Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Franciscan Novena: Day Three

On October 4 -- next weekend-- 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 third 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. The wonderful image of the smiling Francis (above) is provided through the courtesy of the artist,Mic Carlson. More of his cork can be found at and

Francis had been a troubadour as a youth. His songs of courtly love echoed through the piazzas of Assisi. After his conversion he sang songs to a new mistress, “Lady Poverty.” For 16 years he walked the roads of Italy, journeyed to Spain and even, on two occasions, visited the Holy Land. (With his customary directness, Francis requested an audience with the Muslim sultan. He thought that if he could just tell him about Jesus he would convert, and all these crusades could be avoided!)
Francis’ joy sustained him, even in the midst of exhaustion, illness, and misunderstanding, and it must have been contagious. The Fioretti (“Little Flowers of St. Francis”), among the most popular books ever written, convey something of the simple charm that radiated from St. Francis.

But the saint who laughed also wept. He was moved by the beauty of creation, by the pain of others, and above all by the Passion of Christ. He could not think of our Lord’s sufferings without weeping. It was Christ crucified who had told him, “Rebuild my Church,” and the cross was never far from Francis’ thoughts. There are two seemingly contradictory images of the saint: the joyful wanderer singing the beauties of creation, the mournful penitent weeping over the sufferings of Christ.
G. K. Chesterton points out that, while paradoxical, these images are not contradictory: “The whole point about St. Francis of Assisi is that he certainly was ascetical and he certainly was not gloomy.”
The “new madness” Francis preached was in reality the very ancient folly of the cross about which St. Paul had written to the Corinthians: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Cor 1:23-25)

All that Francis had given up – possessions, status, security – he had given up for the sake of Christ, who had called him to take up his cross and follow him. Francis let everything else go so that he could embrace the cross. Toward the end of his life, he in turn was embraced by Christ crucified in a remarkable way.
Francis’ final years were particularly difficult. He saw the leadership of his community taken from his hands, and his “little brothers” were heading in a direction not to his liking. He was afflicted with a painful disease of the eyes, and even more painful – and useless – remedies.
In 1224 he retired to Mount Laverna for a lengthy retreat. On Sep. 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, Francis underwent a profound and mysterious event. He himself would not speak about it, but it was an encounter with the Passion of Christ so intense that it left the marks of the Crucified on his body.
What St. Paul had ardently desired was Francis’ own longing, too: “Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things … that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3: 7-10)

“Becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead”: if there is a “secret” to the life of St. Francis, this is it. On Mount Laverna Christ fulfilled Francis’ hopes in a way beyond his wildest expectations. This embrace by the Crucified was to carry the Poor Man of Assisi from this world to the glory of heaven.
Did the reception of the stigmata make Francis indifferent to this passing world? No. It was after this event that he wrote his beautiful “Canticle of Brother Sun”; and he intervened to make peace between the quarreling bishop and mayor of Assisi. He still traveled from town to town to preach, although his poor health made it necessary for him to be carried on a donkey. But the experience on the mountain was the climactic moment in Francis’ journey of discipleship. He could follow his Master no more closely here on earth.

In September 1226, the dying Troubadour of God asked to be brought home to his beloved “Little Portion,” the church of St. Mary of the Angels which he had rebuilt as a young man in the first fervor of his conversion. The man who had owned nothing, but appreciated everything, sent word for a friend to come from Rome – and to bring him some of the delicious pastries she had made for him in the past. Then, on the afternoon of Oct. 3, Francis instructed his Brothers to remove all his clothing and lay him naked on the bare earth. In this way he welcomed “Sister Death.”

Francis was well aware of the insight of Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return.” (Job 1:21) He had stripped himself of all he possessed years earlier in order to follow naked the Lord who had stripped Himself of everything out of love for him. Paradoxically, the less Francis could call his own, the more he rejoiced in the beauty of the creation which he accepted as God’s gift to him. Now, he died as he lived – owning nothing, yet for that very reason closer to the earth; one with every human being in our common nakedness; united to the Lord who had died naked on the cross. Clothing not only protects, it conveys status. It says something about who we are. Francis had put all this aside. One thing only he could not take off: the marks of the crucified Christ. These had not been put on from without, like the clothes his father had given him. They emerged from within, from a heart on fire with love of God.
Francis of Assisi has inspired artists, novelists and filmmakers; the simple drama of his life makes him one of the most popular of saints. If you go on pilgrimage to his National Shrine in the city bearing his name, you can see the events of his life portrayed on the walls of the church, and there is a wealth of material available about him.
By all means, acquaint yourself with his life story. But take to heart the words he himself spoke at the end of his life: “I have done what was mine to do. May Christ teach you what you are to do.”

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.

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.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Franciscan Novena: Day One

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

Francis of Assisi is one of the most beloved Catholic saints, honored by people regardless of their faith. His gentleness, love God’s creation, and deep human compassion make him a most attractive figure.

But his unvarnished embrace of the Gospel makes Francis a challenging person as well. By the sheer force of personality, Francis of Assisi effected a revolution in 13th century-Europe- but that personality was shaped in the crucible of Christian conversion, indeed, of several conversions. In this series, we will look at three important turning points in the life of the Poor Man of Assisi. May his example shed light on our personal journeys of faith.

St. Francis himself tells us about his first conversion. As he lay dying at the little church of St. Mary of the Angels (the Porziuncola), he dictated a final testament. It began with these words: “This is how God inspired me, Brother Francis, to embark upon a life of penance. When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure; but then God himself led me into their company, and I had pity on them…What had previously nauseated me became a source of spiritual and physical consultation for me.” Our reflection on what Francis has to teach us begins with this life- changing meeting w/ the leper.

First, Francis says that God himself led him into the company of lepers. While this encounter shocked Francis, it was not a bolt out of the blue. God had been preparing him for this momentous meeting. Early biographies of the saint describe him as the pampered son of a rich merchant, but some time in early adulthood Francis experienced a sea-change as regards his ambitions. From dreams of wealth he turned to dreams of military glory, but then abandoned these to embrace a life of prayer and charitable works. In this he faced strong opposition from his ambitious father, who disapproved of his son’s “throwing away” a successful career.
God gradually led Francis into these deeper spiritual paths, but when He brought him into contact with lepers, it was a watershed moment. Francis was being invited-or challenged- to step across an immense social chasm.

Because contagious diseases were such a mystery to the people of the Middle Ages, it is understandable that lepers were isolated from the larger community. Given the miraculous healings of lepers by Christ, they were viewed with ambivalence by Christians; their affliction was not necessarily a sign of divine disfavor, and it was recognized that they should receive both religious and social assistance. However, they were clearly marginalized, and for the sheltered son of Pietro da Bernadone to consort with them must have been the talk of Assisi.
Whatever its impact on his fellow citizens, it is clear from Francis’ own words that a new chapter opened in his life the day he embraced that leper.

This encounter teaches us some uncomfortable truths. First, it suggests that when we seek to do God’s will, He always calls us to make greater sacrifices. Some years ago a book appeared called “The Good Enough Catholic.” As an antidote to scrupulosity, or to efforts to somehow impress God by our good deeds, such a phrase might be therapeutic. But if by a “good enough Catholic” we mean “What do I have to do to just get by?” the life of St. Francis, and indeed any of the saints, disturbs us in our mediocrity.

Francis had already violated a number of taboos: abandoning a career in the entrepreneurial society of his family, working as a common laborer to rebuild abandoned churches, selling his father’s goods to help the poor. These were not the actions of a Catholic content to “get by.” And still, Francis learned, it was not enough: Christ had given Himself to the last drop of blood out of love for Francis. Francis for his part could not put limits on his love in return.

A second challenge of this conversation is the question it forces each of us to ask: “Who is the leper in my life?” It might be a category of persons, a co-worker or neighbor, or it could even be a member of our own family. I may feel I have good reasons to avoid this leper. It does not matter. The point is simply that, wherever we draw the line, Jesus stands on the other side of it.

This is what Francis realized on that fateful day. A holy man close to our own time, Charles de Foucauld, observed that Jesus has taken the lowest place, and no one can deprive him of it. The early biographies tell how the leper disappeared after Francis embraced him, and imply that it may have been Christ Himself. If so, this simply illustrates the plain words of Jesus: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40)

To recognize Jesus in the leper meant, for Francis, to recognize him in everyone. His “preferential option for the poor” included his wealthy and headstrong father, too. It meant seeing Christ in the spiritually diseased.

There is a story told of a group of heretics who publicly denounced the priest in their town who kept a mistress. Francis simply went up to the priest, knelt, and kissed his hand. Our choices “for” often imply choices against; once Francis reached across the chasm and embraced the leper, he learned that there is no “us” and “them.” We are all poor sinners.
The greatest shock Francis experienced was not simply that he saw Christ in the leper. He saw himself in the leper.

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.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Saturday morning/ Monday night at the Brother Giles Fraternity

“Brother, why don’t you write a blog about us?” queried the timid friar. “I mean, about—you know—who we are and how we spend a typical day and all that kind of stuff.” Well, okay, why not? So, here are my impressions of a typically atypical day (well, actually, parts of two days rather clumsily patched together) at one of our friaries-- the Brother Giles fraternity in Berkeley, California-- which I visited twice this past week.

Saturday morning
Woke up around 7:30 and immediately headed for the shower. I was in luck. Three bathrooms for eight friars in this homey former apartment house divided into a series of little rabbit hutch-sized rooms. I climbed the back stairs to forage for breakfast. The fridge looked just like the one at home in Sacramento: a veritable culinary museum, only without a curator. Lots of mysterious-looking substances piled one atop the other. Forget the mystery, I thought. I’ll just have cold cereal: corn flakes with soy milk. And a quick moment by myself to read the headlines of the morning Chronicle.

Famous Last Words. As if on cue, the place snapped into life. Adrian—we’re all pretty much on a first-name basis at home- made himself a pot of green tea before feasting on poached eggs and vitamins. A very determined Joe (a young friar from Singapore who is staying with us while doing studies) was up and about, too. Simultaneously emptying the dishwasher whle eating his bowl of watermelon slices. Luis secured the far end of the table for his kingdom of oatmeal, bananas and sliced toast. (He caught me trying to hide the latter under the table). Everyone else had already left: John (Gootz) was still at work in San Jose where he supervises a hospital emergency room. Oscar was at our parish in east Oakland getting ready for a spate of weekend liturgies. Dennis was in San Francisco providing home help for our brother Richard. Martin, newly returned from his ordination trip to Mexico, hadn’t moved in yet. David was probably off to the Multicultural Institute.

There was no question about our lounging around the whole morning either. Joe was already in his room studying for his classes at the Jesuit School of Theology (JSTB).

Everyone else was reporting for duty: the Visitor General, Peter Williams, was to arrive for his official “inspection” within 24 hours. The house had to be cleaned, the guest room made up, Martin’s room refurnished, and the house accounts put in order. Let’s go!

I accompanied Luis and Adrian on a forced march to Bed, Bath & Beyond. We filled our cart with sheets, pillows, floor mats, and curtains for the rooms they were fixing up. After this whirlwind immersion into the consumer experience, we headed to the dry cleaners (alterations for the curtains), then lunch at a nearby south Indian restaurant. “I only eat north Indian food usually, “ quipped Luis, “but I’ll make an exception this time.” After a wonderful sampler lunch which included three soups and an equal number of curries, we headed home to the housework. As a short-term visitor, I concluded it was better for me to get out of the way. They needed my room, after all, for the next guest.

While Luis and Adrian spent the afternoon and evening cleaning and scrubbing, I borrowed one of the house cars (we don’t have our own private vehicles) to visit friends in the area. By the time I got home at 10:00 pm, everyone had already crashed. When I left the house early on Sunday morning (to catch the train back to Sacramento to get to church to preside at liturgy and to baptize five new Christians babies) everyone was either getting up or already out of the house. Welcome to community on weekends. It’s all about ministry.

Monday night.
I took the late afternoon train back to Berkeley for a quick return visit. I’m on jury duty all week so I have to stay close to home. But I didn’t want to miss the birthday party for Adrian. When I arrived, Mass was already in progress in the living room (not enough room in the chapel), with himself presiding. I got there in time for the homily, in which Adrian read to us from the writings of Julian of Norwich:

“The love that God Most High has for our soul is so great that it surpasses understanding. No created being can comprehend how much, and how sweetly, and how tenderly our Maker loves us. As truly as God is our Father, so just as truly is He our Mother. In our father God Almighty, we have our being; in our merciful mother, we are remade and restored. Our fragmented lives are knit together and made perfect. And by giving and yielding ourselves, through grace, to the Holy Spirit, we are made whole.”

I looked about the circle as our brother spoke: “This is what happens in community, Brothers. You know, our father Francis told us that we should be mothers to each other. He didn’t say we should be fathers for each other…. Mothers because we are called to nurture each other. And community is that place where we can come home to receive the care and understanding that gives us new strength and energy for ministry….. It’s like my own mother at home in Ireland would do for us. We’d come home from school and she’d say, “Now, tell us about it. How did it go today? Would you like a little something to eat?” And that’s what we can do for each other— give this kind of nurturing and caring to one another.” Heads nodded. Brothers exchanged glances, grinning in recognition.

After the Mass, friars (there were an even dozen of us by now—residents and a few guests, like myself) dispersed to set the table, do the cooking, or just sit and snack. Within a quarter of an hour, it all came together: the wonderful birthday buffet of carne asada, poached salmon, veggie and fruit salads, rice and beans, tortillas, Tapatio sauce, and drinks. Sunday’s feast on Monday evening.

John (Gootz), following one of our daily rituals, read the necrology—the brief biographies of our confreres who had died on this particular day—then blessed the food. “Al ataque!” Swift to the trough, hungry friars piled their plates and settled down to serious eating, but not very serious table talk.

It was a great way to end an otherwise demanding work day for just about everyone: Joe, Jose-Luis, and Luis-Alberto had classes. Adrian put in a full day as chaplain at our St. Anthony Dining Room in San Francisco. Gootz was back from the hospital; so was Rami, who popped in—pooped—from a busy day in another hospital. Martin and Oscar were back from the parish-- St. E’s. And so on…. All tired and hungry, but by the time for the cake and candles— more relaxed, refreshed and renewed. And yes, nurtured.

“Now, tell us about it. How did it go today? Would you like a little something to eat?”//