Dancing in Heaven

Five Dancing Angels by Giovanni di Paolo (1436)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then this happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two last things I wish to add:

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

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

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

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

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

St. Francis by Albert Chevallier Taylor (1898)

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

“The Jews were waiting to take his life.” 

“……the Jews were watching for him……”

“At this they tried to seize him.”

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

“Some wanted to seize him,……”

“You mean he has deceived you also?”

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

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

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

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

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John Chapter 7, Verse 7:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Article 11 of the Rule says this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The opening paragraph of The Testament says this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are we to do?

To recap one final time in closing:

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

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

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

One Click to the Rule

Luchesio and Buonadonna, the first Secular Franciscans

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

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

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

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

For an Android Phone:

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

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

For an I-Phone:

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

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

Its as easy as that.

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

Free Resource for May Crowning

Just received this in my email yesterday from my good friend and fraternity sister Patricia who works for the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.

It is a free resource meant to facilitate the celebration of a May Crowning in the home.

Thought it might be something that many Franciscans would find useful.

Click the link and fill out the information form on the right and submit it and you will receive an email that allows you to access the download at any time.

Journey thru John, Chapter 6: Francis’ Passion for the Eucharist

The Ruins of the Synagogue at Capernaum

I know that as a Franciscan, I should say Assisi.  But in all honesty, if there was one place in the world that I could go, I would pick Capernaum.  The archaeologists (some of them Franciscan friars, who are the caretakers for the site) say that the ruins of the synagogue that stand there today lay atop the ruins of an older synagogue, possibly the one that Jesus preached in.  The second half of this chapter of John’s gospel takes place at that site.  I would cherish the opportunity to visit that place, stand in those ruins, and read Jesus’ words about being the “Bread of Life” in the location where they were actually spoken. 

The only thing better than walking in the footsteps of Francis is walking in the footsteps of Jesus Himself? 

Putting yourself in the scene couldn’t get much better than that.

I had more difficulty than usual choosing a verse to concentrate on for this reflection.  The section of this chapter entitled Jesus, The Bread of Life, lasts a full 35 verses.  The difficulty comes because John feels the need to repeat himself over and over again in order to convey the importance of his theme.  It’s almost as if John can’t help himself.  He seems to know instinctively that he can’t adequately convey the depth of the mystery he is presenting.  Maybe, just maybe, if he repeats the same thing over and over again, in slightly different words each time, one of the phrases will take hold.

I’ll leave it to you to pick the one that works best for you.

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John Chapter 6, Verse 33:

“For the Bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives Life to the world.”

John Chapter 6, Verse 35:

“I am the Bread of Life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

John Chapter 6, Verse 40:

“For my Father’s Will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have Eternal Life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

John Chapter 6, Verses 48-50:

“I am the Bread of Life.  Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died.  But here is the Bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die.”

John Chapter 6, Verse 51:

“I am the Living Bread that came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this Bread, he will Live forever.  This Bread is my Flesh, which I will give for the Life of the world.”

John Chapter 6, Verse 54:

“Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood has Eternal Life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

John Chapter 6, Verses 55-57:

“For my Flesh is real food and my Blood is real drink.  Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me, and I in him.  Just as the Living Father sent me and I Live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will Live because of me.”

John Chapter 6, Verse 58:

“This is the Bread that came down from heaven.  Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this Bread will Live forever.”

Three things linked together essentially the same way eight different times in the space of 35 verses. 

Jesus as Son.  Jesus as Bread.  Jesus as the source of Eternal Life.

There must be something very important going on here even if it’s not quite revealed and explained by the words themselves.

If we have difficulty understanding, we are not alone.  Scattered in these verses we find the Jews grumbling a couple times about Jesus claiming to be “the Bread of Life that came down from heaven.”  Then later they argue about “how can this man give us his Flesh to eat?”  And then the section after this is entitled Many Disciples Desert Jesus.  They leave because “this is a hard teaching, who can accept it?”

As in Chapter 5, John is again out of sync here with the three synoptic Gospels.  Each of those give us a version of the Last Supper.  But John does not.  He gives us Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, but he skips over the meal itself entirely.  His teaching on the Eucharistic occurs here, in this chapter, and it is much different than what is presented in the synoptics.  They give us the institution of the Eucharistic without much reference to the mystery.  John is focused on the mystery, but even his words can’t seem to do it justice. 

I can’t just read it, understand it and move on. 

I am left to ponder in prayer and meditation.  What does it mean to consume the Body of Christ?

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So, at this stage I find myself in need of making a confession.

I wrote the first draft of this reflection and did not like it at all.  I let it sit for a day and pondered it while I was out and about.  And I discovered, after thinking about it for not very long at all, that I had very little understanding of what the words “Bread of Life” mean.  And I have even less ability to write words that conveyed what I might think I understand.

After thinking a little more, I decided that it was very audacious of me to suggest in the opening that I knew what John was thinking as he wrote.  I left my introduction as it was just so you can see how ridiculous I was being.  Who am I, after all, to think that I might be able to read the mind of John?  All I really have done is project my shortcomings on him, most likely a very unwise thing to do. 

And then after thinking about it just a little longer, I decided that John probably knew exactly what he was writing.  The failure in understanding is not with him, but with me.  If I was not such a grand sinner, which I will I expound on some before I finish, then maybe I might have a chance to grasp the meaning of this Gospel.  Perhaps someday, when I am much wiser and older, I might have a chance.  But today, being the sinner that I am, I have to admit that it is beyond me.

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Of course, that leaves me with a bit of a predicament.  I still have to write something for you to reflect on.

So I turn to Francis.  I remember how he was prone to taking the gospel quite literally and how that worked for him.  And then I look again at the selections from Francis’ writing that I had picked to share.  And I decide to let Francis speak for the both of us. 

I am sure that Francis understood much better than I do what John was trying to convey.  But in his wisdom what he hands down to us has very little explanation in it.  Instead of trying to explain anything, Francis just embraces the instruction of Jesus wholeheartedly and then gives way to his passion.  His passion then gives understanding separate from intellectual exercise.  It’s a grace that’s largely absent in the world I occupy, a grace that I can easily envy, a grace I desperately need to balance out my need to analyze and know. 

Is Francis more passionate about any other subject anywhere in his writings?  I’m not sure he could be.  Read these beautiful words from A Letter to the Entire Order about Jesus present on the altar a couple times and just try and keep your soul from stirring!

Let everyone be struck with fear, let the whole world tremble, and let the heavens exult when Christ, the Son of the living God is present on the altar in the hands of a priest! O wonderful loftiness and stupendous dignity! O sublime humility! O humble sublimity! The Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, So humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under an ordinary piece of bread! Brothers, look at the humility of God and pour out your hearts before Him! Humble yourselves that you may be exalted by Him! Hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves, that He Who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally!

The beauty and the sincerity are simply astonishing, aren’t they?  My need for explanation just melts away.  If a Saint like Francis can believe so passionately, then I no longer even want to know the theological arguments and details.  I just want to experience enough grace to believe unconditionally as he did.

Hear the echo from his disciple, Thomas of Celano, in chapter 152 of The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul.  Note him following the example of Francis as he also emphasizes the merciful nature of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Over and over and over again, Jesus comes to us unconditionally, never holding anything of Himself back, always available to reinforce, enhance and achieve our redemption.  As with Francis, Thomas calls on us to give back the same, to hold nothing of ourselves back in response to the generous and abundant mercy of Jesus. 

Toward the sacrament of the Lord’s Body he burned with fervor to his very marrow and with unbounded wonder of that loving condescension and condescending love. He considered it disrespectful not to hear, if time allowed, at least one Mass a day. He received Communion frequently and so devoutly that he made others devout. Following that which is so venerable with all reverence he offered the sacrifice of all his members, and receiving the Lamb that was slain he slew his own spirit in the fire which always burned upon the altar of his heart.

How could a passionate giving way of our own not be a proper response to Jesus present on the altar?

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If you are versed in Francis just a little bit, you know that he held priests in special regard.  This is precisely because of the special role they play in making Jesus present for the rest of us.  In his Testament, he goes so far as to call them “his lords.”   

Afterwards the Lord gave me, and gives me still, such faith in priests who live according to the rite of the holy Roman Church because of their orders that, were they to persecute me, I would still want to have recourse to them ……….. And I desire to respect, love and honor them and all others as my lords.  And I do not want to consider any sin in them because I discern the Son of God in them and they are my lords.  And I act in this way because, in this world, I see nothing corporally of the most high Son of God except His most holy Body and Blood which they receive and they alone administer to others.

And yet, there is one situation where Francis does not hesitate to call them to task.  Francis feels so strongly about the Eucharist that, when he perceives a lack of reverence on the part of some priests, he is compelled to write an Exhortation to the Clergy, which is one part admonishment and one part encouragement for those priests who are guilty of a lack of care and/or respect in how they handle the Eucharist.

Let all of us, clergymen, consider the great sin and the ignorance some have toward the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ ……….. Let all those who administer such most holy mysteries, however, especially those who administer them illicitly, consider how very dirty are the chalices, corporals and altar-linens upon which His Body and Blood are sacrificed.  It is placed and left in many dirty places, carried about unbecomingly, received unworthily, and administered to others without discernment ……….. Let us, therefore, amend our ways quickly and firmly ……….. And whoever does not do so, let him know he must render an accounting on the day of judgment before our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Francis may think of priests as “his lords,” but Jesus supercedes.  Once He is corporally present on the altar, once He is actually physically present to us in the Eucharistic, then nothing else really matters, does it?  The priest who brings him to the altar should be aware of the great miracle that he has been privileged to help accomplish.  That task should make him reverent beyond all other considerations.  He holds Jesus Himself in his hands!  In the face of that, it’s not surprising that Francis does not hesitate to upbraid “his lords” on behalf of “The Lord” when they become complacent about caring for “His most Holy Body and Blood.”

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If you are aware of the patterns of these reflections, you know that I am always looking for a way to tie the SFO Rule to the reflection.  As usual, I went looking in the Rule for what it has to say about the Eucharist, but I must tell you that in this instance I was a little disappointed.

Francis is so passionate in the above.  And yet the Rule does not even devote an entire article to the Eucharistic.  Read again the passage that starts with “Let everyone be struck with fear.”  Then read article Five from the Rule and see if you agree with me?  Is the passion of Francis conveyed here?  Is this an adequate indication of how we should approach the Eucharist?

Secular Franciscans, therefore, should seek to encounter the living and active person of Christ in their brothers and sisters, in Sacred Scripture, in the Church, and in liturgical activity.  The faith of St. Francis, who often said “I see nothing bodily of the Most High Son of God in this world except his most holy body and blood,” should be the inspiration and pattern of their Eucharistic life.

Most High is capitalized, but Most Holy is not?  Body and Blood are also not capitalized even though they are in the original?  There just does not seem to be the same punch in the Rule as there is in the direct writings of St. Francis, at least to me.

Thankfully, there is one spot in the Rule where the importance of the Eucharistic to Francis comes through.   In the Introduction, Francis’ Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance is given to us verbatim.  There we can again glean the passion of Francis on the subject.  It has two chapters, one about “Those Who Do Penance,” the other about those who do not.  (Note that “Body and Blood” are back to being capitalized.)    

From Chapter One:

All those who love the Lord with their whole heart, with their whole soul and mind, with their whole strength and love their neighbors as themselves, who hate their bodies with their vices and sins, who receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and who produce worthy fruits of penance.  O how happy and blessed are these men and women while they do such things and persevere in doing them……..  

From Chapter Two:

All those men and women who are not living in penance, who do not receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, who practice vice and sin and walk after evil concupiscence and the evil desires of their flesh, who do not observe what they have promised the Lord, and who in their body serve the world through the desires of the flesh, the concerns of the world and the cares of this life.  They are held captive by the devil, whose children they are, and whose works they do.

At first, the references to “the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ” almost seem out of place. 

Francis mostly gives generalizations about what constitutes good and bad behavior.  What does it mean to “produce worthy fruits of penance” or to “in your body serve the world through the desires of the flesh?”  You have to go into the details to make decisions about what to do and what to avoid if you want to follow the advice that Francis is giving.

But not so where the Eucharist is concerned.  Here is a very specific action to take. “Receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ!” if you want to be “happy and blessed.”   And if you decide not to, then expect to be “held captive by the devil,” even if you do everything else right.

Here again, Francis is not caught up in the theological arguments about the meaning behind the “Bread of Life.”  Jesus said “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”  What else do we need to know?  Isn’t that enough in and of itself, separate from whatever deeper meanings might be found, to get us to act?

The core writings by and about Francis may not record any detailed theological explanations of the mystery of the Eucharist.  They may not contain the word transubstantiation or any synonyms for it.  But there can be no doubting Francis’ position and passion when it comes to the Eucharist.

Jesus is made physically present on the altar.  And we better consume His Body and Blood, no questions asked, if we know what’s good for us.  As gospel followers and people of penance, it really is that simple. 

First, do what Jesus said to do!

Then, if you are prone as I am to making things complicated by searching for the deeper hidden meanings behind what He said, that’s ok.  But, as we discussed last chapter, don’t let it distract you from the simple and humble need to be obedient.

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I have to end with another confession, this one much more serious and grave.  You see, the harsh words that Francis had for the priests who become complacent about the Eucharist apply to my entire Eucharistic life as I remember it.  I can never recall being properly reverent as I hold the body of Christ in my hands before I consume it.  It’s as if my hands are as dirty as the linens Francis was complaining about.  This is why I described myself above as a great sinner.  It’s why I should not be surprised at my lack of enlightenment as I read this chapter of John.

I read the words of Francis and I know they condemn me.  I know that I have no choice but to be immediately converted by those words.  My approach to the Eucharist has to improve, has to become more reverent, has to become more celebratory and has to become more life receiving.

I don’t want to accuse you, but I invite you to look deep into your heart.  If you find yourself guilty as I find myself guilty, please give serious thought to the passion that our father Francis displays in the words I have quoted above.  Think about whether or not your approach to the “Most Holy Body and Blood” might not be a spot where you can make a deep conversion in your life straight away.

Other than the introduction and the verses and the passages I quoted, my entire first draft of this reflection was discarded from the point where I made my first confession.  I am grateful that I was able to accept the inadequacy of that first draft and that I did not let it pass as it was.  I am, as always, deeply caught up in my worldly responsibilities and I could have easily let this go.  I could have increased my sinfulness by following the path in the second portion of Francis’ Exhortation.

Instead, as part of this reflection, I was led to reading that Exhortation and I managed to follow the first track for at least this little while.  For that I am grateful.  Maybe there is hope for me after all.

Buy only if I give credit where credit is due, and say:

Thank you, Jesus!  Thank you, Mary!  Thank you, Francis!

One of you, or maybe all of you, made sure that I got the message and got this reflection somewhere close to right.

For that I am humbly indebted.

On Peaceful Communication

Pope Francis, Pentecost Homily, June 10, 2019

By this point, Catholics listening to Pope Francis’ ongoing messages to the world can feel comfortable that renewing social communication in all its forms, but especially in the digital realm, is one of his priorities. This applies to the Church and the secular sphere, to faith-embracing people and “nons” alike. He spoke about it in his Pentecost homily for 2019, connecting it to the Holy Spirit’s work of peace building, and also to some key themes he raised in “Christus Vivit” (his 2019 exhortation to young people) and his 2018 and 2019 messages for World Communications Day.

I believe he’s saying we need to help bring the basic Christian value of peace back into our understanding of what constitutes fruitful communication. So many people are playing the journalist, not only consuming news but generating news through their social media, often without a sense of accountability for toxic thoughts they’re soaking in and emotions they’re promulgating. Pope Francis offers pastoral advice regarding the lively cyberspace exchanges of information, our dual roles as news consumers and news generators, the spirit of purpose, pleasure and peace we must bring to community conversations, and the respect for complex human dignity and the sense of receptivity we should bring to encounters in the public square. Defaming others without accountability, short attention spans that jump to conclusions, oversimplified labels dismissing people, and the manipulation of truth are reducing our mutual trust and our sense that peaceful communication will lead to the solutions we need to properly preserve the common good.

In his homily Pope Francis cautioned that, “in the age of the computer,” we feel more distanced and isolated from each other, and “the more we use social media, the less social we are becoming.” We are at risk of spreading “a culture of lies.”

In that same timeframe, he also spoke about the particular dangers our digitized culture present to young people, a message that applies just as well to people of all ages. In “Christus Vivit,” his exhortation drawn from the Synod on Youth that took place in Rome in 2019, he said this (paragraph 216).

“Today’s media culture creates a deep sense of orphanhood. We need to build “fraternal environments” in our parishes, as well as in our communities and families, where young people can rise above isolation and experience a sense of belonging and shared purpose. Rather than being distracted by video games, they deserve to be in places of multigenerational dialogue, memory, aspirations and action attuned to the things that matter most in life.” The sense of belonging and shared purpose the Pope calls for here can only flourish if it has a commitment to peaceful communication as its foundation.

These messages align with Pope Francis’ 2018 and 2019 messages for World Communications Day (an annual pause for reflection, initiated by the Second Vatican Council and its document Inter Mirifica).  

In the 2019 message, he cautioned that the “community” model practiced in social media is too often one of excluding people and ideas with which you differ. The Church idea of community, he said, is based on communion with Something higher that brings us together in humility via similar beliefs and motivations. The Eucharist and other sacraments increase our awareness of our shared identity as a Body of Christ that is one although comprised of many parts, all of which have unique, beautiful, God-given gifts to be shared.

The pope’s 2018 message called for a “journalism of peace” that proactively asks deeper questions in order to help us find areas of common ground while pursuing an “education for truth” that springs from journalists valuing absolute truth and inspiring others to desire it. A relativism that allows us to define our own truths on the basis of emotion and individually-defined primacy combined with an urgent personal moralism where one unilaterally judges right and wrong functions as an evil force that often winds up promoting the opposite of truth.

A growing body of work by the Pope is asking us to offer peaceful communication as the tool that will heal our culture and reunite us after the separation our initial experience of social media has caused. Peace is rooted in a personal, receptive relationship with the Lord and is manifested through the Holy Spirit’s everyday influence on our lives. It gives us the love and forgiveness by which we can communicate with others as merciful fellow sinners, fellow seekers of truth who can find great joy and encouragement in local avenues of discovery. We are to embrace the Truth, the Way and the Life as we actively follow Him rather than sitting on the beach in judgement of others or marching off to war against them. (Enter here the as yet undefined secular equivalent of relationship with the Lord, etc.)

Pentecost comes at the verge of summer, a time when we can be more reflective and receptive about the best ways to work together. The Paraclete will help us to speak in peaceful ways that others understand. Our faith in Christ and our communion through the sacraments and the “Amen” we say together at every liturgy will help us to focus on the things we can accomplish as a diverse mix of old and young, rich and poor, robust Catholic and open-minded “non,” so long as we stay in a steady motion that supercedes the vacuum of laziness and distraction that summer often invites us to. Such a void will inevitably be filled by popular culture’s tendencies toward narcissism, isolation and escape from painful realities.

Pope Francis reminded us in his 2018 World Communications Day message that we must be instruments of peace and stewards of the “Good News,” sharing a sense of sacrifice, wonder and duty that brings us together, rather than driving us apart. He even ended the message with a version of the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis to remind us that communicators fully engaged in peace have to put our lives where our words are. “Love always communicates.”

I’m committed to encouraging fellow Catholics in the power of inclusive peaceful conversation. Our use of digital media can produce great fruits if we understand that it entails both rights and responsibilities, has room for both faith and reason, and can reconcile all minds and hearts. The use of these remarkable communication tools should carry us toward a flesh-and-blood community where “many parts” all enjoy freedom and authenticity in recognition of the infinite worth of each and every soul.

As Francis said in his homily, ”the Spirit is far from being an abstract reality; He is the Person who is the most concrete and close.” He is the one who changes our lives by immersing us in the Love and Grace of God if we allow Him in between the latest video games and our summertime distractions. Self-satisfied temptations to lounge around, ignorant while others are defamed, excluded, and orphaned, make our summer vocations unsustainable. We must actively accompany all persons “toward a life worthy of a people redeemed by Christ” (SFO Rule article 13), for they are all of indescribable worth.

The story of us doing this should be, as the pontiff describes it, “the heart of the news.”

This is the story that should be trending.

(The above was adapted from a page from my blog, Onword.net. It was written last year, shortly after the 2019 World Communications Day. For more on the Pope’s 2018 World Communications Day message, see my book, When Headlines Hurt.)

Sister’s Reflections on the 3rd and 4th Sundays of Easter

Reflection on the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter (Luke 24):

“Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way . . . (Luke 24:32).”  This is one of my favorite Gospel passages, and it always reminds me to consider how many times as I was “on the way” through life, that my heart was “burning” within because He was there.  But I was too busy fretting over the ever present kitchen chores like the frenzied Martha to stop long enough to listen to what He had to say. 

The second point in this Gospel that gives me pause is the phrase, “It is nearly evening, and the day is almost over.”  The older one gets, the more you realize that, indeed, one is in the “evening” of life and the God-given gift of time is slowly ebbing toward Eternity.  Time to slow down, settle down, and sit with the Master more and more away from the glitz of life and the never-ending frenzy of the younger generation.

It’s time to let our eyes be opened, as never before, and recognize him not only in the “breaking of the bread” but in the burning of our hearts where Father, Son, and Spirit have been at home since the waters of Baptism washed over us.  They are waiting to stay with us and show us from the inside outward that, indeed, He is risen and burning from within — “ . . . the Evening Star that never sets.”

The Magi were not the only ones called to follow a star. At the Easter Vigil, we too, were called to follow that Evening Star . . . who is, of course, Jesus!

Reflection of the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (John 10:1-10):

One of St. Francis’s favorite images was that of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Francis knew that to follow in the footsteps of Jesus was to “pass through the narrow gate”. Living the Gospel as literally as he did is not for the fainthearted. As Franciscans we promise “to live the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ,” but anyone who has taken those words seriously knows it means following Jesus even to the Cross. Regardless of the rockiness of the pathway, following in the sure footsteps of Jesus makes it possible.

In this month’s National Geographic Magazine (May 2020), there is a fascinating article about the groups of shepherds in Italy still monitoring their flocks in the same region as their ancestors several thousand years ago.  The pathways are worn, the travel from winter pastures to the cooler summer summits of Italy are grueling, yet being a shepherd is rooted deeply in their familial traditions.  Even their canine companions know their responsibilities and protect the flocks from anything even faintly threatening to their charges. Having read this article earlier this week, it certainly gave me a different view of the image Jesus used regarding the care of a shepherd and the loyalty of his/her sheep. Jesus in the Gospel tells us, “ . . . the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.”

In our contemporary world, we are bombarded from morning until night by conflicting voices all vying for our attention, our money, our loyalty, our commitment.  Today’s Gospel on this “Good Shepherd Sunday” reminds us that sheep recognize and know only one voice, that of their master.  They follow only that one voice. Perhaps a question we might reflect on today is: whose voice do I follow? The media? Sports figures? Hollywood idols? The popular guru of the moment? 

Or the voice of the Good Shepherd who says “Come, follow me”? 

The present pandemic certainly provides us with some quality time to consider: 

(1) Whose voice do I follow?  

(2) Do I need to “retune” my ears to hear the voice of Jesus more clearly?

(3) What mid-course corrections would make my following of the Good Shepherd lead to a deeper relationship with Him?

Journey thru John, Chapter 5: Obedience and Spiritual Poverty

For this chapter, it seemed to me that the best time to ask you to enter the scene was not at the beginning of my reflection, but at the end.  Hopefully that makes sense after you’re done reading.

If you already did your reflection based on your own, that’s great.  It’s what you are supposed to do.  Maybe you will decide to enter the scene again if my suggestion is different than your initial inspiration.

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John Chapter 5, Verse 30:

“I can do nothing on my own.  As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.”

When I think of Jesus conforming himself to the will of God, I generally think of Jesus at the end, in the garden, when He says to God, “take this cup from me, yet not my will, but yours be done.”  That scene appears in the three synoptic gospels, but not in the gospel of John.  Instead, in this gospel we hear about conforming to the will of God in the context of the theme of judgment which runs through this entire chapter. 

The chapter opens with “the Jews” judging Jesus.  They persecute Jesus because He is healing on the Sabbath and because He “was calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”  As Jesus responds, the table turns and by the end it is Jesus doing the judging.  The verse above is the pivot point, the foundation of Jesus’ argument.  Jesus is an able judge because He is executing the Will of God.  “The Jews,” on the other hand, make failed judgments about Jesus because their judgment is based not on the Will of God, but on their own human concerns.  What they want most is not what God wants, but to preserve what they want (their earthly power) from the threat that Jesus represents to it. 

This is the opposite of spiritual poverty.  They don’t accept Jesus for who He is, despite the clear signs He gives them, because to do so would require them to suppress the desire to act according to their own willfulness for their own comfort and gain. 

It is actually the first sentence of the verse that makes everything else possible.  In order for Jesus to do God’s will, he must first acknowledge the ineptness of His human side.  In the statement “I can do nothing on my own,” He is acknowledging the need for all humanity to rely on God instead of on itself.  Without acknowledging the need to set aside our own will and dwell in the desire of God, it is impossible for us to aspire to such lofty heights as just judgement.

The chapter is about the power of obedience.  Jesus is who He is because He is obedient to the Will of God at all times in all things.  That obedience is the essence of the perfection of Jesus.  His example informs us that obedience does not begin with an assent to the exterior Will of God, but rather by an embrace of poverty that manifests itself as a denial of our own often flawed human wills.  The declaration by Jesus that “He can do nothing on his own” is the font of His power.  As happens over and over again with God, it is the act of rejecting power that grants power.

The chapter is also about the power of spiritual poverty, a concept that is vital within the Franciscan charism.  The reality of human nature expressed by the words “I can do nothing on my own” makes spiritual poverty indispensable to a well ordered life.  Hubris is always in conflict with the reality that our weakness, ignorance and frailty define us.  Denial of our own will in favor of God’s Will and the rejection of the pretense of individual personal power is the essence of spiritual poverty. 

Obedience and spiritual poverty are intimately linked.  You cannot have one without the other.

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The SFO Rule grounds itself precisely in these two closely related ideals.  In article ten, we read this:

“United themselves to the redemptive obedience of Jesus, who placed his will into the Father’s hands,…………….”

And then in the very next paragraph, this:

“Thus, in the spirit of the Beatitudes, and as pilgrims and strangers on their way to the home of the Father, they should strive to purify their hearts from every tendency and yearning for possession and power.”

In other words, as a Franciscan I should act exactly the opposite of how “the Jews” acted in this chapter.  Instead of seeking to preserve my earthly desires by disputing with Jesus, I should instead embrace the example of poverty that Jesus gives not only in this verse, but throughout the gospels.  By setting aside “the tendency and yearning for possession and power,” I can do what the Jews refused to do, accept Jesus for who He really is and obey Him.

If I create space for God in my heart through that embrace of poverty, that acceptance of Jesus, this empowers my ability to obey.  I can imitate “the redemptive obedience” of Jesus by “placing my will into the Father’s hands” and thereby work my way toward becoming a better, more complete and truer disciple.  I am fully human, so my judgement will never be perfected as Jesus’ was, but if I am intentional about my pursuit of poverty and obedience, I can make steady progress.  That steady progress then fulfills a need and desire for conversion that is also crucial to the Franciscan charism.

Paragraph seven tell us that:

“Human frailty makes it necessary that this conversion be carried out daily.”

It is the Franciscan foundation of spiritual poverty and obedience as expressed by Jesus with the words “I can do nothing on my own” that makes this daily conversion possible.  If I embrace those words, I can reject earthly power and become powerful in the pursuit of conversion at the same time.

Such is the mystery, majesty, importance and force of a Franciscan immersion in the gospels. 

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Obedience was important enough to Francis that it has first priority in the Rules he wrote and had approved by the Pope for his brothers.  The Prologue for the Earlier Rule ends like this:

Brother Francis – and whoever is head of this religion – promises obedience and reverence to the Lord Pope Innocent and his successors.  Let all the brothers be bound to obey Brother Francis and his successors.

Chapter One then begins:

The rule and life of these brothers is this, namely: ”to live in obedience, in chastity, and without anything of their own,” and to follow the teaching and footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ, ………

 The Later Rule combines these two thoughts in its First Chapter:

The Rule and Life of the Lesser Brothers is this:  to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own, and in chastity.

Brother Francis promises obedience and reverence to our Lord Pope Honorius and his successors canonically elected and to the Roman Church.  Let the brothers be bound to obey Brother Francis and his successors.

Note that the chain of obedience is extended.  Jesus follows the Will of God, the One who sent Him.  Francis now instructs his brothers to follow Jesus in turn, but not just Jesus.  He also pledges himself to follow the Popes and the Church, and that pledge extends to his brothers as well in that chain of obedience, and ultimately to us as his heirs. 

Note also the presence of poverty right alongside obedience.  Hear the echo from the gospel.  Jesus said “I can do nothing on my own.”  Francis wrote “without anything of their own.”  They are the same statement, the same starting point that allows a man or woman to acknowledge his or her true human condition and thereby embrace an obedience to God that makes us whole.

How important was obedience to Jesus to Francis?  Read these words from A Letter to the Entire Order, written most likely on the occasion of the Pope giving the brothers authority to celebrate the Eucharist in their churches, not long after the Later Rule was approved:

Listen, sons of the Lord and my brothers, pay attention to my words.  Incline the ear of your heart and obey the voice of the Son of God.  Observe His commands with your whole heart and fulfill His counsels with a perfect mind.  Give praise to Him because He is good; exalt Him by your deeds; for this reason He has sent you into the whole world: that you may bear witness to His voice in word and deed and bring everyone to know that there is no one who is all powerful except Him.  Persevere in discipline and holy obedience and, with a good and firm purpose, fulfill what you have promised Him.

Note the link between obligation and obedience.  Francis is encouraging his brothers to bear witness but he is telling them that they cannot do so unless they are obedient.  If you pause and think about it for a moment, it makes perfect sense.  If I am to spread the Word and the Kingdom of God, how can I do so if my actions are not obedient to that Word and Kingdom?  Our success as disciples inherently requires us to be obedient.  There is no other way.

It’s not labeled an exhortation, but it surely is one.  That exhortation, that task laid on the brothers is directly relevant to us today.  If Francis walked into one of our meetings, he could say these exact same words to us without them losing an ounce of meaning.  The words are as significant today as they were in 1224.  We are persons who have or will soon profess to live according to the example of Francis.  Each one of us is bound by the words “bear witness to His voice in word and deed” as surely as if we were his brothers so long ago. 

Our rule, in paragraph six, supports this:

They have been made living members of the Church by being buried and raised with Christ in baptism; they have been united more intimately with the Church by profession.  Therefore, they should go forth as witnesses and instruments of her mission among all people, proclaiming Christ by their life and words.

We are called by our Rule to the exact same task that Francis called his brothers to in this letter.  It’s not something to be taken lightly.  It is a grave and wonderful and ominous and fantastic and scary and glorious responsibility that we have accepted.  I do not know about you, but I am grateful to have partners in the endeavor.  Partners in the fraternity, in the rest of the Franciscan family and in the entire Church.

It is not an accident that Francis called us to obedience to the Church at the same time he was told to rebuild the church directly by God.  The need to rebuild and be obedient at the same time might seem to be contradictory, but it is nothing of the sort.  This is because we need each other.  The church needs our obedient and faithful example to remind her of what she needs to be and encourage her to fulfill her destiny to the world.  We need the Church to support us in our poverty, to constantly remind us through the promulgation of the gospel and the beauty of the liturgy of who the poor, incarnate, crucified Jesus was and continues to be. 

Despite each being imperfect, we are meant to feed off each other, to support and uplift each other.  The best chance to battle those imperfections is to unite, not separate.  Do we think that we could, as individuals, without the assistance of the history and the present leadership of the Church, grasp and remember and witness to even the most basic things we need to know and teach about Jesus?  Would that be the position of a person who “can do nothing on his or her own?”  Francis knew his limitations, knew he would fail without the Church.  That is why he deliberately cast himself as minores, accentuating his dependence.  Obedience to the Church is a requirement of that minority. 

He knew we would need her as much as she would need us.  Francis knew that if we were to ignore the Church, to attempt to do this on our own, we would soon lose our way and become like “the Jews” in this Chapter of John.  Our hubris and our own willfulness would soon have us foundering.  We have to be both the renewers of the Church and obedient to the Church at the same time.  It is our unique role as Franciscans.   

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I would invite you to take on the role of “the Jews” as you read this chapter.  Place yourself in the scene as someone who stands in the way of Jesus, who disputes with Him, who judges Him, who thinks he knows better than Him.  Think about yourself as a person of power in the time of Jesus.  Think about the source of your power and why you desire so strongly to preserve it.  Why is Jesus a threat to you?  Why do you want to bring Him down and do Him harm?  See yourself as a person who wishes to preserve his own earthly desires in opposition to the will of God and the proclamation of the Kingdom.   

Is this who you want to be?

I would then invite you to leave the scene and come back to the present.  Acknowledge the present as a time when many act as those Jews did in the time of Jesus.  The world you live in does everything it can to distract you, to make you one of them.  Where is it succeeding?  Ask yourself, where in my life am I disputing with God, right now?  

Pay special attention to any differences you might have with the Church as you do your self-examination.  Recognize that as a Franciscan, you are pledged to obedience to the Church.  Take that pledge seriously.  Take the time to think the positions of the Church through clearly and completely.  Make sure you understand the reasoning behind the Church’s position.  Seek help understanding them from a spiritual advisor if you’re not sure.  Try and give the Church the benefit of the doubt.  It has thousands of years of experience to pit against your one lifetime.  Make sure that your difference with the Church is not an instance of you imposing your will over hers when hers is in line with the only Will that ultimately matters, the Will of God.

Somewhere in your life, you are holding onto something of your will that is not in accord with God’s Will for your life.  Identify it.  Whatever it is that needs attention, whether it be something to do with the Church or something else entirely, pray to God, to Jesus, to Mary, to Francis and Clare, to help you find the strength to let go of your willfulness and be converted.  Pray that they will help you embrace the spiritual poverty that goes along with letting go of your will.   Pray that they will help you embrace obedience.

Then ask Jesus, Mary, Francis and Clare to pray the Our Father with you. 

As you do so, link it to your Franciscan vocation. Note the word “Our” and the word “Us.”  It is a prayer meant to be said in community with your fraternity, your Franciscan family and your Church.  You support each other as you pray it.  Pledge yourself to be a full member of that community both in rebuilding and obedience.

Acknowledge that “on earth” means you have a personal role to play in bringing His Will forth.  Acknowledge that requests for daily bread and forgiveness are expressions of spiritual poverty.  Jesus could do nothing on his own.  Therefore you must need God to feed and forgive you both literally and spiritually.    

When you pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done,” allow this passage to remind you that this is not just a wide expression of hope for the world, but also a plea for your own personal conversion.  If you want to be led away from temptation, if you want to be delivered from evil, then embrace spiritual poverty and set aside your own will in favor of His. 

Resolve to obey His Will, and thereby keep daily conversion through spiritual poverty at the forefront of your personal awareness.      

Let’s Talk About Communicating Better

There’s a second kind of “climate change” happening in our world today — this one in our culture. It generates heat without light through conflict in civil society. It also causes personal pain through the abrasive erosion of the proverbial topsoil that otherwise allows dignity and hope to grow and thrive in a well ordered society.

Like the weather, we gripe about it, but we don’t know how to control it. We can’t agree on solutions to pursue together or even reach clarity on what problems are ripe for real discussion. You might say the mix of challenges constitutes a “perfect storm” summoning us to the need to reconstruct our societal modes of communication after this primal storm has damaged them in ways we could not foresee or prevent.

This multi-dimensional problem, which creates major hurdles against achieving goals of secular solidarity and missionary discipleship, has as its source a combination of social polarization and devolving conversation. It is building momentum these days, at the intersection where journalism and our changing news environment meet politics and our changing technological environment. It’s arising amid confusion and disagreement about values, approaches and purpose, fed by disenchantment with traditional ideas plus attempts to confront new, complex issues in the modern style of self-centered moralism and relativism.

We need to get back to basics about such values as the common good, the pursuit of peace and other “rules of engagement” among people—reviving ideas such as mercy, justice, patient accompaniment and personal accountability in the process—about which the Catholic Church provides time-tested insights. Pope Francis is one of the few world leaders and opinion-shapers who is seeking to spotlight these resources as relevant, connection-making remedies, not outmoded attacks on personal freedom. He talks about them, in compelling ways, through his messages for World Communications Day. He also addresses the dangers our “digitized” culture poses, especially toward young people and the future of communities, local and global.

My book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? (available at Amazon), published in 2018, seeks to lay a groundwork for an effort to help all people of good will address this problem, tapping into Church wisdom and the unifying spirit of St. Francis of Assisi while remaining inclusive and attuned to today’s perspectives. This book, if combined with the transformative assistance of faith; public speaking; creative endeavors like blogs and podcasts; and ecumenical, non-partisan awareness-building, has the potential to establish and promote practical goals for peaceful and constructive modes of conversation in today’s society.

I would like to explain more about the prospects for renewal I see in communication and information. I’d like to start a storm surge of discussion—first at the grass-roots level, among people like you. Parishes and church groups will enjoy rediscovering the creative light of faith and reason, truth and love, not only to evangelize, but to cooperate with the secular world in preserving rights and responsibilities, debate and problem-solving.

That’s the essence of the #When Headlines Hurt project.

Invite me to bring my reflections and research, based in the messages of Pope Francis and Saint Francis among others, to your group today. I promise a sunny discussion as contemporary as today’s headlines and newsfeeds, but also a luminous dialogue much more inspiring then anything you might find on a typical mass media outlet in these blustery times.

This post was adapted from a post on my blog, OnWord.net.

Interacting in Community Despite the Pandemic

Oil painting on canvas, Saint Francis of Assisi (Giovanni Francesco di Bernadone) (1181-1226), Italian (Lombard) School, early 17th century.

One of the reasons for pushing forward to launch this website now was the express hope that it would provide a way for Secular Franciscans to interact with each other while we are all isolated and practicing social distancing in the midst of the corona virus pandemic.

As you can see by the email below, Frank Vargo, OFS, (the Formation Director for my local fraternity) was having related thoughts:

“Peace and Joy to all my brothers and sisters in Francis and Clare: This Saturday will make the second fraternity meeting that we will not have been together. I miss you all and our common joy and hugs and laughter. 

I was thinking that now would be a good time to reflect on this year’s Lent. As Francis would say, we are to be “Conformed to the death of Christ by sharing in His sufferings.”  It would be good to spend this week (off and on) writing down our thoughts – lessons – revelations. Next month when we meet (I hope) we can learn from each other’s trials and victories.

Some helps – starters:

What did you learn about yourself – others? How was your prayer life? Family life? Church life? What were your worries, your joys? Were you at peace? Why not? 

Shake us from complacency, O Lord, and give us a new spirit”. 

Peace and fraternal hugs.  Frank.”

Here’s a couple other potential starters:

We know Francis felt cave time was important. He struggled between being in the world and being isolated. Is the forced isolation of the pandemic actually a time of great opportunity? Can we copy Francis’ example of using isolation effectively to discern the will of God within this hardship? How might our experience of God expand if we use this time constructively?

We also know from the gospel reading last Sunday that Jesus does not abandon us in times of isolation. When the disciples were locked away for fear of the Jews, Jesus appeared in their midst and brought them peace. In your isolation, in your cave time, have you had an experience of peace that you might not have had were it not for your enforced isolation? If not, would you consider searching for that peace, asking for it directly within your prayer, as part of your isolation experience?

Use Frank’s starters or follow one of the links above and prayer over the material. (Don’t be afraid to create an account at the first link. It will give you access to the entire set of Francis of Assisi: Early Documents.) Then, as Frank suggested, consider writing down your thoughts.

But please consider pasting what you write as a comment at the end of this blog post. You can take credit by adding your name, or you can do it anonymously if you prefer, but consider the possibility that one of your brothers or sisters might be helped through this difficult time by something you might write and share below.

As our profession language says (see the home page of the blog), “may the fraternal bonds of community always be my help….”

Are you willing to offer a little help, a little fraternity, to someone that you might not even know by sharing your thoughts here? If you got comfortable doing that now, in this time of hardship, and then continued to offer that help even when things return toward normal, would that be in and of itself a blessing that could come out of this time?

I asked permission to post Frank’s note here in the hope that maybe we do not have to wait until the next meeting to share our thoughts. Maybe we can go ahead and live out our fraternal calling right now by simply posting comments at the bottom of this post. It’s not the same as being together and being able to share hugs with everyone. But at least it is a chance to know how everyone is doing and to provide some support to each other in this time of absence.

So go ahead, take a chance, and make a comment. It doesn’t have to be deep and mind bending. It doesn’t even have to be about Lent or one of the links. It can even be silly or just a quick hello and how are you. Share whatever the Spirit leads you to share.

I know I would appreciate seeing your comments and I bet others would as well. So give it a try. There’s really nothing to lose, and you might even learn a little something new about interacting with a blog as you do.