Friday, September 26, 2008

A Franciscan Novena: Day Two

(On October 4 -- just eight days from now-- we will celebrate the feast of our Seraphic Father Francis of Assisi. In preparation for that celebration, we are presenting a series of daily blog entries as a kind of "novena" for study and personal reflection. Today's entry is the second in a series of three articles which first appeared in Catholic San Francisco under the title "St. Francis' Conversions." The remaining segment will be featured tomorrow.

Exasperated by his son’s foolishness, Pietro da Bernadone dragged Francis before the bishop of Assisi. He demanded that the bishop command Francis to show proper respect for his father and his property. In response, Francis gave back to his father not only the money he was carrying, but the clothes he was wearing. From now on, he said, God would be his father. Penniless, parentless, with no plan, no trade, and no home, Francis left his city singing.

Many centuries before, St. Anthony of Egypt had heard the words of Jesus, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor … and come, follow me.” (Mt 19:21) He took the words literally. He sold everything he owned, went into the desert, and devoted himself to a life of prayer and penance. Having forsaken home and family out of love for Christ, Bernadone’s son had two options available to him: he could join the clergy of Assisi, or he could enter a monastic community. He chose neither course. For a time, like St. Anthony, he lived the life of a hermit; but then he too heard a passage from the Gospel that gave him his life’s plan.

On the feast of St. Matthias the priest read the Gospel passage which describes Jesus sending the Twelve on mission: “And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ … Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts.” (Mt 10:7,9) Like Anthony, Francis took the words of Jesus literally. He would own absolutely nothing, and would spend his life traveling from town to town preaching the Gospel. In following this novel vocation, Francis made himself a social outcast. He did not fit into any accepted way of life. Like his beloved lepers, Francis did not “belong.”

Francis did not return his clothes to his father as a rebuke to the elder Bernadone’s greed, nor did he refuse to enter religious life as a criticism of the worldliness of the Church. Rather, he had discovered that total dependence on God alone gave him great peace of heart. The rich young citizen of Assisi had known happiness, but the poor vagrant had discovered joy. Happiness is not to be despised, but it is ephemeral. It can evaporate when circumstances change. What we desire one day can disgust us the next. Joy, on the other hand, is deeper than happiness, and not dependent on external prosperity. Happiness comes from the outside in, but joy wells up from the depths of our being.

Jesus spoke to his disciples about this abiding quality of joy on the very eve of his crucifixion: “So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” (Jn 16:22)

Francis discovered that it was really quite simple: the less he had (not only of possessions, but of position or even reputation), the more he had to rely on his heavenly father. The more he did so, the deeper was his joy.
One day Francis told his companion, Brother Leo: “Even if all the Brothers gave sight to the blind, healing to the lame, and deliverance to all who were possessed, there would not be perfect joy in that.” A little later, he said: “Even if the Brothers knew all languages and the deepest meaning of Scripture, and could know the deepest secrets of consciences, there would not be perfect joy in that.” Then: “Even if one of the Brothers could preach so well that all the infidels were converted to Christ, there would not be perfect joy in that.”

Finally, Brother Leo begged Francis to tell him where perfect joy is. Francis replied: “If we come to St. Mary of the Angels, soaked by rain and frozen by cold, starving, and we ring at the gate, and the porter, instead of welcoming us, leaves us to freeze out in the snow, and tells us that we are not welcome – if we can bear that without being troubled or complaining, that is where true joy is found.”
Is this an example of saintly hyperbole? In fact, toward the end of his life Francis was excluded from the leadership of the very community he had brought together. His followers esteemed him for his sanctity, but judged that Francis’s rather “na├»ve” approach could not meet the needs of the thousands of men who had been inspired by his example to leave everything and become itinerant preachers.

Later generations of Franciscans fought among themselves about the best way for the order to embody the poverty of their founder. The poor man of Assisi found he had become something of leper to his own community – albeit a highly venerated leper – but nonetheless someone who did not “fit in.” Rejection by the wicked is bearable; rejection by the good is a much heavier cross. Francis told Brother Leo that even this could be a path to perfect joy. Everything can bring us closer to God. In the words of St. Paul: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28)

Francis had embraced the leper, and Francis had become a leper. This state of exile became for him, not a cause of resentment, but a doorway to a deeper union with God. In the words of G. K. Chesterton: “He plunged after poverty as men have dug madly for gold.” God was leading Francis to another momentous conversion. He who had abandoned everything to embrace the leper, would now himself be embraced by Christ.

This article was prepared by the Worship Commission of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and is reprinted from Catholic San Francisco, newspaper of the Archdiocese. Our thanks to Dan Morris-Young, editor.

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