Sister Ingrid Peterson knows her stuff. A Third Order Franciscan sister of Rochester, Minnesota, she is an internationally recognized scholar and has taught and written extensively in the area of Franciscan history and spirituality. She came to our parish of St. Francis of Assisi in Sacramento this past weekend to share some of the fruit of her lifelong reflection before an audience of more than 100 parishioners and guests.
When I heard the topic of her half-day workshop/seminar, I flinched just a little. Franciscans on the edge? The edge of what? Extinction? A nervous breakdown? What? I know we have our problems, but can things be that desperate? Turns out the ‘edge’ Sister Ingrid is referring to is that marginal space of culture, society, and even the Church itself that has been the real central focus of Franciscan contemplation and action for eight hundred years. Among the marginalized, the dispossessed, the despised, and the ignored is where we have always been at our best and frankly, it’s where we oughta be.
Peterson didn’t parade the usual suspects of Franciscan life (Francis, Clare, Anthony of Padua, etc). Instead, she spoke about Franciscan laypeople— Secular Franciscans/Third Order members mostly—who strove to find Christ and to ‘Spirit’ the edges of our world. In doing so, she opened up Franciscan hagiography to a whole new bunch of halos that haven't always been appreciated for their own special glow, including those of Brother Juniper, Elizabeth of Hungary, the married couple Luchesio and Buonadonna , Francis of Rome, and, closer to our own time, Matt Talbot and Carlo Carretto.
These have all been keepers of the Rule, to be sure, but more importantly, lovers of Jesus and the Gospel. “There are always rules coming out of the Church at various times,” Peterson quipped, “and we have to live between these rules.” She then proceeded to demonstrate the way that Franciscan women and men throughout the centuries have been able to thrive in and through the tensions of their own eras, both “on the edge” and “between the rules.”
Peterson systematically examined the biographies and legends of these holy people in order to dig deeper into the substratum of their real spiritual lives, and then in turn, to try to make these ‘lives of the saints’ accessible and relevant to ourselves. Elizabeth of Hungary, for example, when confronted by her husband about the bread she was sneaking to the poor, opened her food basket only to reveal a bouquet of roses instead. Angela of Foligno, while on pilgrimage to Assisi, received a deeply transforming experience of the love of God “in which she heard the Holy Spirit tell her how much she was loved.”
So why doesn’t that happen to us? “My bread never turned to roses,” someone once complained to Peterson. (We all nodded in silent agreement.) So, in the absence of roses, “How do I know what God wants of me?” Peterson asked. She emphasized that for most of us, our call does not arise through some extraordinary private revelation, but rather in the context of community and in the circumstances of our daily living. She then told us about Richard Rohr, the celebrated contemporary Franciscan writer and speaker. How Rohr had decided at one point to give up his successful preaching and writing ministry in order to become a missionary only to discover that God was not actually asking him to do so. “In this case, the call to be a missionary couldn’t be from God,” she explained, “because nobody else knew about it.” Reflecting more on the experience from that perspective himself, Rohr subsequently decided to stay put after all.
Peterson then spoke about her own vocation. “ How did I know I wanted to be a religious sister? I didn’t want to be one, actually. I went to public schools, and then in college—I was a college student, after all-- I saw the sisters and thought, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ But you know, it was just like the poem 'The Hound of Heaven'. Our God can be a real nag and in my case, just wouldn’t let go of me. Finally, I gave in and became a sister, and as they say (smiling) “I lived happily ever after.”
The real point of our Christian vocation, whether lay or religious, Sister Ingrid reflected, is to look to the example of Jesus and try to live it. “Jesus is the visible sign of the invisible God. Jesus teaches us that the way to God is through the Beatitudes. . . . The saints-- all the saints—have given their lives to follow Jesus in this way,” (no matter where it has led them). . . . And that’s what life at the edge is all about for all of us, isn’t it.
Some reflections questions, courtesy of Sister Ingrid J. Peterson:
What do you do for the love of God that others might consider foolish? What are some of the ways in which you feel called to bring peace instead of violence? In what ways has God broken into your life to set things right? Can you recall times in which service to others has brought you closer to God?
Some further reading by Ingrid J. Peterson:
Clare of Assisi: A Biographical Study
Praying with Clare of Assisi: Companions for the Journey (w/ Ramona Miller).