St. Joseph Catholic Church
Like Francis of Assisi, each of us journeys along the pilgrimage of life, and while doing so we are being shaped in little unseen ways. Only occasionally do we become aware of the liminal moments that change our lives forever in large and significant ways. One of the insights Francis’s story provides for us today is that, although we begin our part of the journey in varied times and ways, God has always been there alongside us from the beginning. For many of us, it is only when we stop and look back on our lives that we can see where the Spirit was indeed breaking into our world. Spirituality is in large part a matter of becoming ever more attentive to the questions and subsequent answers of our lives. Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going?
Because you are God’s child, you are a saint in the making. Also, because you are God’s child, you are Mary’s child. The two go hand in hand. Mary does not love you because you are a saint; she loves you whether or not you are a saint. She loves you even if you were the most wretched, hateful sinner to ever walk the earth! If you need help, she will help you. If you call out to her, she will come to your rescue. If you are ill, she will cure you. It may not happen in exactly the timing and manner in which you prefer, but it will happen. It will happen according to God’s will for you through Mary’s intercession and the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.
To leave the world is to leave a false sense of independence, of disinterest in others, of abandonment of God. We see that to move beyond the static and limited understanding of prayer requires us to reimagine our relationship with God. This is what Francis and Clare did nearly eight centuries ago. It is why their lives shine as examples for people of every age and continue to capture the attention and imagination of so many. The life of the Franciscan is to live the gospel, to transform one’s entire life into prayer.
A childlike person has a heart that is both uncomplicated and wise, loving, and trusting in God as Father. A childlike person feels sheltered and safe in God’s love, with a sound faith and confidence in both God and in his own strength (which has been given to him by God). He lives his life peacefully and without worry about the past or future. A truly childlike person can cope with, and even overcome, anxiety. A child knows that whatever happens to him at every moment was foreseen for him by the Father and will contribute to his formation. The childlike person’s only concern is to discover what God wants from him right now.
Love God and do as you will, says St. Augustine, for love is its own commandment. That is how St. Francis took it and lived it. He sinned, as all humans do, but after his conversion, he always knew when he had sinned because Love’s commandment drew him back to the divine love that underpinned everything he was and did. It was not so much fear of punishment that motivated Francis but rather his commitment to him whom he loved, Jesus Christ. To separate oneself from Christ would be the sin for Francis. If he feared anything, it would have been that he would betray Christ, the love of his life.
Mystics through the centuries have described their passionate and intense experiences of God in prayer as though God were a lover. Others, such as the medieval English abbot Aelred of Rievaulx, have considered God as like a friend. Still others, including Jesus of Nazareth, speak of God as a father or a mother. Just as each of these images—lover, friend, and parent—does not exhaust the richness of God’s ability to relate to us in ever increasingly personal ways, to think of God in terms of dating will also inevitably fall short of perfection. Nevertheless, I believe that this way of looking at our relationship with God, new as it may seem to us, might be just what today’s spiritual seekers need to rekindle a sense of the divine in their lives or to discover it for the first time. An experience like dating—that is, a relationship of increasing intimacy, complication, and change—is exactly what Francis and Clare of Assisi knew in their lives lived as prayer. Perhaps it’s time that, following their cues, we go on a date with God.
A very early Franciscan document, Sacrum Commercium, The Sacred Exchange, begins with words reminiscent of the Bible’s Song of Songs: “Francis began to go about in the streets and crossings of the city, relentlessly, like a persistent hunter, diligently seeking whom his heart loved. He inquired of those standing about, he questioned those who came near to him, saying, ‘Have you seen her whom my heart loves?’” This kind of language and imagery for Franciscan poverty makes of poverty and penance a joyful enterprise, the joyful knight, Francis, going about the countryside as the embodiment of the good knight whose virtues are those of a knight of the new Round Table of the Lord. Poverty and penance, then, are not a grim affair, but the kind of derring-do a knight would perform to impress the Lady of the Castle, even rolling in briar bushes in the dead of winter to show his fidelity to her. This charges the tone of the early Franciscan Order with the chivalry and adventure of the Quest, a Spiritual Battle, fired by a deep and abiding love for Christ the Lord whose self-emptying is symbolized in Lady Poverty who was Christ’s vesture.