Pope Francis: When Distanced, Draw Near

From the Vatican News coverage of the Pope’s homily during Mass on March 18.

By Bill Schmitt, OFS (from OnWord.net | March 19)

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.

Chapter 10: Conclusion

The Acts of the Apostles, 14: 8-10:

In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out; “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.

The Acts of the Apostles, 14: 21-22:

They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. 

The Letter of Paul to the Romans, 1: 18-20:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

I have been reading the Acts of the Apostles for the last several weeks.  I read chapter fifteen this morning.  Then, for no pressing reason, I skipped ahead to the first chapter of the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans.  I found the last couple chapters of Acts a little dry, more historical than instructive, so I wanted to see if the next book of the New Testament would get back to teaching mode.

If you reference the quotes above, you can see that the synergy between what I discovered on my journey and what I have been encountering in Scripture has not ceased.  Even when the material feels dry, it seems that every chapter has one or two nuggets that match perfectly with conclusions I have already drawn. 

The first quote speaks directly to the gospel passage from chapter five of Mark that I referenced at the end of chapter two.  The woman with internal bleeding believed that “if I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.”  Here, Paul looks at a cripple sitting in a synagogue, sees the same measure of belief in his soul, and is able to use that belief to cure the man of his affliction.  The importance of faith and belief as a primary component of my journey is thus reinforced.  

The second quote speaks directly to the entire discussion on adversity that took place in chapter seven.  If the Father allowed the Son to suffer the adversity of the Cross, if the Father turned that greatest of evils into the greatest of Goods, then I should welcome every adversity in my life as an opportunity to draw closer to Christ and understand Him better.  Paul is giving his gentile disciples the exact same message.  The idea that adversity is central to the plan of God is highlighted once again.

The third quote speaks against the worldliness that I must deny myself if I am going to progress from Penance and Metanoia to Spiritual Poverty.  It also speaks to the ongoing presence of God in His Creation.  Two of the main themes from my journey are emphasized in these three short verses of Scripture.  When I am present to the words I read in both Acts and the Epistles of Paul, it is astonishing how consistent Scriptural messaging is revealed to be. 

Each of these sets of verses are reinforcements of the great blessings that grew out of my trip.  I can contemplate them in my morning Lectio Divina and take them into my day, repeating and remembering them so they build in me and become part of the core devotion to God that helps me maintain my gratitude, Spiritual Poverty, and desire to adhere to the Will of God.  If I absorb them and add them to the internal guideposts I have already erected on the road to eternal encounter, they will contribute greatly to the overall conversion I am seeking.


As I think about bringing this work to its conclusion, I have two last thoughts I wish to express.

The first has to do with practical application. 

In the last reflection, I asserted that the first factor in discernment is a sincere desire to do the Will of God.  Because I found no short and succinct checklist I could reference as I decide which concrete task to tackle next, the importance of a genuine longing to adhere to His Will is magnified.  Making sure my commitment is earnest sounds trite, but it is exceedingly difficult to accomplish.  I have to work at developing this good habit continuously. 

If I live this habit, then I can safely choose between all the good possibilities in front of me, assured by the words of Fr. Jeremias that “I will not easily offend against the Divine Will.”  If I am “such a son as this, the Almighty will not desert me, nor will He suffer me to wander far from His Will.”

I want to invite you to walk alongside me as I actually attempt to live out this premise.  In order to transform the theoretical to the practical, I want to find one concrete thing I can change in my life right now in order to help establish and mature this habit I am hoping to instill in myself. 

As a first step, I have begun pondering the following prayer.  If prior patterns repeat, it will evolve over time and become not something I compose, but something that God gives me, just like other prayers I have shared in previous reflections.  It is written in the first person, as if it applies to me, because it does.  But it also applies to you.  When you read I, think not about me, but about yourself, and apply the thoughts and questions to your life and, in your own desire to develop the habit of wanting to do God’s Will persistently, commit yourself to finding and living out the answer you come up with.  Allow the prayer to evolve for you in whatever direction God suggests, so that this prayer will become something uniquely yours, given to you by the Holy Spirit: 


Right now, I am holding on to many things in my life that are completely and solely of my will and my will alone.  I know change needs to happen, but I have resisted that change because of the sinful habits I have accepted over the long years of my life.  Help me identify the one thing You would have me change in my life right now.  Instill in me the faith, belief, hope and joy that is required to overcome the worldly comfort and security my sinfulness falsely brings me.

What can I do right now to draw closer to you so that I will know God’s Will for my individual life?  What can I do right now to demonstrate my gratitude for the Love and Mercy bestowed on me by God via Your ongoing and saving Presence? 

Please, teach me to turn toward God unceasingly, in an attitude of complete Spiritual Poverty, with all my being, today and for all days going forward, by rectifying myself from this sin that is mine and mine alone. 

Holy Spirit, pray with me.  Perfect my prayer.  Help me to desire only that which you know I should rightly desire and to identify this one thing I need to change right now.  Sustain me as I seek to return God’s Love to Him properly and perfectly, for I cannot do so on my own.  Only with your assistance can I pray as deeply and fully as I need and wish to pray. 

Not my will, Lord, but yours be done!

The goal is not to completely overhaul and reform my life overnight.  St. Augustine could not do this, nor could St. Francis.  God knows this is impossible and, so long as my desire to perform His Will is maintained, He will accept my human frailty and my need to work at conversion over time.

To provide context to my efforts, here again is Article Seven from the OFS Rule to act as one final reminder about the nature of my human frailty and my need to approach Jesus from a position of humility daily:

United by their vocation as “brothers and sisters of penance,” and motivated by the dynamic power of the gospel, 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.

I can be confident that God’s Will at this moment is that I change one thing, probably one relatively small thing, as a first step.  The answer to the question in the prayer might be so small that it seems meaningless at first, and it might be a positive change (do this) instead of a negative change (don’t do that).  It might be as easy as filling or emptying the dishwasher every day instead of leaving it for my wife to do.  Or it might mean adding fifteen minutes of spiritual reading to my daily routine ahead of turning on the TV at night. 

I should remind myself often that nothing done in pursuit of the Will of God is meaningless.  No matter how easy this first shift might seem, if I do it faithfully, it will provide a beginning toward more substantial conversion.  I just need to make sure that it is not the last adjustment to occur.  If I begin to experience some success, I need to go back to the prayer and discern what the next step of conversion will be. 

When that next step is complete, I can do it again.  There are plenty of indications in these reflections about the circular nature of God’s Creation.  This is another one.   It is meant to be repeated over and over again, from this day forward until the day when God decides to transition me from this life to whatever is waiting next.  

This is the work of self-denial from chapter five.  This is the work that has the potential to create treasure in heaven.  As my commitment to transformation increases, I can already begin to see how God might lead me to include references to Love within this prayer.  Perhaps the Spirit will lead me to add something like this:


How can I enact God’s Will today by perfectly fulfilling my role in His Plan for Creation?

What can I do today that is certain to increase the amount of Love present in the Cosmos?

As my seeking progresses, the scope of my conversion will evolve accordingly.  My developing sense of Spiritual Poverty will move my focus from the internal to the external.  There will still be things about myself that need work, but the focus will begin to tend towards charity and the betterment of the world around me.  Inner conversion will be linked to good works.  Interior evolution will continue, but my efforts will display the new me and I will hopefully become a mirror that reflects Jesus into the world.  I will learn to actively participate in the acts of Love that are catalogued in the various quotes of the Rule listed in the reflection on Spiritual Poverty in chapter six.

As I evolve, I must be on guard to not become one of those who Jesus never knew despite the miraculous deeds they did in His Name (the opening quote from chapter eight.)  The conversion I undergo, the blessings associated with it, and the good that comes forth remains a gift from God.  I should not take pride in the transformation, but humbly acknowledge that I will still inevitably stray towards sinfulness.  I must seek to maintain the meekness of St. Francis at all times while welcoming adversity when it inevitably comes as correction, all the while joyful for the proximity to Jesus enabled by that adversity.

I should always be praying for interior conversion and always seeking the next step away from sin as I embrace a more complete turn toward God.  I should always seek the next cycle of practical improvement and always do so from a position of minority, gratitude and thanksgiving for the Love that God continually sends me in the form of His Son and the Holy Spirit.

To hearken back to chapter three and the Exhortation of St. Francis to Thanksgiving: 

Wherever we are, in every place, at every hour, at every time of day, every day and continually, let all of us truly and humbly believe, hold in our heart and love, honor, adore, serve, praise and bless, glorify and exalt, magnify and give thanks to the Most High and Supreme Eternal God, Trinity and Unity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Creator of all, Savior of all Who believe and hope in Him, and love Him, Who without beginning and end, is unchangeable, invisible, indescribable, ineffable, incomprehensible, unfathomable, blessed, praiseworthy, glorious, exalted, sublime, most high, gentle, lovable, delightful, and totally desirable above all else, forever.


In has been three weeks since I finished the draft of the section before this one.  Life intervened (my nephew and two nieces were placed in my home by the Department of Child Services), and I found myself distracted from the ability to finish this chapter.  I was able to continue my morning prayer routine during this time, I just did not have the luxury to write these last few words. 

This morning, I was reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians. 

In chapter five, I presented verses five through eight from chapter two of this letter.  The context was Jesus’ own self-denial.  He left all the glory and trappings of heaven behind in order to become a servant, obedient to His Father’s Will, obedient even to death on a cross. 

Just before the quote from chapter five were these words, verses one to four:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

The word “Love” could be emphasized here.  Or I could talk one last time about “being united with Christ,” or denying “selfish ambition,” or embracing “humility,” or valuing “others above myself.”  All of these themes are consistent with what I have written in the preceding reflections.  

But when I read these words, I immediately found one last synergy between Scripture and the final thought I wish to express.  That thought revolves around the idea of joy, and these words called me instantaneously to the task of finishing my writing. 

The last assertion I wish to make is this:

Unity with Christ ought to lead me toward the “complete joy” that Paul speaks of here. 

When I define the goal of my journey to be eternal encounter with God, it is an immense desire for this unity that I am expressing.  I expect that eternal unity with God in Heaven will leave me in a state of perpetual bliss.  To the extent that I can approximate this encounter during my earthly stay by uniting myself to Jesus, I should be filled with a joy that borders on indescribability.

Paul is asking the Philippians to be united, one to another, within an effort to have the same Love as Christ, to be one in Spirit with Him, and to be of one mind with Him.  Paul understands the joy that such a state of being brings because he is experiencing it in his own life.  He has found companions to share his devotion to Christ with, and he knows the joy that placing others above himself in this context of mutual love brings.  As such an attitude becomes pervasive throughout the entire nascent church, Paul’s level of joy is concurrently raised.  In order for Paul’s joy to be complete, this state of mutual love in Christ would need to be complete as well.  His greatest desire is therefore to share this state of being, this joy he possesses in community with all those that he considers his brothers and sisters in Christ.

This idea that unity with Christ and God should result in joy is found regularly in Scripture.  I have already touched upon it in the song of Mary from the first chapter of Luke.  When Mary uses the word “magnifies,” she is placing herself in close proximity to God.  This proximity results in rejoicing!

“My soul magnifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.”

Peter, in his first address at Pentecost, draws upon Psalm 16 to describe the link between joy and closeness to or eternal encounter with God:

I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
    apart from you I have no good thing.”
I keep my eyes always on the Lord. 
With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will live in hope,
    because you will not abandon me to the
grave, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

John the Baptist, in chapter three of the gospel of John, talks to his own disciples about how his joy has become complete due to the presence of Jesus.  John is content to be diminished, to simply move on to the state of complete joy that proximity to Jesus engenders.

They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”

To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”

In Mark chapter two, Jesus speaks about himself as the bridegroom.  He does not specifically mention joy, but the context makes it clear that while Jesus is present, His disciples should not be in a state of fasting or mourning.  Instead, they should be joyfully celebrating, as if at a wedding:

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

In chapter fifteen of John, Jesus speaks to His disciples about Love, the Will of God, and about how the joy of Jesus can be theirs if they remain steadfast to His commands.  If the disciples “remain in His love,” if they remain united to Jesus, they can assure that their own joy will be complete.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 

And finally, there is the witness of the good thief in chapter twenty-three of Luke.

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Dismas confesses his belief in Jesus and confesses his sins.  He places himself entirely in Jesus’ hands.  He places himself entirely at the Mercy of God.  The reward for his repentance is to join Jesus in paradise. 

This is the entire point of this entire work.  This is what I am seeking.  This is what I want.  I want to embrace Penance and Poverty completely and believe in the Mercy of Jesus and God with the confidence and sincerity that Dismas demonstrates here.  I want the example of Dismas to define the rest of my life and I want my desire to fulfill the Will of God to be the harbinger that makes my gratitude undeniably present to Christ my Savior despite my sinfulness.

I want to look at Christ and say, “Jesus, remember me as I hope to be fully united with you for as long as God Wills that I remain in this world, and then forever.”

And I want to hear Jesus respond, despite my unworthiness, “Truly, today you will be with me as you travel through the world, and then forever in paradise.”

Try and imagine the joy that Dismas experienced at the response he received from Jesus.

How joyful would I be to hear Jesus speak similar words to me, guaranteeing me an eternal encounter with Him in heaven? 

How joyful would you be to hear the same?


I am sure I could continue with other examples.  An entire book could be written on the relationship between joy and proximity to Jesus alone.  But hopefully, the point is made. 

To the extent you are successful in living the themes I have discussed in these reflections, you will inevitably draw closer to Jesus and God. 

The intimacy that results should fill you with joy!

In closing, my final request is this:

  • Be grateful to God for the Love that He shows you moment by moment through the blessings He bestows on you in the ongoing presence and sacrifice of His Son, Our Lord, Jesus Christ. 
  • Tend toward God with all your being, continuously, in an attitude of renewal, Penance, and Metanoia. 
  • Deny your worldly ambitions and embrace a posture of Spiritual Poverty that will help you remain focused on God completely, unconditionally, without reservation or distraction. 
  • Seek to know Jesus in Scripture and prayer so that you can fulfill your own desire to know and accomplish God’s Will for your life as wholeheartedly and resolutely as possible. 

In so doing, we can be united, one to another, within an effort to have the same Love as Christ, to be one in Spirit with Him, and to be of one mind with Him.   

Perhaps then we can help each other experience the “complete joy” that Paul speaks about in his Letter to the Philippians.

Back to Chapter Nine: Discerning the Will of God

Chapter Nine: Discerning the Will of God

The Grand Canyon at Dawn, circa 2007

The Gospel of John 6:29:

Jesus answered,“The work of God is this; to believe in the one he has sent.”

The Gospel of John 6:38-40:

For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.  And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

The Gospel of John 14:6-7:

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.   If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

Matthew 7:13-14, John 10:9:

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.  I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.

The last reflection ended with these words: “To succeed, I must have some idea about how to discern God’s Will in specific circumstances.”

When reading Heliotropium and other works on the Will of God, it is both fascinating and annoying to see how much time is devoted to the subject of “adversity.”  At times, these books seem unable to help themselves.  Every subject seems to find its way back to emphasizing that all difficulty happens in accord with the Will of God.  I could find it easy to believe that hardship is the only place where the Will of God is revealed.

In the last few years, I have experienced my share of adversity.  I have lost a son and a sister much too young, along with a mother-in-law whose Love was a consistent presence in my life.  God saw fit to send laryngeal cancer to me, using the stress of an overactive and unfocused life to manifest it.  Mercifully, He also made sure the cancer was completely treatable.  He garnered my attention, calling me to focus on His Will and to organize my life accordingly.  With the help of the Spirit, my wife, my family, and an outstanding group of friends, old and new, I have maintained my commitment to my faith through everything.  I think it is even clear that my faith life has prospered through the hardship.  I hope that God is happy with how I have responded to the challenges He sent me.

That said, if I thought adversity was all there is to God’s Will, I think I would have a hard time committing long term to His plan.  I would have trouble wholeheartedly embracing a life philosophy where endurance in adversity was the most significant quality required for a holy life.  I feel summoned to engage in acts of charity.  Kindness and Love toward others must be part of how I respond to the many blessings in my life.  If I am to help increase the amount of Love in Creation, then persevering through tribulation cannot be my only task. 

At the same time, however, I recall the gospel quote from the last reflection where Jesus dismissed those who boasted of doing miracles in His name because those miracles were not founded in the Will of God but in their own desire for glory or worldly greatness.  To follow His Will properly, I need to understand how to discern His Will in the specific choices I make in my life.  I need some way to be confident that it is His Will I am following, and not my own desire for worldly praise or recognition that is motivating my decisions.

Right now, I have this set of definite, positive opportunities in front of me:

  • I am a husband and a father.  I am a son to an eighty-one-year-old father who no longer drives and is shut-in due to Covid.  I am an uncle to three children who find themselves in difficult circumstances because my sister passed away from cancer at age forty-three.  I am a brother-in-law to their father.
  • I am the cofounder with my wife of a not-for-profit (aidansmasterpiece.com) named for my seventeen-year-old son who was lost in a car accident.  This organization sponsors a home (google The Catherine Griffin House) for three men who previously lived in transitional housing.  This not-for-profit also sponsors a ministry club at the high school my son attended.  The only limits on the possibilities for this organization are time and our imagination.
  • I am the Regional Formation Director for my Secular Franciscan Fraternity.  My vocation to the OFS also calls me to be an active member of the local fraternity, which includes volunteering at Our Lady of the Road (olrsb.org), one of our main apostolates.
  • I have a website (ofsongoing.com) where I blog related to religious formation. 
  • I feel called to more substantial religious writing, thus the attempt at this work.
  • I am the lay leader of the evangelization committee at my parish.
  • I just met a Sister from Africa who hopes to start a home to treat addiction in our community.  She has asked my help in realizing her dream.
  • I have already mentioned my friend who suffers from Parkinson’s disease.  I hope to travel to see him again to offer my support.
  • I am also a cofounder of a not-for-profit (mycrosscommunity.org) geared toward developing affordable housing in the poor neighborhood where my parish is located.  This housing is targeted at owners who might not otherwise have access to the wealth building benefits of home ownership.
  • For my own spiritual well-being, I am obligated to my prayer routine and Lectio Divina.  I should also maintain a reasonable hiking/walking regimen to maintain my physical well-being.  If my spiritual and physical life are not healthy, none of the rest is possible.    

This list is too long and much of it was active before I retired.    Now that I have typed it out, I wonder how I ever managed to eat or sleep when I was still working.

Everything on the list suffers at the expense of each other.  I have already let go of the housing not-for-profit.  Just as I was considering that move, God brought someone else to the project who could fill my role, which was surely an instance of divine providence.  The work is proceeding and after several years of consternation caused by the strings attached to government funding, the first house is currently being framed.  I am mainly a cheerleader on that front now.

But there is still more on the list than I can handle.  I need to discern the Will of God for the positive prospects in my life.  I cannot maintain the entire list and meet each obligation with the attention and the high degree of excellence that the fulfillment of God’s Will requires.

How am I to decide which items to focus on, and which to set aside?


Chapter three of book two of the Heliotropium provides some insight into this question.  Fr. Jeremias writes:

Let us say with strong faith, —– “Thy Will, O my God, is my will; Thy Heart is my heart; I am entirely devoted to Thy Will, O my God.”

Let each person diligently cultivate this union of his will with the Divine in everything —– in affairs of business, in duties, in labor of all kinds, in sickness, and in death itself, ever acquiescing most completely to the Divine decree, and having nothing more constantly in his mouth or heart than “Thy Will be done.”

For as all virtues shone forth most brilliantly during the agony of Christ, so especially His fervor in prayer.  In the hour of His sorest need He exclaimed, —– “Father, if thou wilt, remove this chalice from Me; but yet not My Will, but Thine, be done.”

There is not a better, nor a shorter, nor a more perfect form of prayer, nor one more pleasing to God and useful to man, than this: —– “Not my will, but Thine, be done.”

The first step in discerning God’s Will for the positive possibilities in my life is to be truly and consistently desirous of His Will and His Will alone.  That sounds trite, pedestrian, or cliché, but it is of paramount importance, and it is not an easy state to achieve.  I must not overlook the fundamental need to train my will to be submissive to His until my submissiveness becomes habit.  And then, remembering that my eternal encounter with God depends on this habit, I must safeguard it jealously. 

This, like I saw in the reflection on gratitude, is not a state I simply will myself to through my own strength or fortitude.  If I rely on myself, I will certainly flounder and finally fail.  To develop gratitude, I had to dwell within the saving Love of God and let it shape me to the point that gratitude was the only proper response I could make.  My desire for His Will should be similarly shaped.  I need to return to His saving Love again and again until submission of my Will to His is once more the only plausible choice I can make.

As was discussed in reference to Penance and Metanoia, the conversion of my will to His “implies a change of mind, the complete and unceasing renewal of a man who tends to God with all his being.”  A state of mind where I am truly and consistently desirous of His Will is never safely achieved and put behind me.  My bad habits have a way of enduring while my good ones have a way of fading.  This means this task is subject to my human frailty, so it must be renewed and pursued daily just as Penance must be. 

It is easy for the world to become overwhelming even when I desire to do the right thing.  When I develop a firm disposition toward good, toward virtue, the enemy, in his craftiness, shifts to more subtle schemes.  One of those tactics is to disguise worldliness in ways that make it hard to recognize.  He gives me a list like the one above with so much good possibility that I become confused and distracted. If I take it all on, the one thing I can be sure of is that I will be spread so thin that, in my longing to please God on so many fronts, I will fail at everything because nothing gets the attention required to make it prosper.   

Some of what is on the list above must be my idea, not His.  Some of it is there for my glory, not His.  The enemy, in his wickedness, has used my enthusiasm and fervor against me.  He has taken my desire for good and corrupted it by overloading it to the extent that failure is the only possible outcome. 

I must continuously pray for God’s help in discerning which items are sourced in Him, and which are sourced in my vanity or desire for worldly accolades.  The only way to do this is to regularly pray the type of prayers that Fr. Jeremias suggests above.  Prayers committing myself to the Will of God and asking His help in discerning that Will must be embedded in my regular routine.  When I practice my daily Lectio Divina, such supplications must be present.

On the first page of the first reflection, I spoke about how I thought this entire effort was “given to me by the Lord.”  Since becoming a Franciscan, one of the other things the Lord has given me is a string of prayers that is central in my morning prayer routine.  I cited one of those earlier, in the reflection on Penance, when I invited you to pray the combined words of Mary from the first two chapters of Luke that I first started praying during my trip.

The Lord also “gave me” another prayer on the trip in conjunction with this need to beseech Him often for assistance related to discerning and following His Will.  It is a short prayer, easily repeatable during the day.  It begins with a reference to the calling of Isaiah that I cited in the reflection on self-denial, but it winds up repeating the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane just as Fr. Jeremias suggests above.

If you find this prayer compelling, I invite you to make it your own.  Use it often, not just once a day, but multiple times.  If you are familiar with how the Orthodox practice the Jesus Prayer, you could use this similarly.  Recite it often until it becomes embedded in your subconscious and begins to arise of its own accord.  Allow it to help you consistently remember that, if you are to fulfill your role in God’s plan for the expansion of Love in Creation, you can only do so if you habitually conform and unify your will with His.

Here I am, Lord.
Heart, soul, and mind, completely for you, Lord.
What would you have me do?
Possess me.  Uphold me as I struggle and strive 
to embrace Your Example in the Garden.
Not my will, Lord, but yours be done!


If I succeed in establishing and maintaining the habit of truly and consistently desiring His Will, I now, to repeat an earlier quote from Francis, “have nothing else to do but to follow the Will of the Lord and to please Him.” 

Again, “Oh, is that all?”

I am down to the nuts and bolts of the issue.  At some point, I must decide between this or that.  I have multiple options that might encompass the good work I desperately want to do.  But which option do I choose?  I could wait until a “a light from heaven flashes around me” and Jesus sends someone like Ananias to instruct me like he did for Paul.  But I have already concluded that an unquestionable experience of divine revelation is probably not happening in my immediate future.   

Where, then, do I find the Will of God?  Spiritual mentors can play a role, but the final decision on which specific task to pursue still finally falls to me.  

Early in the second book of Heliotropium, Fr. Jeremias provides the following quote, which he attributes to St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage: (Cyprian was martyred in the year 258 by the local Roman proconsul.  His words about constancy in confession, confidence in torture, and patience in death need to be read in reference to the times he lived in. His Wikipedia article is worth reading.)

“The Will of God is what Christ has done and taught.  It is humility in conduct, steadfastness in faith, scrupulousness in our words, rectitude in our deeds, mercy in our works, governance in our habits; it is innocence of injuriousness, and patience under it, preserving peace with the brethren, loving God with all our heart, loving Him as our Father, and fearing Him as our God; it is accounting Christ before all things, because He accounted nothing before us, clinging inseparably to His love, being stationed with fortitude at His Cross, and when the battle comes for His name and honor, maintaining in words that constancy which makes confession, in torture that confidence which joins battle, and in death that patience which receives the crown.  This it is to endeavor to be co-heir with Christ; this it is to perform the commandment of God, and to fulfill the will of the Father.”

Chapter one of Love’s Reply says this:

“Whoever wishes to do penance; to achieve true Metanoia, is bidden by the Lord to renounce all self-love, all self-will, all self-seeking, and walk his way, the way of him whose whole will and desire was naught else than to do the will of the Father.”

The Franciscan accordingly must immerse himself ever more deeply in all that God has bestowed on mankind and live in keeping with such graces. 

Article four of the OFS Rule is the first article in chapter two, which is headed by the phrase “The Way of Life.”  It sets the tone for the next fifteen articles, which prescribe the demands of the life of a Secular Franciscan in detail.  I have quoted it already, but it fits nicely here again.

The rule and life of the Secular Franciscans is this: to observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people.

Christ, the gift of the Father’s love, is the way to him, the truth into which the Holy Spirit leads us, and the life which he has come to give abundantly.

Secular Franciscans should devote themselves especially to careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and life to the gospel.

Now comes the great reveal of the six point plan I can follow that will unerringly lead me to knowledge of the Will of God!

I wish.  I wish I could tell you that I had a neat and concise formula for discerning the Will of God in specific applications.  I wish I knew a precise mechanism for taking a concrete circumstance and evaluating it within a set of proscribed guidelines that guarantee an outcome consistent with the Will of God.

Unfortunately, God does not work like that.  I know of no such directives.  They were not put forth in Heliotropium or any other work I read.  I argued at the opening of the second reflection that “one mystery of the Word is that it speaks to the needs of each of us eloquently despite the differences in our circumstances.”  That mystery extends to this discussion on identifying the Will of God.  Because our circumstances vary widely there is no one path of discernment.  I must find the way that works for me within the individuality of my Creation. 

The best I can tell you is what I find in the gospel passages cited at the opening of this reflection and the quotes above:

  • From John 14, Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through” Him. 
  • From John 6, “The work of God is this; to believe in the one he has sent.  My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life.”
  • From John 10, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.”
  • From Cyprian, “the Will of God is what Christ has done and taught.”
  • From Love’s Reply, I “must walk His way, the way of him whose whole will and desire was naught else than to do the will of the Father, immersing myself ever more deeply in all that God has bestowed on mankind and live in keeping with such graces.”
  • From the OFS Rule, I must “observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, making Him the inspiration and center of my life,” accepting that Christ “is the way to Him, the truth into which the Holy Spirit leads me, and the life which He has come to give so abundantly.”

The sum of these quotes and hundreds more that could be added is this:

The Will of God is contained in the life of Christ! 

I may not have specific answers, but I know where to start.  If I am to find the Will of God, I first need to know and love Christ better.  I need to expand my relationship with Him.  I can start by using Lectio Divina to pray the gospels and other Scriptures with the specific intent of increasing my intimacy with Jesus.  Nothing could be more important than to set aside time each day to draw closer to God as I seek to return His Love and discern His Will.

I will immerse myself in the gospels every day, “going from gospel to life and life to the gospel,” not so much seeking answers, but simply seeking to know Jesus better, and through Him, my Father.  I will pray to the Holy Spirit for help because I do not possess the strength, discipline, will, or wherewithal to investigate and Love God adequately on my own.  It is the work of a lifetime to identify His Will for my individual situation.  I will never finish the task, and I will fail often in my human frailty, but I must stay diligent in the search.

I know one thing for sure: His Will includes His desire that I, “with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my mind,” seek to know and Love Him.  If I pursue this, then I can expect He will reveal the balance of His Will to me in His good time.   

Fr. Jeremias resolves the dilemma of choosing like this:

No one discovers the Divine Will with greater certainty than he who sincerely desires to conform himself to it in all things.  This desire is, in truth, the thread for unravelling the mazes of all labyrinths.  All uncertainty about the Divine Will is removed, if, when one is ignorant as to what God wills, or which of two lawful things He would rather have done, he is yet so disposed in mind as to say, with perfect sincerity of intention —— “If I knew, O Lord, what thou willed to be done by me in this matter, I would immediately do it.”

After this protestation has been made, let him unhesitatingly do what he will, and cease to disturb himself, for he will not easily offend against the Divine Will.  Such a son as this the All-loving Father will not desert, nor will He suffer him to wander far from His will.


Before I started working on this reflection, I spent several weeks reviewing and finalizing the previous eight.  Enough time has passed that yesterday was the first Sunday in Lent.  The gospel for this weekend came from the beginning of the fourth chapter of Luke.  Jesus is tested in the wilderness by the enemy.  The third test went like this:

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here.  For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you
                              to guard you carefully;
                    they will lift you up in their hands,
                              so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”

Jesus answered, “It is said: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Jesus’ quote came from chapter six of the Book of Deuteronomy.  Here it is in context:

Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land. Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.  Be sure to keep the commands of the Lord your God and the stipulations and decrees he has given you.  Do what is right and good in the Lord’s sight,…………………..

This passage directly links “not putting God to the test” to “serving Him only.”  I am not to follow the will of other Gods, and this does not reference only the deities from the time of Moses, but also the competing deities of my time.  I am not to make myself my own god, or follow others who have done so, and I am not to allow worldliness or the considerations of the current culture to become a god whose will I follow slavishly.

The time that has passed has also brought me to the last couple chapters of the gospel of Mark.  In chapter fifteen, amid Jesus’ crucifixion, we hear this from the religious leaders of Israel. 

In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” 

The book of Deuteronomy is part of the Torah (teachings), the five books in the Old Testament traditionally attributed to Moses that form the core of the Jewish religion.  The chief priests and teachers of the law would have been intimately familiar with it, able to quote it just as readily as Jesus.

It is striking, then, to hear them speaking in the gospel in direct conflict to this prohibition on testing God.  Jesus, in his response to the propositions of the enemy, followed the law put forth in the Torah precisely.  These religious leaders, on the other hand, seem to believe they have the power to put the Messiah to the test.  They acknowledge the signs that Jesus did (“He saved others”) but they do not accept what they reveal. The Messiah must prove Himself to them and not vice versa.  They reveal themselves as their own gods with this stance.

The motivation for their arrogance is revealed in verses nine and ten of the same chapter of Mark; “’Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?’ asked Pilate, knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him.”  When a lack of Spiritual Poverty manifests itself in negative emotions like envy, putting God to the test happens without a second thought.  The critical habit of desiring to know God’s Will is jettisoned in favor of the immediate, worldly calculations needed to preserve earthly status and power.  Following God’s Will becomes an impossibility. 

A couple verses later, Pilate’s own motivations are revealed.  “Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged and handed him over to be crucified.”  Pilate knew the situation.  He knew crucifying Jesus was wrong.  But he chose to “satisfy the crowd,” to appease the religious leadership instead of displaying the courage it would take to change the course of events.  In the end, this was also a worldly calculation for him.  A tempestuous reply by the Jews to a show of courage on his part would have severely jeopardized His worldly power within the Roman hierarchy.

In all of this, we see the consequences of not being focused on God in an attitude of gratitude, Penance, Metanoia, self-denial, and Spiritual Poverty.  Without that foundation, I am incapable of submitting my will to His, and incapable of recognizing His Will even when He is directly present as Jesus was to the Pharisees and Pilate.  Where worldliness prevails, those who have embraced it are blinded, and the Will of God as revealed by the life of Christ is therefore unattainable.   

The outcome is predictably sinful and tragic, not just for those (like Jesus) oppressed by worldly power, but even more so for the eternal prospects of those doing the oppressing.          


Scriptures contains these negative examples to warn us.  But it also contains the positive.  In some instances, we even find Jesus giving very specific indications of His Will.  In chapter sixteen, Mark closes with this (verses 15-19):

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.  And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.

When the apostles receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they immediately begin to “preach the gospel” in obedience to this instruction from Jesus.  Peter addresses the crowd summoned by the violent wind that accompanied the bestowing of the Spirit; “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this; God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”  When the crowd, “cut to the heart,” asks what they should do, Peter replies (Acts 2:38-41):

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

Jesus began his public ministry on earth with this call: “Repent and believe the good news.”  Peter, fully aware through the Holy Spirit that God has taken the adversity of the Crucifix and turned it to the greatest possible good, also starts his public ministry with a call to Penance.  His conversion, fed by Penance brought about by the bitterness of his denial of Christ during the Passion (now also turned to good), is complete and he has come fully into his own.  His next act in Scripture is to heal a crippled beggar, a sign that Jesus uses to “confirm His Word” just as He promised at the end of Mark.  

Acts 2:42-45 states this:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.

Peter’s speech on Pentecost is just the beginning.  The apostles succeed in doing the exact opposite of the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and Pilate.  The apostles obediently embrace the Will of Jesus as expressed through the gospels, and the “many wonders and signs” they perform overcome the tragic consequences brought about by their adversaries.

The Church comes into being.  The Will of the Father is achieved through the Son and the Holy Spirit in such mysterious and glorious ways that my feeble human imagination and intellect can never comprehend the full significance of what God has wrought.  

In his first words, Peter promises the gift of the Holy Spirit to me in my baptism.  His promise, made in the Spirit, holds true and comes to fruition.  The same gift that he received on Pentecost is also bestowed on me.  I can call on the Spirit and, if I have enough faith, belief, joy, and hope, He will answer. 

The task of “preaching the gospel to all creation” is also my task.

Unfortunately, I cannot perform the same signs and miracles as the apostles.  My “corrupt generation” does not embrace the Spirit of Love that allowed the apostles to create the first community of believers and I cannot escape its influence.  The words above do not describe my culture and my outlook is infected by the worldliness that surrounds me. I am unable to deny and empty myself sufficiently that Jesus might fill me and perform miracles through me.

The overarching Will of Jesus as expressed by the instruction preach the gospel to all creation” becomes another example of a very simple statement that is too profound for me to implement.  Again, I say, “Oh, is that all?”  And I have no idea how to proceed.

Or, I should say, I used to have no idea how to proceed, because the seed planted by the Holy Spirit on my journey has now revealed its fruit.  Gratitude, Penance, Metanoia, self-denial, and Spiritual Poverty are the tools which I must deploy to fulfill this command from Jesus.  There are many ways to be a “witness” for Jesus (Acts 1:8).  I need to use these tools to find my individual way according to the mystery and Love of my Creation.  If I am unsure what to do, I can return to these ideas, but they will only aid me if my habit of desire to do the Will of God is secure and I am fully engaged in an intimate relationship with Jesus via Scripture, spiritual reading, prayer, and contemplation.

If I meet these conditions, then I can choose with confidence between all the positive opportunities in front of me and trust that God, to quote Fr. Jeremias from above, will not “suffer me to wander far from His will.”


I said in the opening reflection that I did not experience some deep and profound encounter with God on my trip.  Instead, I was making unspectacular, slow, steady, and methodical progress.  I will likely never be so fortunate as to have the experience of Paul.  Instead, like Peter, it is my fate to learn the Will of God over extended periods of time in what might often feel like painstaking fashion.  Fortunately, I now understand that anything “painstaking” can be attributed to the Will of God.  I know to respond to such burdens with faith, belief, joy, and hope.   He is in control of the outcome, and He will turn all to good if I just have the patience and wisdom to embrace the minor hardship of this slow progress.

He has chosen this for me, so it is certainly in my best interest.  He is in control, He is all-Good and all-Knowing, He Loves me, He wants relationship with me, and He wants me to wind up in eternal encounter with Him in Heaven.

In the last two sentences of that opening reflection, I said this: “All I can do is align myself with God so that His Word and Will might be done to me and be fully fulfilled through me.  Understanding how to do this, then, is the goal of what follows.”

In the end, it is the entire work described here that will lead me to the Will of God.  The work of Penance and Metanoia will especially help me understand His will more and more as time goes by. Turning to Him unceasingly, with all my being, is best accomplished by the work of immersing myself in the gospels and Scripture as I seek a relationship with Jesus that will reveal God’s Will to me.  But gratitude, self-denial, and Spiritual Poverty all have roles to play.  They are all connected, and each needs the other for worldliness to be abandoned and a full discovery of His Will to be forthcoming. 

Encompassing it all is the Love He employed when He first Created me, and that he deploys again and again as He continuously makes His only Son present to me in the hope that I will believe in Him and be redeemed and saved.

“The brilliance of God’s design in the arena of Love cannot be understated.  It is inevitably underappreciated.”  The same can be said about His Will.  The brilliance of how He deploys and makes known His Will cannot be understated.  It is inevitably not only underappreciated, but also misunderstood.  The misunderstanding happens when I seek to become my own god and no longer see my freedom as His gift, but as my own possession to do with as I will.

Instead, I must turn to God and Love Him completely, unconditionally, and unreservedly.  I must be united to the perfect gospel example of Jesus.  I must request the help of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, as I seek to draw ever closer to Jesus in my pursuit of the Will of God.

The way to know if I am succeeding is to test the outcome of my actions against my primary duty in God’s plan.  Am I helping to increase the overall amount of Love present in Creation?

If so, and if I can maintain my fidelity to that duty, then I can have hope of achieving the eternal encounter with God that is principal goal of my journey.

Proceed to Chapter Ten: Conclusion

Back to Chapter Eight A: The Will of God and Political Freedom

Chapter Eight A: The Will of God and Political Freedom

(This short reflection was originally included in the main body of chapter eight.  In review, I decided it did not fit well, so I excised it.  But, given the references to current culture in other places, I thought it was still relevant.  So here it is on its own.  If it is objectionable, hopefully it will not distract from the worthiness of the other reflections.)

The Gospel of Mark, 12:1-12:

Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.  At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.

“He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’  “But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

“What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. Haven’t you read this passage of Scripture:

“‘The stone the builders rejected
               has become the cornerstone;
    the Lord has done this,
               and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.

I am fortunate to live in America, the “land of the free.”  This country, more than any other, is focused on what it means to fully exercise the blessings of liberty.  The understanding and importance of the connection between religious freedom and political freedom was instrumental in the motives of the founding fathers.  Their deepest held beliefs about the primacy of free will speak to the idea of conforming the human will to the Divine.  Women and men must be free to embrace the Will of God wholeheartedly if they are to live honorable, principled, ethical, moral, honest, decent, just, and satisfying lives.

Thomas Jefferson spoke for all the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Liberty is not a right of man distributed according to the will of men.  It is not transitory, something that can be taken away if men decide that it is no longer of paramount importance and that some other value or right should be asserted in its place.  Freedom is eternal.  It is a basic and necessary truth of Creation.  It was endowed on me and all other women and men in equal measure by our Creator.  Women and men do not have the right or capacity to tamper with it.  They only have the obligation to secure it.

No matter how poorly the times might have embraced this reality, this was true at the time of Jesus, at the time of St. Francis, and at the time of the founding of this country.  It remains true today and nothing can undo it.  As the current culture moves away from this and many other self-evident truths, the moral principles of western religion become further and further eroded.  But no matter how much they are de-emphasized; they can never be made false.  That these truths cannot be unmade is at the root of the disunity that is currently plaguing our country.

As the passage from Love’s Reply at the beginning of chapter eight asserts, and as the Declaration of Independence confirms, my free will, my ability to choose, is a gift from God.  This gift comes with immense responsibility.  Human will cannot be used to redefine that which is ordained and established by God.  To do so is the essence of sin.  Instead, I must seek to unify my will with His unconditionally.  

We can argue about what the Will of God is asking.  We can agree that the Will of God may be asking something different of you than it is of me.  I can adapt my understanding of the Will of God if revelation, science, the fruit of my seeking, the advancement of my understanding, or the Will of God itself makes it prudent to do so.

But I cannot flaunt the Will or the corresponding plan of God without expecting to incur severe consequences.  You can ask me to do so as many times as you wish, but my answer will always be the same.  My first obligation is to the Will of God, and the will of one woman or man, or millions of women and men, cannot void this primary obligation.  The effect on my eternal well-being is too critical.      

My first and only obligation is to my Creator.  My obligation to anything earthly is only enforceable to the extent that it corresponds to this initial obligation.  There is nothing more fundamental than the belief that I was created in a Spirit of Love, with the obligation to return that Love.  As has been repeated here numerous times in many different combinations of words, my most fundamental duty in response to the Loving action of My Creator is to participate willingly and devotedly in His plan to increase the amount of Love present in His Creation.

This duty is the basis of my existence.  God was not just present, but actively at work when soul and flesh were Lovingly combined in my mother’s womb to create me.  He Willed me and every other woman and man that has ever been conceived into being.  His careful attention is the moving force at the root of the inexplicable miracle that made me possible.  Nature may be participatory, but He is also Nature.  Just as He brought me into being, He brought Nature into being.  All that He brings into being is governed by Him and must operate according to His Will.  All of Creation is meant to cooperate in His plan and to fulfill the duty that has been assigned to it.

The gift of freedom to men is as fundamental to His plan as everything else is.  Liberty is what enables a woman or man’s ability to Love.  It is what allows me to participate in His plan for the expansion of Love.  Without freedom of will, I would be bereft of the consciousness that separates me from the rest of non-human creation.  Without freedom and the consequent ability to Love, my humanity would disappear.

My liberty is therefore the most basic tool I have for contributing to the fulfillment of the plan of God.  As His creation, my duty to participate in His plan binds my will to His Will.  It must dictate the choices I make with my freedom.  My choices must conform to and be unified with this most simple but most profound truth as spoken by Paul:

               “If I do not have Love, I am nothing.”


I look at the culture around me and I wonder how it has come to this, and can it ever be salvaged?  The women and men who lead me construct elaborate schemes and try to convince me that their sole motivation is my well-being.  But they fail again and again, the situation gets worse, and the morass deepens.  The country I love begins to look more and more fragile, and I wonder not how it will be healed, but how many pieces it will break into, and how will the pieces that contain me and my loved ones be put back together.

When these leaders fail, they never look in the mirror and assess their role in their failures from a perspective of humility and Spiritual Poverty.  Their worldly political concern makes this impossible.  It forces them to seek to blame their opponents at all costs.  In the process, the basic goal of Creation is foregone.  No longer do they seek to expand Love.  They seek only to expand the amount of power and control they possess and wield over others.  In the process, since they do not have Love, they become nothing, and their ineffectiveness compounds. 

As their ineptitude escalates, they seek more and more power in an effort to preserve themselves.  As additional power and control is accumulated and exercised, the freedom that lies at the foundation of God’s plan and our political structure is compromised and the pain and division grow faster and faster.  It is a downward spiral, and the downward momentum appears more and more unstoppable by the moment.

I read the Parable of the Tenants (above) in chapter twelve of the gospel of Mark this morning.  A wealthy landowner develops a vineyard and rents it to local farmers.  At harvest time, He seeks to collect His portion of the grapes and the farmers beat or kill every representative He sends to them.  When He finally sends his Son, they kill Him as well, thinking they can take His inheritance as their own.

This gospel passage closes by speaking about the leaders of Jesus’ time, saying “they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them.”  Those leaders were not open to a message meant to save them because they were blinded by worldly ambition and power.  Instead, their response was to figure out how to silence the Messenger.  They thought His inheritance could be their own, but it is impossible for man to be God.

This is the state the world often finds itself in.  It is the state it is in now.  In a talk I heard yesterday, the presenter was discussing the division in the country, and he told of seeing a sign that read, “If Jesus comes back, we will kill him again.”  It is as if the “chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders” are reincarnate and walking amongst us.  They are just waiting for the right opportunity to nail God to the Cross once again in the hope that this time, He will not rise.

Our leaders should be unable to dismiss the way the founding fathers cherished the gift of eternal freedom, but they are.  Our original leaders were flawed and lived out their ideals imperfectly.  Today’s leaders, despite the validity of the principles of the founders, seek to silence and supplant their principles based on their imperfections. 

Those in power, and I speak not of one side or the other, but of the lack of humility on both sides, seek to usurp what they have no right to.  They seek to manipulate the situation in the hope that they will emerge victorious and consolidate power for themselves.  Each in their own way seeks to eliminate the true God and become gods themselves.  Neither understands that both sides hold losing hands, and that all of us will lose with them if our course is not altered.

In the process, they also seek to silence the perfect Messenger, the one who came with overwhelming Love to save those who sought to silence Him then, and those who seek to silence Him now.  But He will not be silenced because, unlike those who exhibited imperfection at the time of the founding, He embodies perfection.  His entire life was a perfect endorsement of Spiritual Poverty and a perfect example of Obedience to the Will of the Father.  Therefore, His teachings cannot be disputed or overturned.  They can only be ignored to the disadvantage of all.

He continues to live that perfect life as He comes each day in Love in the Word, the Eucharist, in His ongoing sustenance of Creation, and in those hearts that seek to follow His Will.  Even when in minority as they are now, those willing to embrace the example of a perfect life lived by a perfect man will remain those who have access to true power through the forsaking of earthly power.  It is in humble submission to His True, Excellent and Holy Will that we have hope of overcoming the decrepitude that surrounds us.  His Power, employed through those not afraid to forsake the world so that He may work His Will through them, will lead to an inevitable revival of His plan for Love to be ever-increasing in His Creation.

No human hubris can forestall Him.  Human hubris only leads to correction.  It leads to the adversity that I detoured to understand in chapter seven.  All the evil and all the adversity that is happening in our culture now is happening according to His Will.  He will turn it all to good in the end. 

If this adversity grows well beyond anything we are currently experiencing, including the pandemic, we should not be surprised.  A deviation as great as the one we are currently engaged in will likely require a correction of equal magnitude.  The sin of slavery could only be answered by the adversity of the Civil War.  Our current hubris is sinful in ways that well exceed the dreadfulness of slavery.  Over fifty million innocents conceived in His Love have been lost before seeing His Light in this world.  We all have culpability, so we will suffer together and our suffering, if we do not change course immediately, is likely to be far-reaching. 

But when the suffering comes, it will be the suffering that will rejuvenate us.  The suffering will lead us to an inexorable conclusion.  The only way to journey beyond the hardship is to allow the Will of God to lead us back to Love according to the example of the perfect man, our Lord Jesus Christ.  We will find that we cannot prosper separate from His Teaching and that His Will is Love and nothing else.  We will, in large numbers, find ourselves relentlessly drawn to Him.

No other solution will allow us to rise from the pile of ashes we are currently burying ourselves in.

And when Love rebounds, as it inevitably will, then perhaps another altered/combined quote from Paul will finally be remembered by those who seek to kill God. 

            Love never fails. 
            These three remain: faith, hope and love.
            But the greatest of these is love.  

Proceed to Chapter Nine: Discerning the Will of God

Back to Chapter Eight: The Will of God and the Example of Jesus

Chapter Eight: The Will of God and the Example of Jesus

The Colorado River, River Island State Park, Parker, AZ

The Gospel of Matthew, 7:21-27:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

“Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Up through chapter six, I had been consistently drawing connections from one chapter to the next, from one subject to another.  In chapter seven, I took a short detour from this pattern because I felt the need to investigate the notion that all the hardship in my life was due to either the Ordaining or Permitting Will of God. The idea that adversity is sourced in God’s Will was not immediately obvious to or swiftly accepted by my intellect, so I had to spend time getting comfortable with it. 

Now that this is accomplished, I want to get back to making connections.  In this chapter, I want to begin by establishing the link between Spiritual Poverty and conformity of my will to the Will of God.  To get started, here is one last quote from chapter nine of Love’s Reply to refresh my memory about where I left off:

Again, he who wishes to be absolutely poor must be ready to renounce his own will, even though this is the most difficult form of such poverty.  Time and again Francis warned his friars against the danger of considering their will as a possession they could use or abuse according to their own whims.  The power of choice is itself a gift given us by God, which ultimately belongs to him and must be used in accordance with his will.  True obedience is thus an essential element of absolute poverty.

I can immediately see how elegantly this passage dovetails with the end of the quote on Perfect Joy by Francis in chapter seven.  There, Francis said about all the Goodness in my life, “in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God.”  In this quote, Esser and Grau extend this concept to the gift of free will itself.  My very “power of choice is itself a gift given me by God.”

In chapter six, as I described Spiritual Poverty, I made this statement: “I no longer live according to my own desire.  Instead, I live according to the desire of God.”  As this chapter begins, I think it is fitting to alter this quote slightly, exchanging the word “will” for the word “desire.”  As the road I am traveling moves from Spiritual Poverty toward conformity with the Will of God, I now want to assert that the best way to express what I am seeking is this:

“I no longer live according to my own will.  Instead, I live according to the Will of God.” 

If I do not return the gift of my will to God but instead seek to possess it as my own, I defeat this statement straight away and my will becomes firmly located in the realm of worldly desire.  In opposition to article eleven of the Rule, it becomes the tool I use to acquire the excess “temporal goods” I am meant to be detached from.  Even worse, my will, in its worldly state, inevitably “yearns for the possession and power” that drags me into a state of nearly uncontrollable sinfulness.

To avoid this, I must think of my will in terms of what has gone before.  If I am going to enact self-denial, the main target of my discipline is my will itself.  Likewise, I must think in terms of my will when I seek to embrace Spiritual Poverty.  It is my will, above all else, that must be suppressed when I seek to integrate gratitude, Penance, Metanoia and self-denial into an embrace of Spiritual Poverty that imitates the example that Jesus set for me by His gospel life.   

Only when I link my will to Spiritual Poverty and return it to God along with all my other worldly desires can I fully open my ability to return God’s Love to Him.  Once I eliminate the willful desires that distract me from God, I can consider what comes next.  Will I simply sit gazing at Him for eternity in an act of perpetual prayer?  Or is it more likely, now that He has my complete attention, that He has work for me to do?  Work related to advancing His plan for the expansion of Love within Creation, perhaps?

If I believe that my individual life has purpose beyond prayer, then it is clear God and I are not meant to just stare at each other.  As glorious as it is to dwell in His Presence, this is not the sum of all that I was created for.  My responsibility becomes to identify and cooperate in His plans in the unique way that my distinctive set of talents allows.  To do that, I need to align my will with His as a fulfillment of the position of Spiritual Poverty that I have adopted in my relationship with Him. 

It is in discerning the specifics of His Will that I travel the final leg of the course I have been charting, the leg that takes me from Spiritual Poverty through the Will of God to an eternal encounter with the One who so Lovingly Created me.  The decision to forego my will in favor of fulfilling His is the culmination of all that I have been considering.


This story from the beginning of Book Two of Heliotropium speaks elegantly to the idea that conforming my will to His is the last step in securing an eternal encounter with Him:

A learned and religious man desires more than anything else to meet someone who can teach him the most direct route to Heaven.  One day, he hears a voice that says, “Go to the front porch of the church and you will find the man you seek.”

When he arrives, he finds a beggar covered in sores sheltering on the porch.  He wishes the beggar a good day, and the beggar replies “I do not remember ever having a bad one.”  The man amends the greeting and wishes the beggar good fortune, to which the beggar replies, “I never had any bad fortune.”  The man tries again, wishing the beggar happiness.  The beggar responds in similar fashion; “I never was unhappy.”  Finally, the man, thinking the beggar is just playing word games with him, says to the beggar, “I desire that whatever you wish may happen to you.”  The beggar answers with unnerving consistency; “All things turn out according to my wishes, but I do not attribute my success to fortune.”

The learned man is intrigued by this last response because the beggar has dismissed fate as a player in his condition.  He congratulates the beggar and asks him how he has managed to escape misfortune.   The beggar replies with this statement about completely accepting the will of God:

“I am perfectly contented with the lot God has assigned me in the world.  Not to want happiness is my happiness.  Fortune hurts him only who wills, or at least fears, to be hurt by it.  I offer my prayers to my Heavenly Father who disposes all things.  I say I never was unhappy since all things turn out according to my wishes.  If I suffer hunger, I praise my most provident Father for it.  If cold pinches me, if rain pours down upon me, or if the sky inflicts upon me any other injury, I praise God just the same.  When I am a laughingstock to others, I no less praise God.  For sure I am that God is the author of all these things, and that whatever God does must be best.  Therefore, whatever God either gives, or allows to happen, whether it be pleasant or disagreeable, sweet or bitter, I esteem alike, for all such things I joyfully receive as from the hand of a most loving Father; and this one thing I will —- what God wills. And so all things happen as I will.  This is true happiness in this life, to cleave as closely as possible to the Divine Will.” 

The religious man is now further intrigued.  He seeks to test the beggar, so he asks him, “What if God decreed that you be cast down into hell?”  The beggar replies by doubling down on his devotion:

“I have two arms of wondrous strength, and with these I should hold God tightly in an embrace that nothing could sever.  One arm is the lowliest humility shown by the oblation of self, the other, purest charity shown by the love of God.  With these arms I would so entwine myself round God, that wherever He might banish me, thither would I draw Him with me.  It is far more desirable to be out of Heaven with God than to be in Heaven without Him.”

This answer astonishes the learned man.  When the voice told him to go to the porch of the church, he expected to find a fellow sophisticate.  He is beginning to realize that it is this beggar that holds the answers to his desire.  

Needing to understand more, he asks the beggar, “Where did you come from?”  The beggar replies, “From God.”  And then, “Where did you find God?”  To which the beggar responds, “Where I forsook all created things.”  And finally, “Who has taught you these things?”  The beggar answers: 

“For whole days I do not speak, and then I give myself up entirely to prayer or holy thoughts, and this is my only anxiety, to be as closely united as possible to God.  Union and familiar acquaintance with God and the Divine will teach all this.”   

The man is now completely convinced that the beggar is describing for him the fastest way to heaven.  He recalls this quote from Scripture; “Thou has hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them unto babes.”  The story closes with this thought from the seeking man:

“Lo! These two arms of unconquerable strength.  Oblation of self and Love of God draw God whithersoever this poor mans wills!  With these two arms God permits Himself to be closely bound; other embraces He refuses.”

This story has all the components of my road.  The beggar is full of gratitude to God even though God continually sends him adversity.  In an embrace of true Penance and Metanoia, the beggar not only turns to God with all his being, but He embraces God so tightly that God is drawn to wherever he is.  Self-oblation, which forms one half of his unyielding hold on God, is just another term for self-denial.  He declares his Spiritual Poverty when he says he found God “where he forsook all created things.”  This clearly means not just material things, but all earthly yearning for power and possession as well.  And his Love for God is the second arm of the unshakeable grip he uses to never allow himself to be separated from God.

This story also hearkens directly to the definition of Perfect Joy given by Francis in the last chapter.  The beggar clearly Loves and obeys God unconditionally despite being besieged by all sorts of earthly adversity and hardship.  He not only professes the joy he finds in accepting the hardship sent to him by the Will of God, but he is also full of the faith, belief, and hope that I spoke of as virtuous assets required for my journey to succeed.

And it is all wrapped up in the statement “I will —- what God wills.  True happiness in this life is to cleave as closely as possible to the Divine Will.” 


I believe this beggar would agree with the assertion at the end of chapter six that Spiritual Poverty is “the full integration and acceptance of” the demands of gratitude, Penance, Metanoia, and self-denial.  I can thus hope that I have grounded the belief and faith of my journey on the rock that Jesus speaks about in the gospel at the head of this chapter.  This foundation has a chance to withstand the rain, wind, and rising water, but the world and the enemy will continually seek to undermine it and cause the full house that is my relationship with God to come down in a “great crash.”

But the beggar would also consider the construction unfinished.  He places too much emphasis on the Will of God for the job to be complete.  He would assert that if I am to “draw Him” to the meeting place I am constructing, then His Will must play its part.    

Jesus confirms this assumption when he links the two pieces of the gospel passage with the phrase “everyone who hears these words……”  The balance of my construction project, the meat of the house that sits on the foundation, is defined at the start of the passage when Jesus says,

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

This is the key that everything else points to.  The secret to a complete relationship and eternal encounter with God is the discernment and implementation of His Will. 

The next verse drives this conclusion home.  Those hypothetically speaking with Jesus argue that they prophesied, drove out demons and performed miracles in His Name, and thus they should be welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus answers, “I never knew you.  Away from me you evildoers!”  They are denied entry despite what seem to be great works that should make them worthy?  How can this be?

The context makes it clear that these works were not performed at the bequest of God.  They were done according not to His Will, but according to the will of those who performed them.  They did these things for their own glory, not God’s.  Thus, even though the works seem to be what God would want, they are flawed.  In the context of the analogy to a house, the works would not withstand the rain or the wind because they were not reinforced by the Will of God.  Despite the appearance of their goodness from a worldly perspective, they were not pleasing to God, and thus they failed to meet the definition of sound practice where the construction of a relationship with God is concerned. 

For me, this is eye opening.  It tells me that I am incapable of judging what is good and what is not.  I would assume that if I could prophesy, drive out demons, and perform miracles, that I was automatically doing the Will of God.  But this passage says this is not so. 

The reason I was reading about the Will of God on my trip was a story I read about St. Anthony of Padua, who set out for Moorish Africa determined to become a martyr.  As he crossed the Straights of Gibraltar, he became ill and was forced to recuperate after his landing.  During his recuperation, it became clear to him that martyrdom was his idea, not God’s.  He sought to become a martyr because of the earthly adulation and glory he would receive when his body was returned to Portugal, not because he was following the Will of God.  He set out thinking that God automatically willed the martyrdom of anyone inclined to seek it.  But he was forced to accept that such a desire can come from the hearts of men and can in fact be sinful despite the great service to God it would appear to represent.  

As was discussed in the last reflection, I am unqualified to see the big picture.  What I judge as desirable may in fact be sinful.  I cannot rely on my own capacity when deciding what form the structure of my relationship with God will take and what actions are needed for the construction to progress.

Instead, my ability to complete the structure of my relationship with God depends entirely on my ability to conform myself to His Will.

The quote from Love’s Reply ends with the assertion, “true obedience is thus an essential element of absolute poverty.” 

This obedience articulates the full link between Spiritual Poverty and the Will of God that I am trying to express.  It is integral to the road I am taking.  If I want to make it to the end, if I want to make it to salvation and eternal encounter with God, then I must deny my own will.  No matter how much confidence I have in my own judgment, I must resolutely obey the Will of God to the exclusion of my all too human machinations.


In the discussion on Spiritual Poverty in chapter six, I made some intellectual arguments regarding the importance of embracing Spiritual Poverty when seeking to live a proper Christian life.  But then I went on to suggest that these arguments could be trumped by the example of Jesus in the gospels.  The gospels, in their entirety, are a call by Jesus to leave the world behind and to, in an attitude of perfect Penance and self-denial, adopt Spiritual Poverty completely.  If this was the example that Jesus set, then, regardless of whatever intellectual reasons I contrive in support of Spiritual Poverty, His example by itself should be enough to convince me.   

There is a similar argument to be made regarding conformity to the Will of God.  In the end, despite the arguments I made above, it is the example of Jesus that is instrumental in the final tipping of the scales.  (This was hinted at in chapter seven when I was discussing adversity.  If you recall, Fr. Jeremias was almost apologetic about using any story other than the Passion as justification for the adversity sent to us through the Will of God.)  

This next gospel passage is my favorite above all others.  If I had my way, every church would have some version of the Garden of Gethsemane on its grounds, and every Holy Thursday procession would end there, regardless of the weather.  As Francis argued in his discussion of Perfect Joy, cold and rain can only enhance our understanding of the suffering that Jesus endured during His Passion.

The Gospel of Matthew, 26:36-44:

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.

Let me begin by noting that when I look at this passage, I find all the justification God needs to send me adversity.  I am represented here by “Peter and the two sons of Zebedee.”  Peter has already boasted that He will suffer whatever Christ suffers, even unto death.  Not only will Peter fail to stay loyal to Jesus in what is to come, but he is also unable to fulfill the relatively easy task of “keeping watch” with his friend and professed Lord in His tribulation.  And I even see John, who is never depicted as failing Christ, failing here.  He falls asleep just like the other two.

I am specifically guilty of this every year on Holy Thursday.  I firmly believe that Jesus can act out of time, and that His request to keep watch is a request to me.  I am invited, after Holy Thursday services, to spend “one hour” supporting Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and He can make me truly there in that moment in history.  Despite that belief, I have never succeeded in this.  Even in the couple times that I have stayed for an hour after the services, I was never able to “keep watch” for that entire hour.  I was lucky if I made it five minutes before distraction overwhelmed me and my thoughts began to wander aimlessly. 

When I do stay for one hour, I am inevitably the last one there.  No one else stays for that hour despite the specific request by Jesus in the Scripture.  We do not seem to hear Him, or to believe that He can transport us with Him to that moment in time.  All of us are guilty of “falling asleep” just as his closest disciples did that night.  All of us deserve correction for this before we even begin to consider the rest of our sinful lives. 

(If you asked me for just one act of Penance and Metanoia to fulfill, this is the task I would give you.  After Holy Thursday services, stay with Jesus for at least one hour, but preferably much longer.  Turn toward Him for that time with your full being.  For the entire time, pray to Him repeatedly for the wherewithal to deny yourself completely so that you may begin to understand the Spiritual Poverty and Obedience that was at the core of His life on earth.  Then resolve to repeat that act in some regular fashion going forward.  If we all did this, the world would be a much different place.

If you try this, and you are honest with yourself in how you evaluate your effort, you will conclude that “your spirit is willing, but your flesh is weak.”  You will begin to understand just how far you must go if you wish to emulate the saints.)

I am not used to seeing Jesus in such a troubled state.  The closest I might recall is Him going through the temple overturning tables or Him weeping at the death of Lazarus.  But those are not the same.  Here He is troubled on His own account.  Usually, He is in such complete control that he transcends normal human concern.  But in this scene, He shows his humanity more than in any other place in the gospels.

He does not want to go through the pain and anguish that He knows is coming.

And because of who He is, He could choose to avoid it.  If you watch the movie The Passion of the Christ, this is the opening scene.  The enemy is depicted speaking with Jesus, and this is the argument he/she makes.  “No one can take on the burden of all of humanity’s sins.  It is too costly.”  Jesus responds with the prayers to His Father in the Scripture above.  It is almost as if the presence of the enemy is just what Jesus needed to get over the hump.  He might have wavered, but the enemy’s plan backfired.  By talking to Jesus, he/she only solidified His resolve.

But the most telling thing for me is that Jesus, despite being the Son of God, is asking for His Father’s help and assistance, even for His Father to change the plan. 

When I discussed Spiritual Poverty, I made note of how Jesus often went off by Himself to pray.  This is counterintuitive.  Jesus, as a member of the Trinity, has direct access to the thoughts of God.  He should not need to go off separately to seek union with the Father.  By his nature, He is already one with God and thus they are always together, always aware of what the other is thinking or desiring.  He even asserts in Scripture that He is One with God.

It should be built into the nature of Jesus to know everything He needs in reference to God.  Yet He still prays to God regularly.  He does this for my benefit, to give me an example that encourages me to turn to God often in an attitude of Penance and Spiritual Poverty.  If Jesus feels the need to pray often to strengthen His relationship with God, how much more should I feel that same need?

The same is true regarding the Will of God.  Jesus would not seem to need to ask God what His Will is, or for help in seeing it through.  Their Wills are already joined.  As the Son of God, he should be able to “just do it.”  It shouldn’t be any harder for Him than putting on a pair of shoes is for us.

But here He is, in anguish, living out the moment like a normal human being.  He is full of sorrow and trouble just as I would be if facing such a trial.  He is seeking the comfort of His closest friends, just as I would in the circumstances.  He is hoping that it will not come to the worst, that somehow this trial will pass Him by, just as I would.

The difference between us is that He is fully committed to carrying out the Will of the Father regardless of the hardship.  Where I would be likely to cut and run, He tells the Father, “Yet not as I will, but as you will,” and then, “may your will be done.”

He did not have to do these things in my sight.  He could have just showed up at the right spot at the right time and been arrested and done without all the angst in the Garden.  But it was imperative to His Mission that I see Him acquiesce to the Father’s Will because it is essential that I do so in turn.  He is not willing to ask me to do what He is unwilling to do, so He goes through the entire experience to demonstrate His unfailing solidarity with me. 

He knows that I need His example.  I need to know that it is possible to suffer through adversity and do the right thing in its midst.  I need to know that He can empathize with my hardship because He suffered His own hardship.  His difficulty did not start with His arrest, or His scourging.  It started with His anxiety in the Garden and the first hurdle He faced (and possibly the hardest) was staying obedient to the Will of His Father.  He succeeded in conforming to the Father’s Will despite the hardship, therefore I can as well. 

He wanted me to know how to say yes to the Father’s Will in the most difficult circumstances, and therefore He demonstrated for me how to do so.  He will not ask more of me than I can handle, and His example is there to see me through.  It is no different than His example of living a perfect life in reference to Spiritual Poverty.  Whatever He asks me to do, He firsts instructs me by the impeccable and Holy pattern of His earthly life. 


I have already quoted Article eleven of the OFS Rule in reference to Spiritual Poverty:

Christ chose for himself and his mother a poor and humble life.

Article ten says this about the Will of God and the example of Jesus:

Uniting themselves to the redemptive obedience of Jesus, who placed his will into the Father’s hands, let them faithfully fulfill the duties proper to their various circumstances of life. 

I have defined the overarching duty that is incumbent on me.  I am, without question, called to employ Spiritual Poverty as I endeavor to discern, embrace, and carry out the Will of God.  First and foremost, the Will of God calls me to participate in the primary plan of God, which is to expand the total amount of Love present in Creation.

As I reflect on that duty, I cannot help but think that these two articles of the Rule are instances of colossal understatement.  Just as it is easy to overlook the profundity of the Nativity, or of Jesus’ request that I keep watch with Him in the Garden, it is easy to overlook the words in these two articles of the Rule.

I need to stop and consider long and often the statement “Jesus chose for himself and his mother a poor and humble life.”  The same holds true when I observe that “Jesus placed His Will into the Father’s hands.”

Either of those statements could be the subject of multiple books or an entire lifetime of contemplation.  It would take work that I am incapable of completing to fully explore and analyze the meaning of these exhortations.  That such few words can be so profound is unsettling, in a good way.

Francis, in his wisdom and simplicity, follows closely behind in chapter twenty-two of the Earlier Rule:

Now that we have left the world, however, we have nothing else to do but to follow the will of the Lord and to please him.

Oh!  Is that all?  Another example of grand understatement.  A very simple statement that represents an effort that is most surely beyond my ability to complete.

But Jesus knows this.  He does not expect that I will fulfill His entire Will in the next few moments.  What He desires is a commitment to begin the work of building that house, that structure of relationship, that we both know will take a lifetime to complete.

The house will not be perfect on the first try.  The foundation will need reinforcing.  The principles that form it will have to be revisited regularly so they can be bolstered as needed.  And the balance of the house, the parts that are constructed by my efforts to follow the Will of God, will surely remain a work in progress until the day my stay on this earth is completed. 

But I do not need the whole house to encounter Him.  He is willing, as I have seen, to meet me in the Garden for just an hour in ordered to get started.  My first step is to honor this request and join Him there.

That Garden is the beginning place.  It is the place where He demonstrates to me that no matter how much adversity I encounter, the house is possible.  God desires relationship with me.  Jesus desires relationship with me.  He came to show me how to align my will with His so I might participate in the building of that which He has already designed.  I just need to believe in Him and adhere to His obedient example.

The building blocks, in the end, consist of the Love that “never fails” as spoken of by Paul.  It is the Love that created me and the Love that sustains me moment by moment that provides the raw materials I need to succeed.  When I internalize that Love, and then return it to God by adhering to His Will, the engine of Creation that has Love as both input and output generates the materials I need to construct the house that is my relationship with God. 

Whether I have been fully aware of it or not, this Love has guided me along my journey in search of eternal encounter with God the entire time.  What I have been searching for has accompanied me on the way.  He guides me to the place where my house of relationship with God can withstand all assaults and safely reside.

His Love reveals to me that: 

  • “a frank recognition and acceptance of what it means to bear the human condition through the life God has given me to live on this Earth” is the launching point of my seeking.
  • I am His creature, and it is through Love that He Created and continually sustains me.
  • I am a sinner and that I must acknowledge my sinfulness before my journey back to Him can progress.
  • He knows I am a sinner, but He wants me to join Him in Heaven for all of eternity anyway.  To make this possible, He makes His Son present as my Savior continuously.  I need to believe in His Son, and to follow His example, if I wish to be redeemed.
  • faith, belief, joy, and hope are all invaluable assets as I make the journey.
  • when I accept His Saving Love in the core of my being, and make that Love the driving force behind how I interact with the world, then I cannot help but develop the overwhelming sense of gratitude that is required for my journey to succeed.
  • gratitude leads to Penance and Metanoia, which consist of “a change of mind, the complete and unceasing renewal of a man who tends to God with all his being.”
  • Penance and Metanoia lead me to let go of all concerns related to material and spiritual worldly entanglement in an attitude of complete self-denial.  My “yearning for power and possession” dissipate as my turn to Him matures. 
  • gratitude, Penance, and self-denial culminate in an embrace of Spiritual Poverty.  “What I desire no longer drives me.  Instead, I begin to want what God desires.”  The example of Spiritual Poverty that He set during His earthly life becomes the pattern I seek to imitate.
  • Spiritual Poverty leads to a state where my self-denial is most completely expressed by denial of my own will.  “What I will no longer drives me.  Instead, I begin to want what God Wills.”  When I conform myself to His Will, I become fully capable of realizing my role in His Plan for Creation.  I become fully capable of Loving as He desires and Wills for me to Love.
  • Even when I commit to following His Will, I remain capable of sin, and I still require correction at times.  To keep me moving in the right direction, He sends me adversity, which I am meant to accept gratefully, peacefully, and even joyfully, according to Jesus’ example.
  • I am to return His Love always, in times of prosperity, but more crucially in response to the adversity He sends me. I accept difficulty in the Spirit of Love that it is offered, knowing that it is in hardship that my adherence to His Will is most clearly displayed.  To the degree that I succeed, my house, the structure of my relationship with God, becomes stronger.  But the work is never complete.  I always must be searching and looking for the best way to discern God’s Will and how to fulfill it. 
  • Success in all of the above gives me hope for the eternal encounter with God that is the goal of the journey.

Even though the above is a summary of the full road that I laid out for myself to travel in chapter two, there is still a little more to consider. I must have some idea how to avoid the pitfall that St. Anthony encountered when he initially sought martyrdom.

To succeed, I must have some idea about how to truly set my will aside and discern God’s Will in specific circumstances.

Proceed to Chapter Eight A: The Will of God and Political Freedom

Back to Chapter Seven: God’s Will in Adversity

Chapter Seven: God’s Will in Adversity

The Gospel of Mark, Chapter 10: 29-31:

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

Hopefully, the last reflection gives me an adequate working understanding of the definition of Spiritual Poverty within the Franciscan charism.  In the reflection on Penance, I asserted that the true definition of Penance, even though developed from a Franciscan perspective, applied universally across the Church.  I think the same came be said about Spiritual Poverty.  I do not think there would be large discrepancies from Order to Order in the Church on this topic.  The Franciscan perspective just emphasizes Poverty to a much higher degree than other Orders do.

It is now time to shift my attention to the last major stop on my journey toward the final goal of eternal encounter with God.  The last reflections in this work will be focused on defining and discerning the Will of God.  This means moving on from Love’s Reply, except for one or two last quotes, and considering the other major book of spiritual reading that defined my trip last fall.

This book is titled Heliotropium, which refers to a sunflower that rotates continuously during the day to always face the sun.  You might recall from chapter two that it was published in Latin by the German priest Fr. Jeremias Drexelius, S.J., in 1627.  The English translation that is the basis for the edition I read first appeared in 1862.  Please also recall that the subtitle of the book is Conformity of the Human Will to the Divine.

In the next chapter, I will concentrate on making the connection between Spiritual Poverty and conformity with the Will of God.  But in this chapter, I wish to make a couple points about the nature of God’s Will. 

To begin, I want to tell a story from the beginning of my trip.

My first stop was originally scheduled to be at Grand Isle State Park in Louisiana.  I had visited there previously, and I wanted to go back to do some fishing.  However, in August of 2021, Hurricane Ida made landfall at Grand Isle and destroyed much of the town.  The state park also took considerable damage, and it was a few days later that I got an email saying my stay had been cancelled.

I began looking for alternative places and finally settled on White Oak Lake State Park in southern Arkansas.  This park was close to the route that would take me to my second reservation in Texas.  It was also a reasonable one-day drive from my home in Indiana, so I made a new reservation and was all set.

As my trip drew closer and I was making final preparations, I began to have doubts about one piece of my plan.  Proximity to fishing was a major consideration in my itinerary and I intended to pack my fishing gear and strap my one-person canoe to the top of my van.  But now I was having second thoughts.  The primary purpose of the trip was solitude.  I intended to minimize touristy side trips and to fill my time with prayer, contemplation, and spiritual reading.  I can be intense about fishing, and that had the potential to be a distraction. 

In the end, I decided to delay the decision.  I took everything with me and thought “I can choose not to fish if it doesn’t feel right.”  But when I got to the ranger station in Arkansas, the wall was covered with pictures of ten-pound bass, so I knew I was going fishing.  I arrived on a Thursday and the park was full.  But by Sunday, it had cleared out.  I asked to move to a campsite on the water so I did not have to handle my boat on and off my van every day.  They gave me my pick and I went fishing that evening and the next morning.

As I fixed lunch on Monday, I noticed yellow jackets buzzing around my food.  They had not been present at the first site.  After I ate, I walked away for a bit to give them some room, then returned to clean up.  I noticed a wasp half hidden on a kitchen towel laid over the arm of my folding chair and thought, “I could have easily picked that up and got stung.”  I had another towel over my shoulder, which I swung at the wasp, and it stung me on the wrist.  (I know, not a very Franciscan thing to do, but I succumbed to temptation in the moment.)

A couple weeks before I had been stung at home.  The tip of my finger swelled up, but that was it.  I found out later that the effects of the stings are cumulative, which meant this time I had a severe allergic reaction.  I immediately felt a severe fever come on and I was semi-delirious for about fifteen minutes.  When I came out of the fever, I went back to cleaning up, but I still did not feel right, so I called 911 and went to the hospital. 

In the first couple days of my trip, I had already read the first chapters of Heliotropium.  Its teaching was front and center in my thoughts, so I quickly recognized that the sting happened as a direct result of the Will of God. 

He wanted to remind me of the purpose of the trip.  The distraction of fishing was incongruous.  I acquiesced and I hauled my gear from Arkansas to California and back and never went fishing again.    


It is easy to believe that the Will of God is present when things are going well.  I can thank God when a blessing appears and think nothing of it.  It is much more difficult to accept that the Will of God is active when negative things are happening. 

But this is the main message of the opening chapters of Heliotropium.  The book asks that I accept not just the positive, but everything that happens in my life as happening according to the Will of God.

The gospel quote at the opening of this chapter is from the same section of Mark as the quotes in the addendum to chapter six.  It occurs at the end of the story of the Rich Man.  It could easily have been included there as another reading related to Spiritual Poverty.  The reason it is located here is because of the word “persecutions.”

As Jesus tells His disciples that they will be rewarded one hundred times over for their embrace of Spiritual Poverty, He also tells them to expect persecutions.  That seems strange.  If we do exactly as Jesus asks, we would anticipate recompense, but we likely would not expect hardship to remain.  But here Jesus has both outcomes present in the same verse and He makes no apologies.  Hard times are to be expected.  The incentive for embracing them, which is also found in the same verse, is eternal life.

This passage from Heliotropium speaks to this reality:

Nothing whatever is done in the world (sin only excepted) without the Will of God.  No power belongs to Fortune, whether she smile or frown.  These are but dreams of heathen, who used to feign that the changes of human life were disposed by some goddess or other.

Christian wisdom treats all idea of Fortune with contempt.

“Good things and evil, life and death, poverty and riches, are from God.”  (Ecclus 11:14)

The use of the word “evil” in the bible quote is striking.  I would not normally think of evil as something God is capable of.  If I look at a modern translation from the King James Bible, I find the quote rendered as “Prosperity and adversity, life and death, poverty and riches, come of the Lord.”  This meets my perceptions more readily.  I would not think of God as sending evil my way, but I can envision Him exposing me to adversity.

The chapter goes on to give several important clarifications.  God’s Will can be thought of as having two aspects.  There is His Ordaining Will, and His Permitting Will.  Acts of nature, like the hurricane that hit Grand Isle, would fall under His Ordaining Will.  Acts of sin performed by individual human beings fall under His Permitting Will.  He is not the author of sin, but He does permit it as part of His overall design.  This is understandable when you consider that He can control outcomes, including the outcomes of sin.  He routinely and always turns sin, which He did not author but did permit, to His purposes, and therefore to good.

This leads then to two different aspects of sin, the guilt, and the punishment.  The guilt remains completely with the person who committed the sin.  The punishment is the outcome of the sin that God has allowed because it is useful to Him to allow it.  Here is an example from Heliotropium:

A man covets his neighbor’s possessions, so He sets fire to his neighbor’s house.  When the community arrives to put out the fire, he joins in the efforts, but instead of helping to extinguish the blaze, he uses the opportunity to steal his neighbor’s possessions.  The guilt of the sin lies squarely on the thief who set the fire.  But the punishment that the neighbor suffered was allowed by God, because God saw fit to chastise the neighbor for reasons that only God might understand.  God used the sin for His own purposes and the good of the neighbor.

I do not wish to delve any deeper than this into the more esoteric arguments related to the nature of God’s Permissive Will.  The point to make is God is the author of everything that happens in my life, not just the prosperity, but the adversity as well.

Fr. Jeremias draws this conclusion:

Since whatever is done in the world happens through the Permission or Command of God, it is our duty to receive everything as from the Hand of God, so conforming our will to His most holy Will, through all things, and in all things, as to ascribe nothing to accident, chance, or fortune.

And it is not only to fortune or chance that nothing is to be ascribed, but neither to the negligence or persevering care of man, as prime causes.  Vain and idle are such complaints as “this or that happened to me because this or that man hated me, or managed my affairs badly, or did my business carelessly.”

This kind of philosophy is vain and foolish.  But true, wise, and holy is this, “The Lord has done it all.”  For, as I have already said, good and evil things are from God.   

Again, think adverse instead of evil if that makes the passage more accessible.  This outlook aligns perfectly with the opening gospel quote from Jesus, especially if we substitute the word “adversity” for the word “persecutions.”  Yes, we will receive good things from God when we obey the teachings of Jesus.  But, because we are human, we will sin, and we will accumulate guilt accordingly.  God is justified in sending us punishment, whether it be from His Ordaining Will or from His Permitting Will.  The direction which the punishment comes from is His choice.  Our only choice is not to question the punishment, but to accept and to seek to use it for our own improvement.

When I got stung by that yellow jacket, I already knew that I should not allow fishing to distract me on my trip.  I felt this enough as I was preparing to leave that I should have taken it to heart.  But, in my human weakness, I ignored what I was feeling and made the decision to do what I wanted to do, not what God wanted me to do. 

Can you see Him watching me as I walk in the door of the ranger office and ask to move my site? Can you see Him nudging me toward the site that had the yellow jackets?  Can you picture Him shaking His head as He watches me launch the boat?  It might have been worse.  He might have let the hurricane miss Grand Isle and I could have been attacked by an alligator while fishing from the bank of the lagoon there.

I had that sting coming.  He was right to send it to me.  In retrospect, I am even grateful He sent it to me.  I might not be writing this if He had not.

He surely controlled it all.  From the first sting at home to the storm to the second sting to pulling me out of my delirium.  He also made sure I read the first few chapters of Heliotopium before the sting occurred, so I was ready to benefit from His chastisement when it arrived.  I’m not saying that storm was arranged just for me.  He likely had millions of reasons for bringing that storm to bear.  But I was one of the myriad reasons, and He was able to keep that piece of His plan progressing even as He managed the rest of it. 

And the plan extended beyond the sting.  The hospital was twenty-three miles from the state park.  The first EMT on site told me someone from the park would get me when I was done in the emergency room, but when I called, no one was available.  They suggested I call the county sheriff’s office.  It was shift change and maybe an officer who lived that way was getting off.  At first when I called, I was told no, but then they called back and said someone was coming to get me.  It was a good thing, because no one in this rural Arkansas town had ever heard of Uber.  I would have been stranded.

I had a nice conversation with the officer who gave me the ride home.  When I told him about my sting, he told me all about the poisonous snakes and spiders in Arkansas.  That turned out to be a blessing because the next day, when I went to take a shower, there were wolf spiders in each of the shower stalls.

By that time, I knew better than to try and smack one with my sandal.


These hardships do not happen because God does not Love me.  Quite the opposite.  As the Scriptural passage indicates, these hardships are part of the plan.  They are meant for my correction and improvement.  God uses them to get my attention.  In response, I am supposed to embrace Penance and turn to Him with all my being.  I am supposed to appreciate self-denial and not go fishing when His Will says otherwise.  I am supposed to adopt Spiritual Poverty and forego my own selfish, worldly desires.

In short, I am supposed to participate fully in His plan for the expansion of Love as discussed in chapter two.  When I get distracted, He uses whatever means He deems best to remind me of my primary responsibility within His Creation.  When He sends me adversity, it is an act of Love pointed at ensuring my redemption and salvation.  He turns my sin to Love through adversity, and I must willingly accept His correction in whatever form it takes.

Fr. Jeremias puts it like this:

Never certainly would such infinite Goodness permit so great wickedness in the world, unless it could thence produce greater good, and turn to salvation things which were devised for destruction.

Father then uses several stories from the Old Testament as examples.  Joseph was thrown into a well by his brothers, but he was rescued and went on to high station in Egypt and was ultimately instrumental in saving his family from starvation.  Saul sought the death of David, but David did not kill Saul when he had the chance.  King David was a sinner in his own right, but in the end, his demonstration of mercy and repentance allowed him to become a great leader.  Daniel was unjustly thrown into the lion’s den.  When he survived, King Darius issued a proclamation telling his subjects to worship the God of Daniel.

All illustrations of God turning the sin of men to the larger benefit of mankind. 

Father then seems to chastise himself for bothering with such insignificant tales when the greatest example has yet to be cited:

But why do I mention such as these?  God permitted His Own Son to be crucified by murderers, but His Permission was for the ineffable good of the whole human race.  And so from every Divine Permission there flows the greatest increase to Divine Glory, and the richest blessings to the human race.  Hence the Goodness of God and His Mercy, hence His Bounty and Power, hence His Providence, hence His Wisdom and Justice shine forth in a way which is altogether wonderful. 

If God is willing to permit His own Son to be crucified by desperate, sinful men seeking to affirm their own station in the world, why should I expect to be excluded from similar trials?  Not only should I anticipate hardship in my life, but I should welcome it as a great gift because in this I can truly share in the human experience of Jesus.

In chapter eight of The Little Flowers of St. Francis, Francis speaks to Brother Leo about the definition of Perfect Joy.  It does not consist in the brothers being perfect examples of holiness, in them being able to perform miraculous healings, in them having superior or complete knowledge, or in them being perfect preachers that convert everyone who hears them. 

Thinking that all these things would be wondrous goods, Brother Leo is perplexed, so he asks Francis to define perfect joy.  This is how Francis responds: 

Now when this manner of discourse had lasted for the space of two miles, Brother Leo wondered much within himself; and, questioning the saint, he said: “Father, I pray thee teach me wherein is perfect joy.” Saint Francis answered: “If, when we shall arrive at Saint Mary of the Angels, all drenched with rain and trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger; if, when we knock at the convent-gate, the porter should come angrily and ask us who we are; if, after we have told him, `We are two of the brethren’, he should answer angrily, `What ye say is not the truth; ye are but two impostors going about to deceive the world, and take away the alms of the poor; begone I say’; if then he refuse to open to us, and leave us outside, exposed to the snow and rain, suffering from cold and hunger till nightfall – then, if we accept such injustice, such cruelty and such contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, believing with humility and charity that the porter really knows us, and that it is God who maketh him to speak thus against us, write down, O Brother Leo, that this is perfect joy.

And if we knock again, and the porter come out in anger to drive us away with oaths and blows, as if we were vile impostors, saying, `Begone, miserable robbers! to the hospital, for here you shall neither eat nor sleep!’ – and if we accept all this with patience, with joy, and with charity, O Brother Leo, write that this indeed is perfect joy.

And if, urged by cold and hunger, we knock again, calling to the porter and entreating him with many tears to open to us and give us shelter, for the love of God, and if he come out more angry than before, exclaiming, `These are but importunate rascals, I will deal with them as they deserve’; and taking a knotted stick, he seize us by the hood, throwing us on the ground, rolling us in the snow, and shall beat and wound us with the knots in the stick – if we bear all these injuries with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which we would share out of love for him, write, O Brother Leo, that here, finally, is perfect joy.

And now, brother, listen to the conclusion. Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt; for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God, according to the words of the Apostle, `What hast thou that thou hast not received from God? And if thou hast received it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?’ But in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may glory, because, as the Apostle says again, `I will not glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Amen.”

This definition is completely counterintuitive.  If asked to define perfect joy, I would immediately start talking about all the virtues a man could have, and I would assert that perfect joy lies in these qualities being well lived.  But from the perspective of Francis, all Goodness is the gift of God.  I cannot develop, possess, or perfect these good qualities.  I cannot call them my own and thus I have no basis in which to exult in them.

Love’s Reply puts it like this in chapter nine:

He who is poor in spirit must recognize that every good is the gift of God, and so render to God what belongs to God.  To claim as one’s own what belongs to God would be the greatest obstacle to true inner poverty.

Francis argues that the grace to “overcome myself” in the face of adversity is the greatest gift that God can bestow.  This gift is manifested when I willingly accept “out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt.”  My sinful disposition urges me to defy the difficulty God sends me.  Penance, self-denial, and Spiritual Poverty are pointed at overcoming this inclination.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, they encourage me, in all situations, to turn toward God, deny my desire for defiance, and, to harken back to the quote from article ten of the OFS Rule, “follow the poor and crucified Christ even in difficulties and persecutions,” in a purposeful embrace of Spiritual Poverty.

Jesus accepted the Will of God completely, including the adversity of the Cross.  To “glory in the cross of my Lord Jesus Christ” is to do the same.  When I accept hardship out of Love for Jesus, then I accept the Will of God in imitation of Him.  His acceptance was motivated first by His Love of the Father, and then by the subsequent obligation to fulfill His role in the Father’s plan for salvation.  I can, despite my human desire to rebel, also choose to Love the Father despite the difficulties He sends me.  I can then also seek to fulfill His plan for my life.  I am not called to save mankind but returning God’s Love amid adversity is the epitome of successfully participating in His plan for the expansion of Love within Creation.

It is this gift’s association with the Passion of Jesus that makes it superior to all others.  The other gifts cannot engender joy because they lack the adversity that makes this gift special.  To celebrate a gift without hardship is to deny the ease of accepting the gift in the first place.  But to successfully overcome myself and Love God within hardship in imitation of Jesus begets a joy that would be inappropriate in relation to pleasant gifts that I do not create but enjoy solely at the discretion of God.


To review:

  • Everything that happens in my life happens according to the Will of God, both the prosperity and the adversity. 
  • Beyond that, everything that God Wills for me is done according to His Love.  As the good Father, He chastises only those He Loves.  The time to be concerned would be the time when hardship disappears completely.  He instructs, corrects and Loves me all at once in the hope that I will embrace the road to salvation and sincerely return the Love He so generously bestows on me despite my unworthiness.
  • Finally, He has the ability and the desire to turn everything to good.  Nothing happens unless He expressly Ordains it, or expressly Permits it.  He only allows adversity to occur with the foreknowledge that He will turn that adversity to even greater good.

My role is to unquestionably accept everything that happens to me, even when I may not understand the big picture.  If I question God or get angry with Him, all I can accomplish is a delay in my comprehension.  Instead, I must set aside my inclination toward defiance and concentrate on accepting and fulfilling God’s Will within the adversity He sends me.  I must focus on Him, pray for understanding, and discover my place in the plan He is unfolding.

Romans 5:3-5 speaks of this in these terms:

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Adversity is the result of “God’s Love being poured out into my heart.”  If the purpose of adversity is to build perseverance, then character, then hope, it follows that He will not ask me to endure more than I am incapable of enduring.  But He will ask me to endure that which will increase my capacity for Love.  That capacity is not expressed as strength, but rather as the wisdom to recognize the good outcome and the patience to await the next good outcome.  As my experience grows, my faith grows with it, and soon I can face adversity with the certainty that God will turn every outcome to Love.

To fulfill my role, I must return to the lessons from earlier in this discussion.  I must unceasingly attend to God with all my being.  I must deny my own desire and outlook and embrace His.  I must give away all the conclusions that I draw on my own and all the negative emotions surrounding my hardship, and instead create room for Him to communicate with me so that He can help me see the good that will come from each situation.

Here are a couple quotes from Fr. Jeremias that speak to this:

Without question the holiest men have ever held it as the most certain truth that all things happened to them as if God were the Doer of them; because turning away the eyes of their mind from the thought of another’s sin, they constantly viewed the Permission of God as the actual and efficient cause of whatever happened.  For God is so Good that on no account would He ever permit evil, unless He knew that from it, He could produce greater good.  St. Augustine speaks most admirably to the point: “God has judged it better to work good out of evil than to allow no evil.”

Excellently, too, does Theophilus Bernardinus speak: “God winds Himself in among our errors and sins in a most penetrating way, not indeed as approving and participating in them, but as turning us away from them and correcting them, since out of evil things He brings forth the more good, just as if it was fire out of water.”

This then is the shortest way to attain tranquility,  —-  not to regard the man who inflicts an injury, but God Who permits it.  It was the custom of the Saints to think, not of him who for any reason might do them wrong, but of Him who did not hinder the wrongdoer.  And so, with eyes ever fixed upon God, they rested on the Divine Will in everything, and waited to receive all things from God.


When I was in California at the end of my trip last fall, I was visiting a guy I have been friends with since high school.  He had been contacted a few weeks earlier by another friend who was planning a trip near the same time.  The first friend told the second, “If you come a week later, Tim will be here.”  So, the second friend adjusted his schedule.

I had not seen the second friend in thirty years.  The first kept the visit a secret.  It was a complete shock when the second walked in.  It was a wonderfully glad reunion, but, unfortunately, the reunion was tainted by some melancholy news.

The second friend has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  It is in its early stages, so he is still in good shape.  He is a physician, so he was able to understand the diagnosis and put the recommendations to delay the disease into action.  But in the end, there is only one possible outcome.  His condition will slowly decline until he loses track of just about everything.

My recent trip to Florida was initially inspired by that visit.  The first friend was already planning a trip and the second friend was on the agenda.  I said, “I’ll come too.”  I planned a short vacation with my wife and then moved on to see these two friends again.

When we were at dinner a couple nights ago, the conversation took a turn away from remembering our past antics to the current situation.  Then the second friend told a story that goes something like this:

There is a list of about ten things that can be done proactively to slow the progress of the disease.  These include medicines and exercise, but also meditation.  So, he is meditating as part of his regular routine to combat the illness.

He is a cradle Catholic who went to Catholic schools, but the practice of his faith has slipped.  His wife describes herself as more “spiritual” than “religious,” so she is not a reinforcing factor.  My friend said that at first, he was angry with God, which is easy to sympathize with.  “Why, God, are you doing to this to me?”

But then he related an experience he had one day while lying still in bed. 

A profound feeling of Love settled over him and he felt as if he was experiencing the Trinity. All three were present to Him in Unity, and yet he could recognize each individually.  He felt as if the Trinity was asserting its own reality to him and testing him, asking him to confirm his belief in them. It is difficult for him to explain, but he has no doubt that he experienced something extraordinary.  It was an out of body experience that he thinks only took a few seconds, but that felt like it went on for twenty minutes.

Once he confirmed his belief and understanding, the vision was accompanied by an overwhelming feeling of contentedness and, more importantly to him, connectedness.  He knew intrinsically that He was part of a whole that included all people everywhere, and that this whole was governed and sustained by the Love fed to it continually by the Trinity.  This vision was an experience of heavenly eternity and the Trinity wanted him to be aware that it was waiting for him. 

And then He was offered a choice.  His illness could be removed from him, but the enjoyment of this vision for all of eternity would not be guaranteed to him.  Or he could persist and endure his illness, and the vision would be secured as a result.

The vision was so profound that He chose to keep his illness.

There are many in the modern world that would speak about this as something concocted by my friend’s subconscious to help him explain or accept his diagnosis.  I suppose that is possible.

But I think the version that my friend believes is equally plausible.

It sounds harsh, but perhaps God has given my friend this disease for the express purpose of making him open to this encounter with the Trinity.  My friend, in his life before the disease, had never meditated.  He felt no need to seek God in this manner.  If his life had continued in the status quo, he likely never would have opened himself to new possibilities through the art of meditation.  He had not been seeking God specifically in his meditation, but the door was opened enough for my friend to be receptive to an encounter with the Trinity.  He was living a life that took him away from regular interaction with God and the world around him was consuming him.  Perhaps his eternal soul was in danger. 

Now he sees his life differently.

God had many options to deal with this scenario, but He chose this one.  He wants my friend saved and God saw this as the most likely path to succeed.  No other path would have included my friend telling the story of his vision to me so that I, as a believer, could affirm it for him. No other path included a scenario where that same believer, because he was writing a book on the subject, would talk to him about discovering and accepting the Will of God in adversity as part of his coping mechanism.  Perhaps no other person would have suggested that he include Scripture reading as part of his meditation practice or invited him to attend Mass. 

My friend accepted that invitation and it has him thinking.  There is a long way to go, and I cannot say whether my friend will continue going to Mass, but I hope he does, and I know God hopes he does as well.   

We cannot see the outcome of events like God can.  In our hubris, we might look at the plan of God and condemn it as too harsh or unloving, but we would be mistaken.  We cannot predict results like He can, so the only proper response is to trust His Judgement.  We can have confidence that His motives are pure and that, if we cooperate, the best possible end will ensue. 

When we recognize and accept that everything, both the positive and negative, happens according to His Perfect and Holy Will, then we cannot help but be filled with the immense hope that the above passage from Romans speaks of.

He is Love.  He is All Good, the Supreme Good, everything that is Good. 

His primary Will is for our redemption and salvation.  Regardless of our sinfulness, He can and will turn all things, even something like the disease that my friend has been asked to endure, to good.  If my friend achieves Heaven and an eternal encounter with God, the fleeting hardship of his illness will become nothing.

My responsibility is to actively participate in seeing His Will fulfilled, even when that Will includes a heavy dose of adversity.  I hope I do not have to endure what my friend is enduring.  But I hope even more that if it comes to that, I will have the wherewithal to accept it with the grace that Francis spoke of in his definition of perfect joy.

I hope that I would have the courage to accept God’s Will with the same faith, belief, dignity, joy, and hope as my friend.  (Yes, joy!  He is still as funny as he ever was!) 

Proceed to Chapter Eight: The Will of God and the Example of Jesus

Back to Chapter Six A: Examples of the Teaching of Jesus on Spiritual Poverty

Chapter Six A: Examples of the Teaching of Jesus on Spiritual Poverty

Stock Market

I have asserted in the reflection just concluded that the gospels in their entirety can be seen as an expression of Jesus’ devotion to Spiritual Poverty.

As a bit of proof, here is a short addendum based on chapter ten of the gospel of Mark, which is the gospel chapter I was contemplating as I wrote the last reflection.  This chapter has multiple passages that could have been quoted and inserted in that reflection.  Instead of doing that, or providing reflections on these passages, I am simply going to present a couple here.

Think of them as a homework assignment.  Pause and consider one of them, or all of them one at a time, and reflect on them in relation to the idea of Spiritual Poverty.  Ask the Holy Spirit to pray with you and help you to understand how they demonstrate different aspects of Jesus’ teaching on Spiritual Poverty. 

The Little Children and Jesus (Mark 10:13-16)

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

The Rich and the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:17-27)

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”  The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”  Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

The Request of James and John (Mark 10:35-45)

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”  “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.  They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”  “We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Proceed to Chapter Seven: God’s Will in Adversity

Back to Chapter Six: Spiritual Poverty

Chapter Six: Spiritual Poverty

The Frio River, Garner State Park, Concan, Texas

The Gospel of Mark, 12:41-44:

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

The last three reflections have allowed me to make considerable progress on the journey toward eternal encounter with God that I laid out at the beginning of chapter two.  My starting point was “a frank recognition and acceptance of what it means to bear the human condition through my earthly life.”  As an individual created by a Loving God, I acknowledged that my sin left me crippled and in need of my Creator’s help, and that in response, again through His Love, God sent His Son to chart a path that shows me how I can return to Him.  Assets like faith, belief, joy, and hope are essential virtues that help me discover and journey down this road He has opened for me. 

The first section of the road was paved with gratitude, and it led to Penance, the first major stopping point along the way.  As the journey moved beyond Penance, I found that the next section of road was shaped by the work of self-denial as I endeavored to return God’s Love to Him unconditionally.  The Love that He sends to me, and that I seek to return with interest, is a treasure that He reinvests as His plan to expand the total amount of Love present in Creation unfolds.

All three of these major themes (Gratitude, Penance and Self-Denial) were drawn from the first chapter of Love’s Reply.  It is now time to press on, but before I leave Love’s Reply completely behind, I want to use one more quote from that book to help me characterize the next major stop on my journey.  This quote comes from chapter nine, which is titled “Poverty as the Mirror of the Kingdom of God.”  Early in that chapter, Esser and Grau say this:

The first followers of St. Francis called themselves the “Men of Penance from the city of Assisi,” or sometimes also the “Little Poor Men.”  Both names well characterize the life they led.  Both must indeed be taken together, since for Francis penance and poverty were inseparable.

It is the “inseparability of Penance and Poverty” that directs me toward my next destination.  My next task is to investigate the relationship between these two pillars of the Franciscan charism.

When I started down the path to profession as a Secular Franciscan, I found myself confronted with the word “poverty” early and often.  At the very beginning of my formation, I began to feel that I had always been a Franciscan, I just had not known that Franciscanism was the proper label for how I thought.  I realized instinctively that the Franciscan charism was in harmony with how I saw the world.  I already believed that money and worldly possessions did not hold the key to either happiness or salvation.  I felt a certain disdain for wealth and earthly achievement and the steady and ready use of the word “poverty” was a large factor in how quickly I found a home in the Franciscan family.

Although I already tended toward poverty in my outlook, it took time for me to begin to understand the differences between material and Spiritual Poverty and, in truth, I am still learning.  As a formator, I see this as a common trait in those who are just beginning their Franciscan journeys.  They encounter the word “poverty,” and they find it attractive, often without knowing why.  Because they have not yet been exposed to Franciscan thinking in any depth, they begin by thinking of poverty in terms of worldly concern.  Poverty is the state that poor people in third world countries live in.  It is defined by a lack of material goods and wealth, and it leads to outcomes like malnutrition. 

While this aspect of poverty is something that Franciscans are meant to be aware of and combat, it does not begin to speak to the type of Spiritual Poverty that is at the core of the Franciscan charism.  In one sense, the Spiritual Poverty that Francis demanded of all his brothers and sisters is the underlying reason that Franciscans habitually choose to work against material poverty.  As Jesus told James and John in the scriptural quote at the beginning of the last chapter, all are called to “be the very last, and the servant of all.”  When self-denial helps me fulfill this teaching of Jesus, I enter the realm of Spiritual Poverty and I find myself completely and utterly focused on God to the exclusion of all worldly and material concern.  In this state, one of the things I feel drawn to is serving those who find themselves trapped in a condition of material poverty.        

But when I fully embrace Spiritual Poverty, it is not just material things that I give up.  I also give up all those worldly things that have to do with spirit.  I give up things like ambition, power, control, and even negative things like envy.  In short, I give up all those things that are related to my own self desire.  The epitome of Spiritual Poverty is not the forsaking of material things, but the forfeiture of my own self-concern and self-governance.  I no longer live according to my own desire.  Instead, I live according to the desire of God.


The Sermon of the Mount informed much of the last reflection.  In the Beatitudes at the opening of this teaching (Matthew 5:3), Jesus tells me,

“blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

Article ten of the OFS Rule calls me to:

“follow the poor and crucified Christ, witness to him even in difficulties and persecutions.”

I am reminded again that article eleven states:

“in the spirit of the Beatitudes, and as a pilgrim and stranger on the way to the home of my Father, I should strive to purify my heart from every tendency and yearning for possession and power.”  

This is followed by these passages in articles thirteen, fourteen and fifteen:

“the Secular Franciscans with a gentle and courteous spirit accept all people as a gift of the Lord and an image of Christ.  A sense of community will make them joyful and ready to place themselves on an equal basis with all people …..”

“Secular Franciscans are called to build a more fraternal and evangelical world so that the Kingdom of God may be brought about more effectively.  Mindful that anyone “who follows Christ, the perfect man, becomes more of a man himself,”  …….

“Let them individually and collectively be in the forefront in promoting justice by the testimony of their human lives and their courageous initiatives…….

Again, all works together.  In this instance, the aggregate of all these quotes serves to deepen my understanding of the relationship between self-denial, Spiritual Poverty, the Kingdom of God, and the obligations that one man has for his sister or brother in the realm of worldly concern and effort.

I am “a pilgrim and a stranger” in this world because, in the spirit of Penance, Metanoia, and self-denial, I am focused on God to such an extent that I am uncomfortable with the demands and the impositions the world typically makes on me.  The world wants me to “yearn for possession and power,” but I am determined instead to “follow Christ, and witness to Him, even in difficulty and persecution” as I concentrate on my journey “to the home of my Father.”

When I let go of my desire for possession and power, my deep focus on Christ makes me aware that His entire earthly life is an example of Spiritual Poverty.  Christ, “with a gentle and courteous spirit, accepted all people as a gift of God.”  He “joyfully placed Himself on an equal basis with all people.”  He showed how it is possible for me participate in the work of “building a more fraternal and evangelical world so that the Kingdom of God may be brought about more effectively.”  He was “in the forefront of promoting justice by the testimony of His human life,” which has to be seen as the ultimate example of a “courageous initiative.”

When I adhere to His pattern and example, I “follow the poor and crucified Christ, the perfect man,” in order to “become more of a man myself.”    

To the extent that I am successful, I become, as the Beatitudes suggest, “blessed” and “poor in spirit.”

And then I am, at least for a little while, to some extent, both located in the Kingdom of God and participatory in bringing it forth.  In terms of chapter two and the words of St. Paul, I have chosen to comply with the plan of God to expand the amount of Love that is present in Creation. 

This speaks to the depth of what the word “poverty” means in the Franciscan charism.  There is a great chasm between material and Spiritual Poverty.  To approach change and the world from a spiritual perspective is very much different than to approach it from a material one.  It is the difference between a motivation that is found only at the surface and in the mind versus a motivation that is found in the depths of the heart and soul.    

Just as the Rule asks me to move from the gospel to life and life to gospel, I am called to move from the spiritual to the material and back in terms of poverty.  It is Spiritual Poverty that calls me to embrace the good work of battling material poverty in the world wherever I find it.  The earthly work of battling material poverty should in turn feed my devotion to Spiritual Poverty. 

All this is made possible by the extent to which my Penance and self-denial lead me to embrace a full attitude of Spiritual Poverty and its concomitant requirement that I reject not just unnecessary material possession, but also all those earthly possessions that come broadly under the heading power.

As the quote from Love’s Reply indicates, Penance and Poverty are inseparable.  And they too exist in a circular relationship.  Penance leads to Spiritual Poverty, which leads to Penance, which leads back to Spiritual Poverty, etc., etc.


As I consider the connection between self-denial and Spiritual Poverty, it is helpful for me to think in terms of clearing out clutter.  One of the main reasons I reject worldly concern is that I understand and accept that Penance requires me to create space in my existence for God to occupy. 

Think of it in terms of getting your home ready for a visitor.

It is early February.  I am traveling in Florida.  I am spending the mornings writing, the afternoons wandering through shops with my wife, and the evenings eating a quiet dinner out.  This past Sunday I met my uncle, aunt, and cousins for dinner.  As we were catching up, my wife and my cousin started swapping stories about visiting their sons at college.  Of course, they were both quickly laughing about the lack of housekeeping skill demonstrated by young men living on their own for the first time.

I can remember being in the same position as a college student.  I remember dishes piling up in the kitchen until there was not a single inch of counterspace left to set a glass on.  I was tolerant, but I was the least tolerant among us, so I would be the one to give in and start washing.  I would be furious with my roommates for the two hours it took to get everything back in order because, of course, they contributed greatly to the mess, but they were not helping to clean it up.  I can also remember trying to remove the grime from the bathtub at the end of the year to get my security deposit back after months of neglect.

When I allow “the worries of this life” to intrude and take over, my soul becomes like my college apartment.  It becomes cluttered, messy, and unclean.  To harken back to the Parable of the Sower in chapter four of Mark, it becomes choked as if by thorns.  I quickly find that I cannot keep up with the disarray and this becomes disheartening.  The further I get behind, the less desire I have to deal with the mess.  I become paralyzed.  I just want it to go away, but I do not have the energy to make it happen. 

At the same time, the world and the enemy find ways to introduce additional worries into the mix.  Not only am I unable to deal with the clutter that already exists, but I also find it growing exponentially as this or that concern is heaped on the rest.  The mess becomes permanent, and it takes on a life of its own.  I am no longer in control (if I ever was), and I have no idea how I got to this state.

The Franciscan call to Spiritual Poverty is the antidote to this situation.  If I can begin to focus on God, I can begin to whittle away at the mountain of worldly factors that contribute to the disorder I am experiencing.  What used to be crucial loses its significance.  As I make progress, I reduce the number of things that I believe to be critical, until it is only my relationship with God that I find truly important.  The importance of other things then begins to be determined based on my understanding of what God desires for/of me.

This does manifest itself in material ways.  I begin to set aside or give away the material things in my life that are no longer paramount to my old perception of happiness or need.  The amount of clothes in my closet shrinks as I drop things off for the homeless.  The old electronics stored away against a future need that will never come are also discarded.  The number of pots and pans and towels and blankets decreases as I work at clearing out the material clutter that I suddenly find oppressive.  The neglected corner of the basement or the crawl space where castoff stuff accumulates finally gets the attention that I have been promising it for so long.

This material cleansing is all fine and well.  It is a first and necessary step on the road to Spiritual Poverty.  But it is only a beginning.  I need to move from the material to the Spiritual before the most important work can begin.  When I can look at the dusty corners of my soul and see the cobwebs accumulated there, and when I commit to clearing them out, then I have begun the true work of conversion that marks the life and attitude of a committed Christian.

Like any aspect of conversion, this is a process.  It is the work of the rest of my life.  I still recall my humanity and my frailty.  I accept that I must stay aware and that I must put the effort in day by day.        

Francis speaks to all of this in chapter twenty-two of the Earlier Rule:

Therefore, all my brothers, let us be very much on our guard that, under the guise of some reward or assistance, we do not lose or take our mind away from God.  But, in the holy love which is God, I beg all my brothers, both the ministers and others, after overcoming every impediment and putting aside every care and anxiety, to serve, love, honor and adore the Lord God with a clean heart and a pure mind in whatever way they are best able to do so, for that is what he wants above all else.

Let us always make a home and dwelling place there for Him Who is the Lord God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.    

God is Spirit and those who adore Him must adore Him in Spirit and truth.

The task I have before me is to convert my college apartment into “a home and dwelling place for Him who is the Lord God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” 

I used to be concerned about how my mom would judge me when she came to visit me at school and found the mess.  I could get the dishes done so the counter was clean, but, despite my alleged concern, I did not care enough to clean the tub.  I was content to simply close the shower curtain and hope that she would not look and see the grunge that was accumulated there. 

With God, I know that He sees the nooks and crannies all the time.  I cannot sweep dirt under the proverbial rug or hide skeletons in the closet.  He knows, so I must do my best to fully prepare all the recesses of my soul if I want His approval when He visits and if I hope that He will stay.  And I must also accept that I am going to miss a few spots.  I do the best I can, improving as He points out to me the next location that needs attention.  And I hope in His generous Mercy and bountiful Love that He will forgive the messes I have not yet gotten to.   

As I seek to embrace Spiritual Poverty, instead of just giving away clothes, I pledge to give away everything that creates clutter and disorder in my soul.  My need for power over others, to control every aspect and outcome in my life, and to find approval from worldly judges is set aside.  My envy and jealousy at the prosperity and good fortune of others dissipates.  I try my hardest to make my soul as clean and sparkling as it can be so that it becomes a welcoming place for Him to occupy. 

I accept that He will not be impressed by any of the material things that I used to think were essential.  He experiences Heaven continuously, so it is impossible for the size or opulence of my house to impress Him.  His clothes are “dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” The cut of my clothes, no matter how fine, will not impact Him because He looks right through my outer garments to see what is inside of me.  He rides on clouds and walks on water, so how could I expect a luxury car to prove to Him that I am in some way worthy of spending eternity with Him?     

My material resources are placed at His disposal.  I become a good steward of all that I possess when I accept that I have no possessions at all.  Everything that I used to think of as mine I now regard as a gift given into my care.  He is the proper owner of every good and Good in the world, and everything must be returned to Him the moment He determines He has need of it elsewhere. 

As I give away my anger, all my other negative emotions, and all my claim to earthly wealth and power, I create a place of tranquility for Him and me to meet in.  In retrospect, I recognize how silly and disrespectful it was for me to subject Him to the unpleasantness of my formerly sulky, cynical, and possessive mind.  My own unattractiveness appalls me when I consider how neglectful I was of the dwelling place within me that, as my Loving Creator, He had every right to claim as His own.      

The place where I meet Him needs to be pristine, untouched, and unsullied.  It needs to be welcoming, warm, and friendly.  It needs to be uncluttered, orderly and tidy.  It needs to be prepared not according to my expectations, but to His specifications as He reveals them to me.

To create this space, I need to harken back to the work of the last chapter.  It is self-denial, carried out completely, that is the key to bringing this transformation about.  Only when I give away all my self-desire in favor of embracing His desire completely can I expect to succeed.  This attitude of self-surrender, when it becomes permanent, is what makes Spiritual Poverty blossom.

The above quote from Francis calls me to “serve, love, honor and adore the Lord God with a clean heart and a pure mind in whatever way I am best able to do so, for that is what He wants above all else.” 

If I look honestly at myself and at the motivations that have been the primary driving factors in my life, can I square them with the simple call to the service of God that Francis speaks here?     

Is “what He wants above all else” the organizing principle of my life, or is what I want above else the prime factor that drives my decision-making process?

Knowing and living the difference is what allows me to move from a realm of self-love to a realm of Spiritual Poverty where loving God is my one and only concern.


Being able to clear space for God to occupy within the soul is part of what delineates Spiritual Poverty for a Franciscan, but it does not provide the complete definition.

To round out the picture, I must also clearly understand the underlying motivation of Francis in adopting Poverty as one of his guiding principles.  This begins with what Francis found in the life of Christ when he examined it and elected to emulate it.  As has already been noted, when I begin to examine the life of Christ closely, I see that it is, in its entirety, an expression of Spiritual Poverty. 

For Francis, this truth became the bedrock principle that framed his entire religion.

This begins with the way Christ entered the world.  (Luke 2:4-7)

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

The entire globe is familiar with this story.  Even every non-Christian on the planet could tell you the circumstances of the birth of Jesus.  There is no room at the inn, so Jesus is born in a stable and is laid in a manger.  Too often, the full significance of the story is neglected.  It is so familiar to me that I am inured to it.  I either assume I know the importance of the story, or I do not bother to contemplate it.

Jesus, the Son of God and King of the World, Loves me to such an extent that, in an act of supreme self-sacrifice and self-denial, He chooses to be born into the world as a man in order to open the path to salvation for all men.  He will leave the comfort and glory of Heaven and live within His Creation as He achieves this task.      

As Son of God and King of the World, I surely would expect Him to be born into a station that is fitting of His status.  I expect that He will be born into a royal family so that the pathway to His Kingship will be open and apparent.  An earthly palace can never match the splendor of Heaven, but if He is born into a royal family, that means He will be born into some measure of the splendor He is accustomed to.  It might not be the same, but He will have as much comfort and ease as any earthly life could hope to enjoy.  He will have access to all the best food so that he grows up strong and healthy.  He will have access to the best education so that He matures with the wisdom that a great leader must have.  He will marry a beautiful woman who also comes from a royal background.  And He will live a long, prosperous, and comfortable life for His entire stay amongst us. 

In short, when He descends from Heaven, He will experience the very best material comforts and will possess the greatest power and wealth that an earthly life can offer.  He’s the Son of God, that’s what He deserves.  That is what I would choose if I were Him.

Instead, He chooses exactly the opposite.  He chooses to be born in a stable to a couple that is from a backwater village looked down on by all.  Remember what Nathaniel says when he is told about Jesus: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”  He lives in obscurity right up to the onset of His public ministry.  Until He reveals Himself, He is a common carpenter working with His hands just like any average person of His day.

And even after He reveals Himself, His lifestyle remains simple, and He remains bereft of material concern and comfort.  He tells us in Matthew chapter eight,

“Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

The OFS Rule states in article eleven:

“Trusting in the Father, Christ chose for himself and his mother a poor and humble life……”

Christ deliberately chose a life of both material and Spiritual Poverty.  He did so because He wanted me to understand the difference between what is important and what is not.  The absence of material concern in His life left Him free to focus on the Father and to deliver His teachings without any distractions.  His poverty and humility instruct me continually that to be saved, I must set aside worldly concern and focus wholly on God.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” is not something He said once.  He said it repeatedly using many different combinations of words in the hope that the repetition would ensure that the message took hold.

But those words would have been empty if He had not lived them out fully as well.  To deliver them from a palace would have been contradictory.  As the Son of God, He used His life here on earth to reveal to me in both word and deed the essence of the Spiritual Poverty that He came to earth to proclaim. 

It does begin with a disdain for material possessions.  Thus, when He sent His disciples out to preach, He tells them (Matthew 10:9-10),

“Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff……”  

It is complimented by disregard for worldly dominion and prestige.  Because His Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, is not of this earth, He is unconcerned about the accumulation or possession of earthly power. (Matthew 22:21)

“So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

It is then completed by an intense and sincere focus on God.  All the gospels speak regularly of Jesus seeking out solitude so that He could pray to and with His Father.  The Transfiguration (Luke 9:28) is one prominent example of this:

“……., He took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray.” 

When His disciples asked Him how to pray, He immediately taught them not to look to their own will or means to fulfill their needs, but instead to rely on the Father for everything that they required.  (Luke 11:1-4)

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”  He said to them, “When you pray, say:

“Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.

Immediately followed by (Luke 11:9-13):

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The prayer to the Father to “give us each day our daily bread” is reinforced by the deeper details of the following quotes.  “Ask and it will be given.”  “Seek and you will find.”  “Knock and the door will open.”  These are admonitions toward focusing on the Father and unceasingly tending to Him with all one’s being in an attitude of Penance and Metanoia.  In response, our Father in Heaven will generously grant the Holy Spirit and everything else we need if only we ask Him in belief and deep sincerity.

This reinforces the idea that everything we have is a gift from God.  Everything we have, we asked for in some way, either consciously or subconsciously, and it is the generous response of the Father that is the source of our possessions, both material and spiritual.

Jesus provides the pattern for everything that has been discussed in this chapter.  The circumstances of His birth and His instructions to his disciples indicate His contempt for the material things of this world.  His own consistent practice of prayer and His teaching display for us in indisputable terms that even though He was the Son of God, He still felt a primal need to focus on God always in a never ending attitude of Spiritual Poverty.

When Francis heard the description of the sending out of the disciples that is quoted above, his personal searching ended.  He finally found exactly what he was looking for and he dropped everything at that moment to follow the teaching of Jesus precisely (The Life of St. Francis by Thomas of Celano, The First Book, Chapter Nine):

Francis immediately exulted in the Spirit of God.  “This is what I want,” he said, “this is what I seek, this is what I desire with all my heart.”  The holy father, overflowing with joy, hastened to implement the words of salvation, and did not delay before he devoutly began to put into effect what he heard.  Immediately, he took off the shoes from his feet, put down the staff from his hands, and, satisfied with one tunic, exchanged his leather belt for a cord…….he was no deaf hearer of the gospel; rather he committed everything he heard to his excellent memory and was careful to carry it out to the letter.”   

Francis heard the instructions that Jesus gave and saw the example that He set, and he became determined to become a perfect follower of Christ himself.  He acknowledged that the message that Jesus embodied about living a life of Spiritual Poverty was also pointed directly at him.  Without any hesitation, he embraced the Word and made Him his guide.

In turn, he becomes the example that I will follow.  I will imitate Francis, and through him, also Jesus, as I chart my own course from Penance through Self-Denial to Spiritual Poverty.  If I am successful, I can hope to achieve not only the overflowing joy of Francis, but also the peace engendered by Spiritual Poverty as described in this quote from the end of chapter six of Celano:

After putting aside all that is of the world,
he is mindful only of divine justice.
Now he is eager to despise his own life,
by setting aside all concern for it.
Thus there might be peace for him,
a poor man on a hemmed-in path,
and only the wall of the flesh would separate him
from the vision of God.


I will seek God with all my heart, soul, and mind.  I want to place myself in a position where only the thinnest of veils exist between myself and God.  In the end, it is the example of Jesus that makes this possible.  Just as he continually sought closeness to God despite being His Son, so will I seek that same proximity.

This desire for closeness informs the need and compulsion I feel to set aside all concerns and distraction so that I might embrace a life of Spiritual Poverty.  I can make all the intellectual arguments I want about why a life centered on Poverty is the best possible life, but they pale in comparison to the example that Jesus sets for me.  His entire life, from the modest circumstances of his birth to the submissiveness and nakedness of His Passion, is an overwhelming statement about the primacy of Poverty in a life well lived.

At the opening of this chapter, I provided the gospel passage where Jesus observes a widow placing pennies in the temple treasury.  Jesus says “she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

Jesus did the exact same thing.  Out of His Spiritual Poverty, He gave up everything.  He started by giving up His position in Heaven to be born in a stable and He ended by sacrificing His very life on the Cross, all so I would have access to eternal life. 

His Sacrifice on the Cross is itself the ultimate expression of Spiritual Poverty.  (John 15:13)

               Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

If I wish to be the friend of Jesus and of God, I must reciprocate.  Just as Jesus laid down His life for me, I must in turn lay down my life for Him.

All that we have discussed so far comes to this.  The gratitude I feel for the Love that God bestows on me.  The turning toward God with all my being as defined by the deepest meanings of Penance and Metanoia.  The determination to practice complete material and spiritual self-denial.

Spiritual Poverty is the full integration and acceptance of these practices.

It is the outcome I seek when I determine to follow the example of Jesus and Francis precisely.   

Proceed to Chapter Six A: Examples of the Teaching of Jesus on Spiritual Poverty

Back to Chapter Five: Self Denial

Chapter Five: Self-Denial

White Oak Lake State Park, Bluff City, Arkansas

The Gospel of Mark, 9:13-15:

They came to Capernaum.  When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?”  But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.  Sitting down, Jesus called the twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

“I will resolve to give my entire self to Him.” 

This is the thought I offered at the conclusion of the last reflection as an expression of the deepest possible commitment I can make to the ideal of Metanoia and Penance.  If I embrace Penance comprehensively and successfully, it naturally leads to this pledge. 

This theme of self-denial then becomes the final thread from the first chapter of Love’s Reply that I wish to explore.  It is a close corollary to the definition of Penance found there, or perhaps it is better stated as a completion of that definition.  This extension pins down what necessarily follows from meticulously focusing my entire being on God.  A thorough embrace of Metanoia and Penance should in turn lead me to an ardent devotion to self-denial.

Here are some quotes from Love’s Reply that speak to this:

“The more man surrenders himself to redemption through Christ and subjects himself to the rule of Christ, the more he will forget himself and love God.  Yet this means that so much the more will he deepen and perfect the life of Metanoia, the life of penance, which will reach its fullness in the love of God unto utter forgetfulness of self.”

“The penitent, who knows full well that he is “weak and contemptible, corrupt and shameful, ungrateful and evil,” surrenders himself in his thankfulness wholly to God, that God may work in him the wonders of his grace freely and without hindrance, especially without any obstacle from the perverse, that is, the God-forsaking will of man.  When man no longer “holds anything back of himself for himself,” that he may belong wholly to God, the Lord “who has created and redeemed us, will save us by his mercy alone.”

“He who is possessed to the very depths of his soul by the love of God and by gratitude for everything that God has done in us and constantly does for us through his Son Jesus Christ, will come to contemn himself more and more, that the grace of God may be made perfect in him.  This conversion of man from self and from all concern for self, that thenceforth the Lord alone may work in him, this is that “Metanoia,” that penance, which Francis demands of us according to the teaching of the Holy Spirit, especially of the Sermon on the Mount.”

“The life of penance as the grateful response to God’s blessings means that with all that we have and all that we are we live wholly unto God in Christ.  Whoever undertakes the life of penance must absolutely and unconditionally forget himself that thereafter he may live for God alone.”

In the first and third quotes, note the use of the word “Love.”  If I recall the discussion in chapter two about the expansion of Love being the purpose of Creation, and if I find this argument persuasive, then I naturally want to understand and practice the concrete means that will help me participate in God’s plan.  Likewise with the passage from Paul on Love in the last chapter.  If I am to choose Love in the face of the challenges of the modern world, I must have a tangible departure point for the practical implementation of my choice.   

These quotes give me the means and departure point for putting my desire to Love into action.  Self-denial can be the demonstrable work I perform in response to my need to return God’s Love to Him.

If I think about this in the context of the closest relationships in my life, it makes perfect sense.  Love, for instance, calls me to a significant abandonment of self interest in my interactions with my wife, my children, my parents, or my siblings.  If my sole or main concern in those relationships were myself, then those relationships would not last.  My selfishness would quickly cause stress, strife, and strain.  The people I purport to Love would quickly grow tired of me and the relationships would disintegrate because my self-interest would demonstrate that my Love for them was not sincere. 

To Love correctly, I must be willing, in the words of the Scriptural passage that opens this reflection, to become “the very last” in order to become “the servant of all.”  To desire greatness is the opposite of desiring Love.

How much more then should this principle relate to my relationship with God? 

Salvation history demonstrates for me the complete nature of His self-giving.  His Love is such an overwhelming force that it causes Him to leave the blissfulness of Heaven and to descend to this plane and take on human form (Phillipians 2:5-8). 

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
         Who, being in very nature God,
         did not consider equality with God something to be used to
         his own advantage;
         rather, he made himself nothing
            by taking the very nature of a servant,
            being made in human likeness.
         And being found in appearance as a man,
            he humbled himself
            by becoming obedient to death—
               even death on a cross!

On the face of it, leaving the perfection of Heaven to be born in a stable and die on the Cross is non-sensical.  It is not something I would choose to do myself.  Especially not to ensure the redemption of a creature as wicked and undeserving as me.

This act of selflessness is awe-inspiring and deeply demanding.  We know by the anxiety of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane that it caused Him anguish.  Crucifixion is not something I would wish on my worst enemy, let alone on the One who Loves me with an abundance that I am incapable of comprehending.

Yet He endured it.  This is the unfathomable measure of His Love and His Self-Denial.  This is the intensity of His desire to be with me in joy in Heaven for the fullness of eternity.    

The answer to such an example on the part of God requires an equally compelling gesture on my part.  I cannot, in return, love God moderately or incompletely.  I have no choice but to give everything I have in return in my own act of thorough self-denial.  To do any less would indicate the shallowness of my regard for my Creator.              

The good news is, because of the nature of the Creation proclaimed by God, my complete offering of Love to God does not deplete my store of Love.  Instead, my store of Love is multiplied by the Grace of God when I Love Him with all my being, and I acquire a superabundance of Love that I can then share with not only those around me who are most important to me, but also with the world at large.

The brilliance of Gods’ Design in the arena of Love cannot be understated.  It is inevitably underappreciated.  


Just as the theme of gratitude was drawn from the words of Francis’ prayer of thanksgiving in Chapter 23 of the Earlier Rule, so it is with this theme of self-denial.  In chapter three, I quoted the entire “Exhortation to Prayer and Thanksgiving.”  Here, let me emphasize the phrases that speak to this idea of total commitment as the ultimate expression of Penance, Metanoia, and a proper and complete turn toward God in a posture of complete self-denial.

With our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind, with our whole strength and fortitude, with our whole understanding, with all our powers, with every effort, every affection, every feeling, every desire and wish, let us all love the Lord our God …….

Therefore, let us desire nothing else, let us want nothing else, let nothing else please us and cause us delight except our Creator, Redeemer and Savior, the only true God, …….

Therefore, let nothing hinder us, nothing separate us, nothing come between us.

Wherever we are, in every place, at every hour, at every time of day, every day and continually, let all of us truly and humbly believe, hold in our heart and love, honor, adore, serve, praise and bless, glorify and exalt, magnify and give thanks to the Most High and Supreme Eternal God …….

Whole.  Every.  Nothing. 

Read the phrases above with special emphasis on these words.  How many times is each word repeated?  What does such forceful repetition mean about the message that Francis is trying to convey? 

Believe.  Hold.  Love.  Honor.  Adore.  Serve.  Praise.  Bless.  Glorify.  Exalt.  Magnify.  Thank.

Review this string of words and let the sequence reverberate through your being.

Again, what does such concentrated, determined, and passionate repetition say to me? 

If I hold Francis in high regard, what does this mean about the depth of Love that I must deploy in response to the prodigious, vast and unrelenting Love that God presents to me at every moment of every day? 

How profound, deep, and overpowering must my spirit of thanksgiving be if it is to mirror the words of Francis? 

How fundamental, essential, and vital must my Metanoia inspired change of heart be if it is to satisfy the call that Francis compassionately imposes upon me?      

If I were as talented as Francis, how many other adjectives would I add to the strings of words that begin with concentrated, prodigious, profound, and fundamental in the sentences above?

One of the most attractive things about the charism of Francis is his total embrace of self-abandonment.  It seems a bit strange, but the most striking feature of his self-denial is the complete joy that it brings him.  When I read the words above again, or better yet return to the full prayer in my second reflection, I need to be mindful of the notion of joy as I read.

Can I feel it?  Can I feel the joy that urged Francis to write with such passion about the deep gratitude he felt in response to the Goodness that God displays in His plan for the salvation of every soul that He Loves into being?

Do I find that joy infectious?  Does it cause my gratitude to expand and fill me with a deep need to set every worldly concern aside to dwell within that joy unceasingly, with my entire being focused on the goodness and generosity that Christ presented then and continues to present every time He descends from Heaven to become present in the world and once again fight for my salvation?       


The third quote above references the Sermon of the Mount.  This teaching by Jesus extends for three full chapters in the gospel of Matthew, five to seven.  Jesus speaks continuously the entire time.  He begins with the Beatitudes and covers many diverse and varied topics.

Here is one small passage that speaks to the topic of self-abandonment.  Note the word “devoted” and its connotations regarding complete self-denial: (Matthew 7:19-21, 24) 

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.”

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”


“Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.”

This hearkens back to the last chapter and the discussion about the influences of modern culture and technology.  It seems that at every turn, modern culture is in my face, bombarding me with messages about all the earthly things I need to acquire to be happy.  Underlying all that messaging is the need to acquire wealth, because without wealth, I will not have the means to make the required acquisitions.  Without wealth, it would seem, happiness is impossible.  

The message of Jesus in the Beatitudes and the balance of the Sermon of the Mount is very different.  Modern culture would have me equate the idea of treasure to the idea of material possessions.  Jesus contradicts that message completely.  For Jesus, treasure is a spiritual matter. 

Which side of the argument I take says everything about who I am and where my priorities lay.  “I cannot serve both God and money.”  To regard treasure as a spiritual matter is to turn away from worldly sin and toward God with all my being.  Penance and Metanoia are invigorated when I choose spiritual concerns over material ones.  They are extended to self-denial when I repudiate my carnal side and adopt the life-securing message that Jesus speaks above. 

In the end, all the material treasure that the earth can provide is transitory and non-transferable.  My stay on earth is short.  My stay in eternity, whether it be on the blissful or the torturous side, is never ending.  It would be foolish of me to sacrifice the permanent joy of the everlasting for the temporary happiness of the fleeting.

That foolishness is clear as I write.  But as I live out my life, I am easily distracted, and my clarity is easily lost.  The pressures of the world around me are intense and relentless.  My constitution is weak, weary, and compromised by the sins that I have willfully and habitually allowed myself to commit.  It is easy for me to say that I wish to turn away from all worldly influences, but it is hard for me to adopt and achieve that desire and truth. 

This is why it is of primary importance that my turn toward Penance and self-denial be all encompassing.  The slightest slip has the potential energy to cause a cascade that threatens every gain I might make.  This can happen without my even realizing it.  I think all is well and suddenly I find myself back in the grip of old habits without understanding how or when the digression took place. 

I am not addicted to drugs or alcohol.  But I am addicted to worldliness.  

I am reminded of St. Augustine.  He wrote in his Confessions that his will did not seem to be his own.  The enemy had it chained, and he seemed to have two wills that directly contradicted one another.  One longed to be free and to serve God.  The other was content to remain chained and maintain his sinful status quo.  He expressed this division within himself by praying “God, make me chaste, but not yet.”  His obsession with the fleeting pleasures of the world was so intense that it took him years to acquire the means to deny his worldly addictions.  He was fully aware that his immortal soul was in jeopardy until he implemented an attitude of Penance and self-denial, but even this great saint had to struggle mightily to break the chains of the enemy. 

Like Augustine, I need to get over the hump.  I need to utterly reject worldliness, money and self-interest and unconditionally choose devotion to God.  My self-denial must be consistent so that the probability of slipping becomes less and less as the habit of holiness increases steadily.  And I need to do so sooner rather than later because, as Mark writes in chapter thirteen, “No one knows the day or the hour.  If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.  Watch!”           

The enemy, because he wants me to end up on the tortuous side of eternity, is working diligently to thwart me.  He is omnipresent in the modern culture, has had lots of time to practice, is indefatigable in his work ethic, and is very accomplished at what he does.  He is on his A-game, and he is remorseless in his pursuit of souls to enslave.

That would seem to make my position hopeless.  How can I possibly expect to defeat an enemy who is superior to me in so many ways?

The answer is that I cannot on my own.  Augustine needed help.  For him, that help came in the form of a voice calling him to “open and read.”  When he opened scripture arbitrarily and read it, the Word that God provided finally allowed him to triumph over himself. 

His example is mirrored in chapter two of The Anonymous of Perugia.  When Brother Bernard and Brother Peter, the first two followers of Francis, sought to join him, Francis took them to a church, and they asked the priest to show them the gospel: 

…. When the priest opened the book, they immediately found the passage: If you wish to be perfect, go, sell everything you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Opening up the book a second time, they discovered: Whoever wishes to come after me …..  When they opened they book for the third time, they came upon: Take nothing for the journey …..  When they heard this, they were filled with great joy and exclaimed: “This is what we want, this is what we have been seeking.”  And blessed Francis said: “This will be our rule.” 

Then Brother Bernard, who was rich, sold all his possessions …….. Brother Peter, on the other hand, who was poor in worldly goods, now became rich in spiritual goods.

Notice the words “treasure in heaven” and “rich in spiritual goods.”  Notice how they fit with the teaching of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount.

Both Augustine and Francis were caught up in worldly affectation.  Both had dreams of worldly renowned and worldly achievement.  Self-denial is prominent in both conversions.  It took time for each to develop the holy devotion that defined their lives in the end, locating them among the greatest saints the church has known.  That these two great saints had to evolve over time is of great consolation. 

God, through the ongoing presence of Christ and the same Word that saved Augustine and Francis, offers me continuous assistance to the same degree and measure that He offered it to these two great saints. 

As the Rule says, my human frailty makes conversion an ongoing process.  It needs to be pursued daily.  Francis and Augustine understood that and lived through it.  Their example means there is hope for me to reach the Light at the end of my journey. 


“Store up for yourself treasures in heaven.” 

Thanks to Disney and “The Pirates of the Caribbean,” I find myself thinking about treasure like a pirate.  I want to hoard some gold, place it in a locked chest, and bury it on a desert island somewhere against my future need.  In the modern sense, I want to put money in the bank or invest it in the stock market or a piece of real estate so that my long-term security is guaranteed.

But what are the practicalities of storing up treasure in Heaven?  Heaven does not have bank vaults or a stock market, so I have no way to store up anything material against the future needs of eternity.  If treasure in Heaven is a spiritual matter, how do I acquire and store it?    

Perhaps I should think of treasure in terms of my obligation to participate in God’s plan for the expansion of Love?  The Love that I produce when my relationship with God is active and robust is the spiritual treasure that I am asked to accumulate?  Every healthy step I take forward in this relationship can be thought of as a new deposit or an appreciation in value that increases my stores?   When I sin and regress away from Love, I make a withdrawal or the market falls and my account suffers a depletion?

If relationship and Love are the currency that defines the value of my stored treasure in Heaven, then self-denial is the work I put in to generate that currency.

I can easily identify the connection between toil and treasure on this earthly plane.  I understand from experience that the reward for work is income.  That might take the form of a paycheck, or a rent deposit (my wife and I own several rental properties), or maybe just appreciation in a market account or the value of a piece of property I own.  Whatever the source, the gain is related to the work and/or the resources I put in place.   

If this analogy is to hold in relation to spiritual treasure, then I also must deploy work and resources on that front.  The analogy might lead me to think that good works are sufficient to meet the need, but the truth goes deeper than that.  God knows if my good works are sincere or steeped in hollow human calculation.  If my good works are not underpinned by the proper attitude, they will not be efficacious.  The resource of Love must be their true cause, and they must be the by-product of a relationship with God grounded in the work of Penance and self-denial.

Recall this quotation from Paul on Love.

If I give away everything I own,
and if I hand my body over so that I may boast,
but do not have love, I gain nothing.

In chapter three I discovered that my will was insufficient to lead me to Penance.  I need to embrace gratitude for the Love of God before Penance becomes accessible.  Likewise, if I deploy good works, but my motivation is skewed by my human will, I have missed the point.  Instead, my good works must be generated by a deep foundation rooted in the fundamental Love described by this quote.  Earnest good works preceded by a commitment to the expansion of Love are an indicator of the deeper well-being of my soul.   

This deep foundation of stored and heartfelt Love can only develop if I have a productive, honest, and accelerating relationship with God.  Prayer, spiritual reading, and (perhaps paradoxically to an analogy of work) the simple act of resting in God’s presence often and absolutely are essential if my foundation is to be stable and permanent.  Practice of these disciplines requires me to set aside the worldly self-interest that inevitably distracts me from their implementation.  Relationship with God requires self-denial. 

In my life, I have reached the point where I have the flexibility to truly concentrate on this work.  I am fortunate to be retired even though I have not yet reached the typical age.  I am blessed to have a wife that is willing to allow me the flexibility and freedom to explore the ideas that I am writing about as she continues to work and support us.  This writing is itself an expression of the work required to consolidate the foundation of Love and relationship that I am seeking.  (I could be in the basement working on something worldly like my putting stroke instead.) 

The blessings of God are the source of my flexibility.  He has not set me free so that I can do whatever I please.  His generosity imposes what should be joyful obligations toward self-denial on me.  To knowingly embrace the freedom but reject the consequent obligation to strengthen my relationship with Him would be more sinful than anything that has gone before.  I know better.  I must get it right. 

The OFS Rule speaks to this in article eight:

Let prayer and contemplation be the heart and soul of all they are and do.

And in article eleven:

Trusting in the Father, Christ chose for himself and his mother a poor and humble life, even though he valued created things attentively and lovingly.  Let the Secular Franciscans seek a proper spirit of detachment from temporal goods by simplifying their own material needs…….They should strive to purify their hearts from every tendency and yearning for possession and power.

And in article twelve:

They should set themselves free to love God and their brothers and sisters.

All are connected.  Penance, as “a change of mind, the complete and unceasing renewal of a man who tends to God with all his being,” leads to self-denial and “a proper spirit of detachment from temporal goods” and the ability to “purify my heart from every tendency and yearning toward possession and power.”  That detachment leads in turn to “setting myself free to love God and my brothers and sisters.”

My freedom is then fulfilled when “prayer and contemplation become the heart and soul of all I am and all I do.”  My prayer and contemplation enhance and deepen my relationship with God.  This improvement and acceleration of my relationship with God strengthens the foundation of Love that is the basis of how I approach my work of self-denial in the world, and it gives my good works meaning and staying power. 

In short, all of this together is what allows me to “store up treasure in heaven,” a treasure that God will keep safe from all earthly concern like “moths, vermin and thieves.”  When my treasure is located with God, it becomes unassailable by anyone other than myself.  Only by sin can I cause it to be depleted or destroyed. 

The quotes from Love’s Reply call me to submission and self-forgetfulness.  They encourage me to “not hold back anything of myself for myself.”  I am to “contemn myself more and more, that the grace of God may be made perfect in me.”  “With all that I have and all that I am I will live wholly unto God in Christ.  I must absolutely and unconditionally forget myself that thereafter I may live for God alone.”

Or, in the words of Francis, with my whole heart, my whole soul, my whole mind, with my whole strength and fortitude, with my whole understanding, with all my powers, with every effort, every affection, every feeling, every desire and wish, let me Love the Lord my God …….

All of it points to self-denial as the work that I am unconditionally called to.

I must turn and gaze at God in true Penance and become more and more enamored with Him.  I am weak, broken, and needy.  He is all Good, all Loving, all Merciful, etc., etc.  It should be simple to decide which direction to take and who to rely on. 

Desire for Him must arise in me and carry me forward in a direction where denial of self in favor of devotion to God becomes the focus of all my effort.  Even if that does not meet any traditional definition of work, I understand the path it puts me on, which culminates in a relationship with God that is joyful now while at the same time productive regarding the demands of eternity.  The transient happiness of earth will be supplanted by the permanent joyfulness of Heaven, which I can begin to glimpse even now. 

As God’s Creation, I am totally dependent on Him.  I realize that my true happiness lies not in anything that this world can give me, but instead in the Grace that He bestows on me as He sustains me moment by moment.  He works in me continuously, and as I wake to His Labor, “all concern for self” fades away.

I long for Him and Him alone as I relegate my self to the background.  I become focused on the true treasure of Love that Jesus asks me to aim for in the Sermon on the Mount.  When I make self-denial the work of the rest of my lifetime, I open my ability to Love as He wishes me to Love.


Today is once again Sunday.  A week has passed, and it is now the fifth Sunday in ordinary time.  Almost everything above was written before I read and heard the readings for this weekend, but once again, God speaks to me directly despite the improbability of the timing. 

Today’s readings focus on the calling of Isaiah, Paul, and Peter. 

In the first reading, note the exclamation point at the end, which is indicative of the joy that Isaiah is feeling at being called by God to do His work.  Yes, the work will be taxing.  It will take all that Isaiah has, at every moment of every day, to fulfill what God is asking of him.  Isaiah will need to deny himself everything a typical worldly outlook allows to properly answer the call of God.  But he does not hesitate, and even more, he is exuberant as he accepts the task.  I should be so excited and joyful as I consider the work of self-denial that I know I am called to.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,
“Whom shall I send?  Who will go for us?”
“Here I am,” I said; “send me!”

The second reading concerns the calling of Paul.  Paul was farther astray then either Augustine or Francis.  As he admits, he was actively persecuting the Church.  He desperately needed assistance for his conversion to take hold and Jesus answered his need directly.  In response, Paul sets aside every worldly concern and belief he had held up until that moment in favor of the relationship that Jesus invites him to.  Letting go of his entire previous self, he becomes an apostle of Christ.  This is exactly the transformation I seek.     

Last of all, as to one born abnormally,
he appeared to me.
For I am the least of the apostles,
not fit to be called an apostle,
because I persecuted the church of God.
But by the grace of God I am what I am,
and his grace to me has not been ineffective.
Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them;
not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me.
Therefore, whether it be I or they,
so we preach and so you believed.

Finally, we have the call of Peter. 

Jesus is preaching at the Sea of Galilee.  He borrows Peter’s boat so that the Word can be clearly heard by all.  When He concludes He instructs Peter to move to deeper water and cast out his nets for a catch.  Peter, having fished all night unsuccessfully, is doubtful but he complies.  The result is a catch so large that the nets began to tear.  Peter calls for help from his partners and the catch is so numerous it fills both boats to the point of sinking.

Peter is astonished.  He drops to his knees and tells Jesus to depart from him because he is “a sinful man.”  Jesus ignores the sin and says,

“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”
When they brought their boats to the shore,
they left everything and followed him.

Sometimes what calls to you in the gospels will not be a full story or a full verse.  Sometimes it is just a single word.   

As this gospel was being read yesterday at the Saturday vigil, I was not paying particularly close attention.  When I arrive at Church, I typically review the readings before Mass starts so I am familiar with them.  This gives me a little time to prepare, and it negates the need to read along as they are spoken.  I can just listen but even with this luxury, my attention often strays.  I usually find myself interpreting the words ahead of the homily, wondering if Father saw them the same way I did.  Will he speak to the message I found during the few minutes of reflection time I had, or will he have a completely different take?

Yesterday, when I heard Father say the word “everything” right at the end of the gospel, bells and whistles went off.  I had not made the connection before Mass, but now I was nodding to myself.  “Yes, this speaks exactly to what I have been writing about the last two days!” 

I was as joyous as Isaiah at this revelation, so I had to add that exclamation point!

I look back in this moment and feel jealous of Paul.  I wish Jesus would forcefully rap me upside the head and speak to me directly, out loud.  Well, it may not have been out loud, but He did speak directly to me at Mass.  He made sure I heard the word “everything” and that I connected it to my writing. 

The question is, can I respond with a complete embrace of conversion and Love as Paul did?

And then the gospel story.  I have already written about the stubbornness of Peter.  Just like me, he is a sinful man and, despite the call by Jesus, his sinfulness will not abate any time soon.  His conversion, like that of Augustine and Francis, will take time.  Like Paul, he will deny Jesus outright before he finds his way to the full embrace of Jesus that his initial calling foreshadows.

Even so, we can see that in the moment, his response is what it should be.  He, his brother Andrew, and his partners, James and John, immediately drop “everything” to follow Jesus.  The version in the first chapter of Mark has the same sense of urgency.  “At once they left their nets and followed him.”

Their discipleship was fresh and undeveloped.  They would make progress, regress, and make progress again until they became mature enough to embody the “change of mind, the complete and unceasing renewal that allows a man to tend to God with all his being.”  They were at the beginning of their journey of Penance, but at this beginning, they wholeheartedly embraced the work, the self-denial, that would be required for the promise of Penance to be fulfilled.

They left “everything.”  The followed “at once.”  They denied themselves the life they had been living in favor of a better life, a life where they would be in the presence of Jesus continuously, without regard for the things of the world they left behind.  In the end, the fullness of their commitment would be rewarded by a relationship with Jesus that made it impossible for them to deny the eminence of Love in the Creation plan of the Father.  Their wonder and joy would be complete even though Jesus would leave them much sooner than any of them would have expected or wanted.

Their selflessness gave them the wherewithal to endure even the death of Jesus on the Cross with the sense of mission they needed to guide the nascent Church to the growth that established it as a primary force for good in the world ever after.  Their full focus on Jesus, nurtured by his Word and perfected through the final trial of His Passion, gave their lives a meaning, focus and joy that still speaks to me to this day.

As they were called, so I am called.  Their vocation is my vocation.  I am called to live and walk with Jesus through the gospels just as they did.

In response, I have one question to answer.

Will I drop “everything,” deny myself completely, and will I follow Jesus “at once” on the path to redemption and salvation that He so Lovingly opens and makes possible for all generations by His Incarnation, His Passion, His Resurrection and His never-ending Presence?

How can I respond in any other way than to say with Isaiah, “Send me!”

Proceed to Chapter Six: Spiritual Poverty

Back to Chapter Four: Penance

Chapter Four: Penance

Full Moon over Port Aransas Bay, Goose Island State Park, Rockport, Texas

The Gospel of Mark: 1:4, 14-15:

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins………… After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

The gospel of Mark begins with a call to Penance.  In just the fourth verse, we hear the message of John the Baptist defined as “a baptism of repentance.”  And then, in the first words that Jesus speaks in this gospel, He repeats and reinforces John’s message: “Repent and believe the good news.”  The first words of his public ministry in the gospel of Matthew are nearly identical: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

Jesus’ first act as He reveals Himself is to reinforce John’s call to repentance.  The Father, in His Mercy, has sent His Son to show us the path to redemption and salvation and the Son makes it immediately clear with His first public words that participation in the Kingdom requires an embrace of Penance. 

If we are to obey His teaching, we must have a clear understanding of what the word Penance means.  This is especially true in the modern world.  The farther we get from the time of Jesus and the birth of the Church, the more our culture wants to evolve toward the primacy of man.  Man seeks more and more to supplant God and to make himself the ruler of himself and all he perceives. 

As the culture evolves, it follows directly that the definition of Penance becomes watered down.  This is because the traditional definition of Penance directly challenges the course that modern man wishes to pursue.  Penance wants to be a restraint on man.  It wants to call him to discipline, obedience, and submission to the teaching of Jesus and the Will of God.  Many modern men do not want their freedom restricted by such considerations.  They do not want to accept that the responsibility associated with freedom can, in many ways, be determined by the traditional definition of Penance and its consequences.  Instead, they want to define responsibility and freedom entirely on their own terms.      

Technology has caused this change in our culture to accelerate.  The more connected we are, the faster impiety becomes acceptable and customary.  It becomes harder and harder to escape the messaging that calls us to these attitudes of sinfulness, and the outcome is a degradation of unity that already seems irreversible.  On one hand, many have embraced the secular rise of man.  On the other, many are doing everything they can to hold on to the Christian teachings that they believe are fundamental to living a moral life.  This division, which the traditionalist sees as the clear work of the enemy, is tearing the fabric of our culture apart.     

The tension between a traditional understanding of Jesus’ call to Penance and the desire of modern man to push the limits of his ascendancy is well established.  The genie may not go back in the bottle.  It seems theoretically possible for technology to be used to spread the teaching of Jesus, but it also seems that the negative influences are quickening and that the damage already done is extensive. 

This is reflected in the tragedies (particularly the violence) that our culture experiences on a regular basis.  It would seem obvious that a change in course is required and that the current path is untenable.  It would seem obvious that traditional values must be part of the answer.  But it also seemed obvious that the people of Jesus’ hometown should not have taken offense at Him, or that the Pharisees should have embraced Him instead of plotting to kill Him.


I do not have the power to control the destiny of our culture.  I do not have the power to control the decision making of others. 

I only have the power to control my personal choices and the example I set. 

Once again, I have found that the Scripture I encounter in Mass speaks directly to the writing I have undertaken.  Today is the fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.  The second reading comes from chapter thirteen of the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians.  It is one of the most well-known passages in the New Testament.  In part, it reads:

If I speak in human and angelic tongues,
but do not have love,
I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
And if I have the gift of prophecy,
and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge;
if I have all faith so as to move mountains,
but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own,
and if I hand my body over so that I may boast,
but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, it is not pompous,
It is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing
but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

As a Christian, the current culture likes to accuse me of intolerance, even of hate.  It is “a resounding gong, a clashing cymbal,” in my ears, but not in a good way.  It seems as if it is entirely bereft of the kind of Love that is spoken about here.  It often amounts to nothing, and if I were to conform myself to it, I would gain and become nothing.

I must choose to answer the culture in the true spirit of the above passage.  I must not brood over the injuries, real or perceived, that the culture brings to me.  I must bear with the culture and endure it.  I must not be jealous, pompous, or rude.  I must not seek my own interests or be quick-tempered.  In response to it, I must be patient and kind.  I must be a hopeful messenger about the true nature of Love.   

The reading in Mass ended with these words: “So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”  Love is the greatest because it is, to hearken back to chapter two, “both the fuel and the product of an engine of Life and Light” that God put into place to govern Creation.  Love is also the motivation which caused God to send His Son into the World to secure my salvation.  Love is God and God is Love, and this is what makes Love the primary, paramount, unassailable force in the Cosmos.    

Faith. Hope. Love.  These, with the addition of joy, are what form the expanded beginning of this journey that I defined at the close of the last reflection.  The pertinence of this Scripture to my writing is prescient and revelatory.  That my writing is at the stage where this Scripture speaks to it directly is not accidental.  I find it to be a part of the plan and a direct expression of the Will of God.   It demands that my sense of gratitude be expanded even further.

If I believe, as the Scripture indicates, that “Love never fails,” how can I make anything other than returning God’s Love to Him the primary pursuit of my life? If returning Love is my primary pursuit, does that not require obedience to God in general, and obedience to the opening words of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Mark in particular?

How can I not rush to understand and embrace Jesus’ call to Penance?


The acceleration of the expansion of technology has happened within my adult life.  I can remember when cable TV did not exist, let alone the streaming devices and apps that have made traditional modes of watching TV obsolete.  I did not get my first computer until I was a senior in college.  When I began my working career, there was no such thing as the Internet or email.  My first cell phone came when I was over thirty years old.  The pace of change is unprecedented in the course of history.    

St. Francis was born about the year 1181.  He lived more than a thousand years after the birth of the Christ, but his understanding of Penance would have closely mirrored that of Jesus.  The progress of man was slow enough at that point in history, and Francis was committed enough to following the teachings of Jesus precisely, that I can surely glean the original intent of the teaching of Jesus on Penance from the life of St. Francis.     

Therefore, to introduce the full and proper definition of Penance, I am comfortable relying on the first chapter of Love’s Reply.  Please understand that even though this definition occurs in a Franciscan setting, its application is universal.  There is no order within the Catholic Church that would disagree with casting Penance in these terms.  Note that even though these words are more than sixty years old, they anticipate the assertion of the primacy of man and the influence of technology in today’s world.  These changes were just beginning at the time that Esser and Grau were writing, but they could already intuit the long-term impact they would have.

Here is a what Love’s Reply has to say about the true meaning of Penance:

“Unfortunately, in modern usage the word “penance” has taken on a somewhat narrow meaning.  By “penance” we usually understand the practice of works of external mortification, works that we undertake of our own initiative.  When penance is mentioned we almost involuntarily think of fasting………As a result, the “life of penance” has acquired a very restricted, not to say even a distorted, meaning.”

“Francis had in mind something greater and deeper since he understood penance primarily in the sense of gospel “Metanoia,” which literally implies a change of mind, the complete and unceasing renewal of a man who tends to God with all his being.”

What I wish to concentrate on here is the word “Metanoia,” and the idea that Penance calls me to an “unceasing renewal” that requires me to “tend to God with all my being.”

This is the opposite of what current culture calls us to.  In terms of Love’s Reply, the distinction sounds like this: 

If the Kingdom of God is thus established wherever God is made once more the center of life of the individual and of mankind, that kingdom is destroyed or threatened whenever man by sin puts himself in the place of God, for thereby he seeks to be lord unto himself, and loves himself rather than God.

In terms of the beginning of chapter seven of the gospel of Mark, which is now the subject of my daily Lectio Divina, it sounds like this:

“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites, as it is written:  
        These people honor me with their lips,
        But their hearts are far from me.
        They worship me in vain.
                  Their teachings are but rules taught by men.”

Technology and the pace of change seem to cast the desire of man to replace God as a new problem.  But in truth, it is age old.

In this passage from Mark, the Pharisees have questioned Jesus about the practices of his disciples.  They eat with “unclean” hands, and the Pharisees want to know why they do not follow the tradition of the elders.  Jesus informs the Pharisees that many of their traditions are contrary to the commands of God.  He talks about how the teachings of the Pharisees inhibit the teaching of Moses and the command of God to “honor your father and your mother.”  He summarizes his reply to the Pharisees by stating, “you do many things like that.”

He then calls the crowd to Him, and to emphasize the sinful will of men, He teaches that “nothing outside a man can make him unclean.”  Instead, it is “out of men’s hearts” that evil comes.

Metanoia, with its call to “tend to God with all my being,” asks me to live counter to the current culture and to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.  Instead of “putting myself in the place of God and seeking to be a lord unto myself,” I am to condemn myself and my sinfulness and put Love for God ahead of all other concerns.  Instead of following the “rules taught by men,” and thereby locating my heart far from the Love of Jesus, I am called to discern and follow the commands of God, and thereby locate myself in the closest possible proximity to my Creator.

All of this requires the “unceasing renewal” of Metanoia.  Again, human frailty and the teaching of article seven of the OFS rule comes to mind:

United by their vocation as “brothers and sisters of penance,” and motivated by the dynamic power of the gospel, let them conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the gospel itself calls “conversion.” 

The Rule calls me to “conform my thoughts and deeds to those of Christ.”  This is tantamount to asking me to “tend to God with all my being.”  The “conversion” of the Rule corresponds to the “unceasing renewal” of Love’s Reply.

The same equivalencies are also found in the Earlier Exhortation of St. Francis to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, which serves as the Prologue to the OFS Rule.  Here is the opening of the first section, Concerning Those Who Do Penance:

All who love the Lord with their whole heart, with their whole soul and mind, with all their strength, and love their neighbors as themselves and hate their bodies with their vices and sins, and receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and produce worthy fruits of penance.

Oh, how happy and blessed are these men and women when they do these things and persevere in doing them, ………………………

To “love the Lord with my whole heart, my whole soul and mind, and with all my strength” is to “tend to God with all my being.”  To “persevere in doing these things” is to embrace “unceasing renewal.”

Of course, these words by Francis are, in turn, taken directly from the gospel.  In the twelfth chapter of Mark, Jesus is asked which is the most important command of all by a teacher of the law.  He responds,

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.  The second is this:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no commandment greater than these.”

I begin with a gospel passage that shows Jesus instructing the Pharisees that their traditions are often in conflict with the commands of God.  I travel from that gospel passage to the OFS Rule, and then to the words of Francis, and then back to the gospel, all to confirm what I have found in the writing in Love’s Reply.  In doing so, I embrace article four of the Rule as mentioned in the last reflection, which instructs me to go “from gospel to life and life to gospel.”

This action is an example of Metanoia.  I am leaving behind the worries of the world and searching for relationship with God.  I am committing myself to placing that relationship with God at the center and core of my being.  I am not relying on my judgment, but I am instead seeking the words of my Father Francis, and even more so, the words of my Lord Jesus Christ, to guide me into Truth.  As Francis would have me do, I am seeking to become lesser, and in doing so, I am subordinating myself to God and the teachings of Christ.

This is an example of how I can “tend to God with all my being,” at least for a short stretch of time.  If my embrace of Penance is going to be complete, then I need to learn to follow this pattern “unceasingly.”


God wants me to be relentless.  He wants me to devote myself to Penance unequivocally.  Therefore, according to the path to salvation that He has established for me in the gospels, He gives me everything I need to do so.  The gospel is full of passages that call me to this way of life. 

If I possessed enough energy and was a hundred times smarter, I could spend the rest of my life writing books on this topic.  I could read all four gospels from end to end, taking almost every story that Jesus tells and every event in His life, and fit them into the idea of tending to God with all my energy.  I could then revisit the Old Testament and the balance of the New Testament and reinforce this idea further.   In many ways, all that is in Scripture is an echo or amplification of this need to turn myself unambiguously toward God.

It would be the work of a lifetime.  But that is appropriate, because Penance is meant to be the work of a lifetime.  It is never complete.  It always calls to us.  It always seeks to capture our imagination and to direct our action.  It is an overarching concept that requires all the attention we can give it.  Thus the need for “unceasing renewal” as discussed above and “daily conversion” as called for in article seven of the Rule.

Here are several more examples from the gospels that might help keep both the need and the desire for Penance active in our consciousness.

  • In the first chapter of Luke, Mary is visited by an angel.  The news that Gabriel brings to Mary is overwhelming.  And yet, she responds by surrendering herself to the Will of God.  Then, when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, she declares, in one of the most beautifully subtle and sensational sentences I have ever encountered in my life, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  She is speaking of using her soul as a tool to “tend to God with all her being.”  The result of her tending is joy, the same joy that became pervasive in the life of Francis when he learned to focus his entire being on the life and gospel of his Lord Jesus Christ.  The same joy that I added to the definition of beginning at the end of the last chapter.

These passages do not appear back-to-back in the gospel, but I began to pray them end-to-end while on my journey.  They are slightly tweaked to suit my purpose.

I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May the Holy Spirit come upon me,
and may the power of the Most High overshadow me.
May it be done to me and through me according to your Will and Word.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my savior,
for he has regard for the humble and lowly estate of his servant.

I invite you to spend time praying with these words in this configuration.  Can they be used to express a desire to draw as close to God as I possibly can?  Do they express the humility and surrender that is required for such proximity to be developed?  Are they words that could be repeated often, not just daily, but multiple times each day, to help reinforce a desire to encounter God regularly in an attitude of unceasing conversion?    

  • In Luke chapter nine (also Mark chapter eight), Jesus teaches his disciples about the path that He, as the son of Man, must follow.  And then He calls them to the same path:

“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.  What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?”

If you read these words in the context of this discussion of Penance, is the true and deep meaning of Penance and Metanoia clear?  Does Jesus’ call to “deny myself” and to “lose my life for His sake” ring out to me as an invitation to tend toward Him with all my being?  Does the instruction to “take up my cross daily and follow Him” remind me of the need for unceasing renewal and constant conversion?  When He speaks about “gaining the world but losing my very self,” can I do anything other than think about the distorted state of the current culture I live in and the need to strive against the sinful usurpations it calls me to?

  • If a reminder of my dogged tendency toward sinfulness will help my embrace of Penance, then I can find this in the gospels as well.  Peter’s intractable inability to grasp what Jesus was teaching gives me great hope, because I can see by his example that even the rock upon which Jesus would build his Church was fallible.  He was in direct contact with Jesus, a part of his inmost circle, and yet he often faced away from Christ, turning inward as he clung to his own very worldly definition of what salvation would entail.

He had to undergo adversity and conversion before he could decipher how to “tend to God with all his being” in a posture of “unceasing renewal.”  Only after he figured this out, was he fit to fulfill the role that Jesus selected him for.

Here is Matthew 16:21-23 (also Mark chapter eight), which demonstrates Peter’s inwardness and “human concern” perfectly.

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”  Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

And then Matthew 26:31-35, where, in his inwardness and worldliness, he has the audacity to directly contradict what Jesus is telling him:

Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:

“‘I will strike the shepherd,
               and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’

But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”  Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”   “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”  But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

Peter’s bravado could be excused, perhaps, if it only happened once and he learned his lesson.  But it seems that it was an ongoing problem.  The rebuke from Jesus in the first passage is stern.  I have a hard time imagining how I would react to Jesus calling me Satan.  That would shake me up, and I would hope that if it did happen, it would lead to my permanent conversion. 

But, if I am honest, I must admit that He regularly reveals my sinful nature to me.  Peter did not get it the first time, nor have I.  Even after the rebuke, Peter could not let go of his own view of what the coming of the Messiah meant, so it is not surprising that I struggle to let go of my own sinful need to control everything that happens around me. 

Peter and I are like the Pharisees.  We hold on to our worldliness even though it is in direct conflict with the commands that God speaks to us directly.  Peter may have been physically present, but the gospels make me as present to Christ as I need to be, and I also have recourse to the Advocate, the Holy Spirit.  Even though we are both right there for the message of Jesus, we often cannot free ourselves sufficiently from our human perspective to accept and adopt His teaching.  This is true even though we both confess Jesus to be the Messiah. (Luke 9:20)

Peter’s hubris, which amounts to an instance of the same ascendancy of man that is so prevalent in our modern culture, ultimately leads to a significant mistake.  At his lowest point, he denies Jesus outright, and he ends up with the bitter tears that initiate the Penance that will allow him to be reinstated by Jesus at the end of John’s gospel.

Do you, like me, see yourself as more like Peter than you wish you were?  Do you often fail to get the message and as a result repeat the sins you swore you would put behind you?  Is Peter an example of the need for “unceasing renewal?”  And are there times when your remorse is so bitter and you are so anxious to be forgiven that you would metaphorically jump out of the boat and swim to shore because you cannot wait one extra moment to be reunited with Jesus? 

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.”  As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water.

Did Peter, in the end, “tend toward God with all his being” despite his sinfulness?


At the beginning of his testament, St. Francis writes, “The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way ……. And afterwards I delayed a little and left the world.”  This is the example I wish to follow.  I wish to do Penance and to leave the worldly influence behind just as Francis did. 

If I embrace Penance as fully as possible, if I turn my full attention to God and do not waver, and if I do so unceasingly, I can hope to be reconciled to Jesus just as Peter was.

To have a genuinely meaningful and successful conversion, I need my gratitude to translate into an embrace of the full and deep meaning of “Penance” as conveyed by the word Metanoia.  The Penance I seek is not, as current cultural conventions might suggest, simply the giving up of some relatively trivial and earthly thing.  Instead, it is a deep and unwavering commitment to turn toward the Lord and never turn back.  If my resolution is to have worth, it must go beyond the merely material and worldly.  It must not merely contain the negative but must also embrace the positive.  I must not merely give up the sinful, but I must embrace the Holy.

To embrace the Holy, I must embrace virtue, defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “a habitual and firm disposition to good.”  When Loves Reply defines Penance as “a change of mind, the complete and unceasing renewal of a man who tends to God with all his being,” it is defining a turn toward virtue.  This means that my work must be based at least as much in doing good as in ceasing to do evil.  If I seek to not only discontinue the negative, but to also begin the positive, I must replace the negative with its opposite.  I must enact the good that corrects and makes restitution for whatever the sinful behavior might be. 

In terms of the example of Peter, I must not only not deny Christ, but I must actively and passionately cling to Him as Peter likely did once he made it out of the water. 

I do this by seeking encounter.  I can encounter Christ in the Eucharist, in Scripture, in spiritual reading, in prayer, in Creation, and in my sisters and brothers.  Article 5 of the OFS Rule puts it like this:

Secular Franciscans, therefore, should seek to encounter the living and active person of Christ in their brothers and sisters, in Sacred Scripture, in the Church, and in liturgical activity.

I can actively spend time seeking Him in any of these venues instead of spending my time mired in the sinful actions I wish to set aside.

When St. Clare wrote letters of counsel to St. Agnes of Prague, this was very much the message she spoke to her.  The most famous passage from those letters reads like this:

….as a poor virgin, embrace the poor Christ.
Look upon Him Who became contemptible for you,
and follow Him, making yourself contemptible in this world for Him.
Most noble Queen,
          desiring to imitate Your Spouse,
[Who] though more beautiful than the children of men became, for your salvation, the lowest of men, was despised, struck, scourged untold times throughout His entire body, and then died amid the suffering of the Cross.
If you suffer with Him, you will reign with Him.
weeping with Him, you will rejoice with Him;
dying on the cross of tribulation with Him,
you will possess heavenly mansions with Him among the splendor of the saints and in the Book of Life your name will be called glorious among the peoples.
Because of this you shall share always and forever the glory of the kingdom of heaven in place of what is earthly and passing, and everlasting treasures instead of those that perish, and you shall live forever and ever.

“Embrace the poor Christ. Look upon Him, follow Him, gaze, consider, contemplate, and imitate” Him.  “Suffer, reign, weep, rejoice, and die with Him.” 

All calls for Agnes, but also for me, to encounter Him.

The theme of separating myself from worldly influence shines through here.  Clare clearly calls Agnes to exactly the relationship with God that I have been discussing in reference to Penance.  Clare wants Agnes to not just tend toward Christ, but to “make herself contemptible in this world for him.”  She is to actively seek to suffer, weep, and die with Him on the Cross.  To rearrange the quote from Love’s Reply a little, this surely entails a “complete and unceasing change of mind” from the typical outlook of any day or age.

The final goal of my journey is also present. I am seeking eternal encounter with God. Clare promises Agnes that her firm embrace of Penance and Poverty will result in “possessing heavenly mansions with Him among the splendor of the saints” and “sharing always and forever the glory of the kingdom of heaven in place of what is earthly and passing.”

Franciscans use the words gaze, consider, contemplate, and imitate to define an approach to prayer that is eminently well suited to the embrace of Penance.  An encounter or embrace of Christ begins with gazing, with simply placing myself in His presence.  It is fulfilled by my desire to imitate the example He set for me by His Incarnation, His Passion, and His ongoing presence and availability in the world.  This example is right in front of me if I sit observing a Crucifix or an Icon, and it is laid out before me in the gospels and elaborated upon in the rest of Scripture.  

In this approach to prayer, I place myself in front of an image of Christ and gaze upon it.  It is an act of Lectio Divina, where, instead of considering and contemplating Scripture, I consider and contemplate the image as a representation of all the Scriptural passages that inspire that image.  If I am gazing at a Crucifix, gospel passages about the Passion of Christ arise in me.  If the image is of a different scene, perhaps something like the Garden of Gethsemane, then passages relevant to that scene emerge.  

If you are having trouble deciding how to begin a commitment to Penance, resolve yourself to trying this practice.  Commit to spending time gazing at Jesus.  Let the considering and contemplating take care of themselves.  Let gospel passages arise in your thoughts as they will or read them in tandem with your gazing, but maybe not at the same sitting.

However you go about it, simply remind yourself once in a while that Penance is what you seek.  Remind yourself that you understand Penance to mean a complete and continuous turning toward God with all your being.  As you gaze, remember that this was His Way during His sojourn on earth.  Jesus was always and unconditionally focused on His Father during His entire stay.  That is how He maintained his steadfastness in the Garden, resolving to do God’s Will despite the horrific hardships that awaited Him.

Imitate Him in this.  Pray to the Holy Spirit to help you dwell with God always, the same way that Jesus did.   

As His Creation, it is Christ’s Love, Sacrifice and Mercy that make my redemption and salvation possible despite my sinful unworthiness.  I will embrace complete and unwavering gratitude, faith, belief

, joy, and hope in response to this. 

I will, with an attitude of full commitment to Penance, resolve to give up all worldly concern, as much as possible, permanently, as I seek to return His Love to Him according to the nature and call of my Creation. 

I will resolve to give my entire self to Him. 

Proceed to Chapter Five: Self-Denial

Back to Chapter Three: Gratitude

Chapter Three: Gratitude

The Letter of St. Paul to Titus, 3:3-7:

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

As I have indicated, spiritual reading was one of the main activities of my trip.  I read five or six books from cover to cover, and bits and pieces of several others.  Two of the books I read were of particular importance in shaping what I am attempting here.

The first was Heliotropium, by Fr. Jeremias Drexelius, S. J.  This book was published in 1627 and, to quote the cover, it is “The Famous Classic on Conformity of the Human Will to the Divine.”  I will draw from it in later reflections that focus more closely on that topic.

The second is Love’s Reply, by Cajetan Esser, O.F.M, and Englebert Grau, O.F.M. 

I first came across this book early in my Franciscan journey.  At times I would go to the convent of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Mishawaka, IN and sit in their chapel to pray.  These Sisters host the local Secular Franciscan fraternity I belong to.  Each Sister has an individual pew in the chapel where she sits regularly for prayer and Mass.  Many keep personal reflection materials in these pews.  One day I sat down and noticed this book, pulled it out, and began reading from it.

I was immediately captivated and knew I had found something special.  The book was first published in German in 1960 and was translated to English in 1962.  It was derived from various articles that had previously been published independently.  Cajetan Esser, born in 1913 and reposed in 1978, was a renowned Franciscan historian and scholar.  The version of Francis’ “Praises of God” that appeared in the last chapter is his direct translation from the original.

As soon as I began reading this book, I knew I wanted a copy for my personal library.  Unfortunately, it is out of print and hard to find.  When I searched Amazon, no copies were available.  When I searched Alibris.com, one of the main online clearinghouses for used books, one copy was available for $200.  I did not make that expenditure, although there are times I think it would have been worthwhile.  (I just checked Alibris now and there was a copy available for $20, so I ordered it to give to my fraternity.)

I waited and my patience somehow paid off when one of my fraternity sisters decided to give away some books she had.  Amazingly, as I looked at her shelf, I saw she had a copy.  I told her of its value and rarity, but she insisted on letting me have it anyway.  I am grateful for the poverty she embraced that day because it meant this book was available for my journey.

This reflection and the next two are directly inspired by the first chapter of that book.  I just reread it this morning and part of me thinks I should ditch my entire effort and just use that one chapter to convey everything this work hopes to communicate.  I am not sure I can do better.  The chapter is only nine pages long, but it touches on everything I seek to develop.

That first chapter focuses on gratitude, the definition of Penance as Francis understood it, and self-denial.  What follows in this reflection closely follows the discussion on gratitude.  The definition of Penance will be the subject of the next chapter, and then self-denial.  For all I will provide multiple quotations directly from the Love’s Reply text. 

I was wondering yesterday how I would write a full chapter on the idea of gratitude, but now I think I have the answer.  I am mostly going to steal it from Love’s Reply.


Esser and Grau introduce the connection between gratitude and Penance by referring to chapter twenty-three of The Earlier Rule.  They do not present it in its entirety as I am, but they quote from it liberally.  In the first volume of Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, this text appears in versified form and is five pages long.  Love’s Reply refers to these words as an “Exhortation of Prayer and Thanksgiving.”  To save space, I am changing the form, but I encourage you to seek out the original to get the full effect.  It is Francis at his absolute best.

All powerful, most holy, Almighty and supreme God, Holy and just Father, Lord King of heaven and earth, we thank You for Yourself for through Your holy will and through Your only Son with the Holy Spirit You have created everything spiritual and corporal and, after making us in Your own image and likeness, You placed us in paradise.

Through our own fault we fell.

We thank You for as through Your Son You created us, so through Your holy love with which You loved us You brought about His birth as true God and true man by the glorious, ever-virgin, most blessed, holy Mary and you willed to redeem us captives through His cross and blood and death.

We thank You for Your Son Himself will come again in the glory of His majesty to send into the eternal fire the wicked ones who have not done penance and have not known You and to say to all those who have known You, adored You, and served You in penance: “Come, you blessed of my Father, receive the Kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world.”

Because all of us, wretches and sinners, are not worthy to pronounce Your name, we humbly ask our Lord Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, in Whom you were well pleased, together with the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to give You thanks, for everything as it pleases You and Him, Who always satisfies You in everything, through Whom You have done so much for us, Alleluia!

Because of Your love, we humbly beg the glorious Mother, the most blessed, ever-virgin Mary, Blessed Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, all the choirs of the blessed seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations, principalities, powers, virtues, angels, archangels, Blessed John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Peter, Paul, the blessed patriarchs and prophets, the innocents, apostles, evangelists, disciples, the martyrs, confessors and virgins, the blessed Elijah and Henoch, all the saints who were, who will be, and who are to give You thanks for these things, as it pleases You, God true and supreme, eternal and living, with Your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, world without end, Amen, Alleluia!

All us lesser brothers, useless servants, humbly ask and beg those who wish to serve the Lord God within the holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and all the following orders: priests, deacons, subdeacons, acolytes, exorcists, lectors, porters, and all clerics, all religious men and women, all penitents and youths, the poor and the needy, kings and princes, workers and farmers, servants and masters, all virgins, continent and married women, all lay people, men and women, all children, adolescents, young and old, the healthy and the sick, all the small and the great, all people, races, tribes and tongues, all nations and all peoples everywhere on earth, who are and who will be to persevere in the true faith and in penance for otherwise no one will be saved.

With our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind, with our whole strength and fortitude, with our whole understanding, with all our powers, with every effort, every affection, every feeling, every desire and wish, let us all love the Lord our God Who has given and gives to each one of us our whole body, our whole soul, and our whole life, Who has created, redeemed and will save us by His mercy alone, Who did and does everything good for us, miserable and wretched, rotten and foul, ungrateful and evil ones.

Therefore, let us desire nothing else, let us want nothing else, let nothing else please us and cause us delight except our Creator, Redeemer and Savior, the only true God, Who is the fullness of good, all good, every good, the true and supreme good, Who alone is good, merciful, gentle, delightful, and sweet, Who alone is holy, just, true, holy, and upright, Who alone is kind, innocent, clean, from Whom, through Whom and in Whom is all pardon, all grace, all glory of all penitents and just ones, of all the blessed rejoicing together in heaven.

Therefore, let nothing hinder us, nothing separate us, nothing come between us.

Wherever we are, in every place, at every hour, at every time of day, every day and continually, let all of us truly and humbly believe, hold in our heart and love, honor, adore, serve, praise and bless, glorify and exalt, magnify and give thanks to the Most High and Supreme Eternal God, Trinity and Unity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Creator of all, Savior of all Who believe and hope in Him, and love Him, Who without beginning and end, is unchangeable, invisible, indescribable, ineffable, incomprehensible, unfathomable, blessed, praiseworthy, glorious, exalted, sublime, most high, gentle, lovable, delightful, and totally desirable above all else, forever.


It is a different experience to type these words instead of just reading them.  It takes a different level of concentration and awareness, and then, in the proofreading, a different sense of understanding emerges.  I debated whether to include the entire text, but I am glad I did.  You might think about typing or writing it out yourself to boost your appreciation.  Or at least try saying the words out loud.

If you review the words closely, you will find all the themes of the beginning of the Gospel of John.  Francis addresses our created nature, our wretched sinfulness, and the Mercy of God in sending His Son to secure our redemption.  The themes of returning God’s Love wholeheartedly and being a believer are present.  What took me five thousand plus words to describe, he achieved in about eight hundred and much more poetically than I could ever hope to achieve. 

Plus, Francis added an overwhelming sense of gratitude and thankfulness.  He begins by thanking God for Himself.  He then thanks God for our creation and for the gift of salvation through the Son.  And then He thanks God for the Son a second time in relation to the gift of the Kingdom that has been prepared for those who practice Penance. 

And then Francis proceeds to ask every holy person or entity that has ever existed, does exist, or will exist, starting with Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and Mary, and working his way down from there, to thank God on our behalf because we are too miserable and wretched to be able to thank Him properly for the underserved Mercy He showers upon us.

Finally, he reinforces the goodness of God as he “humbly asks and begs those who wish to serve the Lord God within the holy Catholic and Apostolic Church ……… to persevere in the true faith and in Penance for otherwise no one will be saved,” while simultaneously encouraging us “to love, honor, adore ……… the Lord our God with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind, ………”


Love’s Reply takes this prayer and uses it to establish gratitude as the only proper response to the overwhelming Mercy of God.  Gratitude is the fountain that ultimately allows Penance to flourish.  These quotes demonstrate the tenor of what Love’s Reply works to convey regarding gratitude and thanksgiving:

“The very starting point of our life of penance is naught else than overflowing gratitude for the benefits which the mercy of the Father has bestowed on us in his true and holy love through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“What God in his goodness and mercy has done for us and continues to do is the beginning and starting point of any obligation on our part.  The life of penance, like the whole Christian life, is thus the grateful answer of man to the call of grace, to God’s saving mercy toward us.  It is from this gratitude, to the degree that it is true and heartfelt, and not primarily from our own will or desire, that there arises our obligation to lead a life of penance.”

“Francis fulfilled his happy duty of returning thanks for the marvels and wonders of God’s love not only by his words, but even more by his whole life.  His “life of penance” is the total and unreserved answer of a heart full of gratitude for all that God has bestowed upon us in and through Christ.”

I want to call special attention to one specific idea here: 

“It is from this gratitude, to the degree that it is true and heartfelt, and not primarily from our own will or desire, that there arises our obligation to lead a life of penance.” 

The starting point of my life of Penance is not my weak and often inadequate will.  I do not wake up and decide on my own one morning that I am going to suddenly begin a life of Penance.  That decision does not happen in a vacuum.  Left to my own devices, I would never choose such a life.  It is too hard, and a limited and underdeveloped human perception would not conceive it, let alone countenance it.  The worldly perspective of my human will would never arrive at the pressing need to embrace Penance on its own.   

Only the big picture of salvation (the beginning point of my journey from the last reflection) can allow me to conceive the role that Penance must play in a well-organized existence.  I must embrace my status as a creature.  I must accept my sinfulness.  I must recognize my need for help and believe in God’s prodigiously Loving response to that need.  Only when I wholly internalize and actuate these insights can I develop the gratitude that then leads to an acute need and keen desire for Penance.  

In the words of Francis’ prayer, I am “miserable and wretched, rotten and foul, ungrateful and evil.”  After accepting this, I instinctively wonder what consequences ought to follow from my wretchedness. 

If I am honest with myself, I recognize that a life lived in such a state deserves punishment.  If those qualities persist in me then eternal damnation is what I should receive as my reward.  I would not expect second or third or hundredth chances from my Creator.  At some point, I would expect Him to say enough is enough, and off you go, out of my sight, and out of my awareness forever.

But He does not do that.  Instead, He Lovingly calls me to conversion with no limitations and no restrictions.  He will call me back not hundreds of times, but thousands of times, even millions of times, if that is what it takes to secure my redemption and salvation.

The only proper response I can give to such a display of steadfast Love is unequivocal, unambiguous, and unmistakable gratitude.

It takes this enhanced perception for me to fully desire a reverential disposition toward Penance.  If I have any other motivation, especially including a willful decision made on what is otherwise a whim, then the commitment will not stick. This “true and heartfelt” level of gratitude is a prerequisite if I want to reach the first destination on my road to eternal encounter with God.  To reach Penance, I must fuel my journey with the Love that this sense of gratitude will reflexively inspire in me. 

All that said, my wretchedness still means I am incapable of offering proper thanks for everything that God has done in Christ for me.  Even if I accept the points above, both my will and my gratitude are still tainted by my wickedness.  I am too corrupted, too mired in the habits of sin, and simply too human to achieve gratitude on my own.  I do not possess enough guile, astuteness, strength, or fortitude to succeed by my will alone.  I need help. 

If I have already acknowledged that I need God’s help to achieve salvation, then I can safely assume I need His help to achieve this attitude of gratitude as well. 

Francis calls on the whole church and the full court of Heaven for assistance in offering proper thanks. The assistance that Francis beseeches is meant to secure just what I need, the help and blessings of God.  Francis wants all the Holy in Heaven to pray for and with his Order as they seek to render proper thanks for everything God has done and continues to do for them.  I would be wise to do the same.  I should seek help from this same cohort if I hope to develop and express a thorough sense of thankfulness and gratitude on my journey. 

Remember that even though Francis wrote these words as part of a Rule for those who would enter his religion, he did not exempt himself.  He joined his followers in adopting this way of life and was much more stringent with himself than he was with them.  He not only spoke to his followers about gratitude, but he also provided an impeccable example of what gratitude lived out looked like.  He did not simply point out to them that they were wicked, etc., but he signified that he shared these traits.  The position of minority that he insisted on meant that he also saw himself as a miserable wretch in dire need of God’s Mercy.  He, despite being one of the greatest saints in history, worked tirelessly right alongside his brothers to seek and adopt the bearing of gratitude and then Penance that he called his followers to. 

The final quote speaks of Francis “fulfilling his happy duty ………. not only by his words, but even more by his whole life.”  The example that Francis set for his followers was not wishy-washy.  His entire existence reflected his gratitude and the totality of his commitment.  He was all-in, and his passionate dedication did not cause him grief, but led to joy and happiness. 

As I ask the assistance of the cohort of Heaven for help on these beginning steps of my journey, I can specifically add Francis to my petition.  I can be sure that he is not above me in this endeavor.  Instead, he is my brother as I seek to fulfill the calling that he sets before me. 

As the language of my profession asserts, he is my help. 

May the ……. intercession ……. of our Holy Father Francis ……. always be my help so that I may reach the goal of perfect Christian Love.

I want to align myself with Francis.  I want my devotion to be as complete as his and I want to be joyful in the gratitude that I express in thanks for everything that God has accomplished for me.

Gratitude must not be something I give lip service to and then move on from.  It must be at the core of my being.  It must always reside in my awareness.  It should spark in me an attitude of Penance that imbues my entire existence with an unquenchable desire to be converted from miserable wretch to saint. 

Gratitude was the first step in the conversion of Francis.  I hope it does something similar for me.


My citing of Francis’ Praises of God in the last chapter and his “Exhortation of Prayer and Thanksgiving” in this one reminds me that to be aligned with him I must visit the stories of his life again and again.  I need to be consistently reminded of the passion he had for the entire religion he established.  If I am to follow his charism, I must know it well. 

As I traveled, along with the works I mentioned above, I also focused on reading various biographical works on St. Francis.  I had not recently read The Life of St. Francis by Thomas of Celano, so I read it again.  I also read The Legend of the Three Companions and The Assisi Compilation.  And I read all of Francis’ own writings as compiled in the first volume of St. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents.            

When you have the luxury to do a cross section of spiritual reading all at once, the connectedness of the works jumps out at you.  The impact of each work is magnified by what is contained in the others.  I found this especially true when I was reading the various lives of St. Francis.  Even though many of the stories were repeated from work to work, they grew and were enhanced each time I read them.  My appreciation for Francis’ depth of commitment to gratitude, Penance, and Poverty was especially enriched by reading his words and the stories of his life.

The dedication present in his life is so far beyond what I can muster it is bewildering.  I often daydream about becoming a saint, but when I read about the accomplishment of St. Francis and his overwhelming holiness, I am reminded of my own foolishness.  The idea that I could begin to approach his devotion seems so far-fetched that I find it hard to imagine where to start.

And yet, start I must.  Francis’ “Exhortation to Prayer and Thanksgiving” served as the starting point for Esser and Grau as they composed Love’s Reply, which means it is also a suitable starting point for me.  As I read about Francis’ attitude toward Creation, his thankfulness for Penance and the other gifts that “God gave him,” and his obsession with the life, and particularly the Poverty of Jesus, I can empathize with the inestimable feeling of gratitude that Francis experienced in direct response to the plan initiated by God to ensure the salvation of every human being created through His Love. 

This “true and heartfelt” gratitude begin my movement toward Penance, forcing me to accept and affirm this corollary; it is not my will and not my work, a solely human work, which enables my salvation.  Instead, salvation is enabled by the action of God with some fortunate help from the prayers of the entire church and the full court of Heaven.

Depending on myself for my salvation would leave me with a very dismal outlook where eternity is concerned.  If I thought I could achieve redemption through my human action that would be a flawed assertion of my ego in direct opposition to the plan of God.  It would be sinful for me to think that I am in command of my destiny when I think about achieving the goal of Heaven. 

Instead, it is a great comfort to accept that God is in charge.  It runs contrary to the culture to cede control of anything to anyone.  But in fact, I am not conceding anything.  I am simply recognizing and accepting the true nature of my human condition.  I never had control of this situation and never could.  It could never be realistic for me to expect to chart my own path to redemption because I cannot expect to avoid or overcome my own abysmal and sinful narrowmindedness. 

Always, I have been at God’s Mercy.

It is easy to think of His Love and His Mercy as the same thing, but deeper reflection suggests that Mercy somehow, as mysterious as it might seem, extends His Love further even though His Love is already all-encompassing.  It sounds absurd, but the exceptional thing He has done in removing the initial responsibility for my eternal well-being from my control seems to go beyond Love.  Even though it seems improbable, Mercy somehow makes His Love greater than it already is.

In His Wisdom, I do not have to labor at figuring out the detailed mechanics of salvation.  There is nothing for me to ascertain, or discover, or construct.  Life appears to be a series of challenges, but it can be simple if I adhere to the course He has established.  I need to believe, to be obedient, and to follow with a humble and loving attitude a path ordained by His Mercy that begins with gratitude and flows into Penance.

This pathway is initiated and detailed in the Gospels.  If the multiple sources I read about Francis during my trip make anything clear, it is that all his followers are called to a gospel life.  The first sentence of the Later Rule says this:

The Rule and Life of the Lesser Brothers is this:  to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience ……..

Article four of the OFS Rule says this:

The rule and life of the Secular Franciscans is this: to observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of St. Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and people.

Secular Franciscans should devote themselves especially to careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and life to the gospel.

There cannot be a simpler response to God’s Mercy: Pursue the path to salvation laid out by the example Jesus set and the Word that He spoke! 

Because He anticipates my frailty, His Mercy also causes Him to send me The Holy Spirit as an Advocate to help me remember, understand, and follow His lead.  He has thought of everything.  I have all that I need. God has taken the primary burden of achieving salvation away from me and opened a pathway to Heaven that I can be sure I have the means to travel.  He knows what I am capable of, what I can and cannot realistically achieve.  Beyond that, He Loves me to such an extent that He could never chart a course for me that is inaccessible. 

I already touched on the final quote from Love’s Reply regarding the wholeness of Francis’ gratitude, but I also want to re-emphasize the words “happy duty.”  I want to acknowledge that Francis’ approach to gratitude is linked to his approach to joy.  God’s plan for our salvation should not just engender gratitude in us, but also joy.

Again, it may conflict with current cultural conventions, but I should be joyful that I am not in primary control of my salvation.  If I was, and I admitted my woeful shortcomings regarding my ability to achieve salvation on my own, that would be a source of great sorrow.  I would have to accept the inevitability of my failure to achieve an eternity spent in the blissful presence of God in Heaven.

But, if I believe in His Mercy, this sorrow is precluded.  It is replaced by a joyful sense of peace that resonates and resounds through the core of my being. 

His Creation of me.  His Love for me.  The sending of His Son to redeem me.  His Mercy.

All result in an overflowing of joy and gratitude in my heart that, as Francis indicates, my human capabilities are woefully insufficient to express.


As I mentioned above, one of the benefits of reading multiple spiritual works in concert is that they tend to enhance each other.  The entire conception of these reflections is dependent on the interaction of the different spiritual readings I undertook.  The themes in Love’s Reply resonated with Heliotropium, which resonated with the books on Lectio Divina, which resonated with the stories and words of St. Francis.  These varied works came together to form an integrated set of ideas that is more expansive than any individual component.

This beneficial effect also extends to the reading of Scripture.  As I immersed myself in the reading of these various spiritual books, I found that I was more fully aware of the Scripture I was also reading.  Connections became apparent that I might have otherwise missed.

I have already cited how the parables about seeds in chapter four of Mark intersected with and inspired my first reflection.  In the second reflection, the story from chapter five of Mark about the woman healed by touching Jesus’ cloak was just what I needed to fully communicate the importance of belief that I was trying to express.    

As I began this reflection, I moved to chapter six of Mark.  This chapter begins with Jesus teaching in the synagogue in His hometown.  The residents are amazed at His Wisdom and the miraculous healings He performs.  At the same time, they take offense at Him.  Jesus is in turn amazed at their lack of faith and as a result, “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. “ 

This further reinforces the assertions I have made about belief.  Jesus responds to belief, but He is also restricted by disbelief.  I am sure He has the power to heal anyone He wishes, but it is more important to understand the primacy of belief than it is for every possible miracle to be performed.  Thus, a lack of belief leads Jesus to impose a constraint on Himself as an extension of the teaching He hopes I will accept.  

But this story also speaks about gratitude, or more precisely, ingratitude.  The people of Jesus’ hometown are aware of the Wisdom and Power possessed by Jesus.  They have witnessed His teaching and His miraculous healings.  When I place myself in the scene as part of my prayer routine, I am also amazed at Jesus.  My wonder leads me to adopt an attitude of irresistible gratitude.  I can identify that the Love inherent in the healing work of Jesus also applies to me.  The seed planted in the story of the woman from chapter five fell on fertile ground.  My ability to appreciate the actions of Jesus in this story is a sign that it is growing.  If my progress remains steady, it will come to full fruition.

However, the people of his hometown reject this seed.  It is incomprehensible to me why they adopt an attitude of such woeful ingratitude toward Him, but this is what happened. 

It also happens in a similar story from chapter three of Mark.  Jesus is again teaching in a synagogue.  A man is present with a withered hand.  There are also Pharisees present, waiting to see whether Jesus will heal the man on the Sabbath.  Jesus asks them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath, to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”  He then heals the man.  In response, the Pharisees begin to plot against Him.

The Pharisees are guilty of the very thing they wish to condemn Jesus for and more.  They assert that Jesus has violated the Sabbath by healing on the day of rest, yet they begin to plot against Jesus on that same Sabbath.  Check the quote from Jesus again.  He knows exactly what is happening.  When He uses the word “kill,” He presages the sin of the Pharisees.  Jesus’ supposed violation of the law was an act of healing goodness.  Theirs goes well beyond ingratitude and becomes an act of “evil.”

Again, how can this be?  How can the Pharisees witness the healing power and goodness of Jesus and respond with disbelief and ingratitude? 

To find the answer, I must put all the Scripture together.  The parable of the sower, Mark chapter four, speaks directly to what I am witnessing.  “The worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” 

The people of Jesus’ hometown and the Pharisees are blinded by their worldliness.  They are completely unaware of the seed that Jesus is offering them.  This seed has fallen in a thicket of thorns planted and carefully tended by the opponents of Jesus, who never understand how flawed their garden is.  They wish to choke Jesus with the same thorns that blind them.  The seed that Jesus tried to give them finds itself completely thwarted.  


I want to invite you to experiment with these connections yourself.  Return to the quote from Titus at the head of this chapter.  This quote is read for the Mass at Night and the Mass at Dawn on Christmas day.  It is another intersection between the writing I was considering after my trip and the Scripture I was encountering as I moved through life.

Spend some time with these words.  Does this piece of Scripture capture the human sinfulness that has been discussed at length in the last two reflections?  Does it support the idea that gratitude is not initiated by human will or works (“not because of righteous things we had done”), but by the kindness and Love of God?  Note especially the appearance of the words, “His Mercy.”  Are my conclusions about His Mercy consistent with this passage?

Compare the passage to what you have read so far in these reflections.  Does the combination of the two deepen your understanding of each individually? 

Then focus on the last phrase.  “…. we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”  I have stated that the goal of my journey is an eternal encounter with God.  This phrase lends hope to the possibility that my goal is achievable.  Do not read the last couple sentences of this reflection yet.  Come back to them when you have concluded your own contemplations to see how your experience compares to or differs from mine.


When I spent time with this piece of Scripture, I decided the beginning I described in the last chapter would benefit from a couple additions.

I asserted above that the saving plan of God ought to elicit a response in me of not just gratitude, but also of joy.  Perhaps joy ought to be part of my beginning.

But this phrase concerning hope also brought forth an intensely joyful response in me.  It is not just gratitude and joy that should be linked.  Hope needs to be added as well.  As I move forward to the next reflection and a discussion of Penance, all three of these should accompany me.

This leads me to conclude that my beginning should now include not just faith and belief, but also joy and hope.

How does this compare to what you discovered while contemplating this phrase?

What would you add to my conclusion for your own use?

Proceed to Chapter Four: Penance

Back to Chapter Two: Beginning