Monthly Archives: September 2018

Francis and the leper

Very few conversions happen in an instant. Often conversion is a long process, with various little conversions, until there is a “tipping point,” an event that brings a person to a turning point, where a decision has to be made.

For St. Francis, I think this was his encounter with the leper. As he himself wrote in his Testament:

The Lord inspired me, Brother Francis, to begin a life of  penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed very bitter for me to see lepers.  And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy on them.  And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body; and afterwards I lingered a little and left the world.

Francis began to see in the poor Christ. Nikos Kazantzakis, in his highly speculative novel Saint Francis, has Francis explain this to Brother Leo:

“This, Brother Leo, is what I understood: all lepers, cripples, sinners, if you kiss them on the mouth—”
He stopped, afraid to complete his thought.
“Enlighten me, Brother Francis, enlighten me, do not leave me in the dark.”
Finally, after a long silence, he murmured with a shudder:
“All these, if you kiss them on the mouth— O God, forgive me for saying this— they all. . . become Christ.”

This, though, is not far from the experience of Francis. Andre Vauchez refers to the Assisi Compilation which has Francis reflecting:

When you see a poor person, he said, you must consider that person in the name of the one who comes, that is, the Christ who took upon himself our poverty and our infirmity. Thus the poverty and infirmity of this person are the mirror in which we must contemplate in love the poverty and infirmity that Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered in his own body in order to save humankind.

To see Christ in the poor person in front of me, to respond in love – that is the beginning of conversion.

Cristomendigo

 

 

 

Saint Francis and poverty

Saint Francis is often called “Il Poverello,” the Little Poor Man of Assisi – and rightly so. He sought to be poor as Christ was poor and, slightly modifying the word of Lawrence Cunningham, the poor Christ was “the hermeneutic lens through which he read the Gospel.”

For Francis, possessions keep us from responding to Christ and to the poor. If we have possessions, he said, we will seek arms to defend them.

This radical approach is a major challenge to me and to many in the Church. But it first of all means that we realize that we cannot be self-sufficient. Autonomy is a temptation of the devil.

What we need to develop is a real poverty of spirit and then respond in our lives to the call of the poor Christ. It is to become small, the minor, the lesser one.

André Vauchez, in Francis of Assisi: The life and afterlife of a medieval saint, puts it plainly:

But the more one is minor (small, humble), the more one is a brother of others and, first of all, of those with whom one lives. The ideal is thus not to seek to be sufficient unto oneself but to share what one receives and to accept that one needs others in the smallest details of daily life. The absolute poverty desired by Francis set up a new type of relationship— to goods, but also between persons, founded on genuine solidarity. The care of the other was indeed fundamental in the early community…

Openness to the other, putting oneself and all one has available for all – that’s a challenge.

But Vauchez sees Francis’s life as more than just a call to personal poverty, or at least a radical generosity. As he writes:

the project of Francis… was to give birth in the heart of the world a society without money and without goods, where an “economy of poverty” would prevail, characterized by liberality and the redistribution to disadvantaged persons of all that was not strictly indispensable to the survival of the community.

How can we build an “economy of poverty” in the midst of a world that glorifies wealth and power? How can we build a “civilization of poverty” (in the word of the martyred Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuría) in a civilization of consumption and accumulation?

francis leperThe first step, I think, is to do what Francis did and that St. Paul urged the Romans, “make friends with the poor – associate with the lowly” (Romans 12:16).

Do we know people who are impoverished by name?

Do we let ourselves be taught by the poor?

Do we look at life through the hermeneutical lens of the poor?

In the last century, a Hindu holy man, Mahatma Gandhi, left us a message that will help us recover and live the poverty of Francis.

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test.
Recall the face of the poorest and weakest person whom you have seen, and ask yourself if the next step you contemplate is going to be of any use to that person. Will that person gain anything by it? Will it restore the person to a control over his or her own life and destiny? On other words, will it lead to freedom for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?
Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away.

Saint Francis gratefully loving the world

“[St. Francis of Assisi] could be overwhelmed with gratitude before a piece of hard bread, or joyfully praise God simply for the breeze that caressed his face.”
Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate, 127

Near San Damiano, Assisi

Francis was an ascetic. He would put ashes on his food so that he would not be overwhelmed by the tastiness of his food and turn into a glutton.

But he loved the world as a gift of God and gave thanks for all creation. His famous Canticle of the Creatures is filled with gratitude for all that God has made and given us.

Praised be my Lord
for brother son,
sister moon,
brother wind,
sister water,
brother fire,
mother earth,
sister death…
and for all those who forgive…

Such praise flows from a deep poverty, a poverty of spirit. As Lawrence Cunningham wrote, “It is almost as if by dispossessing possessing himself of his worldly goods he took on a new eye for the beauties of the world and those who inhabit it.”

Giving up the desire to possess, to own, to accumulate, we can see all as gift – and give thanks.


Mosaic and sculpture from Assisi, near the church of San Damiano.

Saint Francis: performing the Gospel

A poor man sculpture

Outside the church of San Damiano, Assisi, Italy

One of the most interesting books I’ve read on Saint Francis is Lawrence Cunningham’s Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel of Life. He sees that Francis was not merely interested in preaching the Gospel; Francis wanted to live the Gospel, to be a living Gospel, as a hymn we use here in Honduras says.

Francis was, in Cunningham’s words, “more a performer of the Word of God than a commentator upon it.”  He was “imply a little Umbrian touched by the mysterious power of grace who had a revolutionary idea: to live the life of the Christ of the gospels as closely and as literally as he could.”

This is what Pope Francis seems to be saying in Gaudete et exsultate (¶ 46)

Francis recognized the temptation to turn the Christian experience into a set of intellectual exercises that distance us from the freshness of the Gospel. Saint Bonaventure, on the other hand, pointed out that true Christian wisdom can never be separated from mercy towards our neighbor: “The greatest possible wisdom is to share fruitfully what we have to give… Even as mercy is the companion of wisdom, avarice is its enemy”.

It is so easy to preach about Saint Francis without seeing that what he was up to was trying to be a living Gospel, making the Gospel come alive in daily life, in all its revolutionary calls – to love even the enemy, to be poor and to accompany the poor, to be an instrument of peace, to suffer as Christ suffered.

Words are not as important as the way we live.

This is not, of course, a call to activism. It is a call to discipleship, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, living as Jesus did.

It is a call to love, to be with God and with God’s people – especially the poor.

Francis is not in the birdbaths; he’s at the side of the poor, walking the roads of the world.

 

Saint Francis and the challenge of nonviolence

Carlo Carretto, a Little Brother of Jesus, wrote an amazing reflection on Saint Francis,  I, Francis, speaking as if he were the saint of Assisi. In one chapter he reflects on the famous story of Saint Francis taming the wolf of Gubbio.

FrancisGubbio

A wolf had been ravaging the town and the people sought the help of Francis. Francis went out to meet the wolf who stopped in the middle of charging the saint and meekly greeted Francis. Francis explained that the wolf was ravaging the town because he was hungry. He arranged a pact between the townspeople and the wolf, that lasted until the wolf died, fed everyday by the people of Gubbio.

Here are some reflections of Carlo Carretto, in the voice of Francis.

“What is extraordinary in the incident of the wolf of Gubbio is not that the wolf grew tame, but that the people of Gubbio grew tame — and that they ran out to meet the cold and hungry wolf not with pruning knives and hatchets but with bread and hot porridge.
“Here is the miracle of love: to discover that all creation is one, flung out into space by a God who is a Father, and that if you present yourself to it as he does — unarmed and full of peace — creation will recognize you and meet you with a smile.”

“Here is the absolutely basic secret, hidden in God’s whole place for humanity.
“To believe in the possibility of the impossible.
“To hope in things against all hope.
“TO love what does not seem lovable.
“God’s proposition to humanity is always wrapped in the veil of this mystery.”

“If human beings go to war, it is because they fear someone.
“Remove the fear, and you shall reestablish trust. And you shall have peace.
“Nonviolence is fear’s destruction.”

Saint Francis, pray that God may make us, His People, artisans of peace.

Saint Francis and the evangelization of love

For the nine days leading up to the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, I hope to share some quotes from some books that have aroused my Franciscan spirit.

DSC01179

Eloi Leclerc wrote a fascinating book on Saint Francis, The Wisdom of the Poor One of Assisi, which provides insights into his spirit, providing some reflections on what the saint of Assis might have said or thought.

At the close of the book, he puts these words in the mouth of Saint Francis:

“The Lord has sent us to evangelize the world. But have you already thought about what it means to evangelize people? Can’t you see, Brother, that to evangelize a person is to say to that one: ‘You ─ yes, you too are loved by God in the Lord Jesus.’
“And you must not only tell that person so, but you must really believe it, and not only believe it, but conduct yourself with this person in such a way that this person can feel and discover there is something within that is being redeemed, something more majestic and noble than had ever been dreamed.
“Thus will this person be aroused to a new awareness of self. Thus will you have proclaimed to that one ‘the good tidings of great joy.’ This will be possible only if you offer that person your friendship, a true friendship, unbiased and without condescension, a friendship rooted in profound confidence and esteem.
“We must go unto all people, but that is not easy. The world of people is a huge battlefield for wealth and power, and too much suffering and atrocity can eclipse the face of God. In going to everyone we must above all never appear to them as a new species of competitor. We must stand in the midst of them as the peaceful witnesses for the All Powerful, as those who covet nothing and scorn no one, people capable of truly becoming their friends. It is our friendship that they are waiting for, a friendship that should make them feel they are loved by God and redeemed in Jesus Christ.”

The evangelization of the love of God must be accompanied by our love for all, so that all of us may recall that we are loved by God.

This is what Saint Francis did; this is what Pope Francis asks us to do. This is what we need to remember:

We are loved by God in the Lord Jesus.

A glimpse of God’s tender love

Today I took a group of men to help in a project of fencing the diocesan grounds in Santa Rosa. I didn’t get to ask someone to arrange this until yesterday, but he got seven folks to come.

They worked a long day in the heat – enduring the lack of organization of those responsible for the project. They were the last to leave – at about 3:30.

I had bought two packages of sweet bread to give them as we left. I apologized for the lack of coffee and expected that they’d take the bread home to eat. But I guess they were hungry and shared about two pieces apiece.

One young man in his mid or late twenties was in the front seat beside me. He ate one bread and then turned around and had someone put the other bread in his bag. For my daughter, he said.

He has two kids, including a six-year old daughter. He’s been married (in the church) for seven years.

But here he was setting aside a bread for his daughter, even though he was probably hungry and tired. He thought of her – not himself.

I am moved by this little act of fatherly love, which reflects God’s love and affection for each one of us.

As I prayed over this tonight, I remembered another experience a few years ago, while visiting El Salvador. I was on a bus returning to Suchitoto where I was staying. A young man had two small little girl shoes in his hands. He looked at them and touched them with such tenderness.

So is God’s love for us – full of tenderness, overflowing in mercy, gifting us with love, sometimes in the form of a sweet bread or a pair of shoes.