On Emulating Mary

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

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

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

I settled on these words from verse 35:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article Six of the Rule echoes this instruction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabriel responds to you by saying,

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

How will you respond?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Chapter 13, Verse 34:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another hard act to follow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Health Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus, the big gap in posts to the blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Praises to Be Said at All the Hours

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

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

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

So be it! So be it! Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Saying Yes: Mary’s Magnificat

The Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio, circa 1491

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____________________     

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

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

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

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

   remembering to be merciful…………….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____________________

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

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

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

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

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

_____________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journey thru John, Chapter 12: Maturing from Following into Service

Do you know what nard is? 

I did not, so I looked it up.  It is a plant that is native to the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal, China, and India.  Its use as a perfume, a medicinal plant, and for religious ceremonies goes back well before the time of Jesus.  It was a valuable import into ancient Egypt (a jar containing spikenard was found in the tomb of King Tut) and it is mentioned multiple times in the Old Testament.  Its exotic origins help to explain why it was so valuable.  It would have found its way to the Middle East from the Himalayas in a trade caravan that would have taken months to make the journey.  The three hundred denarii mentioned at the beginning of this chapter is more than a year’s wages for a typical worker in the time of Jesus. 

If you think of perfume as liquid, that would be different than how the Jews of Jesus’ time would have experienced nard.  In its typical form, spikenard would have traveled as an oily solid in a stone box or jar of some kind.  It was distilled from the root of a plant and mixed with rendered animal fat, which when cooled would create the solid form in which it was sold.  Solid coconut oil would be the proper comparison in our time.  The oil then turns viscous as it is heated.  Rubbing it in your hands would be enough to allow to spread.  For Mary to have poured it, it was likely heated first.  Thus, the aroma of nard fills the entire house.

The smell is not floral in nature.  The words used to describe it are a complex combination of musky, earthy, spicy, and organic. 

Why tell you this?  Does it have anything to do with following the Franciscan charism?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps we might even see Judas Iscariot’s objection as having merit.  Why not sell the oil and give the poor the proceeds, even if that suggestion was a deception on his part?

The reason to give the detail is because it provides a wonderful opportunity to investigate the scene in different fashion.  We have typically been using the eye of our imagination as our vehicle for venturing into these scenes, but here is a chance to try something fresh.  Can you place yourself in the scene in such a way that you experience the fragrance in the house?  What does a complex combination of musk, earth, spice, and organics smell like?  Can you conjure something from your past that will recall the smell of nard, helping you perceive the scene more intensely?

Does smell help you envision Mary using her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet and subsequently resting there as her actions are questioned? 

Can you occupy her place, experiencing the intensity of the aroma as Jesus affirms her and then continues teaching the disciples gathered in the house?

—————————-

John Chapter 12, Verses 25-26:

“Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.  If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”

In the last chapter, we focused on the idea of “living in Jesus.”  Here we can explore a couple of closely related words.  We are invited to pray over the ideas of following Jesus and being His servant.

As I spent time immersed in these gospel verses, I found myself thinking about what it means to make choices in my life.  Over and over, moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, I am continually making choices.   How often, as I face those choices, even if they are seemingly mundane, do I have the parameters of Jesus at hand as I make up my mind?

Jesus talks here about loving life, losing life, hating life, and keeping life in the context of the opposing ideas of “life in this world” and “eternal life.”  Immediately after that, He talks about following Him and serving Him.  This close association indicates that these concepts are connected.  What are the correlations that inform the choices I make?

I placed the connections in these terms in an effort to better understand them:

If I am to follow Jesus, then I must lose my life to Him.  I must be willing to set aside my perspective, my need, and my very own will to conform myself to His perspective, His need, and His very own Will.  If I could accomplish that, I would then, in fact, know what it means to correctly love eternal life as opposed to worldly life.  In following my Creator, my life moves toward fulfillment, and that movement is critical to learning to properly love the potential for eternal life I have been graced with.

If I am to serve Jesus, then I must hate my worldly life enough that I am willing to sacrifice all the desire and temptation born of this world in order to conform myself completely to His desire and Will.  If I could accomplish that, I would then, in fact, know how to keep and preserve the eternal life that Jesus calls me to.  When I serve my Creator, my life becomes fully mature, and that maturity propels me toward keeping and preserving my most precious possession, my hope for eternal life.

If I am being mindful as I make my choices, these principals and these connections should guide me.  Every decision I make should be grounded not in worries about money, or prestige, or any other worldly factor, but only in the Will of Jesus for my life.

The last chapter emphasized continual movement from death to life (continual resurrection) via continual conversion as the practical method by which the goal of “living in Jesus” is accomplished.

That continual conversion is essentially an unending string of choices.  Will I, with the help and encouragement and grace and strength of Jesus, be transformed in such a way that the choices I make this time are different than the choices I made last time, when I erred and sinned? 

It is entirely up to me.  I can spend hour after hour reading and meditating on the gospels.  I can read the legends and writing of St. Francis and St. Clare from cover to cover.  I can profess to live my life according to the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order. 

But in the end, it is all about the choices I make.

Will I follow and ultimately serve Him, or will I continue to put my worldly sinful self first?

—————————-

Francis knew and embraced this idea of individual responsibility. 

Near the end of his life, he wrote this short note to one if his original followers, Brother Leo:

Brother Leo, health and peace from Brother Francis!

I am speaking, my son, in this way — as a mother would — because I am putting everything we said on the road in this brief message and advice.  If, afterwards, you need to come to me for counsel, I advise you thus:  In whatever way it seems better to you to please the Lord God and to follow His footprint and poverty, do it with the blessing of the Lord God and my obedience.  And if you need and want to come to me for the sake of your soul or for some consolation, Leo, come.

Francis gives Leo leave to “follow” Jesus in “whatever way seems best.”  Despite the propagation of a Rule for his followers, Francis knew that they had to have a measure of freedom as they lived out their calling.  Francis does not see his role as dictating to Leo the proper way to follow or serve.  He leaves Leo free to discern the Will of Jesus for his individual life and then to follow through on that discernment.  Francis recognizes that even though Leo is his follower, Jesus will give Leo individual instructions (rooted in his individual graces) that differ from the instructions that Francis received himself. 

Despite being a brother of Francis, Leo is given the autonomy to follow the One we are all ultimately meant to serve, Jesus.  Francis, in his minority and wisdom, does not seek to usurp the position of Jesus in relation to Leo.  He feels so strongly about the need for Leo to follow his own path that he even promises obedience to the decisions that Leo makes.  Francis’ role is not to command Leo, but to support him in whatever way Leo requires.  Francis will be available to Leo if he needs counsel or guidance or consolation in his discernment, but the decisions are left to Leo.

There is only one caveat.  Leo is instructed to “follow His footprint,” but he is also instructed to follow poverty.  This then is the essence of the Franciscan charism shining through.  We each have an individual calling when it comes to discerning the Will of Jesus in our lives, but that discernment will inexorably fall under the umbrella of the Franciscan concept of Spiritual Poverty.  This requirement is non-negotiable if our discernment is to be successful.

This, however, is not Francis enforcing a rule that Francis came up with.  This is Francis enforcing the verses of the gospel that we are considering.  By telling Leo that his discernment must be done under the auspices of poverty, Francis is echoing the words of Jesus in verse 25. 

Francis telling Leo to use poverty as a guiding principal is the same as Jesus instructing us that we must lose our life to love it, or “hate our worldly life to keep our eternal one.”

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Of course, something so fundamental as the need to follow and serve Jesus will be expressed in the SFO Rule.  Article 10 of Chapter Two, the Way of Life, instructs us thus:

Let them also follow the poor and crucified Christ, witness to him even in difficulties and persecutions.

Take a moment to compare these words to the words from Francis to Leo in the letter.  Note the word follow appears in both places, as well as the reference to poor/poverty.

The rule in this instance is very much an echo of what Francis was telling Leo.  Just as Francis left Leo free to discern his individual calling within the constraint of poverty, our Rule leaves us free to do the same.  We understand and embrace the notion that we have a responsibility to go beyond the Rule, while staying within the Rule, to discern the personal call that Jesus has for each of us.

How is Jesus calling you to serve at this very moment?  What does He Will for your life?  He wants you to live the Rule, but what else, what more?  What are the specifics?  What ministry are you to serve in?  Are you called to work at Our Lady of the Road?  Or perhaps at Bridge of Hope?  Or in some other fashion, perhaps in your parish structure?  Might you be called to a leadership role in the fraternity?  Is there a ministry that Jesus has placed in your heart that you need to bring to the fraternity for action?  What individual task is He calling you to?

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Also look at article 14 of the Rule, which concludes with these words:

Mindful that anyone “who follows Christ, the perfect man, becomes more of a man himself,” let them exercise their responsibilities competently in the Christian spirit of service.

When I discussed serving Jesus above, I used the word maturity.  I think it is safe to say that there is a certain progression that takes place as our relationship with Jesus develops.  We begin as followers, but in the end, following is not enough. 

Put yourself again in this gospel.  Imagine yourself as a spectator in the room.  Breathe deeply the smell of the nard.  You have been following Jesus across the countryside, but you have had no real encounter with Him yet.  So far, he has not really acknowledged your presence with more than a glance to see if you are still there.  Then he looks over at you and speaks to you.  He asks you to do something for Him.  I cannot say what it is that He asks, because His request is based on your individual gifts. 

How do you react?  Perhaps you are a little fearful?  But likely you are also extremely excited?  This request is a step forward in your relationship.  Jesus has asked you to do Him a service, and that deepens your connection to Him.  Do it well, and He will ask again.  If you could serve Him well every time He asks, how deep would your relationship with Him go?

This is how our relationship with Jesus matures.  He calls us again and again until we respond.  Our first decision is to follow Him.  He then ups the ante by revealing His Will for our individual lives to us.  Now we must decide again.  Following has not asked much of us, but service likely requires us to begin sacrificing.  Will we embrace His Will and become His servant? 

Read the quote from article 14 of the Rule again.  Note how it develops.  We follow and we become “more of a man or woman.”  That progression is an act of maturing.  The more mature we become, the more able we are to “exercise our responsibilities competently in a spirit of Christian service.”

We go from followers to servants as our relationship with Him deepens.

Again, it is all about the choices I make.

Will I choose to follow Him?  Will my following mature into serving Him? 

Or will I continue to put my worldly sinful self first?

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The fully mature servant of God is described by Francis in these texts from Admonitions XII and XVII.

A servant of God can be known to have the Spirit of the Lord in this way; if, when the Lord performs some good through him, his flesh does not therefore exalt itself, because it is always opposed to every good.  Instead, he regards himself the more worthless and esteems himself less than all others.

Blessed is that servant who no more exalts himself over the good the Lord does through him than over what He says or does through another.  A person sins who wishes to receive more from his neighbor than what he wishes to give of himself to the Lord God.

Does this describe you?  I know I do not meet this definition.  Even if on the outside I succeed in hiding my pride at having served Jesus well in some task, I still fight on the inside to quell the need to congratulate myself.

It is not that I am not pleased to have achieved that success.  It is that when I look at myself honestly, I know I have so much farther to go.  Despite any successes I might achieve, the truth is I remain a sinner in need of mercy and conversion.  I will always be so.  If I were to exalt myself, then I would be denying that truth, and the success would become self-defeating.

This is also a representation of Francis’ instruction to Leo to “follow poverty.”  As Franciscans, our embrace of poverty on every front means we always place ourselves in a position of humility.  To quote the rule from last month again, we always strive to embrace our human frailty.  Our evolution is never complete.  We are always in that state of continual conversion and resurrection.  If we do not remain humble, then the ability to lose our lives to save them and “to hate our lives to keep them” will be forfeit.  And, as these verses instructs us, that forfeiture will also compromise our ability to live in Jesus, to follow Jesus, and to serve Jesus.     

Again, how will I choose?  Are poverty, minority and humility at the core of my relationship to Jesus? 

Am I properly positioned to be His servant?

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Look back for a moment and consider the second half of the quote from Article 10 above.

…..witness to Him even in difficulties and persecutions.

Take time to acknowledge and accept that these decisions to “live in Christ,” to follow Christ, and to serve Christ are not regularly seen by the world as desirable or acceptable.  The world and the enemy do not like to be rejected in favor of service to Christ.  They will fight back.  Indeed, the desire to exalt ourselves when we succeed is one of the tools used to derail us.

Just as Christ was persecuted for who He was, we can also expect to encounter persecution as we work through the conversion process that leads toward a wholehearted embrace of our need to follow and serve Him.  Jesus warned us it would be so in the Beatitudes.

We can, however, take solace in the fact that Francis experienced much of the same thing, and not just from random citizens of Assisi, but from his own father.

Early in his conversion process, Francis’ father sought to deflect him from the path he had chosen.  Francis had taken some cloth to Foligno, sold it, and was pondering what to do with the proceeds.  He decided to turn the resources completely to the work of God, and he tried to give the money to a poor priest at San Damiano.  The priest did not accept the money, so Francis left it in a windowsill.  He did, however, convince the priest to allow him to stay at the Church.

Chapter 5 of The First Book of the Life of St. Francis by Thomas Celano begins like this:

While the servant of the most high God was staying there, his father went around everywhere like a diligent spy, wanting to know what happened to his son.

Note the title that Thomas of Celano has given Francis at this stage.  He calls him “the servant of the most high God.”  In earlier chapters, Celano refers to Francis as “the man of God” one time.  Other than that, he is simply Francis.  But in this chapter, Francis is referred to as “servant of God” three times.  That same reference will not appear again until Chapter 20.

Francis’ father hears word of his location and “races to the place where the servant of God is staying.”  Francis anticipated that this time would come and prepared a pit as a hiding place for himself so that his father could not find him.  He dwells in the pit for a month, praying that the Lord will free him from his persecutors.  He experiences “indescribable happiness” in this prayer, prompting him to leave the pit and set out for the City.  

The citizens of Assisi experience him as completely changed.  They shout that he is insane and persecute him, throwing mud and rocks at him. 

But since the patient person is better than the proud, God’s servant showed himself deaf to all of them, and neither broken nor changed by any wrong to himself he gives thanks to God for all of them.

For in vain do the wicked persecute those striving for virtue, for the more they are stricken, the more fully will they triumph.  As some say, “Disgrace makes a noble mind stronger.”

Francis’ prayer in the pit did not free him from his persecutors.  The source of his happiness came from learning the Will of Jesus for his life and then living into that Will despite the persecution.  He leaves his hiding place and goes to the City to preach the gospel to the people because that is what Jesus tells him to do.  As a true servant of God, he does not condemn those who are oppressing him.  Instead, he thanks God for them, even praying for them in his own way.  They have done him a service.  Their persecutions have helped him to increase his resolve and to solidify the certainty that he has chosen the right path.  

Francis is showing the maturity of the servant.  No longer just a follower, but now a true servant of God, he is not distracted from the Will of Jesus by the harassment he encounters.  Instead, his desire to serve multiplies unimpeded.  He has chosen to serve Jesus over anything the world has to offer despite the attendant hardship.  He has thus, as Jesus promised in these verses, kept his hope for eternal life inviolate by embracing the invitation to service. 

Shortly after this, his father “pounces on him like a wolf on a lamb,” imprisons him in his home and even beats him to get Francis to return to his former life.  His mother frees him, and his father then meets him before the Bishop to at least retrieve the money from the sale of the cloth.  Francis not only returns the money, but strips himself bare, giving his father back even the clothes off his back, renouncing him forever in favor of his Father in heaven.  “Life in this world” is emphatically left behind.

Is it coincidence that Celano calls Francis servant for the first time in the middle of these events?  Or does Celano deliberately associate the title “servant” with the suffering of this persecution?  I do not know for sure, but it seems to me appropriate either way.  When following matures into serving, then the servant becomes more dangerous to the world and the enemy.  The maturity of the servant as demonstrated by Francis is what we as Franciscans are asked to strive for. 

If we achieve persecution, perhaps this confirms for us that progress has been made.

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As we close, read the verses again.  Jesus is calling us to follow Him as His servants and to be where He will be.

The verses of this chapter happen on the eve of the Passion of Jesus.  As we move next to Chapter 13 of John, we will begin to follow Jesus through his own persecution and ultimately to the Cross.  If our faith is mature, then we will welcome the chance to serve at His side in the time of His hardship, and we will, according to His example, learn to experience and embrace our own crosses along the way. 

His path is our path.  We will be where He will be.  Our place as His servants is at His side, no matter what hardships may come. 

If we can succeed, if we are mature enough to truly be His servants not only during the good times, but also during the difficult ones, what will our reward be for our faithful service?

Would you believe me if I told you “perfect joy?”  If you have time, look back to the discussion of joy from Chapter 3 of John, where you will find this at the end of Francis’ teaching on the subject of joy:

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

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At the end of our verses for this reflection, Jesus says this in relation to “anyone who serves Him”:

               My father will honor him (or her).

If the Father honors you, is that not the ultimate experience of joy you can hope for?

That would be “perfect,” wouldn’t it? 

What is the weight of earthly persecution in comparison to the “perfect joy” that Francis defines for us, and Jesus promises us, if we consent to accept the role of “servant of the most high God?”

Living the Rule

David Seitz recently celebrated 18 years of life as a professed Secular Franciscan.  That, in combination with an upcoming retreat he was about to lead for some Candidates preparing to make their own permanent profession to the Secular Franciscan Order, caused him to reflect and ask a hard question:

Has he let the Rule be a tool for his conversion, or has he tried to “re-invent” the Rule in his own image?

Click thru to his website and the post Living the Rule.

Then follow the link to his YouTube video and listen as he works his way through this question.

Laryngeal Cancer

I have been diagnosed with squeamish cell laryngeal cancer (cancer of the vocal chords). I know from past experience that having a family member or friend tell you about a diagnosis like this causes many questions. In order to answer those questions as completely as possible, I am putting all the information at my disposal in this post.

The first thing to know is that my prognosis is as positive as it can be. I have had a PET scan and a neck CT scan and they have confirmed that the cancer is stage 1 and has not spread to my lymph nodes, which is the first place it would go if it was more advanced. This means that the cure rate is 95% plus. I have had no other symptoms beyond hoarseness in my throat and have been functioning normally. This includes regular exercise, which for me means at least a 40 minute walk just about every day.

This cancer has nothing to do with the skin cancers that I have previously had removed. It is most often associated with long term heavy smoking and drinking. It can also be associated with the HPV (Herpes) virus. The biopsy was tested for the virus and came back negative and I do not have a history of smoking and drinking that would cause this issue. Thus, there is no firm explanation for the occurrence of the disease.

The lesion is dampening my vocal chords and this is why my voice is hoarse. Think of it as someone laying a hand over the strings of a guitar. The vocal chords vibrate just like the guitar strings in order to create the sound of your voice and the cancerous growth puts pressure on them, keeping them from vibrating properly.

Here is the basic chronology:

  • In late May or early June I started experiencing hoarseness in my throat. This persisted and did not go away. After six weeks (give or take), I called my doctor and asked for an appointment. Rather than seeing me himself, he referred me directly to an ENT. I had to get tested for COVID before I could go to that appointment. That test came back negative.
  • July 22, Initial appointment with Dr. Hamdan, ENT. He stuck a scope threw my nose and into my throat and told me that I had a hemorrhagic lesion on my right vocal chord. He scheduled a biopsy in order to check for cancer. I had to be checked for COVID again before the procedure. That test was also negative.
  • August 7, Biopsy performed.
  • August 17, Phone call with the preliminary news that the lesion was cancerous.
  • August 20, Initial consult with Dr. Ansari, Oncologist and Dr. Tran, Radiologist. They both examined me and told me that the lack of any other symptoms or lumps in my lymph nodes meant the disease was likely stage 1 and thus highly curable. Follow up tests were scheduled to confirm the staging.
  • August 25, PET and CT Neck scans
  • August 27, Follow up with Dr. Ansari with confirmation that I am stage 1.

The local head and neck tumor board has their monthly meeting on Wednesday of this week. My case will be discussed and treatment recommendations will be finalized. I have another follow up appointment with Dr. Ansari that morning where the final decision on treatment will be made.

Treatment will be either laser surgery or radiation.

Surgery is less likely because it has the potential to damage the vocal chords permanently. The determination to do surgery would only be made if the doctors are completely confident that they can perform the procedure with no risk of permanent loss of my voice.

It feels 90% likely that the treatment selected will be radiation. I have already gone through pre-planning in the expectation that this will be case. They fitted me with a mask that will hold my head steady during the treatments by laying a piece of pliable plastic over my face (felt like a warm towel) and forming it tightly to my features. I get to keep it at the end so I will never have to wonder how to dress for Halloween again.

The doctors refer to this as the organ preservation option, meaning that it does not pose a serious risk to my vocal chords. This treatment would likely cause a long term change in my voice, making it deeper, but the voice should recover to near normal.

The treatment involves going into the office every day at the same time, Monday thru Friday, for seven weeks with weekends off. The treatment itself lasts about 15 minutes. I can drive myself back and forth so Denise’ day to day schedule will not be interrupted.

Side effects are fairly minimal and I should tolerate them without much problem.

  • There is typically no diarrhea or vomiting.
  • I will not be at an increased risk for COVID.
  • Hair loss will be limited to the treatment area, so just the part of my beard around the Adam’s apple.
  • My skin will be irritated in the area of the treatment. I will likely not be shaving my neck as I normally do and may look a little extra scruffy. I will be trying different lotions to see what helps best with the irritation.
  • I will get dry mouth and will be using lozenges, etc. to try and alleviate that.
  • At times, I will be more tired than usual. When that happens, I am just supposed to rest.
  • For the first three weeks, I may actually feel better and my voice may improve as the cancer cells are destroyed.
  • The closer I get to the end, the more the irritation in my throat will grow. My voice will come and go and my appetite will be effected. I have been told to feel free to bulk up a little ahead of starting the treatment but I can expect to lose a little weight by the end of the treatment cycle. (This is all good as I have already lost twenty five pounds on purpose with diet changes and exercise in the last few months and have ten more or so to go.)

Once the treatment is over, the expectation is that I will be completely cured. I will have to be monitored regularly going forward (the details of that have not been discussed yet), but I should recover completely and return to a normal life.

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Last November, I took a leave from my job as a construction project manager and never went back. I am effectively retired from the construction industry and currently have no plans to re-engage. I am a kept man and house husband with the very great blessing of a wonderful wife successful enough in her own right that she can provide our basic needs.

This leaves me free to explore a calling I have felt deep in my heart for some time now. While I am retired from the construction industry, I do not view myself as formally retired. This note comes to you from the blog I have started as the beginning of a second career as a writer on religious formation and whatever other topics such a vocation leads me to.

(Although I am describing this as a second career, in keeping with my vocation as a Secular Franciscan, I have no intentions of monetizing this blog. It will remain add free and focused only on providing the best content I can manage. This second career is one that I will not expect to ever retire from.)

This blog is targeted at ongoing formation for Secular Franciscans, but it is also intended to be of broad use to anyone interested in investigating a life of faith. It should be of help to any person, Catholic or not, looking to deepen their relationship with God. But it is also proving to be of interest (I have several subscribers already who are not deeply religious but curious about faith or self improvement in general) to seekers who simply want to better understand what runs through the mind of someone actively engaged in a life of religious questing.

I invite you to visit the home page and have a look around. Or listen to this podcast that introduces the site. There are also other podcasts hosted by a Franciscan friend of mine who used to work for Notre Dame Magazine.

The ultimate success of this venture depends on my ability to attract an audience. The best way to demonstrate that audience is to be able to point to subscribers. If you are at all willing to support me in this endeavor, I would ask that you subscribe to the blog using the link at the bottom of the home page. (I am only posting a couple times a week so you will not be inundated with an annoying number of emails or texts on an ongoing basis.)

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The other update on me to be aware of is, as the video above indicates, I have recently fitted out my van for camping. One of the advantages of my new career is it can be done from anywhere. I have intentions of going on multiple “drive-abouts”, so if you live a long distance from me, you might find me asking to impinge on your hospitality. (You might also see me add material to the blog related to the diversity and beauty of Creation, also a very Franciscan theme.)

After the loss of Aidan and Christy, and now this development in my health, I am keenly aware of how fragile life can be and the need to live it to the fullest. This includes following what I discern as my true calling, but it also includes catching up with many of you. We are approaching the point in our lives where we need to make moments count in the most meaningful ways possible. It still seems like we have plenty of time left, but it will pass fast. I’m hoping to see many of you soon despite the pandemic.

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Right after the initial news, my dad asked me how I was doing. I told him, “I feel fine.” He said, “I meant your mental state.”

As it happened (if you are religious, you will see this as more than coincidence), the next blog post I was due to write was on Chapter 11 of the Gospel of John. This post discusses in some detail the idea of “Sister Death” in the Franciscan charism.

Writing this post the day after I got the preliminary diagnosis was restorative to me. I was in a position of waiting. I was optimistic based on the little bit of reading that I had done that the prognosis would wind up as it has, but I knew it would take time to get there. With the news still fresh, it was impossible not to feel anxiety and I did not sleep very well the night of the initial phone call.

But the next day I edited (the basic post was actually written a couple years ago in my role as formation director for my OFS fraternity) and published the post. This proved curative in and of itself. Delving back into that material reminded me that even if I wound up with worse news than I was expecting, I was still loved unconditionally by a God who wants me to spend eternity in His presence.

In some sense, I felt like there could be no such thing as bad news when the final prognosis came. I was reminded that I am destined for eternal happiness and that I am working hard to fulfill that destiny. I believe I am on my way and that God will sustain me in reaching this goal. The only thing the news could tell me is that I might be getting there sooner than I originally expected.

I made the post and forwarded it to my Dad so he would know I was in a good place mentally. The prognosis I received makes it easier to stay in that good place. But I expect that even when the treatment gets a little tough, I will be able to stay in a positive state of mind by rereading that post or being inspired to write others. In many ways, this feels like it will be much easier than what I went through losing Aidan or Christy.

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I know without asking that I will be the recipient of an unparalleled onslaught of prayers. This is because I am fortunate beyond description in the people that God has placed in my life. Thank you in advance for every thought and prayer that you will send my way.

Be assured that I will be praying for each and every soul that is thinking of me in turn.

Mary and Zechariah: Saying “Yes” from a Position of Spiritual Poverty

Annunciation to Zechariah (Fragment of Russian Icon, “The Execution of St. John the Baptist”)

I have recently spent considerable time in my prayer life and spiritual reading considering Mary’s “yes.”  But in order to begin writing what I expect will be multiple posts on this topic, I decided to go back to the initial source of the story, the Gospel of Luke, Chapter One.   The story of the Annunciation runs from verses 26-38.  The idea was to spend several days praying over these verses, allowing them to sink in and speak to me all over again.  As was suggested at the beginning of my reflection on the first chapter of John, I worked at entering the scene in order to enhance my prayer experience.

As I got started with this process, I read the verses of the Annunciation a couple times.  I then expanded my reading to the full chapter to provide better context for the story.  Few chapters in the gospels are as rich as this one.  It includes Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist, the Annunciation to Mary, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the Magnificat, the birth of John the Baptist and the Canticle of Zechariah.

As I read the full chapter, I found that my decision to go back to basics was quickly rewarded.  I noticed an interesting parallel between Gabriel’s discussion with Zechariah and the Annunciation.  The verses that caught my attention were Luke 1:18 (Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.) and Luke 1:34 (“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”).

In both stories, Gabriel is sent to announce the birth of a child.  Zechariah’s reaction is described as “startled and gripped with fear.”  Mary’s is similar.  She is termed “greatly troubled.”  In both instances, Gabriel responds by saying “Do not be afraid” and proceeds to describe the purposes the children will fulfill in the plan of God.  Zechariah and Mary then respond with the questions quoted above.       

On their face, the responses seem to be about the same.  Both persons have been confronted unexpectedly by an angel.  Both are not sure how to react to this development.  Both are in positions in their lives where the prediction of the angel seems out of place and unlikely to come true.  Both are wondering what this means and how it will come to pass. 

Up until this point, the stories have followed a similar track.  But now they diverge.  In response to Zechariah, Gabriel says “you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words.”  There is condemnation and perhaps punishment assigned to Zechariah for his response.  But in response to Mary, Gabriel is compassionate, patient, and sympathetic, providing her with this explanation: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

The inference is that there is a difference between the two questions even though they appear parallel.  After praying over this several times, I decided that Mary’s question (How will this be….) is inquisitive and has a certain amount of faith-filled humility associated with it.  She is not doubting.  She just wants to understand how the words of Gabriel might be fulfilled.  Zechariah (How can I be sure of this…..), on the other hand, demonstrates a lack of faith and a desire to control the situation.    

(If Mary’s faith were as deficient as Zechariah’s, the conversation likely would have ended, and we never would have heard of her.  The story would have quietly disappeared into history and God would have had to wait for another opportunity to fulfill His plan to come into the world.) 

Mary’s question thus has an air of acceptance about it.  She’s just being curious even though she has already decided to say “yes” to the proposition she has been given.

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This conclusion then led me to consider the differences between Mary and Zechariah.  What made Zechariah prone to faltering in his belief when this moment came?  What made Mary ready to accept, ready to say “yes”?

The easy answer is to refer to the Immaculate Conception, which appears to predestine Mary to saying “yes.”  I will address the topic of the Immaculate Conception in detail in the next post in this series.  For now, I am going to ask you to accept that Mary, like all human beings that have ever existed, was not predestined to accept and was indeed free to choose in this moment.  She could have said yes or no to Gabriel.  (Think of this in terms of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.  In the garden, Jesus says “not as I will, but as you will.”  Mary’s yes is similar.  Both she and Jesus had the choice, and both chose God when the pivotal moment occurred despite the appearance that their decisions were predetermined.  The dependence of love on free will within the nature of Creation makes this necessary.)     

What do we know about Zechariah?  What do we know about Mary?  What is the difference between them that led one to doubt and the other to believe?

From the text of the gospel, we know that Zechariah is old, he’s male and he’s a priest from the division of Abijah.  As a priest, he is in a position of prominence.  He is selected to burn incense in the temple, making him the focus of attention of the people assembled to worship, who wonder was has happened to him when he is delayed leaving the temple.  In verse six, he is described as “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s decrees and commands blamelessly.”  Despite this description, a few sentences later, in verse twenty, Gabriel describes him as “not believing.”  (I suppose this should make us feel a little better about ourselves.  Even the father of John the Baptist was not immune to lapses despite being a righteous man.)

Mary is young, female and, unlike Zechariah, without prominence in her community.  While she is described as “highly favored,” this favor exists in anonymity.  She is a young girl from a small town who no one would have been aware of no matter how highly favored she was.  She was set to embark on a life that was no different than any other young Jewish girl of the time.  She was betrothed to Joseph, a working-class carpenter despite being a descendant of David, and would enter his house as a typical wife and eventually mother.  She was certainly very pious and may have been known for that in her small community, but up until the day of the Annunciation there was nothing that would have drawn attention to her in a larger context. 

We have little record of her life before the Annunciation, but we can speculate based on her selection as the Mother of God and our own experiences. 

If we reflect on our own calls to the Franciscan life, we will likely see the same pattern developing again and again.  Few if any of us would report a single great encounter with the Will of God that caused us to seek out the Franciscan life.  Instead, we would more likely relate a nagging feeling that developed and matured over an extended time.  God called us often and continually and it took us time to respond.  He pursued us unceasingly and we are grateful for that.  Even though we are professed, we know that we often falter.  We rely on His resolute call to bring us back from our lapses and to help us recommit to an ever-deepening relationship with Him.  We are thankful that He is supremely patient and that His Love for us is so encompassing that He never stops calling us into His presence.

Francis’ early experiences are similar to ours.  The event in Francis’ life that is analogous to the Annunciation is the image of Christ speaking to him in the church of San Damiano.  This event is relayed to us in Chapter Six of The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul by Thomas Celano.  That chapter begins like this:

With his heart already completely changed – soon his body was also to be changed – he was walking one day by the church of Sam Damiano………….

Before his direct encounter with Christ, Francis’ “heart was already completely changed.”  God had been calling Francis continually, most likely from when he was a boy or a young teenager.  Francis, in the beginning, did not respond at all.  He was too focused on parties and becoming a knight.  He is captured and spends a year in the dungeons of Perugia.  During that time, he begins to hear and respond to the call.  When he is released, he tries to go back to his old life but cannot.  He spends time praying and seeking the meaning behind the compulsion he feels.  It takes an extended time for him to develop into the man that is ready to hear the voice of Christ speaking from the San Damiano Crucifix.

Next we apply our knowledge of our own calls and the calling of Francis to the life of Mary.  We can speculate with certainty that she also was called from a young age.  She likely did not suffer the same distractions as Francis, or if she did, she mastered them much sooner than he did.  (At the time of the Annunciation, she was likely younger than Francis was when he went into the battle of Perugia.)  We can assert that she was already a deeply prayerful person by the time the Annunciation occurred because she had already been faithfully answering the call of God for an extended time.  Despite her youth, she had already found her way into a certain separation from worldly concerns that made her ready to say a profound “yes” when the time came.  Like Francis, God had called her from an early age and given her time to develop into the person who was prepared to handle a visit from an Archangel without panicking.      

What I want to suggest is Mary’s long-term prayerful response to God’s call helped her learn to be minor by the time the Annunciation occurred.  She was, in fact, already the first Franciscan. 

As an unassuming young woman in an out of the way town, she had already embraced the life of minority that Francis cherished before it was possible to follow the example of Christ into that life.  The entire life of Spiritual Poverty that Francis developed and left us as his legacy is the life that Mary led even before the birth of Christ.  Thus, unlike Zechariah, who in the moment of his encounter with Gabriel fell victim to his own prominence and worldliness, Mary was able to maintain the integrity of her Spiritual Poverty and virtue. 

This is why I preceded this post with the post Mary as Holy Lady Poverty.  In that post, I suggested that Mary learned the life of Spiritual Poverty from her Son.  I want to now amend that thought by saying she was already well along the path to Spiritual Poverty before she became the Mother of Jesus.  Her long-standing prayerful answer to the call of God prepared her for the Annunciation and oriented her to a life of poverty and simplicity, thus making her the perfect candidate to become the Mother of Jesus. 

The life she experienced with her Son then perfected in her the discipline of Spiritual Poverty.  It prepared her for everything that was to come and allowed her to endure the pain of seeing her Son Crucified.  It allowed her to remain steadfast in faith and the knowledge that the plan of God would be fulfilled despite what her Son was asked to suffer.

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I often think of the Passion of Christ in terms of the response I hope it engenders in me.  When I think about the Love of Christ as represented by the complete self-giving of the Passion, I know that I must attempt, no matter how many times I falter, to always reply to that Love with an unequivocal love of my own that offers every fiber of my being to the Will of God.  This is the essence of what it means to say a complete and unambiguous “yes” to my own call from God.

Now I find myself thinking of the pain of Mary during the Passion.  Do I owe that a response as well?  Her “yes” led inevitably to that pain.  How do I honor that?  How do I offer my love to her as clearly as her love was offered to me when she said, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.”?

Article 9 of the Rule says this:

The Virgin Mary, humble servant of the Lord, was open to his every word and call. She was embraced by Francis with indescribable love and declared the protectress and advocate of his family. The Secular Franciscans should express their ardent love for her by imitating her complete self-giving and by praying earnestly and confidently.        

I think the answer is found here.  The instruction of the Rule to “imitate her complete self-giving” is a request to honor the “yes” of Mary.  We have all heard the saying “imitation is the highest form of flattery.”  In imitating Mary’s “yes,” not just at the moment of the Annunciation, but also in all the preparation that preceded that moment, we honor what she did for humankind by agreeing to be the Mother of Jesus.  We reciprocate the love she continues to bestow on us.  We revere and perhaps to some small extent share the pain that her “yes” cost her.

She was “open to the every word and call of the Lord.”  We must be as well.  We must be willing to imitate this in her as we go through our daily lives.  We must be willing to set aside worldly concern and embrace a life of Spiritual Poverty as surely as she did with the intention of offering her the love that is her due.

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Perhaps we can only hope for a momentous event in our spiritual lives when, or more precisely if, we achieve a deep enough relationship with God that we are ready for it as Mary and Francis were.  Although we might think their “yeses” happened at the time of these events, in actuality, their “yeses” developed over an extended time.  They were prepared when the momentous event presented itself and thus were able to respond with a final climatic “yes” that turned out for them to be irreversible.

This is what I am seeking for myself.  I am seeking to develop such a deep commitment to God, such a deep relationship with Him, that He might see me as fit for a wondrous encounter of my own.  I know that this is unlikely.  I know that I may never achieve such a state.  But there is no way to approach it if I do not set it as my goal. 

I long to someday make my own irreversible “yes” just as Mary and Francis did.   I know I am not there yet, but I pray for the strength to persevere.  There is no harm in dreaming such a dream. 

As I open my daily prayer, I ask specific saints to pray for me.  This always includes Francis, Clare, John the Baptist, Augustine, Peter, Paul and Andrew.  I then, just to be safe, invoke all the saints with this phrase:

“All you holy men and women pray for me that one day I might join your ranks.”

Perhaps if I persevere long and well enough in my quest to join their ranks I might also hear Christ speak to me from a Crucifix or be visited by an Archangel.

This is what I hope for. 

I invite you to hope the same as you consider how to say your own “yes” in imitation of Mary’s.

Journey thru John, Chapter 11: Living in Jesus

Resurrection of Christ by Noel Coypel, circa 1700

We know that the events of the gospels took place a long time ago.  For us, they are part of a distant history.  Our scene is very different than the one Jesus occupied.  We have electricity and everything that comes with it.  He had only candles for light when the sun went down.  There was no such thing as television or telephones or social media.  We can know what happens in Rome in an instant.  It would have taken weeks for the news of Rome to reach Jesus, and He would have had only word of mouth to rely on for its authenticity.  No pictures or film.

Because of these discrepancies, we often feel more like spectator than participant as we read the gospels. 

But we also know that the gospels are current.  They speak to us about our lives today despite the differences in the world from then until now. 

Entering the scene is a method for bridging this distance.  By entering the scene, we hope to participate, not just review from the far-off position of historical spectator.  We expect that our participation will reinforce the gospel’s currency and inform us how to discern the Will of God for our lives.

What was it like to be a disciple of Jesus?  Thomas says in this chapter, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  Can you put yourself in his place?  Can you be a companion of Jesus, struggling to understand the meaning of the events around you, and yet willing to get up and follow Him even though that following might lead to death?

Can you take the place of Martha and Mary, who both said to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Do you have so much faith in the person of Jesus that you believe anything is possible to Him, including the curing of the seemingly incurable?

Eternal life is central to our creed as Catholics.  Even so, can you take the place of Lazarus?  Can you imagine what it would be like to wake from the dead, find yourself in a tomb wrapped in burial clothes, and then to be led out only to hear Jesus say, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go?”

We have nothing in the gospels about how Lazarus reacted.  We see his sister Mary fall at the feet of Jesus, but what about Lazarus?  Did he fall at the feet of Jesus as well?  Perhaps he was too dumbfounded to do anything but be led away?

How would you react if Jesus called you out of that tomb?

Do you understand that this is not a hypothetical question?  Someday, hopefully, it will be current for you as you are called to eternal life!  Can you imagine yourself in that scene? 

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John Chapter 11, Verses 25-26:

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

When I first read verse 26, I read it like this:

               “Whoever lives” and “whoever believes in me” will never die.

Then, after I read it a few times, I began to read it like this:

               “Whoever lives in me” and “whoever believes in me” will never die.

It may be a subtle difference, but in the end, it was the difference that gave me my reflection for this chapter. 

What does it mean to “live in Jesus?” 

How does the action of “living in Jesus” relate to the word resurrection?

What does “living even though he dies” mean?  That phrasing does not seem to reference resurrection, but instead “never dying” at all, which is how the wording occurs in the restatement of the idea at the end of the sentence.  Is “never dying” the same thing as resurrection, or something else, related to resurrection and yet distinct?  If it is distinct, how can someone live and die at the same time?

The relationship between resurrection and life seems to be clear.  We know that Jesus died on the Cross, was placed in the tomb, and then rose from that tomb.  This is the Resurrection, capital “R.”  In this chapter of John, we are also given the story of Lazarus, who died and is called from his tomb by Jesus.  These are two instances of resurrection where the defining characteristic seems to be the passage of time.  Resurrection is not instantaneous, which seems contrary to the inferences of “living even though he dies” or “never dying” at all.

When Jesus calls Himself “the resurrection and the life,” is He just declaring himself capable of raising Lazarus as a prefiguration of his own Resurrection to come later?  Is He referring only to these two incidents?    Or is there an expanded meaning to the word resurrection implied here, a meaning related to “never dying” at all?

In the last chapter, we found a deeper meaning to the idea of laying down one’s life.  It started with the historical incident of the Crucifixion, but it expanded to encompass Jesus laying down His Divinity and our call to emulate this action by Jesus with the assistance and inspiration of Francis. 

Is something similar going on with the historical incident of Jesus’ Resurrection?  Is it also something we need to delve into more thoroughly before we can understand the full implications of this gospel teaching?

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In the culture that we live in, death is an entirely negative concept.  It is something to be avoided at all costs.  Few of us can think of death not as an ending, but instead as a transition.  We are too distracted from our spiritual lives to be comfortable and sure about the meaning of death. 

Thus, death becomes something that is mostly defined by fear. 

But as Franciscans, we are called to a different point of view.  Our father Francis, at the end of his life, made it clear that he was not afraid of death at all.  Francis was so comfortable with his coming bodily death that he embraced it as an opportunity for one last chance to teach.  He wrote the final verse of his most famous work, The Canticle of the Creatures, while he was literally on his death bed. 

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one living can escape.  Woe to those who die in mortal sin.  Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will, for the second death shall do them no harm.

Note that Francis is “praising God through death.”  No one can escape death, but, nonetheless, it is an occasion not for fear or anger, but for praise.  The love that Francis carried through his life for God is not diminished at the end.  The faith that was built during his life carries him joyfully to the close, making this expression of praise not only possible, but appropriate.

Given the way he lived his life, no other approach to death by Francis would make sense. 

Also note the words “in your most holy will.”  It should be safe to assume that one of the reasons that Francis is able to praise God through death is he knows himself to have resided in God’s Will throughout his life.  As a result, he feels not afraid, but confident and even blessed.  He does not fear his death as an end or a potential condemnation, but instead sees it as an opportunity to move closer to God.  He may not know precisely what the next life will entail, but he is looking forward to the transition to that next life because he knows, whatever he finds, that he will be safe from harm because he pursued God’s Will so diligently during his stay on earth.

If Francis had instead written “blessed are those whom death will find living in You,” would the meaning be any different? 

Francis is confident about being blessed in death because he knows he has fulfilled the words of Jesus found in the above verses of John.  He has “lived in Jesus” because he has devoted himself to the gospel life and thus to following God’s most holy will.  Francis reasonably expects to “live even though he dies” and/or to “never die” just as this gospel passage promises.

Living in God, living in Jesus, can be understood to be the same thing as living according to God’s Will.  We still need to understand how to do that, but because we know that Francis accomplished this goal, we can be confident that he can show us the way.

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It is not something I would ever have expected to do, but I am also going to give you the footnote related to the above passage from Francis of Assisi: Early Documents.

Fulgentius of Rome comments on these verses in his treatise on forgiveness.  “Here on earth they are changed by the first resurrection, in which they are enlightened and converted, thus passing from death to life, sinfulness to holiness, unbelief to faith, and evil actions to holy life.  For this reason the second death has no power over them….As the first resurrection consists of the conversion of the heart, so the second death consists of unending torment.

I have chosen to do this because the footnote contains the word resurrection twice.  The verses from the Canticle themselves do not seem to reference resurrection at all, yet the footnote centers on it.

However, the context of the word resurrection is atypical.  It is not focused on the historical act of Jesus rising from the tomb as we might expect.  Instead, the context centers on conversion during the time we are living on this earth. 

“They are changed by the first resurrection.”

“The first resurrection consists of the conversion of the heart.”

This suggests to us that we should begin looking for the deeper meaning of the gospel passage. 

The implication is that the first Resurrection, the Resurrection of Jesus, is not a piece of distant history to be observed from the outside.  Instead, it is something internal to us, something that will work within us to “enlighten and convert” us on a day to day basis if we let it.  It is, to use the word from the introduction to this chapter, current in our lives.

Jesus’ Resurrection, when it is made present in our prayer lives, is a catalyst for conversion.  If you think about it, that makes perfect sense.  How could we contemplate the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus and not be changed if we take it seriously? 

The footnote describes this conversion centered resurrection as “passing from death to life.”  This then hearkens to the ideas of “living even though he dies” and/or to “never dying” from the gospel verses.  The further inference is that “passing from death to life” (resurrection) is not a one-time occurrence that happens at the end of our bodily lives but is instead something meant to happen on an ongoing basis. 

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As Franciscans, the word “ongoing” should set off bells and whistles in our heads.  It should remind us immediately of our profession and our commitment to ongoing conversion as part of that profession.

The SFO Rule, in article seven, says this regarding conversion:

…..let them conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the gospel itself calls “conversion.”  Human frailty makes it necessary that this conversion be carried out daily. 

The gospel instructs us to “live in Jesus.”  Francis instructs us to place ourselves “in God’s most holy will.”  The rule, in relation to conversion, tells us to “conform our thoughts and deeds to those of Christ.”  All statements of the same concept.

I would just ask you to consider whether it is possible to “conform your thoughts and deeds to those of Christ” if you are not consistently immersed in the gospels?

The answer is, of course, no.  This means that the act of “living in Jesus,” the act we are called to in this chapter of John, is at the core of the Franciscan charism.  Our rule, in article 4, calls us to go from gospel to life and life to gospel so that Jesus becomes the center of our life.   This act of immersion, which leads to conformance and conversion, is what “living in Jesus” is all about and it must be “carried out daily” because of our “frail human nature.”

The daily nature of our need for immersion then fits snugly with the discussion of resurrection and conversion suggested by the footnote.  Resurrection is not a single event that happens once at the end of our life if we manage to be good girls and boys.  Our sinfulness always leaves us in some lesser or greater state of death.  Therefore, we are always in need of resurrection, in need of moving from death to life.  The Resurrection of Jesus is a beacon that inspires us to fulfill our ongoing need for continual conversion and resurrection, for a continual movement away from death toward life, away from sin towards the Will of God.

Our Franciscan efforts at continual conversion then translate into a state of ongoing resurrection.  When we work at this through gospel immersion, we are fulfilling the instruction from this chapter of John to “live in Jesus.”

It is how we can be alive and dead at the same time.  It is how we can ultimately never die at all.      

If we acknowledge our frailty as the rule suggests and embrace continual daily conversion, a cycle develops.  Our frailty causes us, at times, to swing back toward death.  But immersion and conversion take us toward an ongoing resurrection that moves us back toward life again.  There is then resurrection on both ends of this definition of conversion.  Resurrection both leads to conversion and is the result of conversion.  There is a circle at work, conversion and resurrection building on one another.

We may take two steps forward and one step back, but so long as we are always committed to immersion in the gospels, we should be able to stay on a course of conversion and ongoing resurrection that ultimately leads us to the position where, by the end, we can be confident that we have followed in Francis’ footsteps and can praise God as he did as we meet Sister Bodily Death when our individual time comes.

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The SFO Rule, in article 19, at the very end of Chapter Two, The Way of Life, speaks directly to this possibility.  It says this:

Since they are immersed in the resurrection of Christ, which gives true meaning to Sister Death, let them serenely trend toward the ultimate encounter with the Father.

I did not place the word immersed in the Rule in this location.  Nor the word resurrection.  I would like to be able to take credit for these words coming together, linking the verses of the Gospel, the Canticle of the Creatures, the footnote and the sections of the rule to each other, but I can’t.  Still, there they are, neatly summarizing the entire reflection.

When we immerse ourselves in the gospels, we are immersing ourselves in resurrection not just as we read this Chapter of John or the Passion accounts but in every chapter of every gospel.  The entirety of the gospels is an instruction on how to “live in Jesus,” and therefore on how to experience the ongoing conversion and continual resurrection that leads to living while dying and ultimately never dying at all.   

This is what Jesus means when He says that He is the Resurrection and the Life.  He is not the Resurrection only on the day of Resurrection.  His every movement, His every teaching, His entire being is a guide to an ongoing resurrection that leads to continuous conversion away from sin, from death to the continuous Life found when we choose to reside in Him, to follow His Will, and to conform ourselves to Him via the gospels.

Just as in the last chapter, where the meaning behind laying down one’s life was expanded, the same thing happens here with the idea of resurrection.  Resurrection is not a single event in history, but instead part of the ongoing process that leads us from death to life at all points in our existence. 

For conversion to be possible, we must immerse ourselves in Jesus via the gospels.  To the extent that we do so, the door to a life based on ongoing resurrection is opened to us.  We “live even though we die” in so much as we practice the cycle of resurrection and conversion rooted in the decision to “live in Jesus.”   

That then gives true meaning to Sister Death as the rule suggests, not as an end, but as a loving companion during a lifetime of transition.  It is what allowed Francis to praise God as Sister Death approached and what should allow us to do the same.  It is what allows us to understand that ongoing conversion gives us the full confidence we need to “serenely trend toward the ultimate encounter with the Father” not just at the end of our lives, but throughout them.

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Sometimes words are just inadequate.  I have read and reread my reflection many times now and I know that the words I used to describe what I experienced by immersing myself in this gospel chapter are insufficient.

I used the word “death” to describe my state of sinfulness because no other word seems to suffice.  The word resurrection describes an event in history, but I have attempted to extend its meaning here to describe something else, no doubt poorly.

I hope this does not lead to confusion.  Death and resurrection seem to be straightforward words, but they turn out to be anything but.  Somehow, because of the brilliance of Jesus, they have extended meanings which other words in our language struggle to encompass.

In Volume Three of Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, there are two versions of a work called A Mirror of Perfection.  The work is based on material from the time of Francis that was discovered in hermitages and residences of the Order in the early 1300s. 

Because my words feel so inadequate, I am going to rely on the very end of the second version of this work to summarize this reflection for me.  Hopefully, it begins to describe what you and I will experience when our bodily life comes to its end, assuming we manage to “live in Jesus” as we are called to do.

Feel free to reread and answer the questions in the section with the focus verses, but please also pray over the passage below.  This is how Sister Death carried Francis to Jesus just after he composed the last verse of the Canticle of the Creatures.  We should long to experience the same. 

After saying these things, he was carried to Saint Mary’s where, having completed the fortieth year of his life, the twentieth year of perfect penance, in the year of the Lord one thousand, two hundred and twenty-six, on the fourth day before the Nones of October, he passed to the Lord Jesus Christ Whom he loved with his whole heart, with his whole mind, with his whole soul, and with all his strength, with a most burning desire, and with the fullness of affection, following Him most perfectly, hastening swiftly after Him, and, at last, attaining Him most gloriously, Who lives and reigns with the Father and Holy Spirit forever and ever.  Amen.