Thursday, October 04, 2007

The essential message of St. Francis

I tend to do a lot of interior wrestling over great and small matters, even decisions I've made decades ago that I can do very little about. So recently I was all tied up in knots about the Secular Franciscan Order, of which I am a professed member. It is really hard to be heavily involved in fraternity life when you are as swamped daily as we are. We miss so many meetings. I seem very disconnected. Sometimes I don't even feel like a Franciscan any more, especially since a lot of my spiritual reading is from non-Franciscan sources.

So I was sitting on the couch with my wife moaning, groaning and agonizing about this when I turned to her and said, "What is the essence of Franciscaninsm, anyway?" I felt like Charlie Brown saying, "I guess I just don't understand Christmas, Linus."

Kathy calmly turned to me and said, "Oh, the essence of Franciscanism is naked and complete abandonment before the crucified Christ resulting in an infusion of infectious joy that is shared with everyone."


She went on to say that at the most significant times in his life St. Francis was naked, either physically or spiritually, and standing with open arms before the crucified Lord. For instance, when the crucifix spoke to him at San Damiano, when he renounced his birthright before the bishop, when he received the stigmata at La Verna, on his death bed--or death floor, since he was stripped and placed on the floor at his request. He had stripped himself of all and simply abandoned himself to the will of God. When he was naked before the Lord, he experienced joy and peace.

A very important sign of Francis's total focus on God and His will was absolute lack of self-awareness in his nakedness. He was so taken with the beauty of the crucified Lord, and responding to His will, and the beauty of His creation, it simply didn't occur to him to be embarrassed about his behavior. A second sign of his total focus on God and his will was his lack of concern for creating institutions, controlling others or for forcing outcomes. The outcome was not his concern or in his control. He didn't try to control anything, nor was he obsessed with results. Rather, he was obsessed with simple obedience.

He also was not calculating about when, where and with whom he shared his joy--the poor certainly, but also the rich (Brother Jacopa) and the mighty (Cardinal Hugolino or Pope Gregory IX). The leper was bathed in the light of his joy, as was the Pope. As was Clare.

Yet, St. Francis was not ineffective. He and his movement are credited with being instrumental in turning the Italian feudal society away from violence as a solution to social conflicts. He was able to effect change in the medieval world in which he lived not primarily through systematic policy, planning, or programs, but through simple obedience, infectious joy and personal love, which were expressed in spontaneous prayers of praise, spontaneous acts of love for the poor, especially the lepers. When he did implement a policy, such as the requirement for Franciscans in the world to write a will and the requirement for lay Franciscans to bear no arms, he did so out of spontaneous love and obedience to the perceived will of God in the situation, rather than from implementation of a formal, comprehensive scheme for social change. God did not want Franciscans to kill each other because of feudal property disputes.

Both of these qualities--lack of embarrassment and lack of concern about comprehensive results--led people and continue to lead people to consider him a fool. In his day it was the lack of decorum that people couldn't tolerate. In our day, so steeped in utilitarianism and pragmatism, it is St. Francis's lack of concern for effectiveness that good Christians, legitimately concerned with social change, would find frustrating, if not intolerable.

The Franciscan message seems to be: when you focus on either yourself or on particular results, you are less likely to succeed. When you focus on the Glory of God, the crucified Lord, and obedience and conformity to his known will, you will be the kind of transforming light to the nations we are called to be.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post!! And your wife is positively brilliant! (And a lovely person... I'm honored to call her a friend....)