answer the questions in the section with the focus verses, but please also pray over the passage below. This is how Sister Death carried Francis to Jesus just after he composed the last verse of the Canticle of the Creatures. We should long to experience the same.
After saying these things, he was carried to Saint Mary’s where, having completed the fortieth year of his life, the twentieth year of perfect penance, in the year of the Lord one thousand, two hundred and twenty-six, on the fourth day before the Nones of October, he passed to the Lord Jesus Christ Whom he loved with his whole heart, with his whole mind, with his whole soul, and with all his strength, with a most burning desire, and with the fullness of affection, following Him most perfectly, hastening swiftly after Him, and, at last, attaining Him most gloriously, Who lives and reigns with the Father and Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.
The final chapter is entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” This chapter begins with suggestions on what several different groups might do to help maintain the momentum begun by the boycott. The book then ends with a discussion about what “the Negro himself” must do going forward. This section of the book is a detailed essay on the idea of nonviolence and how it can be employed to ensure that Negroes are ultimately successful in their quest for equality.
I am so impressed by what Dr. King wrote that I feel no choice but to include it here in its entirety. So here, in his own words, is Dr. King’s passionate plea for Negroes in particular and the nation in general to embrace the ideals of nonviolence as they seek to promote the general welfare and the pursuit of happiness for all in the days that were to come. His message is every bit as relevant today as it was sixty years ago.
Finally, the Negro himself has a decisive role to play if integration is to become a reality. Indeed, if first-class citizenship is to become a reality for the Negro he must assume primary responsibility for making it so. Integration is not some lavish dish that the federal government or the white liberal will pass out on a silver platter while the Negro merely furnishes the appetite. One of the most damaging effects of past segregation on the personality of the Negro may well be that he has been victimized with the delusion that others should be more concerned than himself about his citizenship rights.
In this period of social change, the Negro must come to see that there is much he himself can do about his plight. He may be uneducated or poverty-stricken, but these handicaps must not prevent him from seeing that he has within his being the power to alter his fate. The Negro can take direct action against injustice without waiting for the government to act or a majority to agree with him or a court to rule in his favor.
Oppressed people deal with their oppression in three characteristic ways. One way is acquiescence: the oppressed resign themselves to their doom. They tacitly adjust themselves to oppression, and thereby become conditioned to it. In every movement toward freedom some of the oppressed prefer to remain oppressed. Almost 2800 years ago Moses set out to lead the children of Israel from the slavery of Egypt to the freedom of the promised land. He soon discovered that slaves do not always welcome their deliverers. They become accustomed to being slaves. They would rather bear the ills they have, as Shakespeare pointed out, than flee to others they know not of. They prefer the “fleshpots of Egypt” to the ordeals of emancipation.
There is such a thing as the freedom of exhaustion. Some people are so worn down by the yoke of oppression that they give up. A few years ago, in the slum areas of Atlanta, a Negro guitarist used to sing almost daily: “Ben down so long that down don’t bother me.” This is the type of negative freedom and resignation that often engulfs the life of the oppressed.
But this is not the way out. To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system; thereby the oppressed become as evil as the oppressor. Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. The oppressed must never allow the conscience of the oppressor to slumber. Religion reminds every man that he is his brother’s keeper. To accept injustice or segregation passively is to say to the oppressor that his actions are morally right. It is a way of allowing his conscience to fall asleep. At this moment, the oppressed fails to be his brother’s keeper. So, acquiescence – while often the easier way – is not the moral way. It is the way of the coward. The Negro cannot win the respect of his oppressor by acquiescing; he merely increases his oppressor’s arrogance and contempt. Acquiescence is interpreted as proof of the Negro’s inferiority. The Negro cannot win the respect of the white people of the South or the peoples of the world if he is willing to sell the future of his children for his personal and immediate comfort and safety.
A second way that oppressed people sometimes deal with oppression is to resort to physical violence and corroding hatred. Violence often brings momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones.
Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. A voice echoes through time saying to every potential Peter, “Put up your sword.” History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that failed to follow this command.
If the American Negro and other victims of oppression succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle for freedom, future generations will be the recipients of a desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. Violence is not the way.
The third way open to oppressed people in their quest for freedom is the way of nonviolent resistance. Like the synthesis in Hegelian philosophy, the principle of nonviolent resistance seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites – acquiescence and violence – while avoiding the extremes and immoralities of both. The nonviolent resister agrees with the person who acquiesces that one should not be physically aggressive toward his opponent, but he balances the equation by agreeing with the person of violence that evil must be resisted. He avoids the nonresistance of the former and the violent resistance of the latter. With nonviolent resistance, no individual or group need submit to any wrong, nor need anyone resort to violence in order to right a wrong.
It seems to me that this is the method that must guide the actions of the Negro in the present crisis in race relations. Through nonviolent resistance the Negro will be able to rise to the noble height of opposing the unjust system while loving the perpetrators of the system. The Negro must work passionately and unrelentingly for full stature as a citizen, but he must not use inferior methods to gain it. He must never come to terms with falsehood, malice, hate or destruction.
Nonviolent resistance makes it possible for the Negro to remain in the South and struggle for his rights. The Negro’s problem will not be solved by running away. He cannot listen to the glib suggestion of those who would urge him to migrate en masse to other sections of the country. By grasping his great opportunity in the South, he can make a lasting contribution to the moral strength of the nation and set a sublime example of courage for generations yet unborn.
By nonviolent resistance, the Negro can also enlist all men of good will in his struggle for equality. The problem is not a purely racial one, with Negros set against whites. In the end, it is not a struggle between people at all, but a tension between justice and injustice. Nonviolent resistance is not aimed against oppressors but against oppression. Under its banner consciences, not racial groups, are enlisted.
If the Negro is to achieve the goal of integration, he must organize himself into a militant and nonviolent mass movement. All three elements are indispensable. The movement for equality and justice can only be a success if it has both a mass and militant character; the barriers to be overcome require both. Nonviolence is an imperative in order to bring about ultimate community.
A mass movement of a militant quality that is not at the same time committed to nonviolence tends to generate conflict, which in turn breeds anarchy. The support of the participants and the sympathy of the uncommitted are both inhibited by the threat that bloodshed will engulf the community. This reaction in turn encourages the opposition to threaten and resort to force. When, however, the mass movement repudiates violence while moving resolutely toward its goal, its opponents are revealed as the instigators and practitioners of violence if it occurs. Then public support is magnetically attracted to the advocates of nonviolence, while those who employ violence are literally disarmed by overwhelming sentiment against their stand.
Only through a nonviolent approach can fears of the white community be mitigated. A guilt-ridden white minority lives in fear that if the Negro should ever attain power, he would act without restraint or pity to revenge the injustices and brutality of the years. It is something like a parent who continually mistreats a son. One day that parent raises his hand to strike the son, only to discover the son is now as tall as he is. The parent is suddenly afraid – fearful that the son will use his new physical power to repay his parent for all the blows of the past.
The Negro, once a helpless child, has now grown up politically, culturally, and economically. Many white men fear retaliation. The job of the Negro is to show them that they have nothing to fear, that the Negro understands and forgives and is ready to forget the past. He must convince the white man that all he seeks is justice, for both himself and the white man. A mass movement exercising nonviolence is an object lesson in power under discipline, a demonstration to the white community that if such a movement attained a degree of strength, it would use its power creatively and not vengefully.
Nonviolence can touch men where law cannot reach them. When the law regulates behavior, it plays an indirect part in molding public sentiment. The enforcement of the law is itself a form of peaceful persuasion. But the law needs help. The courts can order desegregation of the public schools. But what can be done to mitigate the fears, to disperse the hatred, violence, and irrationality gathered around school integration, to take the initiative out of the hands of racial demagogues, to release respect for the law? In the end, for laws to be obeyed, men must believe they are right.
Here nonviolence comes in as the ultimate form of persuasion. It is the method which seeks to implement the just law by appealing to the conscience of the great decent majority who through blindness, fear, pride, or irrationality have allowed their consciences to sleep.
The nonviolent resisters can summarize their message in the following simple terms: We will take direct action against injustice without waiting for other agencies to act. We will not obey unjust laws or submit to unjust practices. We will do this peacefully, openly, cheerfully because our aim is to persuade. We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself. We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts. We will always be willing to talk and seek fair compromise, but we are ready to suffer when necessary and even risk our lives to become witnesses to the truth as we see it.
The way of nonviolence means a willingness to suffer and sacrifice. It may mean going to jail. If such is the case the resister must be willing to fill the jail houses of the South. It may even mean physical death. But if physical death is the price that a man must pay to free his children and his white brethren from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing could be more redemptive.
What is the Negro’s best defense against acts of violence inflicted upon him? As Dr. Kenneth Clark has said so eloquently, “His only defense is to meet every act of barbarity, illegality, cruelty and injustice toward an individual Negro with the fact that 100 more Negros will present themselves in his place as potential victims.” Every time one Negro school teacher is fired for believing in integration, a thousand others should be ready to take the same stand. If the oppressors bomb the home of one Negro for his protest, they must be made to realize that to press back the rising tide of the Negro’s courage they will have to bomb hundreds more, and even then they will fail.
Faced with this dynamic unity, this amazing self-respect, this willingness to suffer, and the refusal to hit back, the oppressor will find, as oppressors have always found, that he is glutted with his own barbarity. Forced to stand before the world and his God splattered with the blood of his brother, he will call an end to his self-defeating massacre.
American Negroes must come to the point where they can say to their white brothers, paraphrasing the words of Gandhi: “We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you, but we cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws. Do to us what you will, and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children; send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities and drag us out on some wayside road, beating us and leaving us half dead, and we will still love you. But we will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process.”
Realism impels me to admit that many Negroes will find it difficult to follow the path of nonviolence. Some will consider it senseless; some will argue that they have neither the strength nor the courage to join in such a mass demonstration of nonviolent action. As E. Franklin Frazier points out in Black Bourgeoisie, many Negroes are occupied in a middle-class struggle for status and prestige. They are more concerned about “conspicuous consumption” than about the cause of justice and are probably not prepared for the ordeals and sacrifices involved in nonviolent action. Furthermore, however, the success of this method is not dependent on unanimous acceptance. A few Negroes in every community, unswervingly committed to the nonviolent way, can persuade hundreds of others at least to use nonviolence as a technique and serve as a moral force to awaken the slumbering national conscience. Thoreau was thinking of such a creative minority when he said: “I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name – if ten honest men only – aye, if one honest man, in the state of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from the copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be, what is once well done is done forever.”
Mahatma Gandhi never had more than one hundred persons absolutely committed to his philosophy. But with this small group of devoted followers, he galvanized the whole of India, and through a magnificent feat of nonviolence challenged the might of the British Empire and won freedom for his people.
This method of nonviolence will not work miracles overnight. Men are not easily moved from their mental ruts, their prejudiced and irrational feelings. When the underprivileged demand freedom, the privileged first react with bitterness and resistance. Even when the demands are couched in nonviolent terms, the initial response is the same. Nehru once remarked that the British were never so angry as when the Indians resisted them with nonviolence, that he never saw eyes so full of hate as those of the British troops to whom he turned the other cheek when they beat him with lathis. But nonviolent resistance at least changed the minds and hearts of the Indians, however impervious the British may have appeared. “We cast away our fear,” says Nehru. And in the end the British not only granted freedom to India but came to have a new respect for the Indians. Today a mutual friendship based on complete equality exists between these two peoples within the Commonwealth.
In the South, too, the initial reaction to Negro resistance has been bitter. I do not predict that a similar happy ending will come to Montgomery in a few months, because integration is more complicated than independence. But I know that the Negroes of Montgomery are already walking straighter because of the protest. And I expect that this generation of Negro children throughout the United States will grow up stronger and better because of the courage, the dignity, and the suffering of the nine children of Little Rock and their counterparts in Nashville, Clinton and Sturges. And I believe that the white people of this country are being affected too, that beneath the surface this nations’ conscience is being stirred.
The nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had. Finally, it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality.
I suggest this approach because I think it is the only way to reestablish the broken community. Court orders and federal enforcement agencies will be of inestimable value in achieving desegregation. But desegregation is only a partial, though necessary, step toward the ultimate goal which we seek to realize. Desegregation will break down the legal barriers and bring men together physically. But something must happen so to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right. In other words, our ultimate goal is integration which is genuine intergroup and interpersonal living. Only through nonviolence can this goal be attained, for the aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of the beloved community.
It is becoming clear that the Negro is in for a season of suffering. As victories for civil rights mount in the federal courts, angry passions and deep prejudices are further aroused. The mountain of state and local segregation laws still stands. Negro leaders continue to be arrested and harassed under city ordinances, and their homes continue to be bombed. State laws continue to be enacted to circumvent integration. I pray that, recognizing the necessity of suffering, the Negro will make of it a virtue. To suffer in a righteous cause is to grow to our humanity’s full stature. If only to save himself from bitterness, the Negro needs the vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transfigure himself and American society. If he has to go to jail for the cause of freedom, let him enter it in the fashion Gandhi urged his countrymen, “as the bridegroom enters the bride’s chamber” — that is, with a little trepidation but with a great expectation.
Nonviolence is a way of humility and self-restraint. We Negroes talk a great deal about our rights, and rightly so. We proudly proclaim that three-fourths of the people of the world are colored. We have the privilege of watching in our generation the great drama of freedom and independence as it unfolds in Asia and Africa. All of these things are in line with the work of providence. We must be sure, however, that we accept them in the right spirit. In an effort to achieve freedom in America, Asia, and Africa we must not try to leap from a position of disadvantage to one of advantage, thus subverting justice. We must seek democracy and not the substitution of one tyranny for another. Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man. We must not become victimized with a philosophy of black supremacy. God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men, and brown men, and yellow men; God is interested in t he freedom of the whole human race.
The nonviolent approach provides an answer to the long debated question of gradualism versus immediacy. One the one hand it prevents one from falling into the sort of patience which is an excuse for do-nothingism and escapism, ending up in standstillism. On the other hand, it saves one from the irresponsible words which estrange without reconciling and the hasty judgment which is blind to the necessities of social process. It recognizes the need for moving toward the goal of justice with wise restraint and calm reasonableness. But it also recognizes the immorality of slowing up in the move toward justice and capitulating to the guardians of an unjust status quo. It recognizes that social change cannot come overnight. But it causes one to work as if it were a possibility the next morning.
Through nonviolence we avoid the temptation of taking on the psychology of victors. Thanks largely to the noble and invaluable work of the NAACP, we have won great victories in the federal courts. But we must not be self-satisfied. We must respond to every decision with an understanding of those who have opposed us, and with acceptance of the new adjustments that the court orders pose for them. We must act in such a way that our victories will be triumphs for good will in all med, white and Negro.
Nonviolence is essentially a positive concept. Its corollary must always be growth. On the one hand nonviolence requires noncooperation with evil; on the other hand, it requires cooperation with the constructive forces of good. Without this constructive aspect noncooperation ends where it begins. Therefore, the Negro must get to work on a program with a broad range of positive goals.
………….. (Here I am skipping eight paragraphs related to the “broad range of positive goals” that speak to economics, voting, personal standards, etc. and little to the idea of nonviolence. The last paragraph is then the last paragraph of the entire book.) ……………………………………………………………
This is a great hour for the Negro. The challenge is here. To become the instruments of a great idea is a privilege that history gives only occasionally. Arnold Toybee says in A Study of History that it may be the Negro who will give the new spiritual dynamic to Western civilization that it so desperately needs to survive. I hope this is possible. The spiritual power that the Negro can radiate to the world comes from love, understanding, good will and nonviolence. It may even be possible for the Negro, through adherence to nonviolence, so to challenge the nations of the world that they will seriously seek an alternative to war and destruction. In a day when Sputniks and Explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, nobody can win a war. Today the choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. The Negro may be God’s appeal to this age – an age drifting rapidly to its doom. The eternal appeal takes the form of a warning: “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
This reflection appears today in a special edition newsletter published by the Our Lady of Indiana region. We normally get together for “Unity Day” in early August for fellowship as an entire region. Because of the pandemic, the physical gathering was cancelled this year. Instead, we asked our scheduled speaker for a reflection on his planned topic (Mary the Immaculata as seen through the eyes of Maximillian Kolbe.) Then several of us wrote reflections on Mary for the newsletter to complement his.
As I started work on my next post for the formation series “On Saying Yes” (by reflecting on the Annunciation and the rest of chapter One of the gospel of Luke), I realized that this reflection fits nicely as an introduction to where I am headed.
Tasked with the need to write about the relationship between Mary and Francis, I started by looking through the Index to the Sources for references to Mary in the writings. As I reviewed the occurrences of Mary’s name, I found two immediate themes I might reflect upon. (There are surely others.)
The first has to do with Mary as Advocate. In Chapter CL of The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, Thomas of Celano records Francis’ specific wish that Mary be “Advocate of the Order.” He describes her selection for this role as “giving great joy.” Later, Mary is also portrayed as Francis’ personal advocate. At the beginning of Chapter Three of his Major Legend, Bonaventure tells us Francis “begged her …… to become his advocate” and that “through the merits of the Mother of Mercy, he conceived and brought to birth the spirit of Gospel truth.”
Our Rule confirms Mary in this role in Article Nine as it names her “Protectress and Advocate” and calls on us to “express our ardent love” for her.
Mary was clearly instrumental in the founding of the religion that we, 800 years later, still seek to live out. As you will see, I do not wish to diminish her role as Advocate or as a primary focus of anyone’s prayer life. But, at least for me, this is a theme of Mary that I am familiar with. Instead, I am choosing to concentrate on the other theme that struck me as I went through the Sources. This has to do with Mary as bearer of the virtue indicated by the title “Lady Holy Poverty” (to quote Francis from A Salutation of the Virtues).
Coming into this I had not drawn a distinct connection between Mary, Mother of God and the Lady Poverty that Francis sought as his bride. (I am not implying that Francis thought of Mary as his bride. Francis acknowledged Mary as the bride of the Holy Spirit so it does not follow that Francis would think of himself as wedding her.) I did not generally think of Mary, at least in Franciscan terms, as an archetype of virtue as Francis did. I thought of her in that role of Advocate. Thus I must admit to a disconnect between Mary and the concept of Poverty in my less than fully mature conception of Franciscan thought.
As I looked through the Sources, I found that disconnect challenged. The passage that really brought this home to me is something I do not recall hearing before. It occurs in Chapter CLI of The Remembrance of the Desire of the Soul, the chapter right after the reference to Mary as Advocate given above:
He (Francis) could not recall without tears the great want surrounding the little, poor Virgin on that day (Christmas). One day when he was sitting down to dinner a brother mentioned the poverty of the blessed Virgin, and reflected on the want of Christ her Son. No sooner had he heard this than he got up from the table, groaning with sobs of pain, and bathed in tears ate the rest of his bread on the naked ground.
Take a moment and place yourself in that scene. Picture yourself in the time of Francis, in a handmade lean-to lit only by daylight coming through a door open to the elements. See a brother in his habit mention the poverty of Mary and Jesus. Then see Francis get up, “groaning with sobs of pain,” and move to the dirt floor to finish his meal.
Can you bring yourself to sob in response to the privation of Mary and Jesus? Not me. Relative to this, there is no way my commitment to Spiritual Poverty could ever be sufficient. The scene challenges everything about the way I live. How, as Francis’ follower, can I hope to match the empathy he had for the Poverty of Mary and Jesus?
Article Eleven of the Rule makes the task both more difficult and more urgent. The example of Francis is hard enough to follow, but this article tells us that “…… Christ chose for Himself and his Mother a poor and humble life.” The Poverty of Mary and Jesus is not happenstance. It is a deliberate choice by Jesus. Acknowledging that choice is critical to all Franciscans as they “strive to purify their hearts ….. as pilgrims and strangers on their way to the home of the Father.”
Remember that formation rests on three pillars. The third, the gospels, provides the foundation for this article of the Rule. The evidence of Mary and Jesus rejecting worldliness in their lives begins with the Christmas story (which is antecedent to Francis’ sobbing as recounted above) and runs unchecked through the length of the gospels to His death on the Cross:
Jesus could have chosen to be born under any circumstances. He chose a manger in Bethlehem.
He could have chosen to be born anonymously, in complete safety. He chose to send the Magi to Herod and thus an early childhood in exile.
He could have chosen to grow up anywhere. He chose the backwater of Nazareth instead of a palace in Jerusalem.
He could have chosen a comfortable home as an adult. He chose an itinerant lifestyle, dependent on the charity of others, with “no place to lay his head.”
He could have chosen to live to an old age. He chose the Poverty of death on the Cross.
These are examples of lifestyle (there are many more), not quotes from His teaching. Jesus did not just teach Poverty, He personified it. Our decisions about how we implement Poverty in our own lives are not just attempts to follow theoretical instructions. They are attempts to follow the corporeal example of both Jesus and Francis, which makes them more urgent.
Because of our formation experiences, it is no surprise when we are reminded how literally Francis followed the example of Christ in choosing a poor and humble life. For me, unfortunately, it is also no surprise that when I reflect on my life, I find my emulation of the pattern of first Jesus and then Francis to be significantly wanting.
Thank goodness, then, that I have Mary as my personal Advocate and Advocate of the order. I crave her intercession in my prayer life as I desperately seek conversion to the ideals of Poverty that I know I must pursue more diligently. I also rely on her support for the OFS as it provides “the fraternal bonds of community that will always be my help” as I attempt to sincerely embrace a lifestyle that brings me into closer communion with the design of Jesus and Francis.
And further thank goodness that Mary is an Advocate who can identify precisely with my shortcomings. She lived a fruitful, human experience of Poverty under the guidance of her Son. Who better to present my prayers in pursuit of conversion than someone with personal experience living out the ideals that I am striving for so imperfectly?
Julian the Apostate said “Christians were making Romans look bad because they were offering charity not just to other Christians, but to non-Christians as well.” This “love-in-action” was a major catalyst in lifting Christianity to its place as the dominant religion of the west. “Love-in-action” does not seem to be a direct example of dialogue. Do you agree, however, with David and Bill, that it can open pathways to deeper conversations and thus help Peace to thrive in our world?
Are you a person who likes to listen to the stories of others? Or are you more likely to find someone else’s story tedious? When I first listened to these podcasts, I had to admit to myself that I probably fell in the latter category. It made me realize that this is something I had to work on if I were to become a successful peacemaker. Is there anything else in these two podcasts that made you think, “I need to work on that in order to become a better listener and thus a better peacemaker?
Some of the traits of St. Francis that we most admire seem to be traits that a good listener would have. A simple approach to the world, humility and a respect for Creation (which naturally translates into a respect for all our brothers and sisters) were mentioned. Are these traits that you already equated with being a good listener, or did you have to consider this before you agreed, or disagreed?
Bill and Dave talk about people as a commodity. When Dave became the minister for his region, he set himself a goal of putting “people before tasks.” Jesus was good at this. He often embraced interruption in order to listen to someone who might not have otherwise been on his radar. Think perhaps of blind Bartimaeus in Mark, Chapter 10. Do you feel the need to work at putting “people before tasks” as part of your development as a peacemaker?
Dave described his dinner encounter with former national minister Tom Bello by saying that Tom made him feel that “he was the most important person in the world.” He described this as a spiritual gift that Tom had cultivated. Do you know someone with that same gift? If you think about it, are there things you can do to cultivate this skill in yourself? How would improving this quality in yourself make you a better peacemaker?
Further Thought: Dave summarizes the overall discussion by reinforcing one last time that the unceasing build up of Peace depends on dialogue. We must be willing to listen to the human story of the other. By the end of the dialogue, we may not find ourselves in agreement but we accept that it’s ok to have differences. The one thing we do agree on is our responsibility to respect each other as human beings created in the image of God. That sounds easy on the surface, but if the current polarization in our culture is any indication, it surely is not.
Am I, in the role of peacemaker that the gospels and the Rule calls me to, willing to respect the other even if they do not return that respect?
If enough of us are willing to risk unreturned respect, could that serve as a ground zero for a resurgence of Peace and unity in our world?
Is this a risk that Francis and Jesus took? Must we take it as well if we are to emulate them?