On Franciscan Peace, Podcast #2: Bill Schmitt and David Seitz, Part One

Click on the play button below to listen to the podcast: (For part two, click here.)

Possible questions for discussion:

One of the tools the enemy often uses to further his goals is division.  We live in a very divided and polarized society, not only on political and racial fronts, but even within the Catholic Church and the Secular Franciscan Order itself.  How is peace a possible antidote for the division and strife that is ascendant in our culture right now?

David asks the question, “What was it that drew so many people to St. Francis of Assisi eight hundred years ago?”  He answers by emphasizing Francis’ authentic pursuit of the gospel.  What people saw is what they got and they found this irresistibly attractive in Francis.  How does authenticity help to convey a sense of peace to others?  

In the Beatitudes, we are all called to be peacemakers.  After His Resurrection, Jesus greets the apostles by announcing “Peace be with you.”  The word peace is used in many other locations in the gospels.  In order to live an authentic gospel life according to the example of St. Francis, we must take the idea of peace seriously.  Is peace emphasized enough in the SFO Order specifically and in our culture at large?  Does it rate a higher level of attention than it typically receives?

David mentions the Franciscan Peace Prayer and emphasizes the line that reads “…grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand.”  Article 19 of the Rule states “Mindful that they are bearers of peace which must be built up unceasingly, they should seek out ways of unity and fraternal harmony through dialogue….”  How does dialogue lead to understanding of the other, to unity, to harmony and ultimately to the unceasing build up of peace?

David interprets the last chapter of John using the Greek words agape and phileo, both typically translated into English as “love,” to show Jesus meeting Peter where he was.  If we are to understand the other (as opposed to expecting to be understood by them), it would be useful to follow this example by Jesus and meet them where they are.  Is putting yourself in the position of meeting the other where they are a risk you are willing to take if an expansion of peace and love is a potential outcome?

Further Thought:
In the last podcast with Sr. Agnes Marie, the discussion centered mostly on inner peace.  This discussion is much more about outer peace, the type of peace that is manifested when two human beings are in proper relationship with each other.  Both have their place in the Franciscan charism.  How are inner and outer peace related?  If I have developed a strong sense of inner peace through a close relationship with Jesus and the gospels, does that help me to be a peacemaker when it comes to outer peace?

Journey thru John, Chapter 10: Laying Down One’s Life

When Jesus uses parables to teach, He is inviting his listeners, then and now, to enter a scene.  The opportunity such a gospel passage presents becomes double layered.  You have the ability to first enter and watch Jesus teach, and then you have the ability to enter the parable as well, to also be present in that setting. 

In this chapter, the initial scene includes a divided group of Jews, some of whom think Jesus is possessed by demons, others who argue the opposite.  Enter that scene and imagine the discussion between the Jews and use it to review the teaching of Jesus.

Can you empathize with why some would think him demon possessed, even if you don’t want to?  Is there something to be learned by being able to put yourself in those shoes, even if ultimately you disagree?  Can you also empathize with those who find wisdom in the teaching of Jesus?  Try and see both sides in order to experience the scene more fully.

After doing that, challenge yourself to enter deeper, to the second level, in order to experience the parable fully as well.

Do you know what a sheepfold from the time of Jesus looked like?  Check the picture at the top of the post. Note the typical layout of a sheepfold. The walls are built of stone and have a single opening.  Generally, the opening has neither a gate nor a door built in it.  It’s just an open passage.

Look closer.  Note the shepherd lying in the doorway, perhaps asleep.  In the time of Jesus, the pen openings were designed to be just large enough for a shepherd to lie across.  He would sleep in that space and would become the actual door.  The sheep would not be able to leave the pen without crossing over him and waking him up.  Nor would a predator be able to enter without him being aware.

Go back to the gospel and reread verse 9.  Jesus says “I am the gate, whoever enters through me will be saved.  He will come in and go out, and find pasture.”

Take the image and pray over the parable and that verse in particular.  Do they lend added meaning to what Jesus is teaching?  Do you see how he could be “the gate” in a deeper way than you might have otherwise imagined?

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John Chapter 10, Verses 14-15:

“I am the good shepherd.  I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

In verses 11 through 18, Jesus says some version of the words “lay down my life” five times.  Five times in seven verses.  Do you think that might be important?

Do you think you already know what it means?  Does it have only one meaning, one layer?  Take time to ponder those questions for a moment while also thinking about the life of Francis. How might Francis have construed this phrase? 

The obvious interpretation centers on the Cross. 

At the beginning of the chapter, we clearly identify with being Jesus’ sheep.  We listen to His voice.  He calls us by name.  We follow Him out.  He gives us life in full.

We accept unflinchingly the assertion that He is the Good Shepherd.  When He shifts to speaking about laying down His life for the sheep, we understand that He is talking about laying down His life for us.  We understand implicitly that the sacrifice Jesus made by accepting and embracing the Cross “of His own accord” is a fulfillment of this section of the gospels.  The Good Shepherd lays down his life so that we might be saved.  The Good Shepherd calls every flock and invites them all to follow His voice.  No one is excluded from the salvific act of laying down His life.  All are eligible to be saved if they are willing to follow Him in and out of the gate that is also Him.

When, later in the chapter, Jesus says “the reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again,” we can fit that into the narrative of the Cross as well.  Taking His life back up is a clear reference to the Resurrection.  He takes His life back up and takes His seat at the right hand of the Father, and from there He continues to intercede for us in the hope that all of His sheep will be saved.

We know that one of the defining characteristics of Francis is his devotion to following the example of Jesus.  He sets out not only to follow the instructions of Jesus in the gospels, but to live his life on a day to day basis in the same earthly manner that Jesus did.  The desire to not just follow teaching, but to emulate lifestyle, is defining for Francis, and also for us as people who profess to live according to his charism.

The obvious question is this:

Did Francis “lay down his life” in some fashion in imitation of Christ? 

He didn’t suffer the Cross as Jesus did.  He did experience the stigmata.  Was that an act of laying down his life? 

Or did Francis accomplish this in some other fashion?  Did he, perhaps, make a fundamental choice that allowed him to live out this example of Jesus on a continual basis for his entire public life?

Think again.  Is there another way, an expanded way, to define “laying down one’s life” that Jesus accomplished and that Francis was able to emulate? 

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 At the end of the first volume of Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, there is a work entitled The Sacred Exchange between Saint Francis and Lady Poverty.  The author is unknown and the date of its composition is debated by scholars. 

The work is an allegory based on an imagined encounter between St. Francis and Lady Poverty.  At the end of the prologue, the beginning of the journey of Francis in search of this encounter is described like this:

At the beginning of his conversion, therefore, blessed Francis, as the Savior’s true imitator and disciple, gave himself with all eagerness, all longing, all determination to searching for, finding, and embracing holy poverty.

I just asserted that one of the defining characteristics of Francis was his devotion to following the example of Jesus.  Here that assertion is confirmed as Francis is defined as the “true imitator and disciple” of Christ.

Take a moment to look into your own heart.  Have you accepted and begun to enact this principle in your own Franciscan journey?  Decide for yourself whether or not this part of your Franciscan vocation needs to broadened. Is this an area of your profession that could benefit from some conversion?

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Francis begins his search by asking anyone he encounters if they know where he can find “her whom his soul loved.”  The problem was, no one understood what he was talking about.  “That saying was hidden from them.”  No one wanted to talk about Poverty because “they hated it with a vengeance.”

Francis decides to go and ask the wisest men he can find about Poverty.  Unfortunately, he gets an even more harsh response from them.  They also would not talk with him about Poverty, instead preferring to “enjoy delights and to abound in riches for the duration of their lives.”

Francis prayed to God that he be preserved from their counsels.  He left the city and in a nearby field encountered “two old men wasted away from great sorrow.”  When he spoke to them and asked where Lady Poverty could be found, they told him “she has now gone up to a great and high mountain where God has placed her.”  Hearing this, Francis “chose some faithful companions for himself with whom he hurried to the mountain.”

Although most who tried to ascend the mountain had failed, Francis and his group succeed with an ease that astonishes Lady Poverty, who watches their assent from the top of the mountain.  They gain the encounter they are looking for and begin to speak with Lady Poverty. 

She asks them the reason for their coming.  Francis replies by saying “we wish to become servants of the Lord of hosts.”

And then he describes Jesus in these terms:

For He, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the Creator of heaven and earth, desired your splendor and beauty.  Even though the king was reclining at table, rich and glorious in his kingdom, he left his house and gave up his inheritance: for there were glory and riches in his house.  And so, coming from his royal throne, he sought you with the greatest courtesy.

How great must be your dignity, then, and how beyond compare your stature! He left behind all the ranks of angels and the immense powers – of which there is a great abundance in heaven – when he came to look for you in the lowest regions of the earth — ……………….

I asked you to consider whether or not there was another potential interpretation of the phrase “laying down one’s life.”  Francis could not directly imitate Jesus on the Cross, but he still needed a way to imitate this part of Christ’s sojourn on earth.

Read again the words “he left his house and gave up his inheritance” and “he left behind all the ranks of angels and the immense powers.”  They describe Jesus’ decision to come to earth, not as God, but as a man, into a situation of Poverty, not wealth. 

But they also describe Francis.  Francis left behind his own inheritance and worldly power when he walked away from his father and embraced his own life’s version of Poverty.

Before Jesus ever laid down His life on the Cross for His sheep, He had to lay down His divinity in order to come among us in the first place.  That initial laying down by Jesus is what makes the ultimate laying down of His life on the Cross possible.  When He sets aside His divinity, He holds nothing back.  He rejects all of His divine power and embraces Poverty in its place.  Jesus comes into the world not as an earthly king, but as a carpenter’s son born of a poor virgin in a stable.  As we have seen in previous chapters, He rejects all “worldly” riches and glory.  Instead, he takes Lady Poverty as His companion for the full duration of His stay on earth.

Francis did not have divinity to lay down, but he did have earthly riches and glory to lay down.  By rejecting the life his father offered him, he “laid down his life,” choosing, just as Jesus did, a life with Lady Poverty as his spouse in determined imitation of his Lord.    

In the allegory, before Francis is done praising Poverty, he reinforces this theme again:

For before he came to earth from his radiant homeland, you prepared an appropriate place for him, a throne upon which he would sit and a dwelling place in which he would rest, that is, a very poor virgin from whom his birth would shine upon the world.  At his birth you certainly greeted him with faithfulness so that in you, not in luxuries, he would find a place that would please him.  He was placed in a manger, the Evangelist said, because there was no room for him in the inn.  Thus, always inseparable from him, you accompanied him so that throughout his life, when he was seen upon the earth and conversed with human beings, while the foxes have dens and the birds of the air nests, he nevertheless had nowhere to lay his head.  Then, when he opened his own mouth to teach — he who once had opened the mouths of prophets –among the many things he uttered, he first of all praised you, he first of all exalted you: 

Blessed are the poor in spirit because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus leaves behind His “radiant homeland” and His ability to “open the mouths of prophets” in order to dwell within “a very poor virgin,” who “places him in a manger.”  In His public life, he “had nowhere to lay his head” and His very first act is to proclaim “blessings on the poor in spirit. “

God lays down all His heavenly power in order to dwell amongst men in a state of complete Poverty.  This is the example He gives us.

In the best imitation he can achieve, Francis lays down his life, which consists of all his desire for all “worldly” wealth and power, in order to also dwell amongst men in a state of complete Poverty. 

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It is tempting to think that we should embrace Poverty so that we won’t be distracted by the things of the world and thus lose focus on what really matters, our relationship with God.

Or perhaps we think we should embrace Poverty so that we can use our resources to lift up those who, for whatever reason, can’t lift up themselves and need our help.

These are valid reasons, but they aren’t the only reasons, and maybe not even the primary reason.

Paragraph 10 of the SFO Rule says this:

               Let them also follow the poor and crucified Christ ………

As we read the Gospels, we want to pay attention to the teachings of Jesus.  We need to learn the lessons and apply them to our everyday lives.

But, as Franciscans, we also need to acknowledge the need Francis felt to imitate Christ in the way He actually lived His earthly life.  Francis chose a life of Poverty not so much because he wanted to avoid distraction or to help others, but because he looked at the Gospels and found in them the unavoidable conclusion that Jesus lived an earthly life devoted to Poverty.  Jesus told us “blessed are the poor in spirit,” but then He backed up those words completely by the way He chose to live while He abided here amongst us.  He Himself was truly “poor in spirit” just like He calls us to be.

When Jesus speaks about laying down His life for us, His sheep, it is not just about laying down His human life.  Jesus laid down everything He had, including His very divinity, in order to save us.  

Francis knew this.  He did not have divinity to lay down, but he still had the ability to imitate Jesus because he still could choose to lay down everything he had.  He chose Lady Poverty as his spouse and lived the ideal of Poverty so very strictly because that was how he interpreted what it meant to give all in imitation of Christ.

That is what constituted “laying down his life” for Francis. 

We are the sheep of Jesus, but we are also the sheep of Francis.  Francis also laid down his life so that we could be saved.  He set his own example so that we might follow it as we strive for the salvation that Jesus earned for us by laying down both His divinity and His life.

The greatest example that Francis set, the most sure thing we can do as sheep listening to his voice, is to follow him in his attempt to emulate and imitate Jesus. 

The rule does not say, “follow the poor Francis.”

It says, “follow the poor and crucified Christ.”

The reason it says that is because that is what Francis strove to do with his entire life.

On Franciscan Peace, The Death of John Lewis

Photo by Lorie Shaull

This past Saturday, I was watching the golf tournament and I fell asleep after being out in the sun all morning.  I woke up as the broadcast was ending for the day.  The local news (Chicago for me) was next on the schedule.  I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have watched mass media news in the past ten years, but a headline about the death of Congressman John Lewis caught my attention as I was about to turn the TV off.  Congressman Lewis rose to prominence as a leader of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

I watched the opening story and heard him lauded as a proponent of peaceful, non-violent protest.  Because we have this formation series on Peace open, I thought I would stay tuned.  I was intrigued enough that I listened all the way through not only the local news, but the national news that followed.  On Sunday morning, I searched out clips on Congressman Lewis from the morning talk shows.  Monday, I spent time looking for information on the Internet and ordered a book by Dr. Martin Luther King entitled Stride Toward Freedom.

The mention of the terms “non-violence” and “peaceful” made me curious at first, but my interest was captured more completely when another story came on.  This story showed video of ongoing Black Lives Matter protests somewhere in California, perhaps San Francisco?  What won my full attention was a prominent sign held up by one of the protestors that read, “No Justice, No Peace!” 

For the balance of Saturday and all day Sunday I had this juxtaposition bouncing in and out of my awareness.  I was wondering if that sign meant that the peaceful methods of Dr. King and Congressman Lewis had been largely abandoned?  This is what sent me searching the Internet on Monday.  To what extent has peace lost its ascendency as a primary component of the protests that are happening today?

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The video that accompanied the stories on Congressman Lewis was compelling.  It was immediately clear that it was the violence of those desiring to maintain the status quo that did them in.  Grainy black and white images of protestors being blasted by fire hoses or peaceful marchers being beaten on Bloody Sunday made it clear beyond doubt who was in the right and who in the wrong during that time.

Born in 1963, I am not old enough to have witnessed any of this directly.  But watching a few minutes of video educated me more about the civil rights movement (especially about its roots in the non-violent methods of Gandhi and ultimately Jesus) than anything I had experienced in the previous 56 years of my life. 

The peacefulness of the demonstrators was clearly instrumental in the victories they won.  The ultimate expression of this is of course the death of Dr. King, reminiscent of the death of Jesus himself.  In Chapter 15 of the gospel of John, Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Dr. King was not a Franciscan, but in this he followed directly in the footsteps of Francis.  He lived out this gospel passage literally and, I would argue, intentionally.  He may have hoped otherwise, but he accepted that his chosen course of public action could ultimately lead to his early death. 

Franciscans believe that conversion is an ongoing process that never reaches its completion. 

Dr King’s impact has not been as immediate or far reaching as one would hope, but it is still unfolding.  Hopefully, unlike conversion, it will reach completion, but it is likely to take a long time.  The hearts and habits of men are not easily changed in a single or even a couple generations.  The struggle requires patience and endurance. 

Are the principles of peace that Dr. King championed critical to the pace of progress?  Is the legacy of Dr. King best served by adhering to the tenets of non-violent protest that were integral to his approach and clearly instrumental in his success?  If devotion to his doctrines is allowed to wane, is the cause well served?

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According to Wikipedia, the phrase “No Justice, No Peace” first came into wide use in the mid-1980s in response to racist violence in New York City.  The same article goes on to say that the phrase has two different interpretations.

The first is conditional.  In the “if-then” scenario, Justice must proceed Peace.  If Justice is absent, then those who experience injustice will ensure that Peace is disrupted until the time that Justice has been accomplished.  According to the article, this was the context of the use of the phrase when it became prominent in the eighties.

The second is conjunctive.  In this more philosophical approach, Justice and Peace are codependent.  Neither can exist without the other.  Injustice is caused by the absence of Peace.  At the same time, Peace cannot thrive if Justice is absent.  The two are linked in such a way that each needs the other to flourish.

The two definitions might seem like splitting hairs, but they are not.  If the second is true, if peace is in any fashion a pre-requisite to justice (which codependency requires), then the if-then scenario is doomed to failure.  The disruption of Peace cannot logically lead to the implementation of Justice because the absence of Peace inherently leads to the opposite, to an absence of Justice. 

In other words, Peace and Justice must be pursued concurrently. 

Wikipedia, at the end of the article, references Dr. King using a similar phrase in 1967 in a speech against the Vietnam War.  Unfortunately, this Wikipedia reference is incomplete.  With just a little digging I found this audio on YouTube, in which Dr. King clearly states (at the 3:10 mark), “There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without justice.”

Dr. King embraces the conjunctive form of the phrase in this speech.  Given his passionate embrace of peaceful, non-violent protest, this is expected.  But it is nice to be able to hear him say the words in context so that his meaning cannot be misunderstood.

Dr. King clearly places himself on the side of Justice and Peace being codependent.

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There can be no doubt that the death of George Floyd and so many others in similar circumstances represent a grave injustice.  There is also no doubt that violence (in other words, a lack of peace in the broadest terms) on the part of police officers is at the root of this injustice.  The violent actions responsible for these injustices must be addressed.  Individual officers must be held accountable for the wrongs they have committed.  Police forces in general must find a way to proactively eliminate the occurrence of these events so that these offenses end.

There can be no compromise in that.  The police must adapt and maintain an attitude of peace as the predominant principle in every action they take before their perpetrations of injustice will cease.  This does not mean that they cannot use force when necessary.  But it does mean that the decision to use force is governed by an overarching devotion to peace that seems absent in the broad philosophy of policing right now.

It may mean that, like Dr. King, police officers need to accept the risk of peace in their everyday duties.  In order to become “peace officers” in the fullest sense, they may need to consider “laying down one’s life” not just for one’s friends, but also for the greater good and harmony of a fresh culture where everyone (regardless of race, etc.) must be considered not just a friend but a sister or brother.

It is a heroic request but being a police officer is often seen as a heroic calling.  How can we help police officers live into this enriched vision of themselves?

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Protest and demonstration are apropos given the situation.  But what is the role of peace in these protests?  If protestors dare to ask police officers to risk Peace, will they be willing to risk it themselves?  Will Peace be sought through Peace?  Will today’s leaders ground their actions in Peace as Dr. King and Congressman Lewis did?  

In other words, will the phrase “No Justice, No Peace” be employed in its conditional or conjunctive form? 

If the conditional interpretation is chosen, if the response to injustice is violence and a disruption of Peace, what will the outcome be? 

One already prevalent outcome is video of the response being aired right along with video of the original injustices.  It is just as likely that video of looters breaking shop windows or cars being burned will be shown as any other.  All constitute news and in the modern world of communication, all sides can emphasize whatever they wish to emphasize.  Those who ought to be stuck on defense have their own regular and social media outlets and often their own dedicated audiences.  Any instance of retaliatory violence captured on tape allows them to go on the offensive, thereby clouding and confusing the picture as well as reinforcing the viewpoint of persons already partial to the status quo.

In the original civil rights movement, videos of violence by the government against peaceful protestors were the best weapon the protestors had.  The first link above (about the use of fire houses in Birmingham) makes it clear that videos of unwarranted violence catapulted the civil rights movement to success.  As each instance of governmental violence was videotaped and added to the existing record, the accumulation of injustice provided momentum to the movement until it could not help but culminate in victories such as landmark Civil Rights legislation.

Racism may not have been completed defeated and eliminated by that legislation (legislation does not possess the power to change the hearts of individual men) or the accumulation of other victories in the 1960s, but progress was made.  How then to learn from these lessons of history so that more progress can be made?

How can Peace be used as a tool today just as it was used in the original movement?

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It is clear from the audio that Dr. King and Congressman Lewis embraced the second, conjunctive interpretation of the phrase “No Justice, No Peace.”  They believed that embracing Peace was imperative to progress against injustice.  Justice did not precede Peace but existed in close cooperation with it, each building the other up.  The more the protestors embraced Peace (in contrast to the embrace of unjust violence by the forces of the entrenched) the more successful the movement became.

The result of this embrace of Peace was that there was no competing video story to derail the story of injustice that the entrenched were writing themselves.  Only one side of the story, the side of the story grounded in Peace, was compelling enough to be captured on tape and thus to secure the attention and sympathy of the nation.

Contrast that to current circumstances.  Videos of violence done to black men at the hands of police abound.  Yet, they have not had the same effect.  Is this because the storyline is clouded by the abundance of videos on the other side?  Does a lack of peacefulness make the current effort its own worst enemy just as the entrenched were their own worst enemy sixty years ago?

What if now, like then, there was only video on one side of the story?  How would that change the dialogue?

One injustice cannot correct another.  More acts of violence cannot cure a culture that is addicted to violence in so many ways.  They only serve to enable and excuse the next round in a never-ending cycle of pain and hostility. 

Only Peace can break that cycle.  If the police will not embrace Peace, then the opposition must if it hopes to overcome them.

The protests themselves must not increase the amount of injustice in the world as they are carried out.  Acts of violence on the part of the protesters (looting, destruction of property, treating all police officers as unethical instead of as individual human beings) constitute the opposite of Peace and, because of their indiscriminate nature, are in and of themselves undertakings of injustice. 

They supply pretexts for maintaining the status quo and muddy the waters making it much more difficult to achieve progress.

They are contradictory to the goals that Dr. King and John Lewis set so many years ago.  They are harmful to the cause of ending racism and establishing equality.

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So, what does all of this have to do with Franciscan formation?

The gospel of Mark (5:9) says,

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” 

The epistle of James (3:18) reads,

Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”

Article 19 of the OFS Rule says,

Mindful that they are bearers of peace which must be built up unceasingly, they should seek out ways of unity and fraternal harmony through dialogue, trusting in the presence of the divine seed in everyone and in the transforming power of love and pardon.”

Francis, in Admonition XV (Peace), quotes the verse above from Matthew and then continues,

“Those people are truly peacemakers who, regardless of what they suffer in this world, preserve peace of spirit and body out of love of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Thomas of Celano, in The Second Book of The Life of St. Francis, chapter V, says this about Bishop Hugolino, who Francis chose as father and lord over his whole religion: 

“That lord conformed himself to the ways of the brothers…………….The Lord gave him a learned tongue.  With it he confounded the opponents of truth, refuted the enemies of the cross of Christ, led strangers back to the way, made peace between those in conflict, and bound together those in peace in a stronger bond of love.”

One of the biggest challenges I am confronted with as a Franciscan is how to live out my vocation in the real world.  Fraternity meetings are a place of great solace and comfort.  They allow me to explore my profession with like minded people in an atmosphere of security and peace.  I love that about our meetings, and I miss it tremendously in the absence of gatherings forced by the pandemic.

But to truly live out my calling, I must find ways to leave the comfort of that fraternity cloister and take Franciscanism into the world.  As I listened and investigated the stories of John Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King, I found myself confronted by peace in action in a real-world setting.  These men were true peacemakers and I found myself wanting to follow their example.

Read the quotes above again, this time with the example of these men in mind.

Do you find them fulfilled in their lives?

Does this inspire and challenge you to seek ways to become a peacemaker in these troubled times?

On Saying Yes, the Introduction

Image by Gemma Correll

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

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

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

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

But this was not the case. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am inviting you to join in this exploration!

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

Journey thru John, Chapter 9: On Being Blind

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

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

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

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

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

Would you let a stranger do it?

Will you let Jesus do it?

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

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John Chapter 9, Verses 39-41:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I committed to penance and poverty, or not? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would it take to get the world to listen? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It goes something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slideshow from The Shrine of Christ’s Passion

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy!

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

2 Thessalonians 3:16

May the Lord Give You Peace!

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

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

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

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

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

On Franciscan Peace, the Introduction

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

“May the Lord Give you Peace!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…………………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journey thru John, Chapter 8: Freedom and Love

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

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

In verse 23 Jesus says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Chapter 8, Verse 31-34:

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

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

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

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

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

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what does freedom have to do with love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final question is, set free for what purpose?

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

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

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Let me say it again for emphasis.

The purpose of Creation is the expansion of Love.

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

I implore you not to take it lightly.

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

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

As Franciscans, we are called to a better path.

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

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

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

Churches Awaiting the Joy After Lockdown: Many Happy Returns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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