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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.

The Secret of Salvation, Revealed By Unceasing Prayer

The below is an excerpt from the book, The Way of a Pilgrim.  The passage that is the source of this material is much longer.  To make it more accessible and suitable to a blog post, I have re-written and condensed it as well as I am able.  Hopefully my audacity is not excessive and the full message remains intact and decipherable.

This book is a classic of Eastern Orthodox spirituality.  Its purpose is to teach The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, a Sinner”) as a method for learning to pray unceasingly in accord with the instruction of St. Paul.  Although the source is Orthodox, I believe it has something to say about our Franciscan life and Rule.

I first read this passage a little more than a week ago.  Since then, I have felt compelled to return to it repeatedly.  Hopefully, you will be inspired to read and reread it just as I have.  As you do so, try to keep in mind Article 8 of our OFS Rule, which says in part:

“let prayer and contemplation be the soul of all they are and do.”

Perhaps this passage has something to say about how this requirement of our Rule can be fulfilled?

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“How am I to be saved?” 

This godly question naturally arises in the mind of every Christian who realizes the enfeebled nature of man. Everyone with faith in immortality is involuntarily faced with this thought.

In seeking a solution, inquiries are made of the wise. Edifying books by spiritual writers are read and one sets out to follow the truths discovered.  A devout life and heroic struggles that result in a decisive denial of self are presented as necessary conditions of salvation. These are to lead to the performance of good works that witness to one’s unshakable firmness of faith and these conditions of salvation must be fulfilled with the deepest humility.  Just as the rays of the sun only kindle a flame when magnified to a single point, all good works should support, complete, and encourage one another. Otherwise, “He that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.”

In addition to this, one hears the highest praise bestowed upon the beauty of virtue and censure assigned to the misery of vice. Truthful promises are made of either majestic rewards or tormenting punishment in the life to come.

Guided in this way, one who ardently wishes for salvation sets off in all joy to carry out what he has learned. But alas! At the first step one finds it impossible to achieve this purpose. Enfeebled nature has the upper hand against the convictions of the mind, free will is bound, and spiritual strength dissipates in weakness.

This thought naturally occurs: Those who have found salvation and holiness must know how to fulfill what God requires.  To reconcile the demands of conscience and one’s inadequate capacity to fulfill them, application is made once more to the preachers of salvation. 

The question is repeated: “How am I to be saved?”

How will my inability to carry out the conditions of salvation be rectified?

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The answer comes back as: 

Ask God. Pray to God. Pray for His help.

“Would it not have been more fruitful,” the inquirer concludes, “if I had begun with a study of prayer as the power by which salvation is attained?” One reads and meditates and studies the teaching of those who have written about prayer. Many luminous thoughts are revealed.  Some reason beautifully about the necessity of prayer and others write of its beneficial effect.  Prayer is revealed as a happy duty.  It calls for zeal, attention, warmth of heart, purity of mind, reconciliation with one’s enemies, humility, and contrition.

But what is prayer in itself? How does one actually pray? A precise, easily understood answer is rarely found.  The ardent inquirer is again left before a veil of mystery. His general reading roots in his memory an aspect of prayer which, although devout, is only external.  He arrives at the conclusion that prayer is going to church, crossing oneself, repeating rote formulas, etc.

This is the view of prayer taken by those who do not know the teachings of the Holy Fathers about inward prayer and contemplative action. At length, the seeker comes across the Philokalia, in which twenty-five Holy Fathers set forth in an understandable way the scientific knowledge of the truth and essence of prayer of the heart. This begins to draw aside the veil hiding the link between prayer and the secret of salvation. One sees that true prayer directs the thought and memory, without relaxing, to the recollection of God.  In true prayer, one walks continuously in His divine presence and is awakened to His love by thoughts of Him. 

The name of God is linked with one’s breathing and the beating of one’s heart. The Jesus Prayer, said continuously, in all places, during every occupation, unceasingly, becomes a guide. These luminous truths, by opening the way to the study and achievement of prayer, encourage us to put these wise teachings into practice at once.

Nevertheless, when one attempts this prayer, difficulty is still encountered.   Until the whole truth is fully accepted, that incessant prayer is the only effective means for perfecting interior prayer and for saving of the soul, struggles continue.

One must accept that frequent prayer is the basis that holds the whole system of saving activity together. As Simeon the New Theologian says, “He who prays without ceasing unites all good in this one thing.”  

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For the salvation of the soul, true faith is necessary. Holy Scripture says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” A man without faith will be judged. But from the same Holy Scriptures we learn that faith does not come from man.  It is a gift of God given by the Holy Spirit. How do we reconcile man’s need of faith with the impossibility of producing it solely by human effort?  Again, Holy Scripture is consulted: “Ask, and it shall be given you.” The Apostles could not arouse the perfection of faith within themselves, but they prayed to Jesus Christ, “Lord, increase our faith.”

This example shows that faith is attained by prayer.

For the salvation of the soul, besides true faith, good works are also required.  Man is judged not by faith alone, but also by his works:

  • “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments: Do not kill; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; honor thy father and mother; love thy neighbor as thyself.”
  • “Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, is guilty of all.”
  • “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin…. To will is present within me, but how to perform that which is good I find not…. The evil which I would not do, I do…. With the mind I serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.”

The third quote is from St. Paul. If he was unable to will himself to good works, how shall we? If man is without the strength to keep the commandments, how are the required works of God to be fulfilled?  

Again, “you have not because you ask not.” One has no possibility of doing this until one prays for it. Jesus Christ Himself says:

  • “Without Me you can do nothing.”
  • “Abide in Me and I in you. He that abides in Me and I in him brings forth much fruit.”
  • “If you shall ask anything in My name, that I will do.”

To be in Him means to continually feel His presence, to continually pray in His name. Thus, the possibility of doing good works is also reached by prayer.

Recall that the Apostle Paul prayed for victory over temptation three times, bowing the knee before God the Father, that He would give him inner strength. In response he was bidden above all things to pray unceasingly.

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It follows that the whole salvation of man depends upon prayer.  By prayer faith is quickened and through prayer all good works are performed.  Everything goes forward successfully with prayer; without it, no act of Christian piety can be done.

From this we deduce that prayer should be continuous.  “Pray without ceasing.”  Pray always and pray everywhere with a pure mind and heart, with burning zeal, with close attention, with fear and reverence, and with the deepest humility.

But then the conscientious person reflects and must admit to being far from fulfilling this instruction.  Too often prayer is offered more from necessity than by inclination, enjoyment, or love.  About this Holy Scripture says that it is not in the power of man to keep his mind steadfast:

  • “The thoughts of man are evil from his youth.”
  • “My spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.”
  • “We know not what we should pray for.”

We surmise that human beings are unable to offer true prayer.

Given this powerlessness, what remains possible for the salvation of the soul from the side of human will and effort? Man cannot acquire faith without prayer; the same applies to good works. And finally, even to pray purely is not within our power. What, then, is left for us to do?

What scope remains for the exercise of our freedom and strength, so that we may not perish but be saved?

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God reserves to His Own Will and Gift the quality of every action, including prayer. In order that the dependence of man upon the Will of God be shown clearly, and that man be plunged more deeply into humility, God has assigned to the will and strength of man only quantity when it comes to prayer. He commands unceasing prayer. By this the secret, the method of achieving true prayer, and at the same time faith, good works, and salvation, is revealed. Quantity of prayer is assigned to us as our share.  

Frequency of prayer is our own and all that is within the province of our human will.

St. Macarius the Great says truly to pray is the gift of grace. Isaiah the Solitary says that frequency of prayer turns into second nature, and without frequent calling upon the name of Jesus Christ it is impossible to cleanse the heart. The venerable Callistus and Ignatius counsel that frequency will bring even imperfect prayer to perfection. Blessed Diadochos asserts that if a man calls upon the name of God as often as possible, then he will not fall into sin.

What experience and wisdom are here!  In their experience and simplicity, these Fathers throw much light on how to bring the soul to perfection!

Reason urges us to perform good actions, be armed with our courage, employ the strength of our wills, cleanse our minds and hearts from worldly dreams, fill their place with instructive meditations, and live in the way that conscience requires. But alas! All that cannot attain its purpose without the frequent prayer that summons the help of God.

What a contrast between the teaching of the Fathers and the counsel of theoretical reason, which presumptuously strives to attain purity by only its own efforts!

———————————-

We conclude that the principal method of reaching the goal of salvation and spiritual perfection is the frequency and uninterruptedness of prayer, however feeble it may be.

Christian soul, if you do not find within yourself the power to worship God in spirit and in truth, if your heart still feels no warmth in mental and interior prayer, then bring to the sacrifice of prayer what you can in your current state.

Let the humble instrument of your lips grow familiar with persistent prayerful invocation. Let them call upon the mighty name of Jesus Christ often and without interruption. This is not a great labor and is within the power of everyone.

  • “By Him, therefore, let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.”

Ceaseless prayer forms a habit and becomes second nature. It brings the mind and the heart into a proper state. If a man fulfills this one commandment of God, then in that one thing all is fulfilled.  Always offer prayer, calling upon the most holy name of Jesus (even if at first you do so without spiritual ardor or zeal), and by this avoid wasting time in pursuit of sinful pleasures of the senses.

Every evil thought will meet opposition to its growth. Sinful acts will not come to fruition so readily as when your mind is empty.  Vain talking will be checked and every fault at once cleansed from the soul by the gracious power of His divine name. The frequent exercise of prayer will recall the soul from sinful action and summon it to its essential exercise, to union with God.

Now do you see how important and necessary quantity is in prayer? Frequency in prayer is the one method of attaining pure and true prayer. It is the surest way of reaching the goal of salvation.

To convince yourself finally about the necessity and fruitfulness of frequent prayer, note that every thought of prayer is the work of the Holy Spirit.  Remember that the name of Jesus Christ invoked in prayer contains self-acting salutary power.  Do not be disturbed by imperfection in your prayer.  Await with patience the fruit of frequently calling upon the divine name. Do not listen to the thoughtless insinuation of the vain world that lukewarm invocation, even if it be persistent, is useless repetition. Believe that frequent calling upon the power of the divine name will reveal its fruit in its season.

A spiritual writer has spoken beautifully about this:

  • “I know that to many so-called wise philosophers, who search everywhere for practices that are noble in the eyes of reason and pride, the simple but frequent exercise of prayer appears of little significance. But they deceive themselves.  They forget the teaching of Jesus Christ: ‘Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ They establish for themselves a science of prayer on the unstable foundations of natural reason. Do we require learning to say with a pure heart, ‘Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me’? Does not our divine teacher Himself praise such frequent prayer? Have not wonderful answers been received and wonderful works been done by this brief but frequent prayer? Ah, Christian soul, pluck up your courage and do not silence the unbroken invocations of your prayer, although it may be that this cry of yours comes from a heart which is still at war with itself and half filled by the world. Never mind! Go on with it and do not let it be silenced!  It will purify itself by repetition. Never let your memory lose hold of this: ‘Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.’”

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Be convinced that frequent prayer, powerful against all human weakness, is attainable by man.

Make up your mind to try!  Start with a single day!

Maintain a watch over yourself for twenty-four hours and see that the frequent calling upon the name of Jesus Christ prevails over other matters. This triumph of prayer over worldly affairs will show you that this day has not been lost but has been secured for salvation.  In the scales of the divine judgment frequent prayer outweighs your weaknesses and blots out the sins of the day in the memorial book of conscience.  It sets your feet upon the ladder of righteousness and gives you hope of sanctification in the life to come.

Remember always, “God is greater than our heart, and He knows all things.”

An Orthodox Perspective on Presence

On the same day that I made my last post, I completed a book I was reading about the Jesus Prayer. The author is Frederica Mathewes-Green. The title of the book is The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer That Tunes the Heart to God.

I forwarded my post to Frederica, asking her to let me know if I was on the right track. She was kind enough to write back right away with her thoughts. She was also kind enough to allow me to share what she wrote with you.

As you can see below, her advice comes from a different perspective than I am used to. But that’s fine, as it helps clarify the difference in approach between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches. She and I have never met, spoken or exchanged emails before, but her reference to Ignatian spirituality is spot on. She could tell that putting myself in scenes is something I do regularly.

I am sure it will take me some time to process what she is suggesting. Not sure I am ready to drop methods that have been very productive in my spiritual development. But her point of view is challenging in a great way. It makes me think about Christ and prayer in different, new and broader contexts, which I count as always a good thing.

I am particularly intrigued about experiencing an encounter with Christ as the presence of a person. (The italics were hers, not mine.) I have no idea how to do that, but perhaps when I am ready, and if I am patient as Frederica suggests, Christ will open that door to me.

Here is the full text of her reply, shared with her gracious permission. Her comments at the end about repentance are especially timely as we head into Holy Thursday tomorrow.

“Hello, Tim! I’m so glad my book was useful to you. 

I was tracking with you right up until halfway through this paragraph: <<Perhaps this inner place where I might meet Jesus is not a room? In fact, even though this place is still interior, it can be any peaceful place that I can imagine or recall from my past? It is often described as a temple, but a scene from nature can be a temple as well?>>

I felt unsure of the role you expect your imagination to play in this process. It sounds perhaps too trusting of the things that come to us through our imaginations, our inner associations, our “poetic side.” Orthodox spirituality is very skeptical about all that. Ignatian meditation, for example, would make no sense in an Orthodox context. You don’t have to use your imagination, because Christ is right here. Bringing in imagination will only confuse and distract you. The task is to cleanse the nous (*see below for a partial definition) so we can perceive him, already here. Like if you had lunch with someone you really admire, but spent the whole time wrapped in your imaginative thoughts about him. 

<<Now I have a scene to familiarize myself with that will help me experience the encounter when I am otherwise ready for it?>>

No, let those images go. Orthodox teaching is to never cultivate interior images, never take them as authoritative, they are just as likely to be demonic. Sometimes an image gives you a passing blessing, but let it go and return to pure prayer.

Don’t worry about whether it’s like a room or the outdoors or anything. Expect it to be like the presence of a person. Any substitute ideas will only distract you. 

It is true that the heart, like the Tardis, is bigger on the inside. 

I was blessed to know Fr Roman Braga, who was imprisoned by communists in Romania. He often said, “Thank God for the communists.” Before imprisonment, he knew about God from the bible and other books, but he didn’t know God directly until he was deprived of his books. He said that he looked around his prison cell saying “Where are you, God?” until the only place left to look was inside himself. Many of these prisoners said that, in later life and freedom, they never attained the heights of prayer they knew in prison. 

A good quote from Macarius the Great (300-390): The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there, and there likewise are poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There also is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there. (Homilies 43:7)

I want to encourage you not to foreclose the possibilities of prayer by trying to nail down too swiftly what you should expect and what it’s going to be like. That will get in your way. 

What you need is overwhelming gratitude to God, an overflowing heart full of gratitude. How you attain that is you repent. Never cease repenting. Always remember that you deserve hell. Focus on that, and God’s goodness really appears overwhelming. The contrast is just incalculably great. That is why the great saints became more and more aware of their sins as they grew older. Because that experience of gratitude is what gives you wings. 

Charmolypi, “joy-making sorrow.” 

You’ll know when you’re on target because you will become more aware of your sins and your unworthiness. You’ll sense the sharp pang of joy that comes when you see his love contrasted with your sin. Repentance is the only sure path. “

* Nous (pronounced “noose”) is a word that does not translate well into English. Frederica spends a couple pages trying to explain it in the book. Hopefully this will help a little:

“Nous primarily indicates the receptive faculty of the mind…..it is a perceptive faculty, capable of recognizing truth …… the nous perceives truth in a direct, intuitive way …… it is placed in us so that we can perceive God’s voice and presence. But in the Fall the nous was damaged. Healing of the nous (one of the primary actions of the Jesus Prayer) involves getting rid of the erroneous thoughts and emotions that cloud our mind.”

Encounter Versus Knowledge

Most people know that it is the custom of Catholics to make sacrifices during Lent. The typical stereotype revolves around giving up chocolate, or cookies, or some such thing. The idea is that sacrifice helps us to recall the need for repentance. In the Lenten season we are supposed to be especially aware of our sinfulness and the need to reform our lives to avoid the patterns of sin that dominate us in ordinary time. Our sacrifices are meant to strengthen our resolve to be converted by the Lenten season and to make those conversions permanent. Unfortunately, we rarely succeed.

At the mass for Ash Wednesday, the gospel reading comes from Chapter 6 of the gospel of Matthew, verses 1-18. In the reading, Jesus instructs his disciples on fasting, prayer and alms giving. This gospel passage, particularly the section on fasting, is the source for the custom described above. It is important to remember that we are called not just to fasting, but to all three of the practices described by Jesus in this passage. Prayer and alms giving are just as important as fasting and we must practice all three if we hope to experience a truly fruitful Lent.

Jesus specifically talks about not making your sacrifices known. I am going to directly contradict this instruction of Jesus (unwisely, no doubt) and admit to you that this Lent I have committed myself to making sure I complete my prayer routine every day. Each morning, before doing anything else, I make certain I fulfill this commitment to God and myself.

I am using the Jesus Prayer as the basis for my current prayer routine.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on me, a Sinner”

In the hope that I might maximize the effectiveness of this prayer, I have also been reading about the practice of the Jesus Prayer in the Orthodox Church, where it is much more prevalent than it is in western spiritual practice. I have several books on the subject in my library that I purchased over time but never read completely. As I set myself up for prayer, I read a few pages from one of the books to help clear my mind. This allows me to focus better on the prayer and the routine as I begin.

The Orthodox Fathers talk about the Jesus Prayer ultimately being “prayer of the heart.” The goal is to learn to pray unceasingly by repeating the Jesus Prayer over and over until it takes root in your heart and you find yourself praying without having to focus on it. There are certain skills that can be learned that help move prayer from the mind to the heart. This takes years and years of patience, practice, development and discipline and the texts emphasize that there is danger in doing so alone. They emphasize the need for spiritual guidance if you wish to take the practice of the Jesus Prayer beyond the most rudimentary steps.

I do not profess to have mastered the practice of the prayer in any way. I have just begun to use it and I try to confine myself to the theoretically safe lessons of the beginner, which focus on being aware of wandering thoughts as you pray. The first step is to discipline yourself enough to recognize when your prayer has strayed and to bring yourself back to the prayer. I am sure that anyone who takes their own spiritual life seriously is familiar with how easily the mind drifts and how hard it is to discipline it.

Most days I wander so much that I wonder if I will ever get past this initial step.

That said, confining myself to the lessons of the beginner is not easy. I find myself praying to Jesus and to St. Michael the Archangel for protection because of my impatience. I want to “work ahead.” I find myself considering what “prayer of the heart” might consist of and begin to think of my heart as a room inside myself where I might go and encounter Jesus. I have read that one of the powers of the name of Jesus as invoked by the Jesus Prayer is the ability to heal and cleanse ourselves from the debilitating effects of sin. I have been thinking of this room as being an old and abandoned barn, full of dirt and cobwebs, in dire need of a thorough scouring. As I pray the prayer, I think of the name of Jesus as a metaphorical tool I can use to scrub the room, helping me to heal from the effects of a life long dominated by sin.

Today, when the thought of this room surfaced in my prayer, it was immediately replaced by a completely new notion.

It began with a recollection of my grandparent’s house on a lake in Michigan that I used to visit as a child and teenager. The house sat on a hill that led directly down to the lake. If you stood at the back of the house, your view was partially obscured by a large mature tree halfway down the hill. You could see the pier just below a big limb that protruded on the left side of the trunk. The pier was maybe thirty feet long? To the left of it was a stand of cattails. To the right was a field of lily pads that had a little trail through it where we pulled the fishing boat up on shore at night. At the end of the pier, there was a bench facing the lake bolted to the right branch of a “tee” in the planks. The front view across the lake was to a steep hillside covered in trees. To the right, the shoreline extended out, narrowing the lake at a point that hid a large section of water around the corner. To the left, the view opened in a large vista and there was a bridge in the distance where the lake fed a river that led to Lake Michigan.

This morning, as I recalled this scene from my childhood, I was once again in the back yard looking down to the lake. When I looked at the bench, someone was sitting there with their back to me and I knew Jesus was waiting for me to come down to Him.

Then the vision changed. I found myself sitting on a bench in a park. This scene was unfamiliar, but there was a small clearing in front of me. There was a path that led through the clearing and continued into the trees off to my left a little. I was looking down the path, this time waiting for Jesus to come to me.

And then, all of a sudden, Jesus was there, sitting next to me. He did not have to come down the path to be with me. He was there the entire time. I just had not seen Him because I was too preoccupied with trying to figure it all out.

Perhaps this inner place where I might meet Jesus is not a room? In fact, even though this place is still interior, it can be any peaceful place that I can imagine or recall from my past? It is often described as a temple, but a scene from nature can be a temple as well?

I know, based on my reading, that I am not supposed to “work ahead.” But I pray that in this instance, Jesus was giving me a glimpse of what might be possible if I extend my resolve beyond this Lenten season. He was only there on the bench next to me for an instant. It was not the type of full encounter that I long for and that the Orthodox books on the Jesus Prayer say is possible, but I hope He meant to encourage my persistence by letting me know such a meeting is possible.

Now I have a scene to familiarize myself with that will help me experience the encounter when I am otherwise ready for it?

One of the things that I am coming to realize through the practice of the Jesus Prayer is that it is important sometimes not so much to seek knowledge as to seek encounter. If you read much of this blog, you know that I am always searching for an explanation or a revelation. I rejoice when my prayer over a scriptural passage unmasks something that I did not comprehend or recognize before. I get excited about the Jesus Prayer as I read and learn about it. I like knowing the potential benefits it could have in my prayer life. It is necessary and important to learn about Jesus and the things He came to Teach us. Knowing Him and about Him is part of having a full faith life.

But the importance of simply hoping to encounter Him is growing in me. Full knowledge of Him is not necessary for my relationship with Him to be fertile and an obsession with such knowledge might even get in the way. Sometimes, it needs to be enough to simply be with the One you love, separate from any human need to understand it all.

I need to invite Him, unceasingly, to occupy my interior and to expand my ideas about what interior means and what is possible there not just from the standpoint of knowing, but also from the standpoint of encountering.

I need to invite Him, always, to help clear away my private clutter so that there is a pristine place within me where He can dwell comfortably, not surrounded by my sinfulness, but instead secure in a place of His own making where I can go and be with Him, away from the damage I have done to myself by my sinfulness.

I need to pray that He might penetrate and permeate me, that He might fill me completely and make me His own separate from any knowledge I might long to acquire about Him.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the place He would create within me is not a room at all. Walls cannot contain Him. Even a room scrubbed as clean as an operating suite prepped for a surgery would not suit Him. He needs a place that is boundless. It makes sense that His place within me would evoke the perfection, pristineness and vastness of His Creation before sin began to taint it. He would want me to experience that.

Perhaps it makes sense that the most likely place to encounter Him is a lake or a wood where I cannot avoid the sensation of awesomeness beyond what a human being can ever know. The sensation of something deeper in the woods that I cannot perceive, or something just over the hill beyond the limit of my intellect, or something across the water and out of reach of my sin weakened awareness teaches me about Him as well. Even as I experience intimacy with Him, I need to remain aware of the unfathomable differences between my Creator and myself, His creation.

Surely He delights in my quest for knowledge about Him. He wants me to seek Him beyond my current limits. If I say yes to His invitations and embrace the courage and strength He is ready to lend, He will guide me on a journey into the woods, over the hills and across the waters to whatever He deems me ready to experience next.

But surely He also delights in just being with me, in resting silently in the love that He steadfastly bestows on me and the love that once in awhile, when I manage to distance myself enough from my own sinfulness and my own need to know, I manage to return to Him unconditionally.

Prophetic Creativity: Questions for Discussions at the Regional Level

The following questions are meant to be used in association with an article written by Jan Parker, OFS National Minister, on Prophetic Creativity. Click this link to find the article.

Question #1:

“The function of servant leaders………is not limited to administration or bureaucracy but, most importantly, applies to.………the full realization of the Secular Franciscan life…….”

“This goes beyond the “day to day” running of the fraternity.  We should always seek new ways that help the development of the……….spiritual life of the sisters and brothers.”

When the current Regional Executive Council was elected, we began to discuss ways in which we could be better connected to the local fraternities.  How could we be more supportive and be of more use?  Yes, we need to fulfill the administrative roles of making pastoral visits and conducting elections, but we felt there must be more that we could and should be doing.

We had decided that perhaps we should go out and begin attending local meetings not as overseers, but simply as brothers and sisters interested in sharing and contributing to each local fraternity.  Then the pandemic hit and the opportunity to do this was disrupted.

Now that vaccines are available and normality seems to be on the horizon, we would like to know if you think this is a good idea?  Would you welcome our presence at your local meetings as nothing more than brothers and sisters there to participate as members of your community?

The goal and hope would be that we each learn something about how to “help the development of the spiritual life of the sisters and brothers” at all levels of the fraternity.

Question #2:

“What is prophetic creativity?  ………… It is innovative action we take in response to the Holy Spirit working within us.”

Full realization of the Secular Franciscan life, both as individuals and as Fraternity……..is the renewal we long for.”       

Jan is challenging us to move beyond the administrative and bureaucratic to a renewal and conversion that is focused on the spiritual life of the rank-and-file members of the order.  Our lives and their lives will be “more alive with enthusiasm, joy, and hope” if we “respond to the Holy Spirit’s call – a call to a season of prophetic creativity.”

Do you agree with her?  Do you also feel the need to focus more on the spiritual side of the Franciscan charism in order to fulfill your responsibilities as a “servant leader” intent on “animating and guiding” your local fraternity to a “full realization” of a life professed to follow the example of St. Francis of Assisi?

Could communal visits from the members of the REC be useful in helping you achieve this?

Would you agree that prophetic creativity requires personal interaction to bear fruit?  Is it likely that the more our experience of the Holy Spirit is exchanged and shared between local fraternities and/or the regional level, the more successful we might be in responding to God’s will for the fraternity as a whole?  

Would you welcome the opportunity to meet with other local fraternities in your area to facilitate this if the region sponsored those meetings?  If you and your members were invited to another local fraternity’s regular meeting, would you consider attending?  Would you extend an invitation of your own?

Question #3:

In the quote at the end of the article, Pope Francis says this:

“We will never move forward if we do not have the courage to break the mold, for our God impels us to do the following: to be creative about the future.

As a leader of your local fraternity, do you empathize with this statement?  Perhaps the molds in your local routine revolve around bureaucracy?  I know they do at the regional level.  Taking care of administrative tasks tends to capture most of our focus and energy.  We can easily lose sight of our responsibility to promote the spiritual development of the fraternity at all levels without realizing it is happening.

Are you open to “breaking molds” in order to better serve your members? 

Employing prophetic creativity will not be easy.  Not everyone will be gifted in this area.  If you are a leader, but you are not sure how to implement what Jan is talking about, it would take courage to admit that and to seek assistance.

Do you think the regional council is capable of lending that assistance?  Are you open to giving us a chance? 

If you are willing to engage in “a season of prophetic creativity,” what’s the first thing the region could do to help you?

A Call to Prophetic Creativity

This article has been reprinted in its entirety from the Winter 2021 issue (Issue 102) of TAU-USA magazine. Its author is Jan Parker, OFS, the National Minister. (TAU-USA is a publication of the National Fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order.) For discussion questions on this article, click here.

As Clare once said to Agnes, “Let us be filled with a remarkable happiness and a spiritual joy!” It is an exciting time for Franciscans as, one after another, God’s gifts to the Franciscan Order just keep coming! The newest three gifts to our Order arrived several months ago, and several months apart, but here in the light of this new year I call your attention to them. Let us look at these gifts carefully, for they will profoundly affect our Order as we move into 2021.

What are these three gifts? They are the new Instrumentum Laboris from our CIOFS
Presidency, Pope Francis’s Fratelli Tutti and the 2020 Christmas letter from our General Ministers. Each of these documents is unique, but for the OFS I see them linked in a single purpose. They are the next set of markers on our journey of renewal. I believe that, by way of these documents placed so directly in our path, God is continuing to chart our course.

For some time now, we have spoken of our journey towards the total renewal of our Order and of the trajectory God has set us on towards its fulfillment. This journey began with the promulgation of our Rule 40 years ago. Here in the United States, it has continued with many notable events marking our progress, most recently the visioning gatherings, which led us to re-examine our approach to our commissions of Youth, Justice and Peace, and Formation. Now the Holy Spirit is speaking again, calling us to move forward.

To me, God’s purpose in sending us these three gifts can be summed up in two words from the Instrumentum Laboris that jumped out at me as I read them: prophetic creativity. As I studied these documents, it became clear that we will not be able to achieve the goal of the total renewal of our Order without prophetic creativity. I believe God is calling us to focus our prayer and energy in this direction.

What is prophetic creativity? It is to see as God sees–to see with spiritual eyes–and then to act, allowing God’s grace to strengthen us to do his will. It is innovative action we take in response to the Holy Spirit working within us. Pope Francis is a master of prophetic creativity; so inspired and innovative are his words and actions that lives are converted. In Fratelli Tutti he calls all of us to be creative in building relationships, using the word “create” no less than 44 times. The General Ministers, in their Christmas letter, remind us that “change (conversion) is impossible without a motivation and a process.” They then call us to a prophetic stance, stating, “Jesus, more than anyone, teaches us how to live a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle.” St. Francis of Assisi, who followed Christ most closely, is an excellent model of prophetic creativity. How many times did he hear the Word of God speaking directly to him and immediately put it into practice?

In the Instrumentum Laboris (IL) the term “prophetic creativity” is applied directly to the OFS. Here the focus is on servant leadership, always accompanied in our legislation by two verbs “animate and guide.” This function of servant leaders, to animate and guide, is not limited to administration or bureaucracy but, most importantly, applies to the heart of our call–the full realization of the Secular Franciscan life, both as individuals and as Fraternity. This “full realization” is the renewal we long for. It is the goal given to us by the Church and emphasized repeatedly by our Popes. The IL states emphatically that to achieve this goal “prophetic creativity is required.”

As servant leaders, we need to implement prophetic creativity and plan for the future. This goes beyond the “day to day” running of the fraternity. The IL states, “We should always seek new ways that help the development of the Fraternities and the spiritual life of the sisters and brothers, being open to and responding to the signs of the times.” So we must ask ourselves, what will move our fraternities, and our Order forward, so we become what the Church expects of us?

A good question at this point might be, does this requirement of prophetic creativity in the IL apply only to servant leaders? Certainly, the focus is on leaders, but the IL equally stresses the concept of “co-responsibility,” which applies to every member. Our General Constitutions state, “The brothers and sisters are co-responsible for the life of the fraternity to which they belong and for the OFS as the organic union of all fraternities throughout the world.” (GC 31.1) Think about this. We are responsible not only for the life of our own local fraternity, but for the entire Order. The IL stresses this point as well, addressing all of us and stating that “in order to achieve our goals, we must deepen our sense of co-responsibility.” All members must be attentive to the call to prophetic creativity. We must ask ourselves ⎯ what is my part?

Let us all respond to the Holy Spirit’s call ⎯ a call to a season of prophetic creativity. Imagine the result of this. We would grow closer to God and to each other. We would engage more deeply in our vocation. Our lives and our fraternities would be more alive with enthusiasm, joy, and hope. We would experience a more intense commitment with unconditional participation. Our Order would become stronger in its witness. We would reach out in the world to build relationships and share the joy of fraternity with all we meet. We would live up to our potential, individually and as an Order.

I believe these three documents give us tools to accomplish this, so let us study and unpack them in the months ahead. Please make them part of your ongoing formation in your local fraternities. My hope is that we might have some teleconferences, perhaps
on both a regional and national level, to share and discuss what we discover in these three gifts. God is calling us more strongly than ever to live a life worthy of our call, and as always, he is providing us with all we need.

I will close with a story. Five years ago, I was captivated by a photo and a quote from Pope Francis that appeared in a “Year of Mercy” calendar. I cut it out, and it has hung on the wall next to the doorway of my office ever since. This photo of Pope Francis encourages me every time I walk through the door. His “thumbs up” makes me smile; his words spur me on:

“It is true that our God is the God of surprises. Each day carries another surprise! …We will never move forward if we do not have the courage to break the mold, for our God impels us to do the following: to be creative about the future.”

Pretty prophetic, right?

May this image, and these words, cheer us on as we enter this season of prophetic creativity.

On Emulating Mary

As I continue to work my way back into a regular routine of writing for the blog, I went back to reread the posts in the series, On Saying Yes.

After reviewing the last couple posts, it seemed to me that the next step was to concentrate my meditation on the verses (1:26-38) in Luke that contain the detailed story of the Annunciation.  I began by reading the full chapter for context, then concentrated on just the verses in question.  I read these repeatedly until my attention was drawn to a single set of words.  I then allowed these words to roll around in my consciousness as part of my prayer routine.  I also tried to let the Spirit prompt me to recall them at other times during the day, stopping what I might be doing to give my attention to the Gospel when He called. 

(As part of my Lenten practice, I am wearing my prayer rope whenever I am out in public.  It is just uncomfortable enough that I find myself fidgeting with it, which serves as an impetus to stop and separate myself from the world for a few moments.)

I settled on these words from verse 35:

               “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

The angel Gabriel has informed Mary that she has “found favor with God” and that she will “conceive in her womb and bear a son.”  Mary has responded with a question: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”  These words are part of the response from Gabriel.  She then replies in turn, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord.  Let it be to me according to your word.”

As usual, I have attempted to place myself in the scene and invite you to do the same. 

As a man, entering the scene poses some difficulties.  I have no experience that allows me to understand the full import of what it means to be pregnant.  I am the father of three children, but even so, I think I might find myself in trouble with my wife and female friends if I said I could completely empathize with that condition.  It is not something I have ever had to face, so I find it difficult to imagine the consequences entailed in saying Mary’s “yes.” 

I also live in a society where pregnancy outside of marriage is not unusual.  It carries no shame or other disparagement.  In Mary’s time, such an occurrence would have been life threatening.  If Joseph had not responded positively to the angel in his dream and accepted Mary into his home, she might have been stoned to death for her perceived sin.  At the very least she would have become an outcast in her society and her child would have been equally scorned.

Then there is the whole angel appearing thing.  I also have no direct experience with that.  How did having an angel as the messenger complicate what Mary was experiencing?  When you enter the scene, her ability to remain cool, calm, and collected is even more impressive.

How do I sympathize with what was being asked of Mary? 

——————-

On the other hand, even as a male Secular Franciscan, I am called to a motherhood of sorts.  In the Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, which serves as the Prologue to the OFS Rule, Francis says this:

We are mothers, when we carry him in our heart and body (1 Corinthians 6:20) through divine love and a pure and sincere conscience; we give birth to him through a holy life which must give light to others by example (Matthew 5:15).

Article Six of the Rule echoes this instruction:

Therefore, they should go forth as witnesses and instruments of her mission among all people, proclaiming Christ by their life and words.

The requirement to “give birth to Him” is not confined to the women of the Order.  It is every bit as incumbent on the men.  We may not be used to thinking of ourselves as mothers, but, nonetheless, Francis calls us to do so. 

I might not be able to imagine the physical reality of saying “yes,” but I do need to come to grips with the spiritual reality of being responsible for enabling Jesus to enter the world.  The instruction to “go forth and proclaim Christ” by word and example is a call to do just that.  My voice, my hands, my eyes, my expressions, and my actions all must serve as a gateway by which Jesus can appear in this world and impact and improve the lives of every person I encounter.

Mary birthed Jesus into the world at a specific moment in history.  I am responsible for birthing Jesus into the world on an ongoing basis, repeatedly, day by day, so that His Incarnation remains ever present and ever effective.  I am called to repeat the “yes” of Mary to the best of my ability in all circumstances.

It is not just me.  Each of us has this responsibility.  Each of us is faced on a regular basis, even a daily basis, with a version of the proposition that Gabriel made to Mary.  It is possible that despite the difficulties, there is no more important scene in all the gospels to enter than this one.  We may not be as Holy as Mary, but we still are accountable for emulating her response to Gabriel. 

As Franciscans, our profession and our rule make it incumbent upon us to say “yes” as completely and ably as we can.  To emphasize the quotes, we must prepare ourselves “to go forth as witnesses and instruments……proclaiming Christ by our life and words” and to “carry Him in our hearts and bodies” that we might “give birth to Him through holy lives that give light to others by example.” 

 ——————-

It is a daunting calling.  In a world that continually seeks to distract us, how do we stay ever present to this task?  Mary, because she was Immaculate, seems to have had help saying “yes” and living with the consequences.  Can we realistically expect to emulate that “yes” even though we have not been similarly graced?

The next post will, with the help of St. Maximillian Kolbe, consider the Immaculate Conception in more detail.  For now, we can consider the nature of the help made possible by Mary’s Immaculate state.

It is easy to read the words I have selected as being related to the physical conception that Mary experienced.  When Gabriel says, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you” and the “power of the Most High will overshadow you,” we might think that he is talking solely about the mechanics of how the Incarnation will occur.  He is likely referring to that physical manifestation, but he is also referring to much more.

Place yourself back in the scene.  Imagine that Gabriel has appeared to you.  He proposes a task to you just as he did to Mary.  It is a somewhat different task, but still a meaningful and urgent one.  The conversation starts the same:

               “Greetings, (your name here), the Lord is with you!”

Like Mary, you are troubled at the sudden appearance of an angel.  You are trying to discern what sort of greeting this might be.  Just like with Mary, Gabriel recognizes your apprehension and moves to comfort you.

“Do not be afraid, (your name here), for you have found favor with God.  Behold, God wishes you to go forth as His witness and proclaim Christ by your life and words.”

Like Mary, you are a person of humility.  (This is why you have been approached by God and Gabriel in the first place?)  In the past, you have attempted to fulfill this task as part of your Franciscan calling but you know that you have often failed.  You respond with unassuming words:

“How will this be?  I am a sinner.  I am a simple person, not educated in the ways of public speaking or in the fine points of evangelization.  I feel completely unprepared to do this.  How can I ever hope to succeed?”    

Gabriel responds to you by saying,

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  Nothing will be impossible with God.”

How will you respond?

——————-

Mary’s Immaculate state allowed her access to the Holy Spirit (her Spouse) and the “Most High” (her Father) in a singular way.  This special access gave her unfettered entrée to the help she needed to cope with the extraordinary circumstances she faced.  In all of Salvation History, only Mary has been confronted with a request to become the Mother of God.  God had good reason for giving Mary unique qualities.  He had good reason for helping her in a mysterious way.

Even if Gabriel does not make himself physically present to us, the scene above is not just an exercise.  Each of us is asked to go forth and birth Christ daily even though we often miss or forget the call.  It is not the same as what Mary was asked, but it is our unique vocation.  We do not need the same qualities as Mary to respond, but we do need to find a way to say our own resounding “yes.”  Mary is our example, inspiration and advocate, but we need to respond in the context of our own gifts and circumstances.    

We must remember and believe that we do not have to be Immaculate to receive the help of the Holy Spirit and God.  They wish to be as intimately united to us as they were to Mary, to be our Spouse and our Father.  “The Holy Spirit will come upon us, and the power of the Most High will overshadow us,” even if we are not Immaculate.  We simply need to invite them.  We need to say “yes” to them.   

God will never ask us to do something we are incapable of doing.  He knows our weaknesses and our sinfulness better than we do.  If He asks us to give birth to His Son, He will equip us for the task.  He will not abandon us, but will remain with us, ever our Aid, ever our Hope, and ever our Encouragement if we acquiesce to the Will He has expressed to us.    

How will we respond?  Will we acquiesce?  Will we say without hesitation the profound “yes” that is due our Creator?

Enter the scene again using the words I have substituted.  Stay present in just that portion of the scene.  Repeat it multiple times over multiple days.  Pray over it unceasingly during your prayer time and whenever the Spirit helps you to recall it.  Give it ample time to affect you, to convert you. 

Stay with it as long as it takes for you to be ready to say your own complete and confident “yes.” 

Stay with it as long as it takes for you to be able to say, alongside Mary in her scene,

               I am the servant of the Lord, may it be to me according to your Word!”   

Journey thru John, Chapter 13: On Loving as He Loved

Chapter 13 opens with the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.  As we have already touched on, John’s gospel is a departure from the synoptic gospels where the Passion is concerned.  We are in the scene of the last supper, but there is no blessing of bread and wine, no initiation of the Eucharist. 

Although the sequence of the Passion has opened, it is not until Chapter 18 that Jesus arrives in the garden to experience His betrayal.  Jesus spends this and the next four chapters teaching.  He is preparing the disciples, telling them what to expect when He leaves and giving them tools to cope with what will come.  He is grooming them to endure hardship that they might persevere in carrying out God’s plan once He has departed.

The disciple’s time with Jesus grows short.  In less than twelve hours, they will be separated from Him, never able to directly seek His bodily presence and comfort again.  They don’t know what is to come.  Despite the warnings, they don’t understand how important it is to savor the next few hours, this last teaching they are about to receive.

We, however, have the advantage of hindsight.  We can intensify our watching and consider the teaching in reference to the outcome.  We have entered into the scene of every chapter as we journeyed with Jesus up to this point.  We should now be prepared to cling especially close to Jesus throughout His Passion.  Our efforts to enter and experience these last few precious hours of His earthly life should redouble.   

Perhaps you have had your feet washed as part of a Holy Thursday service in your parish.  If not, you have seen it done.  Think back on that.  Can you see the priest on his knees, washing the feet of the twelve people selected for the honor?  Can you project that into this scene so that you see Jesus, not the priest, performing this act?

At the last party you attended, were there appetizers?  Was your favorite dip there?  Can you place yourself back in that scene, reaching over to place a piece of bread or a chip in that dip?  Can you look up and see Jesus reaching for the same bowl.  Can you look into His eyes across the table as He looks into yours? 

Can you place yourself around a dinner table with friends and families at a holiday celebration, listening to the conversation?  Can you look across the table and picture Jesus there, somehow speaking words of importance directly to you while also saying these words with the same individual importance to everyone else seated at the table?

—————————-

John Chapter 13, Verse 34:

“A new command I give you:  Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

The word love is hard to write about.  It’s mysterious and elusive.  If this reflection is six or seven pages long, how could I possibly express what love is or explain how to live out the instruction that Jesus gives here?  Are there enough words in the language to adequately convey what it means to love one another?

When I went to the Index of Subjects for Francis of Assisi: Early Documents to look up the word love, I found four full columns of references.  When I looked at the sub headings, none of them seemed to be exactly what I was looking for.  “Brother” was maybe the closest thing I could find.  I paged through those references but I didn’t find anything that overtly described Francis as being motivated by love of brother as he went about living out his religion.

I then went to the Index of Scripture.  There are two direct references to this verse, both about the same.  The one from chapter eighty seven of A Mirror of Perfection reads like this:

And, since I cannot speak much because of weakness and the pain of my illness, I am showing my will and intention to all my brothers, present and future.  As a sign of my remembrance, blessing, and testament, may they always love one another as I have loved and love them; may they always love and observe our Lady Poverty; and may they always remain faithful and subject to the prelates and all clerics of holy Mother Church.

Francis is exhorting his followers to love one another as his earthly death nears.  He imitates Christ in this, using the exact words Christ did in this gospel.  Just as with his letter to Leo, he emphasizes Lady Poverty as the key to everything.  The theme of obedience to the Church is also present.

All good and consistent stuff, but it’s not a great story about Francis somehow demonstrating unequivocally his love for his brothers and others in a grand act that is a clear magnification of this verse.

I tried a bunch of other words, but no matter which words I searched on and no matter which stories I recalled, I really did not feel like there was a definitive text to place in front of you as a dramatic demonstration of Francis’ living out this command from Jesus.

So I had to think differently and pray deeper.  This verse was attracting me, but I wasn’t quite getting it.  What it had to say to me was obscured, never quite in focus.  I continued to look and read and pray.  Sometimes that’s the way it works.  I have to be patient until I finally get out of my own way. 

I have a copy of the SFO Rule which is not the same as the little red book that the fraternity supplies.  It’s called Hidden Power III: From Gospel to Life and it includes not only the language of the Rule, but commentary as well.  In the commentary about Chapter Two, Article Four, I read this:

Paragraph #4 summarizes the heart of the rule:  The very core of gospel life is intimate union with Christ, or in the words of St. Paul, “the life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me” (Gal 3:20).  And so, the Secular Franciscan, alive with the spirit of St. Francis, knows and experiences the Lord Jesus intensely, binding one’s own person with the person of Christ.

I then reread the verse, but this time, instead of focusing on the words “Love one another,” I found myself drawn to the words, “As I have loved you.”

I then realized why I wasn’t finding a nice, neat example of this verse in the events of Francis’ life.  The reason was Francis embodied the words of the commentary in totality.  Christ lived in Francis.  Francis experienced Jesus in a particularly intense way.  Francis succeeded in binding his own person to the person of Christ.  Or, in the words of the verse, Francis “loved his brothers as Jesus loved Francis.” 

This love is an undercurrent to Francis’ entire story.  It is not obvious because in a certain way it is assumed and understood.  It dawned on me that loving one another is not a matter of an isolated act to be picked out and separated from the rest.  Instead, it’s a matter of living a life correctly on the largest possible scale.  Duh!      

The only proper citation I can make for you from the charism of Francis to demonstrate his obedience to the command “love one another” is to place the entirety of his post conversion life in front of you.  I would have to copy and requote the whole work Francis of Assisi: Early Documents in order to properly demonstrate how well Francis lived out this instruction.

Take a moment to think of your favorite episode from Francis’ life and ask yourself, “Did this demonstrate Francis’ love for his brothers and sisters, and even more, for the entirety of the human family?”  Think of another event.  And another.  Is there any event you can call to mind where this isn’t the case?

This is the measure of what Francis accomplished in his life.  It’s why eight hundred years after his death we are still deeply attracted to him and willing to make a profession to an order that he founded.  It’s what makes him worthy of having a Pope select Francis for his name. 

—————————-

Article Four of the Rule reads like this in its entirety:

The rule and life of the Secular Franciscan is this:  to observe and follow the example of St. Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and center of his life with God and people.

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

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

This article is quoted in the introduction to this series as the inspiration for this chapter-by-chapter journey through the gospel of John.  We set out to do precisely what the third sentence of this article tells us to do.   We are reading the gospel carefully, and attempting to move back and forth between gospel and life and life and gospel in such a way that we become better Franciscans and better people in the process.

I have to admit that in all the times I read this article of the Rule, I never focused on anything but the last sentence.  That sentence defined for me what my responsibility was as a Franciscan.

Now I must confess that I am seeing the other sentences of this article for the first time, and that this is unfortunate.  I am not saying the last sentence is not crucial, just that it is not everything and that I need to pay attention to the full article.  Perhaps the second sentence will be a focus next chapter, since Jesus says the words way, truth and life in combination there.  But for this chapter, it is the first sentence that calls to me.

Read again these words:  “Francis made Christ the inspiration and center of his life with God and people.”

Juxtapose them against the words from the verse:  “As I have loved you.”

Is the connection between them clear?  If not, spend extra time with them.  Say one out loud, then the other.  Live with them.  Immerse yourself in them.  Linger over them patiently, as long as it takes.

Jesus is exhorting and instructing the disciples to specifically use His life as (not an, but the) example in understanding how to love one another.  Loving one another is not something you decide how to do for yourself.  Jesus, via the example of the entirety of His life, has taught us what this Love looks like.  It’s not for us to reinvent.  It’s for us to learn and absorb and ultimately to imitate.

It’s why the gospels are so utterly important to being Franciscan.  We have to know Jesus intimately in order to be able to “love one another” as completely and perfectly as possible.

No one learned and absorbed and imitated better than Francis.  This is why no one loved his brothers and sisters as Jesus loved them better than Francis.

Why did Francis make Christ the inspiration and center of his life?  Or, in the words of the commentary, why did Francis bind himself so tightly to Christ?  Why should Secular Franciscans seek to “experience the Lord Jesus intensely?”  Why do we go “from gospel to life and life to gospel?

Because Jesus told us to in order that we might know how to “love one another as He loves us,” that’s why!

—————————-

So, I still can’t help myself.  I still feel the need to pull some event from Francis’ life to discuss as part of this chapter.  What shall I choose?  Since John Chapter 13 opens with Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, how about something inspired by that?

This passage comes from The First Life of St. Francis by Thomas Celano, Chapter Seven:

Then the holy lover of profound humility moved to the lepers and stayed with them.  For God’s sake he served all of them with great love.  He washed all the filth from them, and even cleaned out the pus of their sores, just as he said in his Testament: “When I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers, and the Lord led me among them and I showed mercy to them.”

This event occurs early in the chronology of Francis’ life.  He renounces his father in front of the Bishop.  He sets out from Assisi and is thrown in a snow filled ditch by bandits.  He stops at a monastery and works as a scullion, but they seem to have not even fed him for his work, causing the Prior to later beg forgiveness from Francis.  He then moves on to the scene described above, where he places himself in service of lepers and, in the words of Celano later in the chapter,

He began to despise himself more and more, until by the Redeemer’s mercy he attained to perfect conquest of himself.

We know that Francis was prone to (graced in?) taking the gospels literally.  In the introduction we read from Chapter Nine of Celano how Francis heard the gospel and then acted on it immediately and definitively. 

One day the gospel was being read in that church about how the Lord sent out his disciples to preach…………………. “This is what I want,” Francis said, “this is what I seek, this is what I desire with all my heart.”  The holy father, overflowing with joy, hastened to implement the words of salvation, and did not delay before he devoutly began to put into effect what he heard…………… Straightaway he puts his shoes off from his feet, and the staff out of his hands, and, content with one tunic, exchanges his leather girdle for a small cord.

Francis surely knew the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.  Was the decision to go to the lepers and serve them perhaps a similarly impulsive decision on his part?  Was he reminded of this chapter of John at the opportune moment even though Celano doesn’t record it?  Did he take the instruction of Jesus to “wash one another’s feet” literally, deciding to act on it immediately and in an expansive way, and was this the outcome? 

There’s no way to know for sure.  We can say that making this link would not be out of character for Francis.  These days we typically use the word impulsive in a negative context, but with Francis, his impulsiveness is somehow holy and done for God’s sake.  And, as Celano’s use of the word love in the passage asserts, that impulsiveness has love of brother at its core.

The actions of Francis with the lepers are an overwhelming and, for me at least, unimaginable act of love directed deliberately at the least fortunate of his fellow men. 

Francis had to defeat his own personal fear, bitterness and sinfulness in order to do what he did.  This is not something that anyone likely does on their own.  It requires the assistance of “the Redeemer’s mercy.”  To go from his initial loathing of lepers to having the ability to mercifully minister to them is a sign of profound conversion (or of “perfect conquest of self,” to use Celano’s words.) 

Such complete conversion and conquest has to be associated with Jesus and grace and mercy.  It has to be associated with someone who has made Jesus the inspiration and center of his life.  With someone who has experienced Jesus intensely.  With someone who bound his own person with the person of Christ.

Nothing else can explain it.  That conversion has to be seen as an act by someone who decided that he would resolutely live the instruction of this gospel verse, that he would literally love others as Jesus would love them.    

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Jesus is moving towards the Cross, towards laying down his life in order to ensure the possibility of salvation for all of us.  His embrace of the Cross is the greatest act of Love Creation has ever known. The most exact and perfect example of love we could ever encounter.

Jesus tells us in this verse, “As I have loved you, so must you love one another.” 

Thus, we are instructed to enact the sacrifice of the Love of the Cross as well. It’s a hard act to follow. 

Have I experienced enough conversion that I could do even what Francis did, that I could go from the loathing of lepers to the act of washing their sores?  It was somehow at the same time a reckless and a loving thing to do.  Many historians believe that Francis suffered from some form of leprosy at the time of his death.  Francis, perhaps, imitated Jesus in some fashion even in the sacrifice of his life.  At the very least, he loved his fellow man enough to risk it.

Another hard act to follow.

I know being a husband and a father in my secular life means I have limitations that Francis did not.  I can’t be as completely impulsive as he was.  But I still can’t help feeling there is a vast gulf between where I am and what is possible even with those limitations.  Do I need to at least redefine what I understand to be reckless?  Am I missing opportunities because in fear I define something as reckless when perhaps it is not?

I’d like to tell you that I’m willing.  I’d like to tell you that I embrace all the opportunities and all the crosses that confront me.  I’d like to tell you that I could cleanse the sores of a leper if given the chance, that I have embraced poverty fully and completely and that I am on the road to realizing whatever level of conversion and conquest my secular life allows me.

I’d like to tell you that I am mindful enough of what it means to be a Franciscan that I look at the opportunities to love my fellow man with the same courage as Francis.  I’d like to tell you that when an idea to serve occurs to me, that I can be impulsive about it, that I can jump right into the service of God and love of fellow man as Francis did without being held back by fear or worldly concern.

But the truth is, my frailty governs and my conversion, I fear, has barely begun.  The need for daily conquest, vigilance and diligence remains stark.  Christ is not the inspiration and center of my life as He should be.  I don’t experience Jesus as intensely as I ought.  My person is not bound to His person nearly as tightly as it could be.    

I am a long way from the abandonment, freedom and poverty that would allow me to love as He loved.

But there is always hope in Jesus.  The place to start, I think, is by acknowledging my overwhelming need for the Redeemer’s strength, grace and assistance:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!

Health Update

So, I have spent the morning looking back through the blog, reading the most recent posts, and preparing myself to begin writing again.

It did not seem like it had been so long, but the last post was made on September 18, 2020, almost five full months ago.  The post describing my cancer diagnosis is dated August 31.  When I look back at my calendar, I can see that my radiation treatments started on September 9th.  In retrospect, that timeline makes perfect sense.

Originally, I expected that my life would proceed pretty much as normal during the time of my treatment.  I knew that I had an appointment every weekday for seven weeks, but I expected I would just be running out to the appointment and that other than this, I would be able to function as I always did.

This turned out not to be the case.  Whether the doctors sugarcoated the process, or whether I did not hear them because I wanted to believe the coming trial would be painless, the side effects were not as minimal and easy to tolerate as I anticipated.  As predicted in the original post, I felt normal until about the end of week three of the treatment.  At that point, the damage that the radiation was doing to my body began to manifest.  My throat became swollen and sore and I began to be continually tired.  Swallowing food and beverages became more difficult and I began to experience accumulation of saliva in my throat, which was very irritating.  As I talked to the nurses and doctor, I was told this was to be expected.

They gave me a mandate to maintain my weight and to drink 64 ounces of fluid every day.  If I could accomplish those two things, then I could expect to avoid the more serious side effects of the radiation.  (People who fail in this can find themselves in the hospital with a feeding tube.)  This mandate, along with allowing myself all the rest my body demanded, became the center of my existence for the duration of my treatment and some time beyond.

When you can only sip beverages and it is hard to eat anything other than frozen yogurt, it takes time to ingest enough calories and fluids to maintain the status quo.  I think its safe to say I did better than most.  I never lost any weight and I never experienced any severe side effects.  I recall one conversation about four or five weeks in when I told the nurse I had eaten a cheeseburger and she was shocked, telling me that no one does that.  (It was a greasy cheeseburger from Steak ‘n Shake.  It took 45 minutes to eat in miniscule bites, but I did it.)

Maintaining this mandate took all my focus.  My expectations about the level of normalcy that I expected to maintain were unrealistic.  All my energy had to be directed to what I was going through, and I had no time or inclination for prayer or meditation, let alone for writing about it. 

Thus, the big gap in posts to the blog.

My unrealistic expectations also extended to how soon I would recover from the damage the radiation did to my body.  The last day of radiation treatment was October 27th.  It took three to four weeks for the pain in my throat to go away completely.  I was able to eat and drink normally starting then, but my throat is still recovering now.  My voice is not normal yet and, most annoying of all, I am still dealing with the accumulation of saliva in my throat.  I still need to carry a bottle with me in the car when I am driving.  At the end of each day, my voices falters, and the need to clear my throat increases.  Some nights I sleep through, but more often I am awakened by the irritation in my throat.

But I am getting a little better every day.  In the last two weeks of January, I had follow-up testing and appointments with the Oncologist and ENT doctor.  I am due to see the Radiologist this week.  All the tests came back clear, so if the doctors are correct, I am cured.  I will continue to be monitored, but once the healing of my throat is complete (which will take another couple months), I should be able to resume life as if nothing happened.

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In the original post, there was a video at the head that showed my van decked out for “drive about.”  I was determined that soon after my treatment ended, I was going on a trip.  In mid-November, sooner than was probably wise, I got in my van and drove to Louisiana to go fishing.  Many thanks to Jim Bradford and Kent Laber for being flexible and willing to join me on this excursion.  The picture at the top of this post is the biggest redfish I (or anyone else!) caught on the trip. 

Post fishing lodge, I camped out of the van in Grand Isle, Louisiana, and then the panhandle of Florida for a few days.  From there, I drove to North Carolina, where I was joined by Denise and Wesley for Thanksgiving with Brendan and Shelby.

Everyone was in Indiana for Christmas.  Right after the New Year, it was back to North Carolina for ten days to help Brendan and Shelby find some land to build a house on.  And now I have just returned from another ten days in North Carolina, where I helped them get details sorted out with the builder, architect, etc. that will allow plans for the build to proceed smoothy.  The construction will not start for a couple months, but they closed on the land last Friday and the project is now real.

During this time, I have been subtly working on the healing process.  The time in Louisiana on the first trip was restorative.  While I was going through the radiation, I was always looking forward to this trip.  It was the goal at the end of the ordeal, the reward for weathering everything successfully.  I was probably not quite ready physically, but I was more than ready emotionally.  I was going to do something normal no matter what, and this was it, the first step to declaring myself back. 

Almost all my time was spent outside, in the beauty of God’s Creation.  It was not always exactly warm, but it was warm enough, and that time out of doors after spending so much time cooped up not just because of illness, but because of the pandemic as well, was what I needed to jump start the transition away from being sick to the new and better reality of being healed.   

The subsequent trips to North Carolina were equally health-giving.  The kid’s lives are so busy.  Brendan has his regular workload and is training to qualify for Special Forces.  Shelby is going to school full time and planning a formal wedding in the Church in July.  Finding time to realize their dream of owning their own home is difficult amidst those demands. It was good for me to use my wisdom and skill to be useful and to help move their dreams forward in some small way.

Beyond that, while I was in North Carolina I was spending further time outdoors.  The kids wanted acreage, so I found myself spending my days walking various ten plus acre parcels covered in southern pines.  I would park just off the road and walk into the woods and find myself surrounded by a quiet that you would think impossible so close to the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  Or, if I was not walking land for sale, I was walking these same woods in one of the beautiful state parks close to Fayetteville.  By the end of the first visit, I was walking for ninety minutes or more at a time.  I was tired at the end, but it was the best kind of tired you can imagine. 

The kids settled on a seven-acre parcel immediately adjacent to Carvers Creek State Park, Sandhills Access.  Seven acres was less than they were originally looking for, but their house will be fifty feet from the park boundary.  It is like having hundreds of acres for your backyard.  There is a pretty little lake that is well off the established trails only a fifteen-minute walk from what will be their back door.  That same lake is a ninety-minute hike from the established parking area, so it has no footprints around it.  They will have it almost entirely to themselves.  On the second trip, I walked out to that lake and beyond multiple times and encountered nothing but deer and turkeys.         

More long walks, more therapy, more progress down the road to feeling completely recuperated. I just need the snow at home to go away so I can continue the process.

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Of course, I can never return to my old life as if nothing happened.  Nor do I really want to. 

Lots has happened.  Too many losses that still feel too recent.  My son, Aidan, barely age 17.  My sister, Christy, at 42.  My mother-in-law, Ginger.  Others, too, who touched me in my life journey, like Mark Beeson, Rob Barniskis and Katherine Griffin, to name a couple.  Then my own bout with cancer.  All of this must have an impact.  It must.

The post treatment time spent immersed in Creation must lead to conversion if I am to make the most of whatever time I have left.  I still feel like I have all the time in the world, but I do not want to feel that way.  I do not want to feel at ease and experience the procrastination that comfort can lead to.  I want to remain uncomfortable so that I feel the resolve that leads to being a willing, eager, joyful, humble and productive servant.

The resolve that leads to as full and complete a “yes” as I can manage. All of this is not random, but part of His plan.  I must fully commit to the role He has in mind for me.

In a strange way, I do not feel as if I ever had cancer.  The diagnosis was too optimistic, the radiation too well weathered, the recovery period too easy, quick and successful.  I am grateful to feel so well so soon after, but I do not want to neglect the things I have been through.

I want the loss and the trial to remain with me in the form of who I have and will become.  I want my discipline and urgency to increase.  I want the fragility of the life I have been blessed with to be there, sometimes at the forefront, sometimes at the edge of my awareness, always pushing me to be the best, most loving, most forgiving, most peaceful human being I can be.

I want to wholly reciprocate the Love that brought me into being and sustains me.

That is not easy given the times.  Peace is fleeting in the face of a persistent pandemic.  Tranquility is easily lost in the turmoil of current politics.  Anger, fear, dissent, and separation surround and overwhelm us.  The future could be dark and violent.  Never in my lifetime has there been so much uncertainty.

How should a dedicated Franciscan react?  The messages being spoken in this blog before my illness feel more needed than ever, especially the one about Franciscan Peace, which is surely indispensable to a future that hopes to avoid the worse of what could come. 

It is only five months since my last post, but it feels as if I am reemerging into a world that is new and distinctly different in lamentable ways from the one I took a hiatus from.

I know that He has a role for me to play.  It might be small.  It might be more.  It involves writing in this blog.  It involves working at that craft assiduously and diligently and I pledge to do so.

It also involves trying to get the message out.  In the end, He will control that.  If He wants just a few impacted by what I write, so be it.  If He chooses to spread my words further because it suits His purpose, so be that as well.

I know that many of you continue to pray for me.  I cannot thank you enough for that.  I know I have not been diligent in praying for you in return.  I will try to do better going forward.

Please also pray that my work here will be what He wishes it to be.

Pray that whatever shows up will be for His Glory and Goodness alone!

The Praises to Be Said at All the Hours

All-powerful, most holy, most high, supreme God:

all good, supreme good, totally good, You Who alone are good,

may we give You all praise, all glory, all thanks, all honor, all blessing, and all good.

So be it! So be it! Amen.

Exalted: How the Power of the Magnificat Can Transform Us (Book Review)

Sometime last fall I was on a short trip to French Lick, IN, where we have a small house that is due to be renovated as an Air B&B for summer use and winter escape. Most people would not think of southern Indiana as a location for winter escape, but when you live in northern Indiana, right in the middle of the lake effect snow band from Lake Michigan, the four hour drive south is enough to get you out of persistent snow and to average temps that are in the low 40s instead of the low 30s. Doesn’t sound like a big difference but its enough to leave behind snow on the ground and get outside to walk in relative comfort. This project was supposed to be completed by now, but the pandemic put a wrench in those plans and we are just now getting reorganized to get the work underway.

I took a drive a little further south to St. Meinrad’s Archabbey. It’s a place I have been aware of for a long time because of the retreats they offer, but I had not been there previously. While there, I went into both the gift store and the separate bookstore, which is associated with the seminary.

In the gift store, a book entitled Exalted: How the Power of the Magnificat Can Transform Us caught my eye. The subtitle is Mary’s Song Verse by Verse. The author’s name is Sonja Corbett. She is a convert to the Catholic faith who leads bible studies in several different formats all based at her website, Bible Study Evangelista. I bought this book for my wife as a Christmas present since she has a predilection for following Mary in her own faith life.

As I was praying over the Magnificat for the last post, I noticed this book on her nightstand. When I asked my wife about it, she said she enjoyed it so I started reading in support of my own reflection. When I got to the chapter on the verse (Luke 1:48) I had selected as my concentration point, I found much of what I was thinking about the poverty of Mary confirmed by Sonja.

So, I thought I would share the meat of what she wrote with you. If this passage resonates with you, you will probably enjoy the full book.

Sonja talks about her own humble beginnings as a lead in to her discussion on Mary and the verse:

“I just had to laugh. I was a nobody from nowhere who had fallen in love with God. Yet I could not deny that he was at work, and all I could do was sit back and watch with amazement as God brought about the crazy thing he had once given me.

I think one of the most precious realities about life with God is that throughout the Bible and salvation history when he desires to do “a new thing” (see Isaiah 43:19) he always uses some insignificant, startled human creatures, terrifying them with the exhilarating invitation to do their hearts’ secret longing.

He scours them from inside out: gouges glorious holes in their souls with his unpredictability; impossible demands, and burgeoning presence; and one day long, long after, they all find themselves blinking with stupefied wonder at what he has finally wrought: “He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have seen” (Dt 10:21).

So it was with Abraham, Moses, and David and with poor, plain Joachim’s daughter from Nazareth whom the world calls Our Lady. Surely in Jerusalem there were daughters of scribes and chief priests who were rich, lovely, unvowed, young, cultured and held in high esteem. Is it not the same today with the highborn, the daughters of kings, princes, presidents and persons of wealth? Even in her own town of Nazareth, Mary was not the daughter of one of the chief rulers but a peasant girl, whom no one important knew or esteemed. And yet she was regarded by the One who made her powerless and poor for eternally important reasons. Her poverty was the anonymity that provided the protected space in which the Incarnation was to happen.

The biblical definition for regard is “to look upon, have respect for.” To be regarded is to be noticed. “Low estate” is a rank, or inferior position or place. We might say Mary was a nobody.

Perfect for a new creation, though, “for the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show his might in behalf of those whose heart is blameless toward him” (2 Chr 16:9). Caryll Houselander says that God “noticed” or regarded Mary because she let God have his will with her: “She was not asked to do anything herself, but to let something be done to her.”

Isn’t this the most difficult part, not doing anything to make something happen? Most of us decide what we want to do or be or what we want to happen, and then we set and work toward goals that will get us there: educational goals, financial goals, career-ladder goals, health goals, and retirement goals. This is all reasonable and rational and even necessary. Yet Mary’s Magnificat, here, seems to present a challenge: Who among us asks God, first, before all necessary planning and doing, what he wants for us? Which of us simply serves in place with no expectation, ever, of anything else?

And even if we receive a specific word or vocation from God, who simply says “May it be done to me” without planning or setting out to make it happen or at least trying to help God make it happen? What simplicity is required for this degree of trust?

Mary’s attitude is not one of laziness or passivity but intense, active faith. And yet she exhibits a discipline against action that can only be a work of grace. The only action she undertook was rushing to serve Elizabeth. Mary served God from her lack of position or resource as a “handmaiden,” without ever knowing her service was so highly esteemed by him. She claimed nothing, pursued nothing, but left all God’s gifts freely in his hands, no more than a willing servant or slave.

Here’s the point: there, serving everyone around her, Mary finds herself the Mother of God, exalted above men and angels, and remains so simple and calm that she points only to her “low estate.” Mary teaches us that being exalted can be, and often is, as simple as serving in place until and unless we are called to step out into more complicated waters. Maybe I should stop the planning, stop the grasping, stop the hustling, and pray to know what God wants for me, first. This is what it means to magnify God, to count only him great, with all one’s being, and lay claim to absolutely nothing else.”

On Saying Yes: Mary’s Magnificat

The Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio, circa 1491

In the last post in this series, I noted how I had prepared to write about Mary’s “yes” by going back to the first Chapter of Luke to review the story of the Annunciation.  As part of the process, I read the verses on the Annunciation and then expanded my reading to the entire chapter to gain context.  This resulted in me being drawn to the story of Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah and ultimately to writing a post comparing the two visits.

As I began to prepare for the next post on Mary, I repeated this process.  Again, I was drawn to something else in the chapter.  This time it was the Magnificat, the Song of Mary spoken in response to John the Baptist leaping for joy in the womb of Elizabeth.

Here is the entire Magnificat from Luke, Chapter 1, verses 47-55:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
   of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
     for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”

It was verse 48 that caught my attention and became the focus of my prayer:

for he has been mindful
   of the humble state of his servant.

As soon as I read and understood it, I felt that the assertions I had made about Mary and her embrace of Spiritual Poverty had been confirmed by her own words.  And then, as I read and reread the entirety of the Song through the lens of this verse, a pattern of praise of poverty emerged that I had never identified before.  I was not unfamiliar with these verses, but I had never concentrated on them previously in prayer, and thus had never realized how profound they were in relation to the Franciscan ideal of Spiritual Poverty.

This is the power of taking the time to completely immerse yourself in the gospels.  I patiently abided in this scene, watching Elizabeth react to Mary’s visit and then Mary’s response, and I was overwhelmed.  How had I never caught the references to poverty in Mary’s Song before?  Every time I had heard this gospel read at Mass or recited as part of the Liturgy of the Hours, I missed it!

The richness of the gospels makes it impossible to catch everything as you experience them in routine encounters.  But when approached from a patient and prayerful perspective, they never disappoint.  There is always something new, waiting to be discovered, waiting to take one deeper into the mystery of God and the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Jesus.  God’s plan for eternal salvation is offered to us unconditionally and unceasingly through His Word but we must make ourselves present to that Word to internalize it. 

Spiritual Poverty is the key to integrating and maintaining this presence.  It is what allows us to separate ourselves from the distractions of the world and focus our attention on God. We must work at it rigorously as part of our conversion process just as our Rule urges us to do.

Mary knew this long before Francis did.  She used poverty as a tool for placing God foremost in her life and it changed her future utterly.  Her example almost certainly encouraged Francis to his embrace of poverty, and it impels us to the same.  Our charism pushes us toward poverty so that our futures can be changed as completely as hers was.  We long to experience God as intensely as she did. 

There is no limit to the joy that we can know as God reveals Himself to us again and again in the gospels and the balance of holy scripture.  But we must be there, regularly, attentively, to secure that joy.  When we first commit ourselves to poverty and the quest for a deeper relation with God, we do not have the wisdom to know what to expect.  Then the Holy Spirit (along with Mary) acknowledges our desire and meets it.  He nurtures our commitment and guides us to successes unlike anything we have known before. 

We progress in our conversion.  Looking back, we begin to understand what Mary meant when she said, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”

We begin to appreciate what it means to allow our souls to “glorify (or magnify) the Lord.”

_____________________     

Please read through the full Song again.  Do so multiple times using Mary’s poverty as your focal point.  Pick out the words and phrases that speak to humbleness, mercy and service. Juxtapose them against those that speak to the fate of the proud, the rulers, and the rich.

As I allowed these verses to work on me, I found myself wanting to rearrange them in order to emphasize the message of poverty’s power.  I began to read the verses specifically affecting me in these two groupings:

He has scattered those who are proud
in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
and has sent the rich away empty.

He has been mindful
   of the humble state of his servant.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has lifted up the humble
and filled the hungry with good things.
 He has helped his servant Israel,

   remembering to be merciful…………….

Spend some time on the rearranged words, then narrow down again and concentrate on the verse originally suggested:

               “He has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”

Recognize that when Mary says “his servant” she is speaking about herself.  The words “humble state” describe her own orientation to God.  The He is God Himself.

Mary is clearly asserting that the reason “the Mighty One has done great things” for her, the reason she is to become “the mother of my Lord,” to quote Elizabeth, is her humility. 

She has successful positioned herself as a wholly dedicated servant of God via a complete embrace of humility.  God is “mindful” of what she has freely chosen.  He recognizes the perfection of her humility and servanthood and judges her worthy to become the Mother of Jesus. 

The worthiness of her humility then extends to her position in history.  “All generations will call her blessed” because she has freely embraced fear of God.  We often think of fear as being defined by distress, anxiety, or even terror.  Fear does not mean those things in this context.  Instead it indicates respect.  We do not shrink from that which we fear.  Instead, we venerate that which we are meant to venerate and draw closer to it.  This fear does not paralyze.  It liberates us to fully love that which we were meant to fully love.  It brings us into close communion with our Creator.  It unites us to God with an intimacy that is otherwise impossible.

God’s mindfulness of Mary’s absolute humility and willingness to serve causes Him, in His Mercy, to extend His arm and lift her up, filling the one who trusts Him completely with good things.  Mary knew her embrace of positive fear safeguarded her from all concern.  To quote article twelve of the Rule, Mary “set herself free to love God” and found that in the end she had nothing to fear, at least in terms of the negative connotations we typically associate with that word.

Her trust, confidence and veneration of God translate into Mary becoming, as the Office of the Passion describes her, “the Daughter and Handmaid of the Most High, Sovereign King, the Heavenly Father, Mother of our most Holy Lord Jesus Christ, and Spouse of the Holy Spirit.”

Daughter.  Mother.  Spouse.  Her intimacy with God is unparalleled and perfect.  All made possible by an absolute embrace of Spiritual Poverty from a position of humility and servanthood. 

Mary is our ultimate model.  If we choose as she chose, if we assume humility, servanthood, trust, and veneration as she did, what wondrous things might happen to us? 

_____________________

The post before this was on the twelfth chapter of the gospel of John.  It was subtitled “Maturing from Following into Service.”  Following on the heels of the post on my cancer diagnosis and its relationship to the reflection on chapter eleven, this is the second consecutive post from Journey thru John where the timing seems more than coincidental.

In the Annunciation and the Magnificat, Mary calls herself “servant” twice.

At the end of the Annunciation, she says directly, “I am the Lord’s servant” and asks that the “word to her be fulfilled.”  She is ready to serve God respectfully and fearlessly, relying on Him completely, willing to do and experience whatever may come (including difficulties as predicted in article 10 of the Rule) despite the uncertainty of what the favor of the Lord means for her future. 

As we have discussed in detail above, in her Song she references “the humble state of his servant” in response to the words of Elizabeth.

And then, at the end of the Magnificat, there is a third use of the word servant as she acknowledges God’s “remembering to be merciful” as He “helps his servant Israel.”  

In the post on Chapter 12, I maintained that servanthood is the mark of maturity in one’s relationship with God.  We begin by following but following is not enough.  Only when we adopt servanthood does our relationship with God fully ripen.  Only then can we unlock the potential for understanding the mysteries of God and Creation in a new and deeper way.

Labeling herself as servant reveals Mary’s maturity.  She unveils herself as the epitome of what is possible when servanthood is perfected.  She exemplifies maturity fulfilled to its greatest extent.  Her total embrace of Spiritual Poverty translates to a level of relationship with God that is flawless, so faultless we consider it to be Immaculate.  It leads to such a deep communion that she becomes Daughter, Mother and Spouse to God all at once.

Her maturity also gives her unequaled insight into the workings of God and Creation.  Despite her young age, she possesses the spiritual wisdom to speak the Magnificat and thus reveal to us, well ahead of the time of Francis, the nature and importance of what Francis would ultimately label Lady Poverty.  (Its hard to imagine that Francis was not influenced by the Magnificat in his choice of words.)

She is not only the Mother of Jesus, but in some sense, at least in this moment, she is also a Prophet of God, revealing to us a most important Truth about the nature of Creation.  We would all be wise to embrace the Truth of Spiritual Poverty entirely if we wish our relationship with God to come to full maturity.

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Mary wears many titles within the church.  One of the most profound is Advocate.  (See the reflection for chapter two of Journey thru John.)

Perhaps we should consider The Magnificat the beginning of her career as Advocate?  In it she reveals and confirms for us the foundation of her own “yes” to the call of God.  She lets us know directly that it is humility and servanthood that led to her becoming Daughter, Mother and Spouse.  At the same time, she invites us to follow her example into our own deep and productive relationship with God.  Inherent in her invitation is the promise that she will be our guide on a journey of continual conversion to the way of Spiritual Poverty that she has revealed in her Song.

In other words, she pledges to be our Advocate as we seek to find our own way into profound relationship with God.  Like her Son, she will shepherd us as we go.  She will incessantly beseech God to assist us as we seek Him out via the freedom of Spiritual Poverty.  She will be there always, as faithful to us as she is to God, providing Motherly support as we seek to move beyond simple following into the wisdom that she achieved and models and desires for us. 

She will be our tireless advocate as we seek the mature relationship with God that will ultimately result in our eternal salvation.   

The only possible response to her invitation and advocacy is to seek to wholly emulate her “yes” as presented in the story of the Annunciation and reinforced by the Magnificat.

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If we possess any wisdom at all, we acknowledge in humility that imitating Mary is not an easy thing to do.  We know that we suffer from human frailty.  We know that the enemy and the world will seek to distract us from this purpose.  We know that we need the strength and support of Advocates (not just Mary, but the Holy Spirit and the Communion of Saints as well) if we are to have any hope of succeeding in our quest to exemplify Mary’s profound “yes.”

The only way to aspire to that “yes” is to embrace her position of humility and servanthood and acknowledge our need for her assistance. 

Lucky for us, we know her to be boundless in her capacity to be our steadfast help.  As we seek to imitate her trusting “yes,” we know we can pray to her for guidance and assistance and that she will respond by unceasingly carrying our prayers to the Father.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for this sinner, now………………!”  

Not just at the hour of my death, but now as well, that I might better apprehend the “yes” you said to God at the Annunciation in response to the word of Gabriel. 

Now, that I might gain enough insight into the “yes” that allowed you to speak the Magnificat that I can learn and grow from it.

Now, that I might fathom and embrace the humility that was integral to your “yes.”

Now, that I might realize and welcome servanthood as you did so that my “yes” might be more complete and perfect in the eyes of the God as I seek an ever deepening relationship with Him according to your example.

Now, that through the imitation of your “yes” I might move one step closer to my ultimate goal of eternal salvation!