NOW: The Perfect Joy of St. Francis

Now: The Perfect Joy of Saint Francis of Assisi

 When St. Francis of Assisi began to understand that his life was a gift of love, he desired nothing else than that his life become a loving gift to God and others. This shift in consciousness did not happen all at once for St. Francis, nor does it happen all at once of any of us. The journey from the assumption of absolute autonomy and the false egocentric notion that we are self-sufficient, to a posture of total surrender to God and the recognition of our genuine interconnectedness with all life takes time and requires daily conversion. Day by day, step by step, prayer by prayer we inch our way along the Way back to God, back to the fullness of life and love. But we easily get distracted, sidetracked by false desires and empty illusions. This is why the discipline of prayer was important to St. Francis and he did not want to leave it to chance. He carefully carved out time alone, time apart from the roar of the crowd, time for God alone.

 Within himself, St. Francis created a culture of emptiness, an empty space for God to fill. To become empty, we need to do nothing, need to press the pause bottom on our society’s addictive need to be productive, to always be doing something.

 I think we need to create a culture of emptiness more than Francis did, as modern life is so filled with busyness, so cluttered with unfiltered information tirelessly generated by the media and the internet, so over-stimulated by a dizzying array of electronic gadgets, so pressured by the allure of nonstop advertising, and so driven by productiveness, we are almost incapable of stillness and can’t tolerate silence. It was in stillness and silence that Francis forged his inner cloister of emptiness and flamed his desire for God.

 For Francis, his form of monasticism had no walls, for the world was his cloister; but he was diligent in periodically retreating to places of solitude where he could be renewed and find a clear sense of direction for his forays into the wider world of activity and human commerce.

 God spoke to Francis in the depths of his soul. And in the silence of his inner most being, Francis responded. In time, God, who has no voice, spoke to Francis in everything. Francis became a word of God, echoing all he heard in the inmost center of his being during his prolonged periods of contemplation. Francis’ experience of God went beyond faith, beyond dogma and symbols. His experience of God gave birth to a spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. The invisible Source of Life touched Francis and Francis knew beyond all knowing that God was real and that God was always reaching out to us. And this deep knowing was beyond explanation, beyond discussion and debate, beyond himself.

 St. Francis of Assisi is like an impressionistic painting…different people see different things in him. Various aspects of his life inspire different kinds of responses in people’s lives when they walk with Francis. For some, Francis’ understanding of a God-centered peace is his shinning virtue. Peace and nonviolence were so integral to Francis’ being that it colored all that he did and said. Many people admire Francis’ ability to see the goodness within people of other faiths, and his willingness to engage in authentic inter-faith dialogue. For others, Francis’ connectedness to all creation is truly inspiring and makes him the patron saint of ecology. Others are drawn to Francis because of his thirst for silence and solitude. For some, Francis’ ability to combine contemplation and action is his greatest accomplishment; and others love his ability to remain faithful to the institutional Church even while disagreeing with it. Some people are drawn to his simplicity and his willingness to take God’s word literally and do what it says. Others greatly admire his fiery passion to be like Christ and to live for Christ alone.

 For me, all these aspects of St. Francis have changed me in subtle ways. But while my encounter with Francis changed my perspective on peace and nonviolence, solitude and silence, creation and prayer, it was his love of the poor and poverty itself which impacted me the most. Francis led me to the poor, to the deepest and most profound levels of poverty imaginable. It was there that I understood what radical dependency on God truly means. For me the entire Franciscan spirituality rests on the foundation of poverty.

 But voluntary poverty is a source of confusion for many of those who strive to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis. Even when Franciscans speak of the poverty of St. Francis, they often speak of it as an isolated concept which leads to a certain amount of vagueness or confusion, and even to idealizing poverty. Are we called to live in abject poverty? No…this is not what Francis wants, nor is it the ideal way to follow Francis.

 Francis’ concept of poverty was interconnected with his concept of God as the Summum Bonum, or the Supreme Good, and that Jesus Christ was the Summum Bonum of God given to humanity. Because of his great trust in the supreme goodness of God, Francis could give up everything and depend completely on God to supply every one of his needs from God’s overflowing goodness. Francis knew that even in his “poverty” he would be very rich because God out of Goodness would supply every one of his needs. Francis was not interested in appropriating the things of God for himself. Francis was focused on expropriation, letting go of everything for God…who gives it back a hundred times more in return.

 Franciscan poverty should not be equated with the experience of living in desperation. This is not what Francis or God wants from us. Francis wants us to let everything go and joyfully trust that God would supply every one of our needs. When Francis faced the end of his own resources he was able to see the vastness of God’s unlimited resources. Francis understood that a person’s spiritual life will not prosper without an intense awareness of their own poverty and emptiness. All growth begins in a womb of darkness.

 Unity with God, Francis discovered, is obtained in only one way: total surrender. This is Franciscan poverty. And this lesson is, I believe, best learned by being one with the poor and helping to liberate them from the prison of unjust, immoral poverty that robs them of their human dignity, a dignity that flows from being sons and daughters of a loving and merciful God.

 For St. Francis, voluntary poverty was a way for him to always be dependent upon God for everything. When Francis experienced the self-emptying love of God, it awakened his desire to love God and God alone. He longed for nothing else but God. And most important, Francis put his full trust in the grace of God, the overflowing goodness of God. Every moment was pregnant with the grace to see the boundless love of God in everyone, and to return that love by loving others and all of creation.

 In Francis’ eyes, everything that is good, every kind gesture, every act of mercy, every gentle touch, every gift of charity, every embrace of forgiveness, every moment of peace, flowed from God. Moreover, all loneliness, every disappointment, the very wounds of rejection, the bitter sadness of loss, and the times of suffering open us to the transcendent and allows us to experience the hidden closeness of God.

 Without God Francis knew he was nothing. With God he knew he lacked nothing.

 In The Diary of Country Priest, French novelist Georges Bernanos has his dying curé exclaim, “Grace is everywhere.” Every once in a great while, I’m able to see things as they truly are, able to see that grace indeed seems to be everywhere. The beauty of catching a glimpse of abounding grace is that it makes my own limitations feel less severe and makes God’s vastness appear even greater than I ever imagined.

 The painter Paul Gauguin claimed he shut his eyes in order to see. The Sufi mystic Rumi advised selling your cleverness and buying bewilderment. What they are saying is that the heart sees what the eyes can’t. Francis learned that lesson very well, and was willing to let God flip his world upside-down. Conversion is listening to the events of your life that change your perspective. Francis understood he had a need for an ongoing change of heart, and ongoing change of perspective that allowed him to see the way God saw and allowed him to see grace everywhere.

 It was his willingness to be “grasped” by God that made him unique. He approached each day with a simple, very child-like attitude: God, what do you have in store for me today! This outlook released him from the burden of self-groundedness and into the freedom of being grounded in God, thus allowing himself to experience a realignment of his passion, and a complete re-centering of his affections. For Francis, conversion was a liberating experience, freeing him from the prison of self rule.

 Saint Francis understood we all are the human face of Jesus; he knew that all of humanity comprises the divine face. God assumed flesh and was born into a world of oppression and persecution. Can we ever grasp the reality of the divine presence dwelling in a depraved humanity and that subsequently every man, woman and child is uniquely precious, equal and blessed, all brothers and sisters?

 Jesus is hungry and naked. Yet we build and decorate elaborate churches in His name, but do not feed or clothe Him. Every day, God comes to us in a distressing disguise, clothed in the rags of a tormented and neglected poor person, in hopes that the encounter will provide a place for healing and hurt to meet, for grace to embrace sin, for beauty to be restored. As Fr. Daniel O’Leary writes: “It takes a great love, and many deaths, to transform the eyes of our souls so as to see God’s face in every face. And inevitably, inexorably, this love, this hope, will lead to a crucifixion.”

 Speaking on behalf of the Lord, the prophet Isaiah said, “Hear, you who are far off, what I have done; you who are near, acknowledge my might.” There is a loneliness to the past and the future. I am not there; I am here in the present. I am far from who I was in the past and far from who I will be in the future. I am only near myself in this present moment.

 God too is far and near. Far in the sense that God leaves us to ourselves in order for us to discover our own hearts and the heart of God. Yet God is as near as the next breath we take, as near as our very heartbeat. God is so near we do not see Her. God seems so far because we do not know Him. Because we do not see or know God who is so far and so near we have the anguish of loneliness at the core of our being. We know emptiness not plentitude. Sadness is always around the corner; joy occasionally comes and quickly goes.

 To discover God in your heart you must journey beyond all self-consciousness to an awareness of a reality greater than yourself. It is a long journey and a short journey. And on the journey we must drop all notions of God and all notions of self. Only then can God reveal God to you and reveal you to yourself.

 In loneliness and longing, we begin our journey to God. Stripped of everything, we have nothing, we take nothing. Yet our very loneliness is graced with the possibility to discover the transcendent. Even the silence of God is graced and speaks of the mystery of God and God’s forgiving nearness, God’s hidden intimacy. In stillness and silence we learn about a love that shares itself, an overflowing love that dissolves all alienation and fills the empty space within us.

 God is here in this moment, waiting with open and outstretched arms, waiting to embrace and caress you with endless love.

 Kiss this moment for in it is perfect joy and all good.


2 Responses to “NOW: The Perfect Joy of St. Francis”

  1. 1 Jim P. October 29, 2010 at 8:20 am

    Your article was sent to me by a friend with whom I and my wife have been part of a prayer group for a long time. Thanks to Ed for sharing this with me and the group and thank you, Gerry,for the wonderful vision you, clearly, go well beyond idealizing.
    Finding myself unemployed for the past two months has proven to be an unimaginable blessing. I have made a commitment to my morning prayer (and a lovely group of backyard sparrows- holla) which comes to me in the form of deep breathing, focused stretching and meditation. What I hear/know in the silence is “Trust in the Wonder and the Honor and the Power and the Glory of Love”.
    So much of what you wrote resonated for me. I loved “all loneliness, every disappointment, the very wounds of rejection, the bitter sadness of loss, and the times of suffering open us to the transcendent and allows us to experience the hidden closeness of God”. And also being “Grasped” by God and having a childlike approach to each day. However, to single out these seems to diminish the rest and it was all so good.
    Thank you.

  2. 2 contoveros April 25, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    I hear The Creator speaking to me from your words. He is The Force that Was before the first Cause qbd Conditionin Buddhism. She is my Beloved Sufi love; and the 125 degrees of spirituality in Kabbalah, not to mention God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

    michael j
    Conshohocken, PA USA .

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