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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.

On Saying Yes, the Introduction

Image by Gemma Correll

In mid-November 2019, I took a leave of absence from my regular job as a project manager for a large construction company.  This came at the end of a grueling two plus year assignment on a single project.  During those two years, I lost my 17-year-old son in a car accident and my 42-year-old sister to lung cancer.  I never had a chance to deal properly and completely with either loss in the course of the job.  No job can give you the genuine extended freedom needed to deal with such things appropriately.  The “world” is not arranged to allow such accommodations.

I was spent.  I did not quit outright because I knew I was in no state to make sound judgments. Did I either want or need to continue doing this type of work with my life?  I did not think I would go back, but it was not the opportune moment to decide.  To the credit of my employer, they allowed the leave of absence and left the door open for me to come back.

By February, I knew that I was not going back to the corporate construction world.  I had neither the desire nor the energy (at age 56) to recommit myself to the grind.  I am fortunate that my wife has a good job that provides sufficient income for us to stay even plus the health insurance benefit the “world” requires.  I offered to help in a consulting role that I thought might be useful, but the truth is I was relieved when they said no.  I did not want to go back even in that role, primarily because of the office politics I knew would be waiting.  My wife’s income afforded the flexibility to be patient and contemplate other options.  I was content to do just that.

I had been trying unsuccessfully to find time to work on building some houses for a nonprofit.  Perhaps I would now have the flexibility to follow through on this not just as a job, but as a vocation.  But as the work on the houses unfolded, I found that I was viscerally resisting this option.  I was engaged reasonably well as the design work took place, but as soon as we began investigating the money, I was filled with dread each time I needed to open my computer.  It had been some time since I had been enthusiastic about the world of construction, but I thought this was due to burn out.  Once I had a chance for an extended recovery period, I expected I would re-embrace it, especially if I were associated with a nonprofit. 

But this was not the case. 

I will stop here long enough to say that in this situation, discernment is a difficult thing.  It is hard to know if the resistance is the call of the Good Guys to something else, or the enemy distracting you from what you are supposed to be doing.  In truth, I am still not 100% sure which it is.  (I say is because the situation is still unfolding.  The house building endeavor was stopped cold by the pandemic and is just now regaining traction.  While I have reached the decision not to act as the builder, I am still involved with the nonprofit and it is unclear how that will develop.)

As the planning for the houses progressed and the pandemic started, I launched this blog.  The idea had been in hand for a long time, but there came a point in mid-March where I could not escape the sensation that the moment had come.  The pandemic seemed to offer a natural segue to an online effort at religious formation.  People were going to be separated from their fraternities for an extended period (which appears even longer now) and this format had the potential to allow them to maintain some sense of connection.  I had experimented with blogging before and found that advancements in technology made it much easier to get restarted.  Within a day or two, I was up and running in test mode.  In not much more than a week, I was able to publish for the public.

Mid-April arrived and I felt like I had my long-lost energy back.  My enthusiasm was no longer being depleted by the stress and strain of a regular job.  I was making progress on the housing front and on the blogging front and I was even getting caught up on some commonplace things I had let slide, like keeping my bank accounts balanced.  I was exercising regularly, eating better and had lost some weight.  I was in the midst of planting a full vegetable garden (39 raised beds) and the physical labor felt good.  If not yet fully healed, I was progressing beyond everything I had endured in the previous two plus years.  There were other projects not getting attention, but I felt like it was just a matter of time before I could get to everything.

However, within a month, I began to lose momentum.  Distractedness and uneasiness increased.  I caught myself back at some old, bad habits.  Too much TV at night, procrastination, rationalization, etc.  When I had a regular job, I always felt that it kept me from doing the things I was being called to by God.  The “world” just took too much out of me.  I thought without that drain I could consistently and meticulously offer a proper “yes” in response to what God wanted of me.  But that proved to be temporary.  I was not there yet.

The surge of energy I found in the liminal time waned as a new normal developed.  I fell back into the waywardness that I was used to blaming on the fatigue of my working life.  But now, I no longer had that excuse.  I would find myself sitting on the couch watching some inane show on Netflix or Amazon Prime and would think, “What are you doing?  God is watching and you are just sitting here frittering away the day?  Why don’t you get up and do something productive!”

But I would not respond.  Once I used frivolousness as an escape from the pressure, exhaustion and dissatisfaction of a day spent doing things other than what I felt called to.  Now, I could not explain away my flippancy.  I had to look at things differently.  I could review a day where I meant to get an estimate done on a house or a post written for this blog and see that I did not accomplish what I meant to.  I had good intentions at the beginning of the day, but I would find that I got sidetracked, often without realizing it.

Something was wrong and it was now out in front of me.  The excuse of a regular job no longer concealed it.  I was failing to do what I perceived as God’s Will for my life and I could not hide from it.

I would do an examination of conscience at the end of the day and see spots where even if I were doing something that seemed productive, I was not focused on the most important thing that needed doing.  This is what I mean by rationalization.  I would choose to dig a garden bed when I could have been writing a new blog post that was needed to maintain the pace of the blog.  I knew in retrospect the blog post was the priority, but I was not choosing it in the moment.  (Before June I was publishing something every four days or so.  In all of June there are only four posts, and this will be the first in July.  I could have published most of Journey thru John in June if I had just been diligent about it.)

The open discernment issue on the nonprofit is another example.  I have yet to find my way to a final answer.  This is at least in part due to not working diligently enough at the issue.  If, in the end, I am going to move away from that possibility, I still must complete what is mine to complete before I can hand things off.  But I am procrastinating instead of working consistently on it.  I could still decide to stay involved, limiting my availability in other areas and that will be fine if I believe staying involved is in fact a “yes” to a calling. But I am not sure because I am not diligently doing the work, which is the most likely way to complete the discernment.

I am allowing myself to be distracted by a sort of lesser good, a human conceived good.  Why?  If I think a blog on religious formation or working for a nonprofit is was what I might be called to, why am I continually being distracted by the garden?

Some of this is attributable to still having too much on my plate.  I have not learned to make my life simple enough yet.  (Just yesterday I was watching a show on Netflix called Amazing Interiors and found myself thinking about all the cools things I could design and implement.  Then I stopped and thought, “Am I called to that?  Probably not. ” At least I had that thought to check me, but why did I allow the show to distract me to start with?)  I am rid of the burden of a regular job, but I still have too many things to do.  The work on the houses, the blog, the garden and more mundane things (like grocery shopping and cooking, which I feel more obligated to since my wife is working and I am not) still add up to more than what can be accomplished in a day.   

Still, I cannot escape the real conclusion that I am not saying “yes” to God and Jesus in the way I need to.  If I cannot yet do exactly what is asked of me, I can at least work on the simplification that should lead to the proper “yes” I so desperately (at least in theory?) want to say! Whether it is an outside distraction from the enemy or an internal failing (or more likely a combination of both) is hard to know, but I feel as if I must develop greater discipline than I have known in a long time If I am to grow into what I long to be for God.  I have a lot of negative habits to unlearn and a lot of positive ones to subsequently relearn. 

In Franciscan terms, I have a lot of conversion in front of me!  I need to find a way to get to the point where I am feeling confident that I have said “yes” in a comprehensive way!  I want more than ever to do what I am called to do!  I am committed to this despite being disappointed in my execution the last few weeks!  I am resolved not to give up!

As a result, I have concluded that I need to investigate the idea of saying “yes” itself.  It is an idea I have already been considering.  My recent prayer life has led me to a deep reflection on the ultimate “yes” in scripture, the “yes” that Mary says in response to the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation.

I have also recently been reading a commentary on The Confessions of St. Augustine.  His “yes,” which comes at the end of a long period of “worldly” procrastination, comes out of a life experience that I have always felt closely parallels my own.  I believe it could help me greatly if I can find my way to the core of Augustine’s triumph over his own prevarication.

I am also feeling drawn to the conversion experience of St. Paul.  I cannot give details about that yet other than to say there are certain passages in his writing that I connect to in a substantive way.  

And then, finally, a review of the Franciscan sources with an eye toward identifying those pivotal moments when Francis said “yes” and thus moved toward the culmination of his seeking.  At what moments did Francis chose Jesus definitively and how do those relate to the experiences of Mary, Augustine and Paul?  And how might those moments help me to give a more perfect “yes” in imitation of these other great yeses from Christian history?

At the beginning my reflections may not be as strictly Franciscan as the Journey thru John formation series is.  I will not often be drawing on Franciscan Sources and the OFS Rule as I look at the examples of those who came before Francis.  But I do believe that those three figures will inform and give context to my investigation. In the meantime, I hope that my Franciscan nature is sufficiently developed that it will show through even when I am not specifically concentrating on Franciscan texts or overtly attempting to make Franciscan points.

In Journey thru John, I began by following a personal calling to investigate the phrase “gospel to life and life to gospel.”  I then took my local fraternity along for the ride.  (As an aside, I would recommend every formation director follow similar inclinations as they discern what materials to present to their groups.  Passion for your subject material will translate into a positive experience for those you are leading.)

I am proposing to do something similar here.  In order to take the next step in my faith development, I am feeling the need to investigate what it means for a committed Christian to say a complete and proper “yes” to whatever it is she or he might be called to by God.    

I am inviting you to join in this exploration!

And I would humbly and appreciatively welcome any observations the Holy Spirit might inspire you to share along the way!

Journey thru John, Chapter 9: On Being Blind

Jesus Opens the Eyes of a Man Born Blind (Duccio di Buoninsegna, between 1307 and 1311)

I am sure the pattern is consistent by now, but just in case, be aware for a moment how the reflection on each chapter begins with suggestions about how to immerse yourself in the scene.  Recall that this immersion is meant as an aid to your ability to pray over the material in the chapter.

Chapter Nine is, in its entirety, about blindness.  The goal of immersion is to enter closely into the scene so that you can “see” the events and take part in them.  Juxtapose that against the teaching on blindness.  Seeing is not just a physical action, but a spiritual one as well.  In the act of immersion, these two aspects of seeing are combined.  Using imagination, we attempt to actually “see” the physical action in the gospel scene.  In prayer, we are attempting to “see” the point of the teaching that Jesus is attempting to convey so that we might apply it to our everyday lives as Franciscans.

Is it important to grasp Jesus’ meaning here?  Do you need to be able to “see” with your spirit in order to fully enter the scene?  What blindness do you carry with you on a day to day basis and how does that hamper your ability to enter the scene and learn what Jesus wants to teach you?

Given the opportunity, would you go one step further with your immersion?  Is there someone you know well enough that you would ask them to spit in some dirt and rub mud in your eyes that you might “see” better?

Would you let a stranger do it?

Will you let Jesus do it?

If you’re willing, challenge yourself to enter the scene in such a deep and meaningful way that you experience Jesus rubbing mud in your eyes.

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John Chapter 9, Verses 39-41:

Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”  Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What?  Are we blind too?”  Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin:  but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”

It is important to read this scripture carefully.  When we think about Jesus curing the blind anywhere in the Gospels, we tend to focus on the surface, on the immediate outcome.  We want our eyes and spirits opened as well.  We want to see what Jesus wants us to see.  We want to be healed by Him.  It seems straightforward.

In these verses, however, that forthrightness is challenged.  Jesus says He has come into the world so that “those who see will become blind.”  For some of us, He is proposing the opposite of what we would seem to want.  What does that mean?  If I can already see, why would I want to be blind?  I do not need to be cured, right?  To make me blind would seem to be contrary to what Jesus came to do?

Then a moment later Jesus says, “now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”  Here then, is an answer to the contradiction.  He is revealing to us that our sight is often faulty.  He is asking that we embrace the possibility that while we think we can see, maybe we should think again.  He is asking us to do a careful self-examination and to be internally truthful about what we find.  Are we honestly able to see what He wants us to see, or is our assumption of sight a symptom of a more profound blindness? 

Jesus wants us to understand that spiritual blindness is a state that has to be purposefully embraced before it can be cured.  He can be the healing agent, but He cannot effect the cure without our cooperation and participation.  We must humbly and honestly seek the cure for it to take hold.  If I am not willing to admit that I am blind, if instead I follow the ongoing example of the Pharisees throughout the Gospels and assert my own vision and will as determinative, then I wind up never realizing (never seeing?) that I have left the path to salvation. 

The key to the cure is not the willingness of Jesus.  He is always willing, always waiting, always available to provide the cure.  But the cure can only take place if I am willing.  Will I cooperate by embracing humility and acknowledging my need?  I cannot cure myself.  I can only be cured if I embrace the truth that I must completely rely on Jesus for the healing to take place.  The act of humility that embraces the truth of my need is the transition point between blindness and sight.  

I think I can see but am blind.  I become humble enough to acknowledge the incorrectness of my ways and to accept that without Jesus, it is impossible to be anything but blind.  This then provides the opening for Jesus to work the healing and turn my blindness to sight.

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If you want your eyes opened to the starting point, I would invite you to begin by re-reading the Prologue to the Rule.  As a reminder, these are the actual words of Francis, written as an Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance.  Francis thoroughly defines blindness in Chapter Two, Concerning Those Who Do Not Do Penance:

But all those men and women who are not doing penance………These are blind, because they do not see the true light, our Lord Jesus Christ:  they do not have spiritual wisdom because they do not have the Son of God who is the true wisdom of the Father………See, you who are blind, deceived by your enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil, for it is pleasant to the body to commit sin and it is bitter to make it serve God.

Take note of the word “world” again in its negative connotation.  It does not seem to want to go away.  Here we find the “world” to be a major cause of spiritual blindness.

Bonaventure, in the Sermon on the Feast of the Transferal, echoes the theme of “worldly” blindness while confirming poverty as the antidote, the pathway to spiritual sight.

………when a person is tied to temporal possessions which waste away and are dark and tainted, he cannot perceive the brilliance of divine light.  That was the kind of advice Saint Francis gave to his brothers, having in mind the words of the Psalm: “fire has fallen on them,” that is, the fire of avarice and possession.  The fire of avarice and possessiveness causes blindness, whereas the fire of poverty gives brightness and solace.

I would encourage you to read and contemplate the entire Exhortation again if you have not done so lately.  It is quite clear that Francis sees the need to obtain a cure for our blindness as paramount.  If we do not, here is what he believes to be waiting for us:

The worms eat up body and so they (those who do not do penance) have lost body and soul during this short earthly life and will go into the inferno where they will suffer torture without end.

There is a decision that has to be made and, if these are the consequences, it would be unwise to put it off.  Eternity hinges on the answers.

Do I think I can see, or not?  Am I blind, or not?  Do I need the healing of Jesus, or not?

Am I committed to penance and poverty, or not? 

Do the words of Francis and Bonaventure describe a part of me still desperately in need of conversion?  Will I do my part to enable healing from Jesus by acknowledging my attachments to the world and thus the need for conversion toward and through penance?  Can I willingly welcome the separation from the “world” that leads to healing and sight and ultimately salvation? 

It’s worth praying over.  It demands a thorough self-examination through a clear lens of self judgement.  I cannot afford to deceive myself, to believe I have sight when no sight is present.

I must ask Jesus to help me judge myself correctly.  I must ask Jesus to help me see who I really am.  I must ask Jesus to help me understand just how much I need Him, how dependent on Him I truly am.  

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So, now that I have scared myself (and you?) sufficiently about the hazards of remaining blind, perhaps it might be a good idea to inject some hope into the process.

The records of the miracles of Francis are full of instances where he healed blindness.  As I read through them, however, I found one that was particularly intriguing.  This comes from Chapter 14 of The Treatise on the Miracles of Saint Francis by Thomas of Celano:

In Zancato, a village near Anagni, a knight named Gerardo had entirely lost his sight.  It happened that two Lesser Brothers arriving from abroad sought out his home for hospitality.  The whole household received them with honor and treated them with every kindness.  The brothers gave no notice of the blindness of their host.  After their stay, the two brothers journeyed to the brothers’ place six miles away and stayed there eight days. 

One night blessed Francis appeared to one of the brothers in a dream with the command:  “Get up, hurry with your companion to the home of your host.  He honored me through you and on account of me was so graciously kind!  Show your thanks for your delightful reception and repay honor to the honorable!  For this man is sightless and blind, and that is what he deserves for the sins he has not yet confessed.  The shadows of eternal death await him, and unending torture is his lot.  He is bound to this by the misdeeds he has not let go.” 

When the father had gone, the son got up stunned and hurried with his companion to carry out the command.  Both of the brothers returned to the host together, and the one related what he had seen all in order.  The man was quite astonished as he confirmed the truth of all he heard.  He broke out in tears, freely made his confession and promised amendment.  As soon as the inner man was thus renewed, he recovered the outer light of his eyesight.  The greatness of this miracle spread everywhere and encouraged all who heard of it to extend the gift of hospitality.

The story is compelling because it addresses more than just a physical healing.  The healing is spiritual as well.  It also includes a self-examination that leads to penance.  The depth of the story, the duality of the healing, the embrace of conversion, all combine to echo the gospel and give a true life example of the power that is present in the teaching of Jesus about blindness.   

For the blind man in the gospel, Jesus provided physical healing and the man in turn worships Him as a result of revelation brought on by sight.  That worship is a sign of spiritual healing.  The healing enabled the man to see Jesus with his spirit, to recognize Him as the Son of Man. 

Likewise, this particular miracle by Francis has both components even if they are reversed in order.  Gerardo is healed spiritually and then experiences physical healing as well.

It’s also intriguing because it speaks directly to the instruction by Jesus to the Pharisees (who represent us) to acknowledge blindness so that they might see.  When the Brothers tell Gerardo their reason for returning, he looks inside himself and his blindness about his own sin is revealed.  His acceptance of that blindness leads to the cure, which then leads to him avoiding the fate that Francis warns about in the Prologue/Exhortation.  If and when we sincerely embrace penance as Gerardo did, it will lead to our eyes being opened and our blindness turning to sight.  Only then can we be saved from the dire consequences that Francis cautions about. 

And as friends of Francis, as people who honor Francis as Gerardo did, we have the hope that if we stray too far from the path Francis will attempt to intervene on our behalf just as he did for Gerardo.

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In fact, the Franciscan tradition holds a much greater vision of hope, a vision of blindness being healed on a global basis by the power of the Franciscan religion.  For those of you who have been on pilgrimage to Assisi, perhaps this is an image you can internalize in a way others can’t.  (Being in the scene is not just for the gospels!)  If you are planning on making that pilgrimage, make a special note to yourself to take a reminder of this image with you to reference on the day you visit the Portiuncula.  Maybe you will experience something akin to what happened to this fortunate follower of Francis. 

This vision can be found in the writings of both Celano and Bonaventure but the version I am giving you comes from Chapter 13 of The Legend of the Three Companions.  This is the most complete recounting and also the likely source for the other two.

A vision one of the brothers had, while in the world, contributed much to the commendation and love of this place.   Blessed Francis loved this brother with unique affection as long as he was with him, by showing him extraordinary affection.  This man, wanting to serve God – as he later did so faithfully in religion – saw in a vision that all the people of the world were blind and were kneeling in a circle around the church of St. Mary of the Portiuncula with their hands joined and their faces raised to heaven.  In a loud and sobbing voice, they were begging the Lord in his mercy to give them sight.  While they were praying, it seemed that a great light came from heaven and, resting on them, enlightened all of them with its wholesome radiance.

On awakening, the man resolved to serve God more faithfully, and, shortly thereafter, leaving the world with its seductions, he entered religion where he persevered in the service of God with humility and dedication.

The entire blind world gathered around the home of St. Francis in an act of universal penance.  Upon petitioning for the Lord’s mercy, enlightenment is granted to all. 

If the story of Gerardo the Knight was hopeful, how much more hopeful is this vision?  As Franciscans, we have always known that “our religion holds the cure for all the world’s ills.”  We often say such things tongue in cheek, but perhaps we should take them more seriously.  This vision would seem to suggest that what we believe about penance and poverty could miraculously affect the entire world. 

What would it take to get the world to listen? 

I don’t know for sure, but I do know that if I am honest with myself, if I hope to provide a cure for even one other person, I must first be sure to take the cure myself.  I must first embrace my own blindness and I must do so not once, but on a continual basis, always with my heart set on poverty, penance and ongoing conversion. 

Then, maybe, others will see in me the healing mercy of God and be moved to seek it for themselves as this vision of hope portends. 

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Francis, in an even further expression of wisdom and hope, tells us that we actually have reminders of this great light from heaven, this wholesome radiance, this cure for blindness, available to us on an everyday basis if we just pay attention to Creation around us.  In paragraph 83 of The Assisi Compilation, Francis links The Canticle of Brother Sun (The Canticle of the Creatures) to the curing of blindness:

He used to say:  “At dawn, when the sun rises, everyone should praise God, who created it, because through it the eyes are lighted by day.  And, in the evening, when it becomes night, everyone should praise God for another creature, Brother Fire, because through it the eyes are lighted at night.

He said, “For we are like blind people, and the Lord lights up our eyes through these two creatures.  Because of this, we must always praise the glorious Creator for these and for His other creatures which we use every day.”

I spend a lot of time encouraging you to enter scenes in the gospels.

It’s about time I encouraged you to be present to the actual scene you live in as well.  Be aware of the goodness of the Creation that surrounds you at every moment of every day.  Stop right now and take a few moments to acknowledge the Creation that you reside in.  Night or day, acknowledge the light around you and thank God for it.  Thank Him for imbuing Creation with His Presence and Power and learn something about light and blindness from His Creation right now, at this very moment. 

Jesus in this gospel is asking you to embrace blindness that you might see, repent and seek God’s mercy in order to be saved for all of eternity.

How amazing and unbelievable is it that Creation itself surrounds you with a reminder to do so?  The very light which we see by, be it sunlight, fire, or even the electrical light that we take for granted that Francis never knew, is a gift from God.  Even on the darkest night, when the slightest sliver of moon is hidden by a cloud covered sky, the stars always shine with enough light for us to see.  Creation itself is an antidote to the blindness that Jesus is speaking about in this gospel if we can just remain present enough to recognize it.  It’s a gift that can be used at any and every moment of our waking lives to remind us to embrace the healing sight that Jesus offers not just in these verses, but as the sum total of everything in His gospels. 

Every teaching in the gospels is a call to healing, a call to sight, a call to salvation.  On top of that, Creation itself echoes the call of the gospels, revealing the goodness and desire and love of God for you and me in its every aspect if we simply stop long enough to appreciate it.  It is all ours for the taking if we can simply humble ourselves enough to embrace the call by rejecting the world and embracing the light of Creation and the gospels.  Francis knew this.  He internalized it better than anyone else other than Jesus ever has.  It’s what allowed him to conceive The Canticle of the Creatures.  It’s why he was who he was. 

It’s why eight hundred years after his death we make a profession to follow his charism.  We want what he knew.

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It seems so easy, but it’s not.  The world does everything it can to maintain its hold on us, to distract us from emulating Francis and thereby Jesus.

Sometimes, when my prayer gets dark and difficult and unproductive, when the light seems the dimmest, when I am full of questions and I can’t find the answers and every thought is a distraction from the “world,” I find that there is only one thing to do, one way of praying, that works and brings me back to the place in my core where Jesus dwells.

Technically I suppose it falls under the heading of a prayer of petition, but I think it might be more accurately described as a prayer of pleading meant to give every need to Jesus for His action. 

It goes something like this:

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus enlighten me.

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus consume me.

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus guide me.

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus transform me.

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus convert me.

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus dwell in me.

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus pray for me.

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus strengthen me.

Jesus I love you, Jesus I need you, Jesus heal me.

I encourage you to pray long and deep over these ideas of blindness, sight and healing.  Use the method of prayer that works for you.

But if normal methods fail you, if you can’t put the distractions aside, if you are not confident that you are genuinely reaching the truth, I would encourage you to try this style of prayer.

There are hundreds of words that will fit at the end.  Once you declare your love and your need, take your time to search for the words that express your true desire, your true doubts, your true whatever and insert them at the end.  If you go sincerely in search of those words, the Spirit will provide them to you.  You will find yourself in prayer and discovery at the same time.

And when you find that point, when you find the words that truly express your need, you will have also found the true nature of your blindness, the true path to your sight.  By using those words to ask for Jesus’ help, you will be giving your blindness over to Him.

And He will, upon receiving it, provide the healing that turns sight to blindness and blindness to sight.

He will heal you just as he healed the man in this Chapter of John.

And you will then be free to worship and love Him gladly, just as that man did.

Slideshow from The Shrine of Christ’s Passion

A few weeks ago, as the restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic were at their height, I was feeling the need to get out of the house. At the same time, I was also feeling the need to spend some quality time in solitude, contemplation and prayer.

I went on line and checked out the status of The Shrine of Christ’s Passion in St John, Indiana. This is about an hour’s drive from my home. I found that while the bookstore was closed to the public except by special appointment (now reopened), the walk through the Shrine itself was available to visitors.

So I got in my car and made the drive. It was a dreary day, cool and raining off and on, but that turned out to be fine since it meant I had the place to myself. As I walked, I pulled out my phone and began taking pictures. When I got home and started looking at them, it was clear they would make a nice slideshow. But then I figured out I didn’t take enough pictures to capture everything, so I went back again a few days later. Another dreary day, but once again fine since I could take my time and get as many angles as I liked at each location.

The Shrine is truly an inspiring place. My camera takes pretty good pictures, but there is no substitute for the real thing. If you live anywhere close, or will be visiting anywhere close, I highly recommend it. The sculptures themselves are fantastic and the store has something for everyone. Don’t miss it!

Click here to access the slideshow! You can take your time and click through the slides manually using your mouse button, or just hit play on the control bar and it will run automatically.

Enjoy!

On Franciscan Peace, Podcast #1: Bill Schmitt and Sister Agnes Marie Regan

2 Thessalonians 3:16

May the Lord Give You Peace!

Below is the podcast featuring Bill and Sister. Just hit the play button on the far left.

Try these highlights as talking points for use in a formation setting:

  • Listen as they discuss letting go of fear and accepting “the peace of God that transcends understanding” in this time of pandemic and public strife.
  • Be inspired to seek an inner peace that goes well beyond the worldly definition of peace as simply an absence of conflict.
  • Be moved to ground yourself in a “trusting, true and solid” relationship with Jesus so that you might move through the world as a resolute peacemaker.
  • Be called to engage with all your brothers and sisters, Franciscan or otherwise, to help build a more fraternal world through a mutual commitment to peace.
  • Allow peace to manifest itself in you as the certain hope that Eternal Peace will be brought to fruition despite the bleakness that surrounds us when trouble touches the world as it is now.

As a next step, consider the empty tomb in the picture. Jesus loved each of us (again, Franciscan or otherwise) so much that He was willing to come into the world and suffer the Cross in order to ensure the possibility of salvation. Every individual lovingly created throughout the history of time by the Father can choose to spend eternity basking in the glow of His Love. Jesus’ resurrection, signified by the empty tomb, confirms His triumph over death.

Does this sure belief contribute to your sense of inner peace?

On Franciscan Peace, the Introduction

Relief of Dove with Olive Branch from St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

“May the Lord Give you Peace!”

It’s now just a little over two months since this blog was launched.  The content of the posts has varied greatly, but it is important to keep in mind that one driving force behind this website is the provision of formation materials for Secular Franciscans.  As the introduction to the initial podcast about the site suggests, the underlying belief is that the Franciscan charism has something to offer the entire world, not just those who have made the commitment to profession.  The hope is that anyone who finds their way here will find something worthwhile, but that SFOs will find the content particularly useful.

So ever since the blog opened, I have been looking to start a second (and soon after, a third and a fourth) formation series to complement the Journey thru John series that is already being steadily published.  As I was editing and posting the second entry from website contributor Bill Schmitt, Let’s Talk About Communicating Better, I began to think that he was hinting at something that had the potential to be developed for formation.

When I edited the third post from Bill, I was sure that a topic for a series was inherent in what he was writing.  I found that the word “peace” seemed to fit in almost every paragraph Bill had written even if he was not using it that often.  So, I began to add “peace” in where it made sense to me and, when I was done, I wound up giving the post the title “On Peaceful Communication.”

Although this is the formal introduction to a new formation series on the centrality of “peace” in the Franciscan charism, these two posts from Bill are really the inspiration.  

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The timing of the launch of this series is propitious, but unfortunately not in a good way.  As I write the country is suffering through riots in many major cities after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minnesota.  The death was unacceptable and senseless.  It never should have happened.  Protests are a reasonable and even necessary response.  But the protests can quickly become unacceptable themselves if they become violent.  The burning of cars, the destruction of property and the looting of businesses are also senseless and they do great damage to the cause of the protesters by giving cover to those who would like to change the narrative away from the tragedy of Mr. Floyd’s death.

The thing that seems to be missing in both the initial incident and in portions of the response is peace.  We often use the term “peace officer” as a synonym for policeman, but peace was definitely not at the forefront of the thoughts (or the training?) of those officers responsible for the death of Mr. Floyd.  Likewise, the protests do not have peace as a goal or guiding principle when they turn toward violence and criminality.  To the extent that both sides have acted separate from peace, they contribute to stereotypes that feed an unease that makes the problem feel uncurable. 

African Americans feel more and more afraid of the police, and rightly so.  Police find themselves backed into no-win corners where, on the one hand, they are publicly decrying what happened to Mr. Floyd, while, on the other hand, they find themselves required to enforce law and order in an atmosphere where opportunists can easily turn even the proper execution of their duties into accusations that have the potential to dramatically escalate the situation.  They too find fear to be a major factor in calculating how to execute their day to day lives. 

The only thing for certain is that we are all losing.

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The polarization that Bill writes about in his articles is front and center in what is happening.  Commentators continue to use polarization as a tool to further entrench the power bases that feed their worldly influence.  Politicians can be willfully complicit in the polarization if they expect to gain political ground, or they may simply be blinded or paralyzed by the polarization, afraid to act boldly from the middle ground that a call to peace from both sides might represent.  Either way, the polarization seems to make it impossible for opposite sides to act in concert even if the greater good would obviously be best served if all could find the will to cooperate.   

What would the outcome be if Donald Trump and Joe Biden, or Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, or even Barack Obama and George W. Bush would agree to set aside their differences and stand together to speak against the lack of peace on both sides of this incident? 

Do we think that such an approach has even occurred to anyone in power at the moment?  Is peace important enough to lay aside the politics of division long enough to address this crisis as it begs for the country to come together for a unified solution?  Or is the polarization of politics and the nation itself so deeply embedded, so utterly internalized, that cooperation on the issue is not even on the radar of any powerful force in the entire country?

If peace is not a priority and seemingly not even possible at the highest levels of leadership, at the places where examples of good will ought to be given and expectations of peaceful fellowship ought to be set, is peace possible at any level in our society?

Who has the ability, depth and courage to call for peace in this situation and be heard and respected?  Who can call us back from the quagmire of polarization into a place where differences can be calmly contemplated with an eye toward compromise?  Who even wants to take us to a locality of tranquility where we can converse without the escalation of fear being the primary motivation in our discourse?

Unfortunately, I do not have the answer to my questions.  I do not have a cure all that can bring us back swiftly from the place we find ourselves.  But, like Bill, I do believe that the Catholic Church and the Franciscan charism has “something to say” about these issues.

And I believe that “something to say” starts with the word “peace” and what the Franciscan charism means when it uses that word.

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In Chapter Eight of The Legend of the Three Companions, we get an introduction to St. Francis’ approach to peace.  Perhaps this can serve as the starting point where we can begin to discover what that “something to say” entails.  

As he later testified, he learned a greeting of this sort by the Lord’s revelation: “May the Lord give you peace!” Therefore, in all his preaching, he greeted the people at the beginning of his sermon with a proclamation of peace.

…………………

Immediately, therefore, filled with the spirit of the prophets, the man of God, Francis, after that greeting, proclaimed peace, preached salvation, and, according to a prophetic passage, by his salutary admonitions, brought to true peace many who had previously lived at odds with Christ and far from salvation.

As both the truth of blessed Francis’ simple teaching as well as that of his life became known to many, two years after his conversion, some men began to be moved to do penance by his example and, leaving all things, they joined him in holy life and habit.  The first of these was Brother Bernard of holy memory.

The word “testified” in the first sentence is a direct reference to Francis’ own words in The Testament:

“The Lord revealed a greeting to me that we should say, “May the Lord give you peace.”  

The actual phrase “May the Lord give you peace” is accompanied by two citations in the text.  The first is from the Old Testament, the Book of Numbers, Chapter 6, verses 22:26.  This is The Priestly Blessing and it is very familiar to Secular Franciscans as it is the final blessing that is used in our Ritual to close our fraternity and council meetings:  

The Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”’

The second citation is from 2 Thessalonians, Chapter 3, verse 16.  This is from the final greeting, the closing, of Paul’s letter:

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.

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As we might expect, St. Francis is firmly grounded in scripture in his use of this phrase.  I would like to suggest that the Catholic Church has the capacity to be the answer to my question. The Pope should be someone “who has the ability, depth and courage to call for peace in this situation and be heard and respected.”  He might very well have the ability, depth and courage.  But, in part due to the efforts of polarization itself, he may not have the ability to be heard and respected.  This does not mean that he should not speak and speak often on the topic.  But it does mean that the message of peace will also need to be carried forth on other fronts.  Given the current climate, the message might only be effective if it comes from the ground up anyway.  

As a Secular Franciscan interested in living out my profession actively in the world, the Rule, in Article 15, calls me specifically to “be in the forefront in promoting justice by the testimony of my human life and my courageous initiatives.”  I must attempt to find a way to bring the values I am continually learning from my spiritual father Francis to bear on the state of the world today.  In this instance, like Francis above, I am summoned to bring peace to the forefront of every conversation and interaction I have with my fellow man.  Peace must head my basic approach to the world.

So my answer is to initiate this new formation series entitled “On Franciscan Peace.”

That title is an ambitious one and is certainly beyond my ability and expertise.  I do not profess to have the wherewithal to be your teacher, guide and authority on this topic as it unfolds.  I will chime in where it seems appropriate, but for this effort to be truly successful, it will require many voices to come together in a peaceful conversation about the topic of peace itself.    

To this end, I have asked Bill to host podcasts with many different guests as the primary presentation format for this formation series.  As we experiment with the idea of doing ongoing formation in a podcast format, we will seek to bring varied and diverse voices to bear in order to hone in on just what the word peace means in a Franciscan context.  The first podcast featuring Bill and Sister Agnes Marie is already recorded and it will be the next post on this site.

There will also be written entries in this series.  We would be very excited to have guest contributors share their thoughts on peace within the Franciscan charism and how Franciscans might lead the way toward a harmonious future for this precious Creation of our God that is currently so troubled.

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I want to share with you how difficult I found it to write about the George Floyd situation.  I had to write, and rewrite, and rewrite and I am still not sure that I have written in a truly peaceful manner.  I am far from immune to the impact that the polarization of the world has had on all of us even at the subconscious level.  I hope that what I wrote about the opposing sides of this issue was truly peaceful and helpful and not further polarizing.   

African Americans are deeply injured by what has happened and continues to happen in our society.  But many good-hearted policemen who want to do the right thing are also injured by the fallout of what their fellows have done.  This means this topic of peace requires an extreme measure of humility as it is addressed.  It will be a challenge to all who engage in this discussion, whether as a contributor, a guest, or even someone who simply leaves a comment on a post, to be aware of and sympathetic to perspectives on all sides of the topic. 

Peace requires me to place others before myself.  It does not seek to dominate others, but to accommodate and embrace them first as beings created by the same Creator who created me.  God loves every other person on the planet just as much as He loves me.  This places us in a state of equality that is simply unassailable.  Yes, we must come to the discussion of peace with ideas about what the word means if our engagement is to be meaningful, but we must also approach the discussion with an acknowledgment of our own humanity and therefore our own fallibility.  We must be honest with ourselves, always examining our own conscience, if we are to respectfully approach our fellows, even our fellows who are inclined to oppose us, from a position of scrupulousness and unpretentiousness. 

To quote Article 13 of the Rule, we must “accept all people as a gift of the Lord and an image of Christ.”  This is most especially relevant when the person we are dealing with disagrees with us and is not inclined to extend us the same courtesy.

We must be humble enough to offer peace continually even if the person we have encountered does not seem to be seeking it.

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In closing, I want to call closer attention to the final paragraph from the initial quote from The Legend of the Three Companions.

Note first that it was not only Francis’s preaching on penance and peace that led to the conversion of many, but also “the truth of his life.”  As Franciscans we like to say, “preach always, if necessary, use words.”  Our example is every bit as important as our words as we seek to extend a message of peace into the world.  We must “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk” if we have any hope of success of influencing even one person.

Note also that it took two years of preaching and good example before the first convert, “Brother Bernard of holy memory,” joined Francis in his way of life.  Francis must have had many days when he wondered if he was having any impact at all.  We will no doubt experience the same.  We deliberately operate from a position of minority.  As such, we do not have platforms that reach masses of people as do those who seek to promote polarization.  But we do have platforms such as this and we must make use of them no matter how small our audience seems, believing that we are working at the behest of God and Jesus just as Francis did.  Our work is for their glory, not ours, and They will make of our work what They will. 

Like Francis, we must persevere in steadfast patience with our messaging.  And if, in two years, we have made just one convert to the Franciscan charism of peace, we can be happy to join the esteemed company of St. Francis on his timeline.  And we can hope that just as his efforts blossomed into a worldwide movement that we feel privileged to participate in 800 years later, so to will God make our efforts blossom in His own way and time according to His Will.

Consider how you might follow Francis’ example as you move through the world.  How could you start every encounter you have with a proclamation of peace, be it by using the same words as Francis, or in some other manner?  Is that the very first step you could take in elevating the status of peace in the world?

It is two days past Pentecost.  We have just been reminded that, while we may not have access to mass media platforms, we do have access to a powerful Advocate of our own. 

We should confidently pray to the Holy Spirit in the sure hope that our prayers will be answered according to His Will.  If our work is truly His bidding, it will be successful in His time whether we realize it or not.

“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your divine love.  Send forth your Spirit and they shall be recreated and you shall renew the face of the earth.”

Journey thru John, Chapter 8: Freedom and Love

Jesus Speaks Near the Treasury, James Tissot (between 1886 and 1894)

This entire chapter is a direct continuation of the previous chapter.  It is the next day and Jesus is once again teaching in the temple courts.  Stay in the scene and watch the various exchanges between Jesus and the Jews.  Continue your process of discernment about the message Jesus is conveying.  If He is taking two full chapters to talk about it, it must be important, right?

In verse 23 Jesus says:

“You are from below.  I am from above.  You are of this world.  I am not of this world.” 

The lessons from the last chapter about the “world” are continuing.  Leave the scene for a moment and refresh your memory about those lessons.  Now return to the temple and take a moment to observe your surroundings.  Then bring your focus back to Jesus and allow the two chapters to build one upon the other as you listen to His words.

Reflect on verse 23 with last chapter’s understanding of the definition of the word “world” in mind. 

Then read verses 42 to 47 in the same context.  Jesus accuses the Jews of being “children of the devil.”  It’s a harsh accusation.  If you place yourself in the role of one of the Jews, you’re likely to find yourself quickly angered.  What is it about the Jews that makes them resistant to what Jesus is saying?  Why do they fight him instead of embracing truth, penance and conversion immediately?

Is Jesus justified in His accusation? Is the very fact that the Jews are so much “of the world” what gives the accusation weight?

Again I ask you, are you arrogant, or humble?

Does reading this chapter in this context help you to be more ready now to distance yourself from the “world” than you were last month?  Have you experienced some conversion in the intervening time?

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John Chapter 8, Verse 31-34:

To the Jews who had believed in him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone.  How can you say that we shall be set free?”  Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, anyone who sins is a slave to sin.”

It happens that this chapter falls to me to reflect upon at the beginning of the month of July.  Perhaps that is why I felt so drawn to the word free as I read the chapter.  As an American, belief in the pre-eminence of freedom/liberty comes (or ought to come) to me as second nature. 

My oldest son’s middle name is Jefferson.  His brother’s middle name is Madison.  When they were born, I was very interested in the ideals that the founders of my country believed in.  Over time, my primary focus turned toward religion (my third son’s middle name is Augustine as I was not a Franciscan yet), but that early interest in revolutionary history never left me completely.

I could never forget, for instance, these words from the beginning of the Declaration of Independence:

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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.

Without getting too political here, I would just call out the inherent folly in our current understanding and interpretation of the separation of Church and State.  If Jefferson intended the utter separation that he has since been accused of, how could he have possibly built the entire argument for independence on two very distinct references to the laws of nature’s God and the self-evident unalienable rights granted to us by our Creator with a capital C?

That said, however, I would also suggest that our understanding of freedom has become skewed in other significant ways.  These words and our entire political heritage do, for instance, seem to set us free to consume and indulge and self-aggrandize at any level we like.  Over consumption and indulgence and self-aggrandizement, when carried to the extremes they are now often carried to, earn a new name, sin. It is no accident that Jesus closely associates slavery with sin in His teaching on truth and freedom in these verses.  

We must always remember that freedom entails responsibility.  When responsibility is severed from freedom, true freedom becomes unsustainable.  It is replaced by a pernicious false freedom rooted in sin that resigns us to a veiled slavery that is difficult and inconvenient to acknowledge.  It is instructive that the Declaration starts with references to God as justification for freedom because it is only by reference to God that the responsibilities of true freedom can be discerned and carried out.    

When God is removed from the equation, the resulting bondage is hard to see.  It wraps itself in the name of freedom and often we do not recognize that we have crossed the boundary and lost ourselves to the exact opposite of what we wanted.  Without detection we continue along never knowing that we forfeited what we thought we had due to our own shortsighted sinfulness. 

We find ourselves, just as the Jews in this chapter, bereft of freedom and slaves to sin without the wherewithal to recognize it.

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The SFO Rule itself actually contains the word free.  Because freedom is so often connected to politics, it’s not a concept that you would necessarily expect to find there, but Article 12 reads like this:

Witnessing to the good yet to come and obliged to acquire purity of heart because of the vocation they have embraced, they should set themselves free to love God and their brothers and sisters.

We’re supposed to love God and our brothers and sisters.  That’s pretty straightforward and uncontroversial. Try to read the instruction a little deeper.  Taken as a whole, the instruction is less straightforward.

Why is purity of heart mentioned at the same time as freedom?  There is no apparent link between these two ideas and yet they appear here together.

How exactly do I set myself free as the Rule suggests?  What actions must I take?

And what does freedom have to do with love?

The whole article is just this one sentence.  There are no further clarifications to be found.  I don’t know about you, but after thinking about it for a while, I feel like I need more information to know how to proceed.  I want to be pure of heart.  I want to be free.  I want to love God and my brothers and sisters.

But is it political freedom that is being discussed here?  If the result of freedom in America is the standard, the answer would seem to be no.  Americans might be nominally free, but they are often not particularly pure of heart and their love of God seems to have waned greatly in my lifetime.

The spiritual freedom that Jesus is talking about in the verse, the spiritual freedom that the rule is talking about, must be something else entirely.

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Let’s start with the first question.  How are purity of heart and freedom linked?

In the verse from Jesus, we see freedom and being a “slave to sin” juxtaposed against each other.  They are opposites.  It is also safe to say that we could juxtapose the phrases purity of heart and “slave to sin.”  Someone who is pure of heart would not be a “slave to sin” and vice versa.

Purity of heart and freedom become intimately linked and in some sense synonymous via this shared opposition to sin.  If “purity of heart” can be achieved, it seems freedom will be a fruit of the achievement. 

In Chapter 1 of the First Book of the Life of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano gives us a starting point.  He wants us to know who Francis was as his journey toward conversion began.  The chapter has this phrase as its heading: “How He Lived In The Clothing And Spirit Of The World.”

Here’s a couple selections from that first chapter that give a good indication of what that title means.  As you read them, you will quickly see that Celano is downright hostile to the “world” as Jesus used the word in the last chapter.

From the earliest years of his life his parents reared him (Francis) to arrogance in accordance with the vanity of the age.  And by long imitating their worthless life and character he himself was made more vain and arrogant.  A most wicked custom has been so thoroughly ingrained among those regarded as Christians, and this pernicious teaching has been so universally affirmed and prescribed, as though by public law that, as a result, they are eager to bring up their children from the very cradle too indulgently and carelessly.  

Note the word “indulgently.”  Is it all too familiar to you when you think about our own culture of freedom?  When I first typed this, I inadvertently typed the word “worldly” instead of the word worthless.  If I would have left the mistake, would you have found it out of context?  This is being written about Francis as a child more than 800 years ago.  But it could just as easily be written today and its meaning would suffer no dilution.

But when they begin to enter the gates of adolescence, what sort of individuals do you imagine they become?  Then without question, flowing on the tide of every kind of debauchery, since they are permitted to fulfill everything they desire, they surrendered themselves with all their energy to the service of outrageous conduct.  For having become slaves of sin ……

What Celano has done for us here is link in no uncertain terms the idea that being a “slave to sin” is the same as being devoted to worldliness in the worst possible way, the way that we hopefully rejected in the last chapter.

In Celano’s link we also see the continuity of Jesus’ teaching in these two chapters.  Jesus tells us in chapter 7 that the world hates Him, clearly a sinful action.  And then in chapter 8, as He continues the teaching, the link between “worldliness” and sinfulness is expounded upon and established even more definitively by the use of phrases like “slave to sin” and “children of the devil.”

Again, we can take comfort in the fact that Francis begins as one of us.  Just as the Jews in this chapter, just as me in my current circumstance (and you in yours?), Francis starts as a “slave to sin.”  Our comfort comes from the knowledge that if we can successfully embrace the example of Francis, we have a chance to be set free and leave that status behind. 

In Celano’s text, the words “slaves of sin” are in italics, which indicates that they are taken directly from scripture.  The reference is to Romans 6:20 but it could just as easily have been to our verses from Chapter 8 of the gospel of John. 

One can imagine that Francis read chapter 6 of Romans early in his conversion process and took inspiration from it.  We can do the same, because it holds out the possibility of a happy ending.  Here are verses 20-22.

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness.  What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of?  Those things result in death!  But now you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.

Francis managed to fulfill these words from Romans.  He rejected the world as presented to him in his youth and in so doing also rejected being a slave to sin.  That rejection of the world, to use Paul’s words, set him free from sin and placed him on the path to holiness, sainthood and eternal life.

In other words, he obtained “purity of heart” and he gives us hope that we can do the same and thereby fulfill what the beginning of this article of the Rule is asking us to strive for.

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But how did he do it?  What action did Francis take to set himself free?

Recall again the end of the reflection on the last chapter, in particular the actionable steps on leaving the “world” that Francis modeled.

  • Wholeheartedly embrace penance.
  • Desperately long for conversion.
  • Mindfully live Poverty by leaving “the world” and all yearning for power and possession behind.
  • Tightly cling to Jesus.
  • Faithfully serve God by discerning and doing His Will.

Concentrate for a moment on the third step and read this passage from chapter 6 of The Second Book of the Life of St. Francis by Celano:

Francis saw many (of his brothers) rushing for positions of authority.  Despising their arrogance, he strove by his own example to call them back from such sickness……He held it was appropriate for some to take care of souls as long as in this they sought nothing of their own will, but in all things constantly obeyed God’s will……He maintained it was dangerous to direct others and better to be directed, especially in these times when malice is growing so much and wickedness is increasing……That is why he grieved over those who now sank to the level of what was low and cheap, although once they had striven for higher things with all their desire.  They had abandoned true joy and were running here and there, wandering through the field of an empty freedom.

In this passage we can directly equate the “worldly” behavior of “rushing to authority,” the clear equivalent of desiring worldly power and possessions, to times when sinful malice and wickedness are growing.  Again, the words are just as current today as they were then.  The behavior that Francis clearly viewed as sinful then we will hopefully condemn as sinful now. 

As Jesus indicates in the verses, that sinfulness makes one a slave.  That slavery then blinds one to his or her actual condition.  We think we are free when in fact we are anything but.  Our freedom becomes “empty” just as Celano describes the loss of freedom by the brothers who succumbed to this sin in Francis’ time.

Francis rejected this yearning for power and possession by embracing Poverty.  It was Poverty that allowed him to obtain purity of heart and thus the type of true freedom that Jesus is talking about in the quoted verses from chapter 8.

This next passage must be read slowly.  It comes from The Versified Life of St. Francis by Henri d’Avranches. 

Strive we must therefore to give mastery to our better self and bring our worse self to heel, and compel, not the spirit to serve the flesh, but the flesh to render service to the spirit.

The body has five attendants, and in their desires, reason, most loyal partner of the soul, hardly shows interest. It is hers to raise our downcast consciousness, not to pamper the taste of the senses, but drawn along is the body by the rope of poverty.

Once it loses its turgid fleshiness and adopts the soul’s vigorous gait: Once it sets its course on interests celestial and is not bound for things of the earth. For there is a freedom in poverty that makes her the seat of frugality: She is the untroubled rest where virtues lie.  She does not sink under weighty worries, nor fear the hand of the thief, nor does she hunt for vanities.

Take your time and read it again.  It’s not easy to get the first time through.  Make sure you understand the definition of Poverty here, how it is known by the rejection of the body in favor of the spirit and by a turning to “interests celestial” as opposed to “things bound to the earth.” 

Think about the modern understanding of reason.  Would most people today accept reason as the “most loyal partner of the soul?”  If so, would they also accept the notion that reason’s function is to “raise our downcast consciousness” from a pampered emphasis on sensual “worldly” matters to a pure and free desire for the graces of a heavenly focus?  Do we currently accept that the aim of reason is to turn the body away from “turgid fleshiness” in order to liberate it so it can adopt the soul’s vigorous but so often thwarted desire to pursue spiritual concerns?

Poverty does involve a rejection of the vanity of the material world, a rejection of the pursuit of power and possessions.  But that rejection is not enough.  It must be paired with an unfettered positive embrace of things celestial and a resolute yearning for heavenly virtue and the freedom that citizenship in the Kingdom of God brings.

We are ultimately called to embrace the “freedom of poverty,” thereby obtaining the full measure of joy that a mature and focused relationship with Jesus and God can bring us.  

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Read the selected verses from Chapter 8 again. Read the list from the last chapter again. Note the call to “tightly cling to Jesus” in the fourth step, and then read again the words “If you hold to my teaching.”  Is the correlation obvious? 

Jesus in these verses has given us Himself as the starting point.  He has given us Himself as the Truth.  And He has promised that the Truth will set us free! He will set us free!

Read then the final and fifth step above.  Read again the passage about Francis and his brothers and note the correlation there. 

Francis wanted his brothers to embrace not their own will but the Will of God.  He preached Poverty to them because this is also an essence of Poverty.  When we reject our will and embrace God’s Will we have also set ourselves free.  Read the passage from Romans again and find that statement confirmed in the words “slaves to God.”

The final question is, set free for what purpose?

Go back to the Rule and read the last question to get the answer.

We must be free because without freedom we cannot love!  The purpose of Creation is the expansion of Love, but Love is only expanded when we choose to love God and our brothers and sisters in an atmosphere of true and complete freedom!

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Let me say it again for emphasis.

The purpose of Creation is the expansion of Love.

This article of the Rule is easy to overlook.  Its meaning does not jump out and in some way it feels like a platitude.  It’s nice to read and easy to agree to but on the surface it’s not that directly inspiring.

I implore you not to take it lightly.

We are made free for a very specific, very compelling reason.  Recognize that employing true freedom to radically love God and your brothers and sisters is the very essence of fulfilling the Will of God and become determined to learn, from the example of Francis, how to do it consistently and well through the grace of Holy Poverty.

If you believe Celano, you easily reach the conclusion that the gift and grace of freedom was abused in the time of Francis.  If you look at the “world” around us today, despite the freedom that we Americans were blessed with by our founders, you reach that same conclusion.  Freedom today is often used not to love God and neighbor, but for purposes of consumption and indulgence and self-aggrandizement that lead many to become slaves to sin.

As Franciscans, we are called to a better path.

  • Wholeheartedly embrace penance.
  • Desperately long for conversion.
  • Mindfully live Poverty by leaving “the world” and all yearning for power and possession behind.
  • Tightly cling to Jesus.
  • Faithfully serve God by discerning and doing His Will.

And then, based on John Chapter 8, you can add this:

Accept Jesus as the Truth that sets you free and then love God and neighbor with all your heart and all your soul, for that is the ultimate fulfillment of His Will, the ultimate revolutionary act for a “world” that so desperately a revolution.

Churches Awaiting the Joy After Lockdown: Many Happy Returns

As more Catholics resume physical attendance at Mass in areas where governors and bishops have issued policies easing COVID-19 lockdown rules, pastors and parish ministers around the country will carry many concerns with them when they open their church’s doors.

Their rigorous attention to practices and protocols, focused on keeping worshipers healthy, will be right and just—the unquestioned top priority for an endless string of planning meetings. But let’s hope the agenda will leave room for one thing alongside the technical factors on everybody’s mind, namely a factor to be celebrated and nourished in everybody’s heart: Parishioners walking through those doors will carry with them a gift for themselves, for their Church family, and for God, in the form of joy.

It might help to recall the visit to Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42, so long as we realize Jesus was encouraging and advising his hard-working host, not scolding her. Martha, “burdened with much serving,” griped about her sister’s sitting transfixed at Jesus’ feet, her distraction from details of hospitality. He responded, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.”

It’s as if Jesus was talking to us about the anxiety and worry associated with the pandemic. As we return to Mass, we can, for at least that little while, chose and concentrate on the better part and simply sit in peace at the feet of Jesus for a time.

That wonderful scene displaying the two women’s compatible forms of relationship with the Lord can help a parish appreciate the multiple dimensions of this day of reopening. People may experience, to one degree or another, a delight of reunion after a period of sorrowful, painful separation. This will be one of the times when those being dutifully welcomed, securely assembled, and carefully distanced can minister to their ministers. We all silently sing, Hallelujah.

Some folks may not feel the electricity, partly because their minds are still trapped in tedious memories, with masks on and emotions off. But others will kneel with new reverence, or sigh as they look up at Christ on the cross, or smile at their favorite Blessed Mother statue. Receiving the Body of Christ will be climactic, quite different from lining up for bureaucratic check-ins or grocery store check-outs.

This is a great time for priests and pastoral staff members to accompany their people as they evangelize each other. Watch the Spirit bring a special gift to every soul. Just as profoundly, watch them embody the New Evangelization before Mass as passers-by observe them going to church. After Mass, hear them tell stories about how it felt to be back.

“If other people knew how many Catholics have spent time crying over not being able to go to Mass and receive the Eucharist, they would be impressed,” a friend remarked to me last week. We were discussing the news that the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend will allow the resumption of public Masses on May 23-24. May we all be impressed by sights of hunger and satiation, on that weekend or whenever.

Rev. Robert Garrow, pastor of Saint Anthony de Padua Parish in South Bend, witnessed to the dual significance of this time in a letter he sent to parishioners. He attached two pages reporting on the changes one would see—in the pews, at the ambo, etc.  He wrote about gradually “resuming our ordinary life” as a parish and moving toward “a more normalized schedule.” But to this rulebook motif he added more transcendent language, giving incarnational faith its due. He reflected on Communion as “a gift” to be anticipated: “What joy it will be to be able to come back together to show our veneration and love to God.”

This pent-up excitement seemed to set the stage for all ministers and parish members to be visionary. I wondered if someone in the Saint Anthony family might be moved to prepare a unique expression of happiness over this homecoming.

It occurred to me a family could bring to Mass a bouquet of flowers. Or a reasonable facsimile: A talented parishioner has previously posted the above free online art project that would yield crayon-colored paper flowers. Someone could bring a spiritual bouquet recalling acts of devotion performed for the Lord during self-isolation. Another returnee who typically wore tee-shirts might come dressed in his “Sunday best.”

The return to public Masses, after all,  will not be a time for show-off gestures. All the world is in a stance of humility, seeking healing after lockdown and obeying strict rules because we’re still vulnerable. But that need not preclude us Catholics from moments of spontaneous feelings  and romantic imagination. These are long-awaited blessings that must be shared with others—and affirmed by our ministers. The Lord wants the company of both Marthas and Marys. After a time of so much distancing, the joys of this reunion will not be taken from us.

Dancing in Heaven

Five Dancing Angels by Giovanni di Paolo (1436)

Hopefully, you will not find this too personal, but I am feeling a strong need (which will soon be clearer) to share it.

It’s Saturday morning.  I did not sleep well last night.  Sometimes this happens if I worked too hard physically the day before.  The soreness makes me restless and uncomfortable and we prepped and planted four beds in the vegetable garden yesterday.  It can also happen if I eat too much too late.  The nachos at 10:30 while we were watching The Voice finale is another possible culprit.

No matter how poorly I sleep, I always wake up at the same time.  This is a curse of getting older.  Sleeping-in no longer seems to be even possible.  The best I can hope for is a second sleep in the morning on days when my schedule allows.  If I am able to achieve that I typically wake up feeling refreshed.  So this morning I woke up at the usual time feeling exhausted and laid in bed a while, hoping I might fall back asleep.  When that didn’t happen, I grabbed the book off my nightstand and started reading, which will often help me get back to sleep.

Ever since reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien in the eighth grade, I have been a huge fan of the high fantasy genre.  I have a closet full of old paperbacks bought in used bookstores that have dozens of this style of story in them.  I am always looking for something new or re-reading something old.  This morning, I found myself at a compelling point in a new story (I’ll share an excerpt soon), so I did not fall asleep again.  But on the positive side, by the time I finished reading, I felt energized and positive.

I got up to get in the shower.  You need to know that the shower is a sort of spiritual cave for me.  I have a tendency to take very long showers.  My thoughts typically wander through many things spiritual and otherwise and I sometimes experience revelations while in the shower.  Yes, I believe that I receive epiphanies as the soothing hot water of a long shower pours over me.

In order to fully understand the rest of this, you also need to be aware that there has been some loss in my life recently.  A little more than two years ago, I lost my youngest son, age seventeen, in a car accident.  A little more than one year ago, I lost my sister, age forty three, to lung cancer.  And in the midst of that, my first spiritual advisor, Sister Gertrude Anne, also passed after a very full life.  I pray to all three of these people, along with my mother, who has been gone nearly twenty years, as part of my prayer routine in the morning.      

I have an Alexa device in the bathroom and I have assembled multiple playlists that I listen to depending on my mood.  Yesterday afternoon, I asked Alexa to play my playlist ………., hesitating before giving her a name.  She did not wait and started playing my “Current Country” playlist, which sounded good so I asked her to shuffle it again for me this morning.

(In my series Journey thru John, I often ask you to try and enter the scene.  A word of caution here about what follows.  Please don’t try that here.  I beg you, do not picture me dancing in the shower.  If you must, put yourself in my place and think about yourself dancing in the shower, assuming you do that on occasion.  If not, you should.  It’s very freeing and therapeutic.  You should also picture your own loved ones in place of mine, as I think that is part of the reason why this experience had to be shared.)

The music seemed especially powerful this morning and its positive energy was moving me.  I soon gave way completely and found myself bouncing and singing along to every song that came up.

And then this happened.

I saw my seventeen year old son Aidan smiling and dancing along with me.  To be more precise, he was laughing and I think it was as much at me as with me.  He was always a good natured kid, always quick with a smile, always quick to make fun of his dad when the opportunity presented itself.  His outlook was even a bit naïve.  He was still so very young and did not have enough experience in life for any jadedness to have taken hold.  He was laughing so hard, as was his wont, that it interrupted his dancing.

And then I saw my sister Christy with a huge smile on her face and she was dancing as well.  Not my sister at the end when she was drawn and thin and wearing a scarf over her head because of her hair loss.  Instead, she was the young and vibrant women in her twenties that did not smile as often as I would have liked, but, who, when you could coax it of her, had a smile that would light up a room and have you smiling right along with her whether you intended to or not.   

And then my mother was there.  She was dancing in a way I had never seen before.  It was if she had been young in the 1960s or 1970s, not the 1940s or 1950s.  While Aidan and Christy were mostly looking at me with mischievous gleams in their eyes, my mom seemed to be looking beyond all of us.  And it seemed that as she looked beyond, she saw something that gave her a great sense of contentment, and her smile intensified.  The pace of her dancing increased, and she glanced over at me sideways with her own gleam and then closed her eyes as she let the music carry her.  I was sure that her smile had somehow become permanent.  Something that had been amiss was no longer so.  Something that was unsettled was now finally settled and settled to her satisfaction. 

And then even Sister Gertude Anne was there, smiling and dancing.  She was still advanced in years, likely because that was the only way I knew her.  She started out sheepishly, seemingly embarrassed to be dancing in such an outlandish style, but her enthusiasm increased as the dance went on.  By the end, even if her movements were slower, she was also a fully gleaming participant caught up in the joy of the moment.

As this was unfolding, a realization hit me.  As I had prayed with each of these people in my morning prayer, I had images of them in my head.  But none of them were images of the type of joy that I was surrounded by in this moment.  There are pictures of my son, my sister and my Mom in my house.  They are smiling, often a little sheepishly and incompletely, certainly not with the freedom and joy that I saw in them now.  With Sister, I do not have a picture other than what is in my head, but it’s much the same.

Until now, I had not pictured any of them grinning unabashedly in the context of the joy of heaven, but now I was, and I knew that this was a true vision.  I knew these four persons who had impacted my life in such positive ways were actually dancing together in heaven.  And I could see in my mother’s reaction a turning point.  A transition where all was now as it should be.  Where the story, even if it is still unfolding, had found a moment of true peace and a spot where the hurt and pain of the recent past could be deposited and left to wither in the midst of a bright, hopeful future where any joyful possibility one could imagine could unfold. 

I found myself dancing and laughing and crying all at once.  And when it was over, as it had to eventually be, I found myself thankful and I found myself knowing right away that I had to share this experience.

Two last things I wish to add:

While I was reading, I encountered a passage in the story that left me in tears because of how powerful it was, and the thought came to me unbidden, “you could do that.”  I have dreamed of writing for a very long time.  I knew that I was called to it but “the world” always seem to be in the way.  Now I am even more certain of that call and I know I am in this for the long haul.  I think that contributed greatly to the positive energy I was feeling before I even turned the shower on.

I also recently made a comment on the blog Brandon’s Wisdom where I mentioned the loss of my son and sister.  When he thanked me for my comment, he thanked me for sharing of myself and my experiences.  I had been considering how to write back to him in order to express my opinion that this was how social media was meant to be used.  That the sharing I did and that he innocently acknowledged, if done widely, had the ability to have a long term positive, healing effect on a world sorely in need of it.   

I can’t help but think that this is how God would have the tools of social media used.  Not, as Bill Schmitt’s posts rue so effectively, for self-aggrandizement that so often relies on polarization and discord to achieve its goals. 

But instead to spread broad values like peace and unity through the sharing of experiences like this one even if, at first blush, they seem a little too personal, a little too risky, to place where they can be seen by anyone and everyone, completely out of one’s control. 

Journey thru John, Chapter 7: Defining the Word “World”

St. Francis by Albert Chevallier Taylor (1898)

Placing yourself in the scene for this chapter is perhaps especially important.  The tension between Jesus and the Jews is building throughout the chapter.  If you were a critic reviewing a novel, you would be congratulating the author on how superbly he uses this chapter to develop the main conflict of the story.

“The Jews were waiting to take his life.” 

“……the Jews were watching for him……”

“At this they tried to seize him.”

“……the Pharisees sent temple guards to try and arrest him.”

“Some wanted to seize him,……”

“You mean he has deceived you also?”

As the chapter unfolds, try and occupy each location.  Observe the attitude of the people toward Jesus.  Observe Jesus himself.  There is confusion surrounding Jesus.  Some give Him the benefit of the doubt.  Some do not and are quick to condemn Him.  What are their motivations?  Why are so many so prone to assume the worst?

Try and let go of what you know as an observer looking back from the future.  Watch Jesus in the moment.  Which side do you fall on?  Is He a prophet?  Is He the Christ?  What is your criteria?  Is your mind open, or closed?  Are you arrogant, or humble?

The context indicates that Jesus does not seem to fulfill the prophecies correctly because he comes from Galilee.  Is that a conclusive argument or do His works and His teaching leave you wondering?  Is there something you don’t know, a piece of the puzzle that you must be missing? 

Are you one who has made up his mind, or are you one who is still discerning?

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John Chapter 7, Verse 7:

“The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil.”

Read the verse again.  Do you recognize something odd about it?  What does the word “world” mean in this verse?

As Franciscans, we view creation in an entirely positive light.  Article 18 of our Rule tells us to “strive to move from the temptation of exploiting creation to the Franciscan concept of universal kinship.”  We believe the Creator is present in every aspect of His Creation.  Creation speaks to us about the nature of the Creator, about His Goodness and the Love that motivated His decision to create.  Because the Creator is present in His Creation, it would be sinful to exploit that Creation for our own purposes.  Kinship means that as we move through Creation and take what we need from it, we do so with an attitude of respect.  The Will of the Creator informs us as we interact with His Creation.

The word “world” is often used as a synonym for Creation in this context.  In everyday discussion we would be more likely to say “we move through the world with an attitude of respect” than “we move through Creation with an attitude of respect.” 

But when Jesus uses the word “world” in this verse, the context is surely changed.  He has given the “world” human qualities.  The “world” hates.  The “world” takes actions that are evil.  The Creation of article 18 of the Rule would be incapable of doing this.  It is solely positive.  Hate and evil are negative, alien to its nature. 

Something different is happening here.  The word “world” means something else entirely as Jesus has used it here.   

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Article 11 of the Rule says this:

Trusting in the father, Christ chose for himself a poor and humble life, even though he valued created things attentively and lovingly.  Let the Secular Franciscans seek a proper detachment from temporal goods by simplifying their own material needs.  Let them be mindful that according to the gospel they are stewards of the goods received for the benefit of God’s children.  Thus, in the Spirit of “the Beatitudes,” and as pilgrims and strangers on their way to the home of the father, they should strive to purify their hearts from every tendency and yearning for possession and power.

First, note that a form of the word “Creation” appears here.  The response to Creation is consistent.  Jesus “values” and “loves” Creation.  

The word “world” does not appear, but a synonym for it does.  I had to read the Rule several times before it struck me.  If, like me, you did not catch it the first time through, I would invite you to read it again.

The word we are looking for is temporal.  Substitute the word “worldly” for the word “temporal” in the second sentence and we begin to get our first glimpse into the context in which Jesus used the word “world” in this verse. 

It’s a little unfortunate (at least for my purposes) that the word “temporal” is followed by the word “goods.”  I say that because, after reflecting on this verse, I think that the word “goods” unnecessarily limits our detachment.  But the good news is that our detachment is expanded by the end of the article.  I would suggest you insert the word “temporal” or “worldly” into that last sentence and read it like this:  “…… they should strive to purify their hearts from every tendency and yearning for worldly possession and power.”    

Now, perhaps, we begin to get a more complete understanding of where Jesus is coming from.  Goods still do not possess the ability to hate or be evil.  But men, when they yearn for possession and power, not only possess that ability but forcefully tend toward it.  The word “world,” as used by Jesus in this verse, has to be understood in reference to human beings and their sinfulness, particularly when that sinfulness is associated with the yearning for possession and power.

This article is actually a little odd on the surface.  There is the potential for contradiction in the instructions it gives us.  It asks us to value and love Creation.  We are expected to be attentive to it.  Clearly the impetus for a positive embrace of Creation as defined above is there.  But at the same time, we are also expected to move through Creation as pilgrims and strangers.  It is not our destination.  Our home is elsewhere, with the Father.  We are expected to keep a certain distance, a certain detachment.  Interaction with Creation in the wrong way can cause the need to purify our hearts.   

That potential for contradiction is resolved when a clear distinction between Creation and “world” is established.  Creation is understood in reference to God.  The “world,” as it is used by Jesus in this verse, is understood in reference to men and their capacity for sinfulness when respect for Creation is forgotten.

We are meant to embrace the goodness of God during our journey through Creation.  We are meant to reject the sin of the “world” during that same journey.

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This context for the word “world” is also apparent in the source materials on the life and history of St. Francis.  In fact, if you were to review Volume 4 of the Early Documents, the Index, you would find that nearly two full pages are devoted to the word “world” in the Index of Subjects.  Not all the references apply specifically to this context, but many do.

The opening paragraph of The Testament says this:

The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way:  for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers.  And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them.  And when I left them, what seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.  And afterwards I delayed a little and left the world.

When Francis says he “left the world,” does he mean that he left Creation?  Of course not.   His entire life from this point forward speaks to how much he valued and loved Creation. 

So, what does it mean then for him to say he “left the world?”  If he said instead that he “delayed a little and left behind all yearning for possession and power,” does that make more sense?  Of course it does, because that is exactly what he did. 

Note the overall Franciscan themes that are present.  As the prologue to the Rule says, we are called to be people who “produce worthy fruits of penance.”  Francis begins The Testament by using penance in the very first sentence.  As Seculars, we are asked to start our commitment with penance because that is exactly the starting point that Francis identified for his journey. 

Paragraph 7 of the Rule tells us to ”conform our thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the gospel itself calls conversion.”  Francis relates his own profound experience of conversion as he tells us his “bitterness turned into sweetness.”    

This idea of leaving the “world” is distinctly tied to the greater Franciscan charism.  When we embrace penance, this leads to conversion, which leads to a leaving of the “world.”  The reason this is true is because leaving the “world” is an expression of the Spiritual Poverty that is at the very core of a Franciscan way of life.

In chapter one, I gave you the entire The Praise of Poverty, which is found in Celano’s The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, chapter 25.  Here is the beginning again, to the place where the word “world” occurs, which suits the needs of this chapter.

Placed in a vale of tears the blessed father scorned the usual riches of the children of men as no riches at all and, eager for higher status, with all his heart, he coveted poverty. Realizing that she was a close friend of the Son of God, but nowadays an outcast throughout the whole world, ……………..

Would it makes sense for Francis to be asserting that Poverty was an outcast throughout the entirety of Creation?  Again, of course not.  But it does make sense to say that Poverty is an outcast among men who have as their first concern a sinful “yearning for possession and power.”  Whenever the context endows the “world” with the ability to be hateful or evil, or whenever the context has to do with ‘leaving the world,” the words and ideas must be associated with the sinful acts of men who place “worldly concerns” before the Will of God (as revealed in part by His Creation) in their decision making process.

To let our will go in favor of God’s Will is the culmination of Franciscan Spiritual Poverty.  Remember that the goal of Francis (and thus our goal) is to draw as close to God as we can and to serve Him by doing his Will as ably as we can.  We do this first and foremost by setting our will aside while embracing His. 

There are multiple places where the documents put leaving the “world” exactly into this context.  Often, when the “world” is left behind it is associated with coming closer to God.

At the very end of Chapter 6 of The Anonymous of Perugia, we find this:

They were constantly rejoicing, for they had nothing that could disturb them.  The more they were separated from the world, the more they were united to God.  These men entered upon a narrow and rough trail.  They broke up the rocks, trampled down the thorns, and so have left us, their followers, a smooth path.

First there is Poverty, both in terms of goods and desires.  “They had nothing that could disturb them.”  This Poverty becomes synonymous with separation from the world.  Leaving the world is an embrace of Poverty which involves leaving behind the yearning for both power and possessions.  That separation from the world, that embrace of Poverty, then leads to unification with God.

The same theme occurs in chapter three of The Legend of the Three Companions

From that very hour he began to consider himself of little value and to despise those things which he had previously held in love.  Since he was not entirely detached from worldly vanities, this change was not yet perfect.  He retired for a short time from the tumult and business of the world and was anxious to keep Jesus Christ in his inmost self, and, after selling all he had, he desired to buy the pearl, concealing it from the eyes of mockers.

Francis is working on rejecting the things of the “world” he previously embraced.  He yearns to retire from the “world” to spend time with Jesus “in his inmost self.”  Note that Francis is in a state of transition here.  His imperfect detachment means imperfect conversion.  It’s heartening to me to know that his conversion took time.  I still have a chance. 

Do you see the equivalency between “selling all he had” and embracing poverty?  Do you recognize the pearl to be closeness to God?  Do you recognize the mockers as those sinful men of the world who yearn for power and possessions?

At the opening of chapter seven of The Legend of the Three Companions, directly after Francis strips himself naked in order to give even his clothes back to his earthly father (who expresses a certain yearning for worldly power and possessions in how he deals with his son), Francis is farther along.

Therefore, Francis, the servant of God, stripped of all that is of the world, is free for divine justice and, despising his own life, he gives himself to divine service in every way he can.

The embrace of poverty is complete.  “Stripped of all that is of the world,” he is therefore stripped of all yearning for power and possession.  The culmination of this path then is not just proximity to God, but the ability to love and serve God freely.  In an echo of the gospel call to give up one’s life in order to save it, “despising his own life” is understood to be the equivalent of a full embrace of Spiritual Poverty. 

Once again there is a bit of paradox.  We do not despise our creation.  Just as we value and love and respect Creation as a whole, we respect our own individual creation as the most astonishing act that a loving God could undertake.  We are grateful beyond measure for the life that God has graced us with.  What we despise is that part of our life that leads to separation from the loving God who created us.  We despise our tendency toward sin, our tendency to yearn for the power and possession that we now know as the definition of the word “world” as Jesus uses it in the verse we started with.

The trail through the Franciscan charism is a little clearer now.  Penance leads to conversion.  Conversion leads to leaving the “world.”  Leaving the “world” is an embrace of Poverty on both the material and Spiritual levels.  That Poverty leads to closeness with God.  That closeness empowers us in the battle to leave sin behind so that we might become more flawless servants of God.

But, of course, we are imperfect in fulfilling these steps.  We move back and forth, sometimes gaining, sometime losing, but hopefully always filled with a different kind of yearning, a yearning that is centered on becoming more like Jesus and more like Francis.  The yearning for worldly power and possession is replaced by a yearning for perfect and complete Poverty so that we might do His Will as completely as we possibly can.

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Go back to the scene, but this time, instead of trying to forget the future and dwell in the past, do the opposite.  Bring the scene into the current culture that we live in.  Read the quotes again.  Can you hear them being spoken now?  Read the verse from Jesus again.  Can you hear Him speaking now?

Does the confusion about Jesus still exist today?  Are there still many people trying to decide if He is a prophet, or the Christ, or someone who should be arrested and put to death?

Are the Jews who wanted to reject and arrest Him still essentially present today in different guise?

Does “the world” still hate Jesus today?  Is Jesus still testifying today that “those who yearn for worldly power and possessions” are doing evil?  

I asked if your approach to answering the questions from the scene would be open or close minded, if you would be arrogant or humble.  I would guess that you knew the right answers to those questions when I asked them.  We have to be open minded and humble when we approach these kind of questions.  There is always more for us to know, more for us to discern. 

But did you understand that the questions were not hypothetical?  They weren’t being asked about a situation from ancient history.  That situation is present to us today and we have to decide how to react to it now, in our lives.

Just as those questions are current now, they were also current at the time of Francis.  Maybe he didn’t address them consciously, but he did address them in “the religion” that he established.  His way of life was a proper response for him then and it is a proper response for us now.

What are we to do?

To recap one final time in closing:

As Franciscans, our charism calls on us to reply to this never ending tension between “world” and Creation and the Will of God by following the example of our Father Francis, who in turn was following the example of Jesus.  We should:

  • Wholeheartedly embrace penance.
  • Desperately long for conversion.
  • Mindfully live Poverty by leaving “the world” and all yearning for power and possession behind.
  • Tightly cling to proximity to Jesus and God.
  • Faithfully serve God by discerning and doing His Will.

We cannot say when the tension might end.  That time is only known to God.  But if we succeed in following the example of Francis, we might at least hope to play some small role in making that end possible.

One Click to the Rule

Luchesio and Buonadonna, the first Secular Franciscans

The OFS Rule is the heartbeat of who and what we are meant to be as Secular Franciscans. As is noted in the page “About Formation,” it is one of three key resources that we must have available to us at all times if we are to thrive in the life we have professed. In order to fully embrace the continuous conversion we are called to, it should always be at our fingertips.

For most of us, that means carrying the little red book that almost all of us received during our initial formation period or at our profession. I think you would find that at any meeting of my local fraternity, well over 50% of the people there could produce a copy of that book if you asked them to.

One great thing about this blog format is it can be used to make the Rule available on your phone with just a single click. I know that many Secular Franciscans are older and may not be completely savvy when it comes to technology, but this is very easy to do. (Even if you do struggle to accomplish it, you can always use that as an excuse to get your children or grandchildren to visit the site with you when you ask them to set it up!).

You can do this for not just the Rule page, but for any page you find on the web that you want easy access to. (You could just as easily set the home page of the blog as the first click page, thus getting access to the most recent posts in one click. If you did that, you would be all of three clicks to get to the Rule.)

For an Android Phone:

Go to your search engine and enter ofsongoing.com. When the site comes up, click the menu button at the top and that will give you a drop down menu with an option for the “OFS Rule of Life.” Click on that option and you will be taken to the Rule.

Once on that page you will see dots in a column in the upper right corner of the screen. Tap on the dots and you will get another drop down menu. In that menu is an option that reads “Add to Home Screen.” Tap that option and a link for the page you are on will automatically be added to the home screen of your phone. From then on, at any time, you can tap that link and it will take you directly to the OFS Rule page of the site, making the Rule always only one click away.

For an I-Phone:

Again, go to the search engine and type in ofsongoing.com. Again, tap the menu button at the top of the page, select the “OFS Rule of Life.” Then, in the bottom center of the screen there is a sharing button. It’s a box with an arrow out of the top. Click that and then drag the menu that just opened up from the bottom. Again, you will see an option that reads “Add to Home Screen” with a box with a plus sign inside it. Click on that and an icon for the page will be added to your home screen.

Just be aware that your home screen actually comprises several screens which can all be accessed by swiping to the left on your phone. If you do not see the icon on the first screen, swipe until you find it. Then click it to make sure it works. If you want it on the first screen, you should be able to drag it there.

Its as easy as that.

Now you have no excuse for not reading the Rule on a regular basis. You can just pull out your phone, click once and read it whenever you have just a few minutes to kill.