Journey thru John, Chapter 4: Encounter and Conversion

The Woman of Samaria at the Well

The first part of this chapter is one of my favorite stories from the gospels.  I think this is because it lends itself so well to placing myself in the location. 

We all probably have an image of a well in our head that originates in the fairy tales of our youth.  Mine includes a garden with plants in riotous bloom and a backdrop of shade-giving green leafy trees.  The well is circular and has stone walls a little less than waist high.  It has a wooden structure over it with a sloped and shingled roof above and a winch below.  The winch is wound with rope and the rope is attached to a wooden bucket sitting on the edge of the masonry wall, ready to be lowered into the well and then retrieved full of water. 

I doubt the well that Jesus sat next to looked much like that.  It was more likely on a barren hillside and not in the midst of a lush garden.  It probably did not have waist high walls or any structure over it.  But still, it’s relatively easy to see Jesus sitting on a low, stacked wall with an open stone lined cylinder behind him.  The sky above is a vast deep cloudless blue and a woman approaches the well with a container on her hip. She has one arm across her body so that she can hold the handles at the top of the jar with both hands.

You can be right there as Jesus says to her, “Will you give me a drink?”  You can watch her give him that drink of water and then follow the whole exchange that ensues. 

Hopefully, you also found it easy to enter the scene and find a verse that spoke to you.  Hopefully, when you asked Francis or Clare for assistance, they readily obliged.  And hopefully, you encountered Jesus successfully while reading this Chapter of John.

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John Chapter 4, Verse 42:

“They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

This is the last verse in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.  She has met and talked to Jesus and experienced her conversion.  She has also introduced Jesus to the people of her town.  Jesus stayed with them for two days and “many more became believers.”    

The story, at its core, is about encounter with Jesus and the direct conversion that results from it.

The SFO Rule, in article 5, makes it clear that encountering Jesus is central to the life of a Franciscan:

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 article goes on to emphasize liturgical activity by mentioning “eucharistic life,” but the language is clear that Jesus can be found in all these other places as well.  He is found in the smiles, and even frowns, of every person we encounter every day.  He is found in the Church, with the word Church having that broad meaning that includes you and me and all our merciful, charitable and loving work within its definition.  And He is found in the Sacred Scripture.  “Therefore” in the quote above refers specifically to the last sentence in the preceding article 4, which exhorts us to “careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and life to gospel.”

The Gospel.  The Gospel.  The Gospel.

It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of the gospel in how a Franciscan arranges his or her life.

Just two articles later in the Rule, the gospel is again prominent:

….motivated by the dynamic power of the gospel, let them conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of the radical interior change which the gospel itself calls “conversion.”

Chapter Two of the Rule, which encompasses articles 4 thru 19, is the meat of the Rule.  It has the overall heading “The Way of Life.” 

That “way of life” has many components, but none of those components is really possible without being committed to the principle contained in these two passages.

We have to encounter Jesus in the gospels!  And that encounter has to lead conversion!

In other words, we have to experience exactly what the Samaritan woman and the residents of her town experience. 

We have to meet Jesus.  We have to serve Him in whatever way He asks.  We have to accept that He wants to engage us no matter how much we (as proverbial Samaritans) think that He is distant and different from us.  We have to be ready to accept the Grace, the Living Water that He offers.  We have to listen to His words with an open heart and recognize, when He says to us the equivalent of “you are right when you say you have no husband,” that He knows us better than we know ourselves.  We have to worship in Spirit and Truth as He asks.  We have to be ready to give testimony to others when appropriate.  We have to invite him to stay with us.

And then, when all of this is done, we should find ourselves converted to such an extent that we can enthusiastically and energetically exclaim along with the Samaritans,

We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world!”

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It’s now time for me to confess that I am at least a little jealous of Francis.  This is because he came much closer to experiencing the actual presence of Jesus as the Samaritans did than I ever expect to.  Francis actually had a physical encounter with the voice of Jesus.  How spectacular, how joyful, how humbling, how transformative it would be if that somehow happened to me!

Chapter Five of The Legend of Three Companions describes the scene like this:

A few days had passed when, while he was walking by the church of San Damiano, he was told in the Spirit to go inside for a prayer.  Once he entered, he began to pray intensely before an image of the Crucified, which spoke to him in a tender and kind voice:  “Francis, don’t you see that my house is being destroyed?  Go, then, and rebuild it for me.”  Stunned and trembling, he said. “I will do so gladly, Lord.”  For he understood that it was speaking about that church, which was near collapse because of its age.  He was filled with such joy and became so radiant with light over that message that he knew in his soul it was truly Christ crucified who spoke to him.

You can already see the beginning of conversion here, but in the next chapter we have it definitively confirmed:

Overjoyed by the vision and hearing the words of the Crucified Christ, he got up, fortifying himself with the sign of the cross.  And mounting his horse and taking cloth of different colors, he arrived at a city named Foligno and, after selling there the horse and everything he was carrying, he returned immediately to the church of San Damiano.

After he found a poor priest there, he kissed his hands with great faith and devotion; he offered him the money he was carrying, and explained his purpose in great detail.  The priest, astounded and surprised at his sudden conversion, refused to believe this, and ……

The execution is not perfect, but the sentiment is pure.  This episode leads directly to Francis stripping himself bare as he rejects his earthly father in favor of his heavenly one.  After encountering His voice, there was no undoing the conversion that Francis experienced.

Thomas of Celano also speaks of this incident.  The words from Chapter Two of The Treatise on the Miracles of St. Francis are especially eloquent:

At the beginning of his conversion, when he had decided to take leave of the allurements of this life, Christ spoke to him from the wood of the cross while he prayed.  From the mouth of Christ’s image a voice declared: “Francis, go, rebuild my house, which, as you see, it is all being destroyed.”  From that moment the memory of the Lord’s passion was stamped on his heart with a deep-brand mark, and as conversion reached his deepest self, his soul began to melt, as his beloved spoke.

Again, the words of Thomas are spell binding.  Tell me you don’t long for your “soul to melt” from hearing the voice of Jesus, your beloved!

At first, when I read this, I thought “his deepest conversion” took place down the line.  I thought it took time for his conversion to unfold.  But as I reread it, I wonder?  I think that maybe that deep conversion happened immediately, just as it did for the Samaritans.  I think maybe the sound of Jesus’ voice caused deep conversion in Francis instantaneously.  How does it read to you?

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I want to be like the Samaritans.  I want to experience His presence and hear for myself and be sure.

I want to be like Francis.  I want to hear His voice, and I want to do silly things in an abrupt attempt to follow His instructions exactly, no matter how much I miss the mark to start with.

“His soul began to melt, as his beloved spoke.” 

I want that deep conversion to happen to me.  I want to encounter Jesus in such a powerful way that my soul melts.  I want to encounter Jesus in such a powerful way that conversion is no longer something to be decided upon and pursued in fits and starts, but something that is inevitable and unavoidable and immediate.

At the end of the first chapter of the first book of The Life of St Francis, Celano tells us just how important Francis is in the spectrum of conversion.

Then the Lord looked down from the heavens and for the sake of his own name He removed His own anger far from him, and for his own glory he bridled Francis’ mouth so that he would not perish completely. The hand of the Lord was upon him, a change of the right hand of the Most High, that through him the Lord might give sinners confidence in a new life of grace; and that of conversion to God he might be an example.

At some unconscious level, I think this feeds my attraction to Francis.  I think, without having read it explicitly before, I knew that Francis was an ultimate example of conversion.

My desire for conversion makes Francis the perfect spiritual father for me.  When I immerse myself in the life and history and charism of Francis, I have the best chance to experience the conversion I am longing for above.  In particular, when I focus on immersing myself in the gospels as that charism demands, when I encounter Jesus as a result of that immersion, I give myself a chance to experience conversion not as a choice I make, but as a natural and organic extension of living the precious life that God has blessed me with.

Maybe, just maybe, if I follow Francis closely enough, my soul will melt just as his did.

About, the Podcast

The Archangel Gabriel, Patron Saint of Communication

In a modern environment full of technological innovation, it is no longer enough to rely solely on the written word to be able to effectively communicate important messages to the world. Audio and video are elements that must also be integrated into any website if it is to reach its full potential.

With that in mind, Bill Schmitt and I recently set out to record a short podcast that would serve to introduce some of the goals that we hope to accomplish with OFSOngoing.

You can hear our conversation by simply clicking play on the bar below.

About, the Podcast

I think its safe to say that we were pleased with the outcome. More podcasts will definitely be something you can look forward to in the future.

Please be aware that this particular podcast actually had more than one purpose. While it was meant to provide an introduction to this site, it was also intended to be used on another site that Bill is a co-host of. That’s So Second Millennium is a site dedicated to discussing and discovering intersections between science, religion, philosophy and human experience.

To hear the version of this podcast that appeared on this website, just click here.

Pope Francis: When Distanced, Draw Near

From the Vatican News coverage of the Pope’s homily during Mass on March 18.

By Bill Schmitt, OFS (from OnWord.net | March 19)

Pope Francis has spoken out about our need to draw near to one another. He has done so from Rome, in the heart of a nation well-known for its current reliance on “social distancing”–the medically necessary phenomenon that tames contagions but challenges us in body, mind, and soul.

In his March 18 Mass at the Casa Santa Marta, Francis made valuable pastoral contributions to the growing conversation about how we all can use the mandate for social distancing to derive spiritual growth and wisdom for the future. The sadness of distancing and related COVID-19 containment strategies, which have grown in scope to include the heart-breaking cancellation of gatherings for Mass, is like a huge resolution to give up something for Lent; it demands to be accompanied by hope, trust, and the desire that a greater good will result from this sacrifice.

One splendid outcome would be greater awareness, among Catholics and all people of good will, that the “distanced” life we’re experiencing is the embodiment of an ongoing social trend we must resist. That trend is social polarization, the phenomenon that Pope Francis and many secular observers of public affairs are condemning as a dead-end for constructive communication, inclusive civic cooperation, the “dignitarian” principles of Catholic Social Teaching, and relationships with the Lord through missionary discipleship.

This most remarkable Lent must become a teachable moment when we wake up to the fact that we should not step closer toward the precipice. We retreat from the Kingdom of God by drifting into isolation, defamation, closed-minded outrage, relativism, and escapism through artificial realities. These and other contagions have been growing in the breeding grounds of politics, information media, the digital culture, and secular post-modernism.

Living through today’s experiences of interrupted togetherness, we need to find, and nurture, renewed preferences for the solidarity found in common pursuits, agreements about truth, and the joyful wholeness of a healthy human ecology. “Love always communicates,” the pope wrote in his 2019 message for World Communications Day.  Social distancing is an oddly unfortunate but welcome instrument of survival that combines practical wisdom with the impulse for charity–the humbled recognition that we’re all in this together.  It’s a taste of sacrificial love that should leave us wanting more and realizing that love deserves a brighter future.

If we’re willing to learn its lessons, this realization can strike us in new ways while we’re enduring the vulnerable suffering of man-made separation. Pope Francis captured this message of a fruitful attitude adjustment in his homily for the Mass he celebrated on March 18. Our uplifting pastor at the Vatican reaffirmed that we can learn lessons and skills now that will help pull us away from the precipice of polarization. The lessons come from a God who loves to be near to us even when we seem to have chosen isolation.

Here are a few points he made about the wonderful instinct to draw near to others, as reported at the Vatican News website:

  •   “The Lord gives His people the law by drawing near to them.” The laws he gave to Moses “weren’t prescriptions given by a far-off governor who then distances himself.” We should be drawn to seek a deeper relationship with this God amid our loneliness–the kind of loneliness that arises from social distancing, as well as from social polarization.
  • When God draws near, we too often pull away. “Sin leads us to hide ourselves, to not want nearness. So many times, we adopt a theology thinking that He’s a judge….” People want to be in control of relationships because they don’t want to be vulnerable. God knows this, so he makes himself weak in approaching us–with a weakness which was seen on a grand scale when Jesus came to earth in a manger and sacrificed himself through the shame of the cross.
  • “In this moment of crisis, because of the pandemic we are experiencing, this nearness asks to be manifested more…. Perhaps we cannot draw near physically to others because of the fear of contagion, but we can reawaken in ourselves a habit of drawing near to others through prayer, through help. There are many ways of drawing near.”

That’s the poignant challenge of this most remarkable Lent. How can we spend our moment of intense earthly separation–a separation that even extends to the cancellation of Masses–by bringing the heavenly Kingdom to ourselves and others? Not through physical nearness, but communication through our spirit and human senses–a smile we share, a song we sing, a thoughtful word, a period of listening, a tear we shed over someone’s pain. The March 13 post in this OnWord blog suggested some ways to refresh our talent for such nearness.

Thank God, we’ll see and hear many people offering an array of guidance for this act of repentance, a turnaround from isolation to fellowship, community, and communion. In addition to prayer and general acts of compassion to the elderly, sick, and otherwise troubled, we can resist the temptation to hoard material goods in a survivalist-style stockpile. Make a list of good alternatives. We can embrace our family and relearn its lessons of patient love. We can become more mindful of the meaning of everyday tasks that we might have performed carelessly, even hurtfully, during busier, distracted times. We can become more aware of, and thankful for, all the people who bless our lives–or other people’s lives–and then develop timeless ways to show that gratitude.

Since this is a teachable moment to remember later when social polarization is percolating, here’s one thing we might give up for this remarkable Lent: our habit of taking things for granted. It blinds us to lessons the Lord wants to teach us as He draws near. We can ask, What’s the Lord trying to teach me right now? During these days of social distancing, it’s perfectly understandable if we talk to ourselves.

Journey Thru John, Chapter 3: Proximity and Joy

Did you read the full chapter on your own this month?  Which verses spoke to you?  Did you make it a point to spend extra time with them?  Did you gain a little intimacy with Jesus in the process?

Did you ask for the intercession of Francis and Clare as you prayed?  Did you find yourself thinking about the Gospel and St. Francis at the same time?  How might he have reacted to the verses that you chose to concentrate on?

What is it that you know about Francis that leads you to that conclusion?  Did you go into the historical documents in search of support for your conclusion?  Did you look at the SFO Rule and see how it might relate to the passage you chose?

Is your confidence in your ability to pray over the Gospels growing?

Are you getting excited about spending this time with John and Jesus?  Is there a fire building in you?

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John Chapter 3, Verses 29 to 30:

“The one who has the bride is the bridegroom.  The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.  Therefore, this joy of mine is now complete.  He must increase, but I must decrease.”

The speaker is John the Baptist.  His friends have observed Jesus baptizing and they tell John “all are going to him.”  They seem to be concerned that Jesus is stealing John’s thunder.  They are maybe a little jealous that Jesus is displacing or overshadowing John.  John tells them just before this, in verse 28, “You yourselves bear me witness that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’”  Then he speaks the words above.  John recognizes that things are as they should be.

As Franciscans, our ears should perk up whenever we encounter the word “joy.”  Our Father Francis was a troubadour.  He devoted his life, even before he sought to imitate Christ, to the spreading of joy.  We are aware of the parties he threw for his friends in Assisi before he figured out how to follow the call of God.  After he figured out his vocation, he matured and became able to separate joy from fun.  Teaching the nature of true joy then became one of his passions.  His definition of joy matured through his exposure to Jesus in the gospels, and through it all, joy remained one of the highest priorities of his life.  One of the greatest gifts he left us was his teaching on joy, but it is not easy to grasp what he was getting at.

In a moment I will give you the entirety of his definition of perfect joy, but first consider this from The Second Life of St. Francis by Thomas Celano, Chapter 88.

St Francis held that the surest remedy against the thousand wiles of the foe is spiritual joy.  For he used to say:  “The Devil most exults when he can filch from a servant of God his joy of spirit.”  He carries dust that he may cast it into the conscience through even the smallest chinks, and defile the candor of the mind and the purity of the life; but when spiritual joy (he said) fills the heart, in vain does the Serpent shed his deadly poison.  Devils cannot hurt Christ’s servant when they see him filled with holy mirth.  But when the spirit is tearful, woe-begone, and grieving it readily sinks into gloom or else turns to vain enjoyments.  He strove therefore ever to be gladsome of heart, and to maintain the unction of Spirit and the oil of joy.  He avoided with the utmost care the wretched malady of spiritual sloth, so that if he felt it stealing ever so little into his mind, he flew immediately to prayer, for he said: “When God’s servant (as often happens) is troubled about anything, he ought forthwith to arise and pray, and remain persistently in his heavenly Father’s presence until He restores him the joy of His salvation.  For if he tarries in gloom, that Babylonian stuff will increase, and unless it be at length purged out by tears, will produce abiding rust in the heart.”

First of all, let’s acknowledge again the impressiveness of Celano’s language.  “In vain does the Serpent shed his deadly poison!”  Yes, sign me up for that!  I want to know how to thwart the plans of the enemy!    “Abiding rust in the heart” is an image that shouts at me.  I’m pretty sure I don’t want any part of that, nor do I want to be associated in any fashion with “Babylonian stuff!”  If you are not aware, know that Babylon is always associated with worldliness.  Babylon is the opposite of the City and Kingdom of God. 

I wonder, if you think about your own life, can you empathize with what Francis is saying here?  Do you recognize the points in your life where you lost touch with joy and thereby wound up in a not so great place?  Did your lack of joy drag other people to that place as well? 

Were you separated from God at that time?  Did you recognize the separation when it started and grew?  Did you ever really recover before you turned to prayer, maybe to the gospels in particular?  Was it anything other than prayer that, in the end, pulled you out of it and allowed you to work your way back to joy?

Do you know someone right now who is in that situation?  Maybe someone who refuses, no matter how hard everyone around them tries, to claw their way back to a remembrance of joy that would serve as the first step out of the dismal place they currently occupy? 

Think even on a larger scale.  Is a terrorist a joyful person?  How could they do what they do if they were?  And where has it led them?  Directly into “shedding the Serpent’s poison?”

Francis says near the end that anyone who is troubled should “remain persistently in his heavenly Father’s presence until He restores him the joy of his salvation.”  Is joy even possible without being in close proximity to God via a healthy and active prayer life?

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Francis, in his wisdom, gave us a definition of true and perfect joy.  It’s not an easy definition to grasp or embrace, but that does not mean it isn’t true.  Here is Chapter Eight of The Little Flowers of St. Francis in its entirety, because it’s that important.

One day in winter, as Saint Francis was going with Brother Leo from Perugia to Saint Mary of the Angels, and was suffering greatly from the cold, he called to Brother Leo, who was walking on before him, and said to him: “Brother Leo, if it were to please God that the Friars Minor should give, in all lands, a great example of holiness and edification, write down, and note carefully, that this would not be perfect joy.”

A little further on, Saint Francis called to him a second time: “O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor were to make the lame to walk, if they should make straight the crooked, chase away demons, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, and, what is even a far greater work, if they should raise the dead after four days, write that this would not be perfect joy.”

Shortly after, he cried out again: “O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor knew all languages; if they were versed in all science; if they could explain all Scripture; if they had the gift of prophecy, and could reveal, not only all future things, but likewise the secrets of all consciences and all souls, write that this would not be perfect joy.”

After proceeding a few steps farther, he cried out again with a loud voice: “O Brother Leo, thou little lamb of God! if the Friars Minor could speak with the tongues of angels; if they could explain the course of the stars; if they knew the virtues of all plants; if all the treasures of the earth were revealed to them; if they were acquainted with the various qualities of all birds, of all fish, of all animals, of men, of trees, of stones, of roots, and of waters – write that this would not be perfect joy.”

Shortly after, he cried out again: “O Brother Leo, if the Friars Minor had the gift of preaching so as to convert all infidels to the faith of Christ, write that this would not be perfect joy.”

Now when this manner of discourse had lasted for the space of two miles, Brother Leo wondered much within himself; and, questioning the saint, he said: “Father, I pray thee teach me wherein is perfect joy.” Saint Francis answered: “If, when we shall arrive at Saint Mary of the Angels, all drenched with rain and trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger; if, when we knock at the convent-gate, the porter should come angrily and ask us who we are; if, after we have told him, `We are two of the brethren’, he should answer angrily, `What ye say is not the truth; ye are but two impostors going about to deceive the world, and take away the alms of the poor; begone I say’; if then he refuse to open to us, and leave us outside, exposed to the snow and rain, suffering from cold and hunger till nightfall – then, if we accept such injustice, such cruelty and such contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, believing with humility and charity that the porter really knows us, and that it is God who maketh him to speak thus against us, write down, O Brother Leo, that this is perfect joy.

And if we knock again, and the porter come out in anger to drive us away with oaths and blows, as if we were vile impostors, saying, `Begone, miserable robbers! to the hospital, for here you shall neither eat nor sleep!’ – and if we accept all this with patience, with joy, and with charity, O Brother Leo, write that this indeed is perfect joy.

And if, urged by cold and hunger, we knock again, calling to the porter and entreating him with many tears to open to us and give us shelter, for the love of God, and if he come out more angry than before, exclaiming, `These are but importunate rascals, I will deal with them as they deserve’; and taking a knotted stick, he seize us by the hood, throwing us on the ground, rolling us in the snow, and shall beat and wound us with the knots in the stick – if we bear all these injuries with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which we would share out of love for him, write, O Brother Leo, that here, finally, is perfect 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.”

Now, I am not going to assert that I can explain this adequately enough that the meaning will be eminently clear.  I doubt I am capable of that.  But I do want to draw some parallels between Francis’ definition of perfect joy and the verses that I focused on from chapter three of John’s Gospel.  Maybe reflecting on the source of John’s joy will do what I cannot and help us better grasp what Francis was trying to teach.

Note the following items from Francis’ definition that, contrary to what we might expect, do not constitute perfect joy:

  • The Friars Minor giving a great example of holiness and edification.
  • The Friars Minor making the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the dumb speak.
  • The Friars Minor raising the dead.
  • The Friars Minor knowing all languages, all science, all scripture.
  • The Friars Minor prophesying and knowing the secrets of all consciences and souls.
  • The Friars Minor knowing the tongues of angels and the course of the stars.
  • The Friars Minor knowing all there is to know about animals, men, trees, stones and water.
  • The Friars Minor being able to preach so persuasively that infidels convert to Christianity.

This is a pretty impressive list.  It contains not just earthly knowledge and accomplishment, but supernatural knowledge and even the ability to work some miracles.  And yet it does not constitute perfect joy.  If you gave just one of these qualities to any person in this world today they would be hard pressed not to celebrate it.  We celebrate much, much less in the name of joy when it comes to our worldly achievements. 

But according to Francis, only the ability to maintain patience, joy and charity in the face of hardship leads to perfect joy.  Only the ability to contemplate the sufferings of our Blessed Lord through the lens of our own sufferings, out of love and gratitude for our Blessed Lord, constitutes perfect joy.  This is so because the only glory that is our own is a glory embraced as we share the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Any other glory is gift from God that does not rightly belong to us, was not created by us, and thus is not valid as a source of joy for a humble and righteous person. 

Francis is telling us that in the end, perfect joy has nothing to do with this world.  Joy is, in essence, proximity to God and Jesus, and there is no worldly achievement, no matter how grand, that allows us to gain that proximity.  We could never hope to approximate Jesus’ achievements while He sojourned here on earth.  Even Francis’ list of things that are not perfect joy pales in comparison to dying on a Cross in order to redeem all of mankind. 

We can never imitate, or experience or understand the God side of Jesus that makes our salvation possible.  It is only the human side of Jesus we can identify with.  And we are able to best connect to His Love when we experience suffering.  We draw as close to Him as possible only when we reject worldliness, embrace poverty, and acknowledge that the human suffering He endured while on earth (a suffering we made necessary) is the very thing that we have most in common with Him.  He came to us and lovingly partook in our condition (on our behalf) and thus established an intimate link with us.  Our suffering is our guaranteed bond with Him, a profound experience that unites us to Him in ways that nothing else compares to.

Paradoxically, suffering, because of the proximity it grants to Jesus, is the path to true and perfect joy if, as Francis says above, “we would share out of love for Him” the torment He endured to assure our salvation.  Perfect joy is the proximity we gain to Jesus when our suffering allows us to make an intimate connection to Him as we thankfully acknowledge His distress and, in the best way we can, join in His suffering with Him.      

Think of St. Francis at the end, enduring the never healing wounds of the stigmata for more than two years.  Now read again his definition of perfect joy.  It hardly makes sense, but the stigmata, with all the worldly pain and suffering that it brought to Francis, must have quite literally been a dream come true for him, the ultimately earthly experience that he could have hoped for, an ultimate connection with Jesus.  Put yourself in that place.  It’s not likely your first instinct, but look for the joy in Francis at the end!  He had to have been ecstatic despite (or because of?) his physical suffering. 

How else could he have given us such a pure expression of hope and joy as The Canticle of the Creatures while enduring such hardship?

Would it have been possible for Francis to receive the stigmata if he had not first defined true and perfect joy as he did?  Does not one lead directly to the other?  Is the stigmata not evidence that Francis was right about the nature of joy?

And then, would you be willing to do what is necessary to occupy that same place?  Would you actually pray that you might identify so fully with the suffering of Jesus that you would be granted the blessing of the stigmata? 

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Read again the verses spoken by John the Baptist with Francis’ outlook on joy in hand.  Are there parallels? 

John’s friends want him to claim the honor of his worldly achievements, but he is not interested.  He was chosen by God to be the herald of Christ.  To quote the first item on Francis’ litany of things that do not equal perfect joy, he gave “a great example of holiness and edification.”  And yet, like Francis, he desires no glory for a job well done because that assignment and his success is all made possible by God, all gift from God.  To glory in it would, in the end, lead to the opposite of joy.

You get the impression that if John was never mentioned in the Gospels, if his name never appeared in history, that would be fine with him.  He is content that Jesus will be the focus of everything going forward because that is the role that he (we, as well) was (are) meant to play.  All are going to Jesus because that is how it is supposed to be!  And John, to his credit, revels in Jesus’ prominence and success as a harbinger of an unbounded joy destined to spread well beyond his own personal being. 

Jesus has not yet experienced the cross, so John does not identify with His suffering.  Nonetheless, what John desires most of all is to be in close proximity to Jesus.  As the verse says, if he is simply close enough to Jesus to hear His voice, the voice of the bridegroom, then this is cause for great rejoicing. 

When John rejects the need for his worldly successes to be acknowledged, he is accepting the very argument that Francis was making.  The only thing he needs to experience joy is to be in close proximity to Jesus.  Although his own suffering is on the horizon, he doesn’t accomplish his joy through suffering like we do.  Instead, his timing allows him the privilege of actually being in close proximity to the human person of Jesus, and this is enough for him.  It is all he desires.  He can diminish in contented joy, knowing that his experience of proximity can never be taken away from him.  

John said, “This joy of mine is now complete.”

If he had paraphrased Francis and said, “This joy of mine is now perfect,” would that make the parallels easier to find?

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Article 19 of the SFO Rule says this:

“Messengers of perfect joy in every circumstance, they should strive to bring joy and hope to others.”

How does this relate to Article 4 and the call to go from “gospel to life and life to gospel?”

We must be joyful before we can spread joy.  If we seek joy through proximity to Jesus, is suffering the only path?  Or, perhaps, can that path be enhanced and supplemented by pursuing other proximities as well?  In the above passage from Celano, Francis exhorts us to prayer as another way to gain proximity to Jesus and God.  And, of course, immersing ourselves in the gospels is another wise path to proximity.

At the beginning of this reflection, I asked if you were getting excited about spending this time with Jesus and John?  I’ll ask again.  If joy is the likely outcome, does that get you even more excited about spending time in close proximity to Jesus by immersing yourself in the gospels?

Sister’s Message of Easter Hope

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

We’ve just completed both the Lent we didn’t choose and the Holy Week, also not of our preference and choosing.  We’ve been forced by circumstances beyond our control to fast from the companionship of our neighbors, friends and relatives, co-workers, and most painful of all — the celebration of the Eucharist and from the reception of Holy Communion with our parish communities. Though we’re not out of the woods and darkness yet, our Christian Faith and the example of Jesus and of our Holy Father Francis give an assurance and spirit of confidence to our Hope. “Behold,” Jesus said, “I am with you all days even to the end of the world.”

In Genesis we read, “. . . there was darkness over the deep . . . “ A few lines later, “God said, ‘Let there be light, and there was light. God saw that light was good (Genesis 1: 1-  4).‘ ”

In His last moments on the cross, Jesus asked His Father, “Why have you abandoned me?” Yet, a few minutes later, we hear Him say, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”  Jesus moving from the darkness of his Passion and Death into the peaceful presence of the Father. But for his disciples, still the darkness of Holy Saturday rules until . . .

. . . three days later, in the joyful brilliance of the Resurrection, He emerges from the tomb!  Matthew tells us, “His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow.” The guards so shaken by what was happening that they became as dead men — unable to move.

The last years of St. Francis’ life also give us his example of moving from darkness to light.  Rejected as leader of the community he had founded, blind with cauterized eyes, suffering from other bodily weaknesses, he writes the “Praises of God” and “The Canticle of the Creatures” — both hymns of adoration and praise without one bit of self pity or complaint or despair. 

During the last weeks, our entire planet has been bathed in the horrendous darkness of the Covid 19 virus with uncountable numbers of deaths, painful illnesses, loneliness, and devastations to national economies in every nation from giant corporations to mom-and-pop businesses. We’ve all experienced things we could not have imagined. No one has been exempt from the pain — nor are we at the end of this pandemic. Our pain, grief, and suffering is not over!

As Christians and Franciscans, however, we can offer to the deeply suffering world the gift of undying and unquenchable Christian Hope. Why? As one writer used to say, “We know the end of the story.”

During the Easter Proclamation (Exultet) we sing “ . . . let the earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King . . .”  And further, “This is the night of which it is written, . . . the night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night and full of gladness.” And, “May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star; the one Morning Star who never sets, CHRIST YOUR SON . . . who has shed his peaceful light on all humanity.”

Jesus, our Morning Star has gone before us; He IS risen from the darkness of death and shows Himself, the brilliant Light that He IS on us. He IS the way, the truth, the life, and the LIGHT that takes away all darkness of every kind and form.  We need not fear! We need only “ . . .to keep our eyes fixed on Him (Hebrews 12:2).”

He IS risen!  He IS risen indeed! Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Indeed, we do know “the end of the story”! Let us rejoice and be glad!

Opportunity in Hardship: The Example of St. Francis

At this stage, several weeks into the pandemic with who knows how many weeks yet to go, I find myself easily distracted.  Despite my pensiveness, I can’t help but feel this time is full of opportunity.  The practical secular in me thinks I should use this time to catch up on worldly things.  But the capacious Franciscan in me sees it as a time for discovery.  (It’s a never ending conflict.  Will I ever reconcile the two?)   

Laverna

This morning, the Franciscan in me held sway.  So I opened my Franciscan sources (Francis of Assisi: Early Documents) to do a little discovering.  I looked up the word “Hope” in the Index and opened to the first page under the subheading “Christ.”  I found myself in the The Life of St. Francis by Thomas Celano, The Second Book, Chapter VI.  Francis is near the end, suffering from the stigmata and a serious disease of his eyes.  The title of the chapter reads, in part, “The Way He (Francis) Decided to Live.” 

For nearly two years he endured these things with complete patience and humility, in all things giving thanks to God. But in order to be able to devote his attention to God more freely, he entrusted his own care to certain brothers, who with good reason were very dear to him. Thus he could more freely explore in frequent ecstasy of Spirit the blessed dwelling places of heaven, and, in the abundance of grace, stand in heavenly places before the gentle and serene Lord of all things.

If I contract the virus, will this be my outlook?  Will I endure it with “complete patience and humility?”  Will I “give thanks to God in all things,” even my own suffering?  Will I be able, in the midst of my distress, to “freely explore the blessed dwelling places of heaven in an ecstasy of Spirit?”  Will I seek “abundance of grace” that I might “stand in heavenly places before the gentle and serene Lord of all things?”

I don’t know if I am up to it.  The current uncertainty can’t help but make us aware of our mortality.  Even if I avoid the virus, the time will come when I have to face what Francis faced.  I think my distractedness is pointed at this.  I am not ready, and perhaps this disruption in normal routine is manifesting itself to me as an invitation to gospel watchfulness and preparedness.

If I follow the lead of Francis in hardship, if I “devote my attention to God more freely” during this trying time, what will result?  Celano, later in the chapter (quoted below), gives his answer, which I must admit, I find compelling!  Victory over the enemy, true bravery, and the hope of eternal reward are the promised fruits of trusting in the example and intercession of our most holy father, Francis.

“With the Christ as leader, He (Francis ) resolved “to do great deeds.” And with weakening limbs and dying body, He hoped for victory over the enemy in a new struggle. True bravery knows no real limits of time for its hope of reward is eternal.

Sister’s Message for Holy Week 2020

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

We’re about to move into the holiest week of our Christian year  — Holy Week.  Like Lent, this year it promises to be one we would not choose.  But in God’s providential plan, it’s one He’s chosen for us.  In his last hours, Jesus prayed three times, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will (Matthew 26:38).” Yet, it was not the Father’s will for Him at that time.

I suspect that all of us, including our Holy Father Pope Francis, have pleaded with our Father in Heaven to relieve the world of the painful virus that has taken so many lives and has caused so much pain, loss of life, disruption, and depression in so many people in every nation on our planet.  Like Jesus, we too must pray, “not as I will” and patiently await God’s deliverance which will come at the time He chooses.

In the wonderful phone calls I’ve shared with most of you (just a few more of you to dial up!), I’ve learned how resourceful each of you is about use of time:  more time for prayer, watching Masses streamed from various sources, painting your kitchen walls, phoning friends and relatives, sewing masks, knitting gloves and scarves for those living on winter cold streets, planning beautiful gardens in your yard when weather permits, reading books that have been on your bucket list forever, watching reflective programs on saints lives, walking the dog, organizing drawers and closets, trying new recipes, writing, etc., etc., etc.

The hardest part of this not-chosen-Lent for all of you has been the inability to attend Mass and receive Holy Communion with your parish communities.  It is painful indeed and it is a pain our Heavenly Father knows.  Please use whichever form of “Spiritual Communion” draws you closer to Jesus until the day when our heavenly Manna in the Eucharistic celebration and reception of Communion is again possible. The Chosen People in the Old Testament wandered in the desert for 40 years, and God never abandoned them nor did He ever not feed them each and every day. He will do the same for us and this pandemic will not last 40 years. As Third Order Brothers and Sisters of Penance, we can handle this! The TAU we put on each day reminds us of the strength that is ours through the Cross we carry as did Jesus. “I will be with you all days . . . “ Jesus said.

As we enter into Holy Week, I would like to offer you this thought from the Letter to the Romans:

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ: will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation (including Covid 19)  will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35, 37—39).”

May your Holy Week be filled with many, many blessings and graces and may the Lord give you love, peace, joy, and all good things in abundance! And don’t forget to “ . . . wash your hands, and when you’re finished washing them place them in the hands of Jesus.”

Journey thru John, Chapter 2: Mary as Advocate

Mary, the Grotto, St. Stanislaus Parish, South Bend, Indiana

Did you read the full chapter on your own this month?  Did you look for the verse or couple verses that spoke to you?  Did you pray over them multiple times?  Did you enter the scene and put yourself in direct contact with Jesus?

Did you ask for the intercession of Francis and Clare as you prayed in an effort to gain particular insight about your Franciscan vocation?  Did you find yourself thinking about your prayer in the context of the Rule?

Was your prayer an effort to go “from Gospel to life and life to Gospel”? 

Did you do your own reflection for this month?

Did you consider sharing that reflection with your brothers and sisters?

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John Chapter 2, Verses 3 to 5:

When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”  And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me?  My hour has not yet come.”  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Imagine yourself for a moment to be St. Francis of Assisi. You are still in the process of discerning your vocation. God has been calling you. He has gotten your attention but you are not sure what to do about it. You want to serve Him but you don’t yet know how. Harken back to the scene in the cave from last chapter. You have decided to pursue the treasure, the pearl of great price. You are in that cave, praying fervently, and this is the piece of the Gospel that you happen to be reading this day. You put yourself in the scene as one of the servants at the wedding. You hear the exchange between Mary and Jesus and then Mary looks over at you and says “Do whatever he tells you.”

Mary, just as John the Baptist in the last chapter, acts as a herald of Christ for you.

Can you imagine Francis experiencing the scene not as historical, but as current?  Can you see, in the dim candlelight of the cave, the muscles around Francis’ eyelids, closed in desperate prayer, working as the realization dawns on him that Mary is talking not to some person one thousand years dead, but directly to him, right there and then. Can you see Francis “burning inwardly with a divine fire” as a result?  Watch him fidget with anxiety, about to burst, unable to sit still and contain himself. See him reach the conclusion that if Mary is talking to him, right then and there, that he must devote himself to following the Gospels literally because that is the place where Jesus “tells us what to do!”

Then see him emerge from the cave “so exhausted from his struggle that one person seemed to have entered, and another to have come out.”   This is the potential power of conversion that could result from living article four of our SFO Rule earnestly.

Can you bring yourself to hope for a prayer experience such as this with all your heart?  Is it something you truly hope for, or something that scares you beyond the ability to hope because of the burden it would place on you?  Could you include in your answer to last chapter’s question from Jesus (“What do you want?”) the hope that you might react to praying over the Gospels in such a way that it exhausts you and converts you to such an extent that it is apparent externally to the very next person you meet?

Can you recognize the value of learning the skill of putting yourself in the scene?  I doubt I have ever experienced the fervor of being immersed in a Gospel scene the way Francis did. He was just gifted in ways that I am not. But I have experienced it to some degree. I have found myself unable to sit still after praying over a scene and gaining a particular insight from that prayer. I have found myself up and pacing, wringing my hands with the desire to drop everything in my life in order to pursue the outcome of that prayer as utterly and completely as possible. And I have experienced the frustration of trying to be productive at my everyday job afterwards and of wondering how to take the thrill of that realization and somehow incorporate into a very different way of living and not yet discerning how to do it.

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At the beginning of chapter three of The Major Legend of Saint Francis by St. Bonaventure, we find this:

In the Church of the Virgin Mother of God her servant Francis lingered and, with continuing cries, insistently begged her who had conceived and brought to birth the Word full of grace and truth, to become his advocate. Through the merits of the Mother of Mercy he conceived and brought to birth the spirit of Gospel truth.

We don’t know from the record whether or not these exact verses from the Gospel of John elicited the hypothetical reaction from Francis that I asked you to consider above. But the heading of chapter three is “The Founding of the Religion and the Approval of the Rule,” so we do know from the above that Francis prayed insistently to Mary during his discernment process and that Bonaventure gives major credit to Mary for the path that Francis ultimately found. That is how powerful an advocate she became for Francis. Whether or not it was these specific words that caused his devotion to and reliance on Mary is not the point. The reality of the devotion, and how that gets passed down to us, is what these Gospel verses invite us to consider.

The SFO Rule, chapter Two, article Nine, reads like 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.

This section of our Rule echoes closely chapter 150 from The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul by Thomas Celano:

He embraced the Mother of Jesus with inexpressible love, since she made the Lord of Majesty a brother to us. He honored her with his own Praises, poured out prayers to her, and offered her his love in a way that no human tongue can express. But what gives us greatest joy is that he appointed her the Advocate of the Order, and placed under her wings the sons to be left behind, that she might protect and cherish them to the end.

Oh Advocate of the Poor! Fulfill towards us your duty as protectress until the time set by the Father!

The reference to the Praises above is then traced into The Office of the Passion, which is contained in The Undated Writings section of Book I: The Saint. The Antiphon to be used throughout the Office reads like this:

Holy Virgin Mary, among the women born into the world, there is no one like you. Daughter and servant of the most high and supreme King and of the Father in heaven, Mother of our most holy Lord Jesus Christ, Spouse of the Holy Spirit, pray for us, with Saint Michael the Archangel, all the powers of heaven, and all the saints, at the side of your most holy beloved Son, our Lord and Teacher. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever, Amen.

Francis has specifically assigned Mary the roles of Advocate and Protectress. And he has specifically taught us to ask her to pray for us. Is he just honoring Mary within in the long tradition of the Church without consideration, or did he maybe find something in the Gospels that caused him to recognize her as uniquely suited for this role?  

Read the passage from the Gospel again in light of that question. Do you find, in this Gospel passage, justification for Francis asking Mary into these roles?

This interchange between Mary and Jesus is fascinating. Mary, perhaps because of her unique role as Mother, accomplishes something that Jesus’s disciples fail at later in the Gospels.

When Jesus tells Peter that he must die and then be raised on the third day. Peter says to Jesus, “This shall never happen to you!”  Jesus tells Peter “Get behind me, Satan!” and that is the end of the discussion. Peter has been taught authoritatively and his own desires are quashed.

When James and John ask for seats at either hand of Jesus, he tells them “You do not know what you are asking for,” and instructs them to seek the role of servant, not Lord. It’s not as harsh as with Peter, but still, the discussion ends with the instruction. Their desires are also quashed.

But in this scene, Mary actually gets her way. Jesus tells her no, but she goes right by that and gives instructions to the servants to do as Jesus says, and Jesus then does what she wants despite originally telling her no.

Doesn’t this scene establish Mary as the ultimate intercessor?  I am not sure she actually changed Jesus’ mind. There is something deeply mysterious about why an omnipotent God responds to intercession. I don’t think he needs the advocate on His end, but perhaps there is something about me, about us, that needs someone in that role. Jesus, perhaps for his own purposes, chooses to appear as if Mary changed his mind. He has taken this opportunity to establish Mary in a special way in the role of the prototypical advocate.

Perhaps, in seeing her as the model, perhaps in asking for her help, we ourselves learn to become an advocate for others?  Perhaps the model of her total submission in accepting the words of the angel is tied to her role as model advocate in a deeply mysterious way?  If we learn total surrender, then the means to be an advocate is unlocked within us?  We can then aspire to actually being competent at serving others?      

I am not sure. I am guessing. I haven’t prayed over it long enough to reach a conclusion. Perhaps, when we meet as a group, you can help me discover more about how to think about it.

But Jesus does acquiesce to the wishes of Mary in this scene. And there must be something profound in that, something that enhances her stature as His Mother even further. Something that establishes her beyond doubt in that role of advocate. And something in turn that Francis saw in her that caused him to call upon her in his time of need, and then, when she proved to be responsive, to designate her the advocate and protectress of our needs as well.

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I think, perhaps, I have made a mistake by not involving Mary enough in my prayer life. I spoke above about the frustration of experiencing productive prayer and then not being able to translate it well into my everyday life. I wonder now, as I see the reliance that Francis had on Mary, if I ought not cultivate that same reliance?

Is the component that is missing in my quest for conversion a lack of having a tried and trusted advocate on my side?  Do I need Mary in ways I do not even realize?

What would happen if I, like Francis, “insistently begged her with continuing cries to be my advocate,” to help me in my conversion process?

Might I make some progress that I have heretofore been unable to make?

Journey thru John, Chapter 1: The Will of God

As we begin our immersion in the Gospel of John, I would be remiss if I did not start with just a few words about process and format.

The Chama River, the Santa Fe National Forest, Christ in the Desert Monastery, Abiquiu, New Mexico

I am beginning my reflections by reading the chapter in its entirety several times. As I read, I am looking for the single verse or couple of verses that stand out to me, that speak to me. Once the Spirit points me to those verses, I am then trying to spend extended prayer time with them. In particular, I am attempting to place myself in the scene. And then from within the scene, I am praying that God might help me connect that particular scene to the life and charism of St. Francis so that I in turn might apply the fruits of my prayer to my own process of conversion.

The type of prayer I am describing applies principles from the practice known within the Church as Lectio Divina. That term goes all the way back to the year 220 or so. I think it is fair to assume that Francis prayed over the Gospels in this fashion. Doing the same is for me an integral part of living out my profession. It’s one way I experience “the intercession of my holy father St. Francis,” to quote the Rite of Profession again. I ask for his help as I do this and I like to believe that he supplies it. I want, as we get started on our journey into the Gospel of John, to encourage you to do the same. I and hopefully others will be providing reflections for your use in ongoing formation based on this prayer style, but you should be reading the Gospel and making your own reflections as well.

I would even encourage you, if you are willing, to share those reflections with the fraternity. What an incredible resource it would be for the future if we could gather and hold these reflections so that we might visit them again and again as our mutual journeys of conversion unfold.

My reflection will start with the verses that I settled on and prayed over. I will then supply quotations from the writings by Francis and about Francis that seem to speak to these verses. I will give the direct references for the quotes as taken from the compilation Francis of Assisi:  Early Documents.

The Gospels (along with the rest of scripture) combine with the writings in this compilation to form the two core resources we depend on as Franciscans for our knowledge of St. Francis and the way of life we professed to follow. Hopefully, by drawing from them both simultaneously, along with the OFS Rule, we can make progress in better understanding what we are meant to be about.

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John Chapter 1, Verses 35 to 38:

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”  When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”

We know that Francis built his entire ministry and approach to God within a personal point of view that was highly dependent on the Gospels. Momentarily, I will share with you a passage from Thomas of Celano that speaks about Francis’ wish to know and do the Will of God. Francis used the Gospels as his primary source for discerning that Will. I think it is safe to say that Francis’ answer to the question Jesus is asking above (to all of us, right now, by the way) is essentially this:

“I want to do the will of God by following your example as closely as I possibly can!”

When I place myself in this scene, when I picture myself on the edge of the river with John watching Jesus walk by and then getting up to follow, I can’t help but feel uncertain. As soon as John points out Jesus, I long to follow him. But when Jesus turns and asks his question, it’s intimidating. I can almost feel, in the moment, that if I give the wrong answer, I might lose the opportunity. I know, of course, that Jesus will never stop calling me to follow, that no matter how many times I stumble he will always mercifully invite me to continue the journey. But still, the first encounter with Jesus is awesome and even a little scary. That the first words he has for me is “What do you want?” is meaningful. I realize that I do need to at least have a starting point. I need some answer to that question, even while at the same time expecting that the answer will evolve as my exposure to Him increases.

It is, of course, comforting to have the example of Francis to draw on. Francis had this same experience. Early in his discernment process he struggled to discern the answer to the question “What do I want?”  And, because he was human, he answered incorrectly before he found the right track, an error that makes me feel right at home with him since I have made and keeping making that same error over and over again.

In chapter two of the First Book of The Life of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano describes this slip by Francis in his early discernment process:

Thus Francis still tried to avoid the divine grasp, and, for a brief time losing sight of the Father’s reproach while good fortune smiled upon him, reflected upon worldly matters. Ignoring God’s plan, he vowed, out of vainglory and vanity, to do great deeds. A certain nobleman from the city of Assisi was furnishing himself on a large scale with military weaponry and, swollen by the wind of empty glory, he asserted solemnly that that he was going to Apulia to enrich himself in money and distinction. When Francis heard of this, because he was whimsical and overly daring, he agreed to go with him.

Francis, early in his journey of discernment and conversion, loses his way. God has called him, but Francis is lured back by “worldly matters.”  Francis has a dream that shows him a room full of weaponry and interprets it completely wrong, assuming it is an affirmation of coming worldly success instead of a work of distraction. He is sure that he will be a great warrior, a knight, and that he will receive rich worldly rewards as a result. He wants those rewards. He wants that glory. He loses site of God completely in his desire to obtain them.

Celano, in a moment of supreme instruction on how to discern the difference between consolation and desolation, says this:

He should have been able to see that his interpretation of it was mistaken. For, although the vision bore some semblance of great deeds, his spirit was not moved by these things in the usual way.

Francis, because he is early in the conversion process, doesn’t know what to look for. He doesn’t know how to tell the difference between what his sinful human nature wants and what God wills for him. He, just like you or I, assumes he has it hand and proceeds accordingly without having any idea that he has lost his way. Fortunately for him and for us, Francis receives another dream that sets him straight and he responds to it astutely. He gets it and catches himself. He abandons his journey to Apulia and returns to Assisi to await the further instructions that this second dream promised.

He begins to spend time with a friend in and around Assisi. In chapter three, Celano tells us of this significant moment where those instructions seem to take hold:

There was a cave near the city where they often went and talked together about the treasure. (Treasure is a reference to Francis earlier speaking to his friend about the pearl he had found and his desire to sell all he had to obtain it.)  The man of God, who was already holy because of his holy intention was accustomed to enter the cave, while his companion waited outside, and inspired by a new and extraordinary spirit he would pray to his Father in secret. He acted in such a way that no one would know what was happening within. Wisely taking the occasion of the good to conceal the better, he consulted God alone about his holy purpose. He prayed with all his heart that the eternal and true God guide his way and teach him to do His will………He was burning inwardly with a divine fire, and he was unable to conceal outwardly the flame kindled in his soul. He repented that he had sinned so grievously and that he had offended the eyes of majesty………Therefore, when he came back out to his companion he was so exhausted from his struggle that one person seemed to have entered, and another to have come out.

Francis wants to do the right thing. When Jesus asks “What do you want?” he longs to respond correctly. He searches, discerns and prays that God will show him the answer and here he finally is able to consolidate his reply. He wants “the eternal and true God to guide his way and teach him to do His will.”  Note that as the answer solidifies, themes that will dominate his ministry are immediately apparent. He begins to repent just as he will call his followers to ongoing repentance. He begins to experience conversion just as he will call his followers to ongoing conversion.

Hopefully, all these components are familiar to us as Franciscans. Hopefully, we all have said to God “guide my way and teach me to do your Will.”  Hopefully, we all want to “repent our sins” and be converted to one who “burns inwardly with your flame, one who can’t conceal that flame” from others as we move through the world.

But this is just the beginning of Francis’ answer. There is more to come. His understanding of God’s will matures before chapter three is over. He comes to comprehend not just the broad and generic idea but also the specific task he must succeed at to fulfill his answer to Jesus’ question. Chapter three ends like this:

He said that he did not want to go to Apulia, but promised to do great and noble deeds at home. People thought he wanted to get married, and they would ask him:  “Do you want to get married, Francis?”  He replied:  “I will take a bride more noble and more beautiful than you have ever seen, and she will surpass the rest in beauty and excel all others in wisdom.”

No doubt the people of Assisi thought this answer a little strange. What woman was Francis referring to here?  Who in Assisi would fit this description?  We, because we have access to the full story, are privileged to know and understand the meaning behind this cryptic answer. Francis has already determined that Lady Poverty is the key to what he is planning. Lady Poverty is the means by which he will fulfill the answer to Jesus’ question. It is Lady Poverty that he will wed. Read that description again and you can see it clearly.

It is again Thomas of Celano who gives us the full measure of Francis’ devotion to Lady Poverty. This time it occurs in The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, Chapter 25. I have to tell you that I find these words nothing short of spectacular. Remember Jesus’ question is “What do you want?”  Read the below and tell me if you have any doubt what it is that Francis wants, what his answer to the question is.

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, he was eager to espouse her in an everlasting love. He became the lover of her beauty and not only left his father and his mother but gave up everything he owned so that he might cling to his wife more closely, and the two might be in one spirit. He held her close in chaste embraces and could not bear to cease being her husband even for an hour. He told his sons that she is the way of perfection. She is the pledge and guarantee of eternal wealth. No one coveted gold as avidly as he coveted poverty; No one was as careful to guard a treasure as he was to watch over this pearl of the Gospel.

Pay special attention to the richness of the language. Reread words like scorn, eager, all, covet, everlasting and cling. Celano is not describing Francis wanting something ordinary. Francis does not want a turkey sandwich and a coke. Celano is telling us about Francis’ most deeply held passion. He wants Lady Poverty not as an aside, but as the embodiment of the will of God that he first yearned for firmly during his experience in the cave. Francis finds the will of God and the espousal of Lady Poverty to be one and the same thing. They are the treasure, the pearl, that Jesus tells us to sell all for and Francis does exactly that.

His ability to give himself fully to Lady Poverty is what makes him a Saint. Everything else is built upon it. It is the source of his discipline and strength.

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The challenge is immense. To enter the first chapter of the Gospel of John, to meet Jesus face to face, and to hear his question is daunting. To witness Francis’ total surrender in how he answers the question is equally daunting.

I can’t help but wonder how I could ever be up to the task. How can I ever emulate Francis and imitate Jesus?  How can I ever adequately answer the question Jesus puts to me? 

“What do I want?”

Just like Francis, I want to do God’s will by following the example of Jesus in the Gospels as closely as I can.

But, if I were to put myself on the same timeline as Francis, I have to admit that on my best days, I am just emerging from the cave. I have experienced the interior fire that Francis experienced but I have yet to find the courage or the strength to translate it into my life with the intensity and passion that he did. I’m trying, but I’m not there yet. And, in all honesty, there are still days where I regress to the point of declaring myself ready for the journey to Apulia to pursue worldly matters.

I guess I need to amend my answer with something like the following:

“Jesus, I want you to continue to love me, and support me, and uphold me. Guide me and convert me. When Francis lost his way, you kept faith with him. Just as you did with him, please continue to send me your grace and mercy no matter how many times I fail. Please Jesus, never stop calling me until I have gained the strength and wisdom to answer you the way I am meant to answer you.”

What would your answer be?

Journey thru John, the Introduction: Seeking His Glory in Everything

A couple of months ago our fraternity was privileged to hold a profession ceremony for three fantastic women. In the midst of Mass, they stood in front of their families, friends and the fraternity and made their Permanent Commitment to the Gospel Life.

These are the words they used to make that commitment:

Ritual of the Secular Franciscan Order, Rite of Profession:

I, (state your name), by the grace of God, renew my baptismal promises and consecrate myself to the service of his Kingdom. Therefore, in my secular state I promise to live all the days of my life the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Secular Franciscan Order by observing its Rule of life.

May the grace of the Holy Spirit, the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and our holy father St. Francis, and the fraternal bonds of community always be my help, so that I might reach the goal of perfect Christian love.

That morning we had ongoing profession as we normally do and we chose to use this statement of consecration as the focus of our discussion. As the leader of one of the small groups, I asked someone to read these words aloud.

I then asked the group to tell me what “perfect Christian love” consisted of. It’s not an easy concept to define, explain or understand. Our discussion lasted for more than an hour but I am not sure that we reached any firm conclusions. Don’t get me wrong. It was a wonderful discussion. Great thoughts were shared and fine examples were cited. But there are some ideas in this world, especially the best ideas, that no matter how much you talk about them, the discussion is never complete. These ideas, by their very nature, ask that we consider them continuously, that we are mindful of them always. They are deep enough that any human attempt to grasp them always runs short, is always incomplete.

It’s like trying to define God himself. In the end, it’s simply beyond us.

I just as easily could have asked the group to tell me what it means to “live all the days of your life the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  That idea is just as vast and just as challenging. And yet, as Secular Franciscans, we pledged to do just that when we made our profession. And when we read the Rule of life that we are obligated to observe we are immediately reminded of our pledge. The very first article of Chapter Two, which bears the heading “The Way of Life,” reads like this:  

SFO Rule, Chapter 2, Article 4:

The Rule and life of the Secular Franciscans is this: to observe the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of St. Francis of Assisi who made Christ the inspiration and the 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.

The Rule requires that the question of how to live a Gospel life must always be present to us, always at the forefront of our priorities. We can never adequately answer it, yet we still most focus upon it. We can never fulfill this desire perfectly, but our pledge to live a Gospel life is at the core of who we are meant to be. We understand that we are called to continual conversion. Our pledge defines the nature of that conversion. We are called to continuously and deliberately and carefully immerse ourselves in the Gospels and then adjust our lives according to the inspiration we find there. It is our never-ending journey. It is a source of great joy for us.

In order to better understand how to do this, we turn to the example of Francis. We are fortunate to have his recorded words to shepherd us. And we also rely on the legends that were written in support of his sainthood and other foundational works that have survived the test of time to guide us.

The context of this decision to use the Gospel of John as our formation material is dependent on these two pillars. First, we have pledged to live a Gospel life. Second, we also pledged to allow the example of Francis to inspire us. Hopefully, the two together, viewed in the light of the words and life of Jesus as presented by John, and of course the Spirit, will teach us to better follow the path of continuous conversion we are called to.   

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The importance of the Gospels to the outlook of Francis is immediately apparent as soon as you start to investigate his life. The Gospels are a major focus in our journey because that’s what they were for him. The reason our Rule emphasizes the Gospel life is because the Rules he authored himself did so. Here are the introductions to the two versions of his Rule that have come down to us:

The Earlier Rule of St. Francis – 1209/10-1221, Prologue:

This is the life of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that Brother Francis petitioned the Lord Pope to grant and confirm for him; and he did grant and confirm it for him and his brothers present and yet to come.

The Later Rule of St. Francis – 1223, Chapter One:

The Rule and life of the Friars Minor is this, namely, to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own, and in chastity.

You can see that our devotion to the Gospels is directly inherited from Francis. This is what was important to him and as his followers it must also be important to us.

And we can also see without having to hunt very far how Gospel inspired conversion is central to the Franciscan charism. Here then is an example of how Francis reacted to the words of Jesus when confronted by them:

The First Life of St. Francis by Thomas of Celano, excerpt from the First Book, Chapter 9: (This can also be referenced in both the major and minor Legends by Bonaventure and in the Legend of the Three Companions.)

One day the Gospel was being read in that church about how the Lord sent out his disciples to preach. The holy man of God, who was attending there, in order to understand better the words of the Gospel, humbly begged the priest after celebrating the solemnities of the Mass to explain the Gospel to him. The priest explained it all to him thoroughly line by line. When he heard that Christ’s disciples should not possess gold or silver or money, or carry on their journey a wallet or a sack, nor bread nor a staff, nor to have shoes nor two tunics, but that they should preach the kingdom of God and penance, the holy man, Francis, immediately exulted in the spirit of God. “This is what I want,” he 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. Immediately, he took off the shoes from his feet, put down the staff from his hands, and, satisfied with one tunic, exchanged his leather belt for a cord. After this, he made for himself a tunic showing the image of the cross, so that it would drive off every fantasy of the demons. He made it very rough, so that in it he might crucify the flesh with its vices and sins. He made it very poor and plain, a thing that the world would never covet. As for the other things he heard, he set about doing them with great care and reverence. For he was no deaf hearer of the Gospel; rather he committed everything he heard to his excellent memory and was careful to carry it out to the letter.

Many of the major themes of Franciscan life are present in this one short excerpt. Respect for the Church and the Priest. Obedience. Poverty. Joy. Penance. Conversion.

But most important is Francis’ willingness to take the words of the Gospel, the words of Jesus, as the pattern for his life. There is no questioning by Francis. His decision is immediate and definite. He has found what he was looking for and there is no hesitation what to do about it.

Understand that we are nine chapters into Celano’s story of his life. His discernment process has been ongoing for some time. He has already made significant progress. He has heard Christ speak from the San Damiano cross and done the work to physically rebuild that church, he has already spent time among the lepers and he has already stripped himself bare and renounced his worldly father in favor of his heavenly one.

And yet it’s clear from the context of this passage that something was missing. Here he seems to find the final piece of the puzzle. When he joyfully exclaims “This is what I want!” he is announcing that he finally has the full picture of what he was meant to do. It is the realization that the Gospels will be his trusty guide that puts him over the top. That exclamation is not about just the one passage that he heard that morning. It is his acknowledgement that he can use the Gospels as a guide to follow Jesus, as a road map toward holiness. Finally his vision and understanding about how to proceed are complete. The Gospels will be his security.

From my viewpoint here in the modern world, it’s very tempting to acknowledge and dismiss this episode at the same time. I can acknowledge Francis as an extraordinary person, as the Saint that he became. I can look upon his unconditional reaction and celebrate it. And at the same time I can dismiss it as unachievable for me. I can maintain my current comfort zone, think about the secular side of my life and come up with all kinds of excuses about why I can’t react to the words of Jesus with the same zeal, abandon and passion that Francis did.

That may very well be true. But the real challenge is to find the middle ground. When I dismiss my own ability to react and change, then I stifle my ability to experience conversion. I may not be gifted with the courage that Francis had, but I have to at least be honest with myself. I have to acknowledge my need for conversion. I have to acknowledge the Gospels as the best possible inspiration for that conversion. And I have to be willing to make changes, even some changes that are out of my comfort zone, if that is what the Gospels call for.

It’s not easy to face the reality that I fail so much more often than I succeed.

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Perhaps though, I might have a better chance of success if I know others have succeeded before me. Perhaps I might find courage in knowing that it can be done. There have been followers of Francis who succeeded in embracing the Gospel message according to the example of Francis.

Here is what happens in the next chapter of Celano:

The First Life of St. Francis by Thomas of Celano, the First Book, Chapter 10:

After him, Brother Bernard, embracing the delegation of peace, eagerly ran after the holy man of God to gain the kingdom of heaven. He had often received the blessed father as a guest, had observed and tested his life and conduct. Refreshed by the fragrance of his holiness, he conceived fear and gave birth to the spirit of salvation. He used to see him praying all night long, sleeping rarely, praising God and the glorious Virgin, his mother. He was amazed and said, “This man truly is from God.”  So he hurried to sell all he had and distributed it to the poor, not to his relatives. Grasping the title of a more perfect way, he fulfilled the counsel of the holy Gospel:  “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell all you won, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven: then come, follow me.”  When he had done this, he joined the holy man, Francis, in the same life and habit, and was always with him, until the brothers increased in numbers and he, with the obedience of his devoted father, was sent to other regions.

And then, the same episode in another version by Celano, with even more emphasis on the Gospels and the willingness to let Jesus control the outcome and guide the future.

The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul by Thomas of Celano, excerpt from the First Book, Chapter 10: (This can also be referenced in The Deeds of Blessed Francis and His Companions.)

Bernard said to him: “I know that everything I have was given to me by God and on your advice I am now ready to return all to Him.”  The saint replied: “If you want to prove your words with deeds, let us go into the church tomorrow at dawn, take up the Gospel Book, and seek the counsel of Christ.”  When morning had broken they went into the church and, after preparing with a devout prayer, they opened the book of the Gospel, ready to act on whatever counsel should first come to them. When they opened the book, Christ openly gave them His counsel:  If you wish to be perfect, go and sell all you own, and give to the poor. They repeated this a second time, and found: Take nothing for your journey. They tried a third time, and found If anyone would follow me, let him deny himself. Bernard immediately carried out all these things, without neglecting a single iota of this counsel.

Let’s not kid ourselves. The example of Bernard would not be much easier to follow than the example of Francis himself.

But let’s also consider the details of how Bernard made his decision. First, he observed Francis and found his example desirable. He “observed and tested his life and conduct.”  We have done that. We spent time in our initial formation getting to know Francis and the things he stood for. We came to understand his approach to a holy life. Presumably, we also found his example desirable. That’s why we made our profession.

Bernard then declared himself a follower of Francis and asked his counsel. Francis responded by escorting Bernard to the Gospels. They sought the counsel of Jesus together and, when it was revealed to them, they found the courage to follow it.

This, I think, is a good starting point on fulfilling my pledge to faithfully investigate our initial question, how do I “live all the days of my life the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ?”  It is also a perfect embarking point for the specific task in front of us as well. As we prepare to immerse ourselves in the Gospel of John through the lens of Francis, we are doing just what Bernard did. We are asking Francis and Jesus and the Spirit to guide us through our own conversion. We might not be able to go as far as Bernard did, but there is somewhere we can go, some first step we can take that will then lead to subsequent steps on the road to an ever fuller conversion.

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This is what I hope for, what I long for. Somewhere along the way, I want to experience what Francis experienced. I want to read something in the Gospel of John and I want to joyfully exclaim “this is what I desire with all my heart.”

If I could stay present enough to have that happen just once, and if I could find the courage to follow through on the consequences, then perhaps I could claim the title “disciple.”  Disciple of Jesus and disciple of Francis.

Francis authored a prayer inspired by the Our Father. Part of that expresses the desire to be always present and mindful of God. Perhaps that is the best way to end this introduction, for if I could be more mindful, then I think I would have a better chance of being more courageous, more willing to embrace that conversion that might otherwise pass me by, more likely to experience a “wow” moment as I journey through the Gospel of John, a moment that would open the door for more such moments to follow.

I would become more likely to understand, at least enough to be effective and have some measure of success, what it means to lead a Gospel life, to actually live out the instruction of the Rule that asks me to go “from Gospel to life and life to Gospel.”

Excerpt from A Prayer Inspired by the Our Father:

Your will be done on earth as in heaven: That we may love you with our whole heart by always thinking of You, with our whole soul by always desiring You, with our whole mind by always directing all our intentions to You, and by seeking Your glory in everything, with all our whole strength by exerting all our energies and affections of body and soul in the service of Your love and of nothing else.

Amen.