Yesterday I joined the Dubuque Franciscan Sisters Brenda and Nancy and Betty, a volunteer with them, for a retreat at their center in Gracias. It was a good time apart, reflecting on the Franciscan charism we share.
Nancy shares a reflection that included this excerpt from St. Francis’s “Testament” which he dictated shortly before his death:
The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I had mercy on them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me changed into sweetness of soul and body; and afterwards I lingered a little and left the world.
Many, but not all, of the groups I welcome experience a sense of sweetness in the midst of the bitterness of life they share spending a few days living in a rural village.
One group was particularly overwhelmed by the signs of poverty – including spiders, cockroaches, and other vermin; they never got over an initial concern about security after they had heard of a few cases of killings in the area. But another group, despite the fact that all of us got bad cases of diarrhea, went away with a deep sense of joy.
Willingness to share the bitterness, the difficulties of the lives of the poor is a gift that not all can accept. At times our concerns for security and comfort close us off to this gift and all we can see is the bitterness, the bleakness, the despair.
I have been blessed many times over by being allowed to share the lives of the poor. And it has given me joy.
I remember working in 1992 in a rural village in the Suchitoto, El Salvador, parish. There was no water; most of the houses were provisional; life was hard. I slept in a hammock in the house of Esteban and Rosa Elbia and their many children. In the rainy season the water came in and soaked the dirt floor under my hammock. But each morning when I awakened my first thought was “Thanks be to God.”
And so today, gifted by that experience and many others, I can say with Francis, “that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body.”
All this has allowed me, after lingering for a good number of years in Ames, Iowa, to leave that world and begin to enter the world of the poor.
Where this leads me, I do not know. But I may have to leave the comfort of life here in the city of Santa Rosa de Copán to embrace a life closer to the poor in the countryside.
I pray that God give me the courage, strength, and wisdom to follow His call.