The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Reflection: Talk to Secular Franciscans on Spirituality

Note: I was asked to give a talk this morning to a local fraternity of Secular Franciscans, who meet at St. Mark the Evangelist Church in Summerfield, FL. It was truly an honor to speak to them. My talk follows. 

Here I am, a not very holy permanent deacon, asked to talk to you Secular Franciscans about Franciscan spirituality. Something about this just doesn’t seem right.

Indeed, my only real connection with Franciscans is the fact that I was ordained by a Capuchin, Sean O’Malley, a man of great humility. Maybe a little of his holiness rubbed off.

Oh, yes, and let’s not forget that Francis was ordained a deacon, so I suppose that’s an even more profound connection. I suspect Francis came to like being a deacon because of its meaning: to be a servant to all.

And so maybe it’s good …good for me to be here with you this morning…good for someone outside the order to talk to you about the spirituality you’ve inherited from your founder.

Sometimes, because we’re so close to the big things in our lives, we lose sight of all those little elements that make it up. Without them the big thing becomes distorted, a parody of what it’s supposed to be, and we lose sight of its original purpose. With this in mind, today I intend to focus only on the basics.

I’ve divided my talk into two parts; first on the spirituality of Francis and its scriptural roots. And because I’m involved in a number of ministries in our community, in the second part I hope to tie those basics together and share some thoughts about how to put your unique Franciscan spirituality into practice today.

Let me begin by talking a bit about Francis, nothing you don’t already know. He’s certainly one of our more misunderstood saints. Indeed, in our popular culture he’s often depicted as a kind of thirteenth-century hippie. But that’s the way of secular culture; it can do nothing else. Because it doesn’t understand faith, it can do nothing but trivialize or politicize everything.

And so we get Francis, the environmental activist, or Francis, the socialist revolutionary, or Francis, the pre-Reformation reformer who tried to turn Church with a capital “C” into church with a little “c”. Of course, Francis was none of these, and our secular culture simply ignores all that he really was.

Popular culture doesn’t give us Francis the meek. It doesn’t give us the Francis who considered every other human being to be above him. It doesn’t give us Francis the prophet, the man who understood not only his own time, but could clearly see what humanity would need for all time. It doesn’t give us Francis the beggar, Francis the lover of Lady Poverty, Francis who saw poverty as freedom – Francis, who realized everything belonged to him the moment he gave up everything. And it doesn’t give us Francis who lay prostrate at the foot of God’s throne – Francis who so loved God, who perhaps more than any other saw clearly God’s immanent presence in His creation.

Our culture has a certain respect for Francis, but that respect is counterbalanced by an even greater aversion, an unspoken disgust with anyone who could so blatantly reject all the world holds dear. And, brothers and sisters, believe me. If you take this unique spirituality of Francis, and truly absorb it into your own life, and make it a part of you, you too will be despised by many…especially today. But we already know that, don’t we?

And so where did Francis come from? Or more accurately, where did his spirituality come from?

When I ask myself questions like this, I always turn to Holy Scripture. And there, in the Book of the Prophet Zephaniah, we encounter the anawim, a Hebrew word meaning “those who are bowed down.”

The anawim are a people humble and lowly who find their blessedness in God. They are the “remnant” of those who have survived the judgment of the Lord in his “day of wrath”, the Dies Irae. These humble believers eagerly welcome God, ready to do his will. Their hope is in him alone. With his double-edged prophecy of doom for the godless and salvation for the humble and lowly, Zephaniah inaugurated the growth of the spirituality of the anawim.

It’s also the spirituality of Francis. In his prophecy, Zephaniah instructs: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth, who have observed His law; seek justice, seek humility…” [Zeph 2:3]

And so we see far more than a hint of Franciscan spirituality present in the Old Testament. We see its very foundation. But as the Church Fathers like to remind us, everything in the Old Testament prefigures something or someone in the New Testament.

And it’s in Jesus that we encounter the ultimate anawim. The “Servant-Son of Yahweh” is “meek and humble of heart” (cf. Mt 11:29).

Let me read Luke’s version of the Beatitudes [Lk 6:17,20-26]:

"Jesus raising his eyes toward his disciples said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.  Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh.  Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.  But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  Woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you  who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.”

Somewhat different from Matthew’s, a slightly edited version perhaps, but Luke didn’t miss any of the important stuff. And did you notice how, in Luke’s version, Jesus contrasts blessing and woe? Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, those who are hated and despised. And woe to the rich, the satisfied, those who know no grief, those held in the world’s esteem.

Interesting isn’t it? None of the things we strive for in this world, the important things – wealth, happiness, satisfaction, fame – none of these things will help us in the end. God doesn’t care about the size of our investment portfolio; indeed, the larger it is the more we are at risk.

I don’t know about you, but these words of the Lord are always bouncing around inside my head…Always making me a little nervous…Always challenging me to question how much I really need…Always turning my head toward others and away from myself…

I was walking toward the front entrance of Wynn Dixie in Wildwood the other morning when I saw something interesting. A woman, leaving the store carrying several bags, suddenly stopped and approached a younger woman – maybe she was 20 -- who was standing there crying. You could tell they didn’t know each other, but the older woman felt compelled to offer comfort. She put her bags down on the ground and spoke to this young stranger quietly a hand touching the other’s shoulder. It was truly a moment of beatitude; by encountering the girl she was encountering Jesus who said, “I was a stranger, and you made me welcome.”

I began to approach them, but the older woman glanced up at me, smiled and shook her head ever so slightly, as if to say, “It’s OK, this is all she needs right now.” When I came out of the store 10 minutes later, both were gone.

Do you see now what the Beatitudes are all about? They’re, quite simply, a call to action, a command by Jesus to carry His love to all whom we encounter…no exceptions, no exclusions. We humans love to tint everything with shades of gray, but not Jesus. No, He lays it out very simply for us in black and white. We have two paths, one that follows Him, and another that turns away from Him. That’s it. And just like the traveler in Robert Frost’s poem, "The Road Not Taken," we’d do well to take the road less traveled.

It’s the road of the Beatitudes, through which Jesus dedicates His Sermon on the Mount to the anawim: the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for justice’s sake.  All are blessed by the Lord.

Yes, Jesus is our example. He is the ideal to which we strive to conform our lives. He is the one, as St. Paul reminds us, who humbled Himself, becoming a slave, accepting death on a Cross [Phil 2:6-11]. But there’s another precursor to Francis in the New Testament – one who spoke of Jesus using that marvelous paradox that surely puzzled those who heard him: “The one who is coming after me ranks ahead of me because He existed before me” [Jn 1:15].

And it’s in the Gospel, indeed in all four Gospels, where we encounter a spirituality not unlike that of Francis. It’s there we encounter John the Baptist. John, in his poverty of body and spirit, owning nothing but God’s love and God's Word, didn’t hesitate to declare his rule of life, the very purpose of his being, to all who would listen:

As prophet, he shouts to all creation: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord” [Jn 1:23].

As precursor, as son of Zechariah the priest of the Lord God, John turns to his disciples, and pointing to Jesus sends them on the way of truth: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” [Jn 1:29].

And as servant, as deacon, he reminds us all: “He must increase; I must decrease” [Jn 3:30].

Do you see the spirituality of Francis prefigured in John, in the prophet’s deep poverty, especially his spiritual poverty, a poverty that diminishes John in the presence of God? This is how Jesus can say, paradoxically but without contradiction: “among those born of women, no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” [Lk 7:28].

These are just some of the roots of Franciscan spirituality…although I’m pretty sure Francis would reject those words: Franciscan spirituality. He wouldn’t want his name attached to it; he would lay no claim to it. For Francis, his spirituality was simply, as Catherine Doherty called it, “The Gospel Without Compromise.” Like John, Francis wanted always to decrease.

Back in the 70s for a few years I taught at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Instead of attending Sunday Mass in the large cathedral-like chapel on the academy’s grounds, Diane and I used to go to Mass in a tiny chapel at the Naval Station just across the Severn River. One of its plusses was the daycare run by the Protestants during our Mass when they were having their adult Sunday school. It was sort of a symbiotic relationship between Catholics and Protestants.

Anyway, our priest was a Capuchin friar who ran what I think was a house of formation in a huge, waterfront mansion just down the road. Some millionaire had left it to the Capuchins in his will, and they used it even though they were seriously embarrassed to own such a place.

That reminds me of a joke the friar told me one Sunday morning: “There are three things the pope doesn’t know about the Church. How many orders of nuns there are. What the Jesuits are going to do next. And how much money the Franciscans have.” 

Anyhow, I used to pick up the good friar every Sunday morning and drive him to the chapel. And every week we’d have some wonderful conversations.

One Sunday morning as I was trying to impress him by waxing eloquently about St. Francis and his importance to the Church, my friar friend, interrupted and said, “Francis was not at all important.”

Naturally, I asked what he meant.

“Francis,” he replied, “considered himself the least important person on earth. His life was devoted to one thing: living the Gospel and attracting others to do the same. He succeeded. He didn’t want us to think of him at all. He wanted us to turn always to the Gospel.

“We are the Order of Friars Minor, Capuchin. It’s only others who call us Franciscans.”

So endeth the conversation.

Yes, just like John the Baptist, Francis wanted only to decrease. And when you look into his life, this becomes very evident. Indeed, Francis once refused to sleep in a particular cell in one of the order’s early houses because one of the brothers had called it, “Francis’ cell.” The idea that anyone thought it was his truly troubled him. I suspect he’d feel much the same about the phrase, Franciscan spirituality.

And so, rather than calling it Franciscan spirituality, perhaps we could better call it a Gospel spirituality, a spirituality of poverty, prophecy, and service. I think Francis would approve of this.

Let me now try to take this Gospel spirituality, the true spirituality of your order, and bring it to life with a couple of examples.

About ten years ago, after my wife and I had been volunteering at the Wildwood Soup Kitchen for a while, I was asked to join the newly formed board of directors. The soup kitchen is located at the First Presbyterian Church of Wildwood, and during one of those early board meetings we decided we could best define our guiding vision simply by proclaiming the words of Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.”

It just seemed to say it all. Sometimes, though, I think we need to reread, to reabsorb, that entire passage. Interestingly, it’s the only place in Scripture where the last judgment is described in any detail. I’m going to read it to you. Now it’s about 15 or 16 verses, so it’s not real brief. But we should never tire of hearing God’s word, so bear with me.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?' And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.' Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.  [Mt 25:31-46]

Did you notice how we’ll be judged? Or maybe I should say: Did you notice on what our judgment will focus? Francis certainly did. Indeed, his entire ministry was all about seeing the divine in the human: seeing Christ in others, and being Christ for others.

For a number of years, I was president of the board of directors at the soup kitchen until, finally, I refused to continue in that position. Since then I left the board and simply work as the Thursday Captain in support of my wife, Diane, who’s the Thursday cook -- all been a part of my own decreasing.

Thinking about the soup kitchen the other day I was reminded of what the Fathers of Vatican II said about the role of the laity in the Church.

In the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity they urged the laity to broaden and intensify their mission as Catholic Christians. In their words:

“…the unmistakable work being done today by the Holy Spirit in making the laity ever more conscious of their own responsibility and encouraging them to serve Christ and the Church in all circumstances.”

In all circumstances…that covers a lot of territory. And later in this same decree, the Council Fathers instruct us more completely when they say:

Wherever there are people in need of food and drink, clothing, housing, medicine, employment, education…or are afflicted with serious distress or illness or suffer exile or imprisonment, there Christian charity should seek them out and find them, console them… and help them... It is altogether necessary that one should consider in one’s neighbor the image of God in which he has been created, and also Christ the Lord to whom is really offered whatever is given to the needy person.

And that’s one of the Holy Spirit’s jobs: to instill in us the awareness of whom we help when we help the poor. Quite simply, we are helping Jesus Christ. Can you accept this? Most people can’t, you know. Oh, they say they do, but their words and actions say otherwise.

Years ago, as a deacon on Cape Cod, I assisted in a ministry to the homeless. Many churches offered their facilities as temporary shelters to those you could not find a bed in any of the permanent shelters. We’d pick them up, take them to the designated church hall, feed them, provide them with a bed to sleep on, show a movie, and cook breakfast in the morning.

One evening, working as one of the chaperones, I was locking the doors of the building before lights-out and one of the homeless men, an interesting fellow named Roland, asked me what I was doing.

Without thinking, I replied, “Just locking up, Roland. Have to keep the riff-raff out.”

Roland just laughed and said, “Uh, deacon, don’t you know, we are the riff-raff.”

Now Roland‘s a funny guy, always good for a laugh, but there’s an element of truth in this, isn’t there? To many people, the homeless, the poor, the unemployed, the illegal immigrants – all those extremely inconvenient people – really are riff-raff.

One volunteer from my parish, often joined me in the morning and helped me make breakfast for the homeless men. One morning as we were cooking a batch of pancakes he said, “You know, sometimes you just want to grab them and shake some sense into them. I mean, they’re so lazy. Why can’t they just go out and get a job? All we’re really doing is helping them stay unemployed and homeless.”

Now tell me that’s not a common attitude. You can’t, because most people probably feel the same way. And from a human perspective, a worldly perspective, they and my friend are absolutely right! If all those folks had jobs, and if they coupled that with an ounce or two of ambition, and if they avoided all those destructive and addictive behaviors that lead to so many problems, to so many broken families and personal devastation…

Yes, if, if, if…

If they did all these things, the world would be a brighter, sunnier place. More people would be working, the economy would be stronger, taxes would be lower, GDP would skyrocket along with the stock market…heck, the price of gasoline would probably go down too. Yes, from a human perspective, my friend was right.

But, brothers and sisters, God challenges us to view our world and its problems from a very different perspective…from His perspective. Yes, God’s ways are not man’s ways.

To my knowledge, Jesus never told anyone to get a job. In fact, He told a number of them, His closest friends, to quit their jobs. He fed the hungry, as many as 5,000 at a time, but He never checked a single 1099 or W-2 before handing out the food. He healed the sick all over Galilee and Judea, but never asked for proof of health insurance, and never told anyone to get back to work now that they were once again physically whole. Yes, God’s ways are different from man’s ways.

We see this manifested in God’s mercy and justice as well. The prodigal son who blows his inheritance on prostitutes and is treated like a king by his father; or the hired men who worked for an hour but were paid as much as those who worked all day.

What kind of justice is that? Certainly not ours. No, it’s God’s justice, the justice of forgiveness. It’s the hound of heaven justice that pursues each of us until our last breath.

And that’s where we as Christians come in. You see, Jesus asks us to do the humanly impossible.  He asks us take on His ways, to accept the Gospel without compromise, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, befriend the lonely…and He asks us to do all these things with absolutely no qualifications.

Our job is to help the least of His brethren any way we can. And it’s through our meager work that Jesus works His miracles, something He never tires of doing; for God’s way is the way of miracles.

Let’s take a moment to turn back to the Gospel and read the story of the healing of Bartimaeus, the blind man of Jericho.

They came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sat by the roadside begging. On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.” And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he kept calling out all the more, “Son of David, have pity on me.” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take courage; get up, he is calling you.” He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus. Jesus said to him in reply, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man replied to him, “Master, I want to see.” Jesus told him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way. [Mk 10:46-52]

"You have nothing to fear from him!  Get up!  He is calling you!"

Blind, unable to earn a living, Bartimaeus spent his days sitting by the road, calling out, asking for alms. You can almost hear him: “Have pity.  Have pity.  A coin for a poor blind man.” A small thing to ask, but on this day he mustered up the courage to ask for more. Rebuffed and scolded, he cowered, worried they might shove him aside or even beat him for his impudence.  How dare a beggar speak to the great teacher, the holy man who would be king.

There’s such a thing as a healthy fear of the Lord, a fear born of awareness that God is Other, that we are not God, we are God’s creation. Even though our faith assures us that we will someday be united with God in glory and fullness, God will always be Other. And so, though our relationship with God is meant to be personal, childlike and affectionate, it should never be casual. God is God is God.

And yet God, in his goodness, desires to enter into conversation and relationship with us.  He calls us, and He sends us His Son. It is His voice, and only His voice, heard in our poverty, that leads us to true and lasting wealth. This strange paradox of a God who is so beyond our reach and yet who reaches out to touch us can be a real stumbling block, and causes many to reject Christianity.

Indeed, this is the biggest difference between Christianity and Islam. For Islam makes God a distant law-giver, one who can be reached only by a perfect following of his laws. Other religions solve the paradox by dissolving the distinction between created and creator. All are one and salvation is achieved in realizing this essential oneness. In the end neither approach satisfies.

Our God is a God who always takes the first step, who reveals Himself to us, who calls out to us. He is a God who loves so much He became one of us in the flesh. What else could He possibly do to convince us that He wants a relationship with us, that a relationship with Him is even possible? 

And yet we hesitate to answer his call. Even when we do find the faith to call out, like blind Bartimaeus, others interfere and try to lead us back into fear and blindness: “How dare you presume that God would be personally interested in you!”

Knowing how difficult it is to hear His voice, to believe He is calling, God gives a second call to those who have already responded.  He calls us to draw close to those in darkness, to encourage them in their fears, and to make it definite that "Yes, brother Batimaeus, God is calling you too."

How many blind Bartimaeuses are there today, wanting to find God, but hindered by voices telling them it's impossible.

How many sit alone, along life’s roadside, hoping that God might one day pass by?

How many are waiting for someone to take them by the hand, to deliver them into God's presence where they will find healing, purpose, and life?

So I’ll leave you with one thought. Can you really and truly say you see Jesus Christ in every person you help?

If you do, you’ll treat them as you would treat Jesus.

If you don’t, quite simply, you’ll treat them as riff-raff.

Just remember that Francis, as he walked the pathways and roads through the hills and villages of Umbria, never passed by another leaving him unloved.

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