Sunday, September 27, 2015

St. Francis and the Cross

The Majesty of the Prerogative of Love
     Francis often reflected with tears of compassion on the Passion of Our Most Holy Lord Jesus Christ.  Two years before his death, while praying in a hermitage on Mount La Verna, he consulted the book of the Gospels to see what the Lord willed for him to do.  He opened it three times, and each time the account of the Lord’s Passion met his eyes.  From this he understood that he was to be conformed to His Lord in the affliction and sorrow of His Passion.  Praying earnestly, he spoke these words: “O Lord Jesus Christ, I entreat you to give me two graces before I die: first, that in my lifetime I may feel in body and soul as far as possible the pain you endured, dear Lord, in the hour of your most bitter suffering; and second, that I may feel in my heart as far as possible that excess of Love by which you, O Son of God, were inflamed to undertake so cruel a suffering for us sinners.”  Then, early in the morning, near the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, as he was praying on the mountainside, a Seraph appeared to him.  It had six fiery wings, and between the wings was the likeness of a man crucified, with his hands and feet extended in the form of a Cross.  Francis rejoiced in the gracious way Christ looked upon him under the appearance of the Seraph, but compassionate sorrow pierced his soul.  As the vision disappeared, it left in his heart a marvelous fire, and imprinted on his flesh the marks of the Five Wounds of the Savior.

    God is Love.  The Beloved Disciple’s definition of the essence of God is a keen insight into the reality of the Most Blessed Trinity.  The Three Persons are united in the omnipotent bond and infinite flow of Love.  Every action of the Divine Nature has Love as its deepest root.  Wisdom, Unity, Truth, Goodness, Beauty, and Justice are all expressions of the same Mystery of Love which lies at the center of Life Itself.  Thus the deepest need, desire, and orientation of man is Love.  Love is a dynamic reality.  It is the most intense joy and pleasure.  It involves absolute surrender for the sake of union with the Beloved.  It satisfies the deepest thirst of the human heart, but presupposes unselfish self-giving.  Because it lies in the essence of Love to give and to surrender, God has allowed Himself to be wounded by man’s rejection and betrayal of His Love simply by loving man.   If man had returned God’s Love purely there would be only blossoming and life, but because man has spurned God’s Love, Love has become Sacrificial.  Since God Himself chose the horrible pain of the Passion to prove His Love and win the hearts of men, pain is central to the experience of loving.

   As was mentioned above in the section on Mortification, human love entails the gift of one’s body.  When the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity became Incarnate in human nature, He brought it to perfect fulfillment by wedding the Godhead to man through the Gift of His Body.  The human body is made for gift.  It provides a material counterpart to the soul made in the image and likeness of God Who Is Love. The epitome of this gift is seen in the Crucified Form of Our Divine Savior.  Because God chose crucifixion as the method for His Masterpiece of Love, it is fitting that those who love Him should in some sense be nailed with Him to His Cross.  Humanity is thus espoused to God through the Five Wounds and the outpoured Blood. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Franciscans and Creation

The Vestiges of the Creator
     Francis bore a very great affection for all things that are God’s.  He contemplated with ineffable sweetness the wisdom, power, and goodness of the Creator in creatures.  Just as is related in the Book of Daniel of the three youths in the fiery furnace who invited all creatures to praise and glorify the Creator of the universe, so also Francis never ceased to adore the Lord in all things, in all the elements and creatures.  He used to gather the worms from the road, for he had read this about Christ: “I am a worm, not a man.” Likewise bees and flowers and every creature received his reverence.

     While Christianity was still very young, the Gnostic heresy arose.  Different variations of it have arisen throughout the centuries and, taken together, form a pattern in which one can observe a principle in clear opposition to Saint Francis’ view of creation.  This heresy emphasized the mind and the spiritual to the extent that material reality was considered worthless, even evil.  It has struck some as strange that corruptible things could be traced back to a Good God.  There have been attempts to live by the mind, or to travel about in a disembodied soul before one’s own death. Manichaeism, with which Saint Augustine was associated with for a time before his conversion, taught that there were two “gods” or principles: one good, a creator of good, and the other evil, a creator of evil or corruptible things.  This extreme led many to consider marriage and the begetting of children to be evil, since it promoted the material world. 

   Saint Francis had a pure and firm faith in God as Origin, Creator, and Sovereign over all that exists.  God is from Eternity, without beginning, and without change.  He created the heavens and the earth, the seas and the dry land, and all that is in them.  He formed man out of the slime of the earth and breathed into him a living soul.  He saw that all this was very good.  God Himself, as fullness of Being, is the center and origin of all Goodness, Beauty, Strength, and Life.  Death and decay have no part in Him, and indeed, death and decay are the natural consequence of separation from Him.  God does not create evil.  In fact, it is impossible for evil to have a creator.  Why?  Evil is that which is not, a corruption of that which is, a nothingness where something once was, a lack of the fullness of being. It comes from turning from the wholesomeness of God and seeking a false alternative which can only end in total deterioration.

   This view led Saint Francis to see the world as sacred, as the property of God Himself.  Who would face the Lord of all Creation and despise or mistreat the work of His Hands?  Moreover, it is necessary for the rational creature to adore the Creator in all His Works.  One who does not see God in those things that He has made lacks knowledge and understanding of Him, while the one who truly knows God will recognize Him in everything. He will note in the smallest flower the exquisite and incomparable touch of the Divine Artist.  He will sense in the varied songs and swift flight of birds the soaring melody of the Eternal One.  For Saint Francis, failure to attribute even the smallest detail of creation to the Creator is robbery.

  A Poor Clare grows, matures, and blossoms in the presence of nature.  She finds in it the healing balm of the reality of God’s Goodness and Beauty.  As a poor and humble pilgrim on this earth she basks in the sun that He makes to rise upon the good and bad alike.  As a daughter in the Father’s House she freely partakes of the abundance of His Gifts which no human hands could fashion.  With her own hands she tenderly cultivates such plants and flowers as the Lord will provide, and treats every creature with respect.  To her eyes every sunset sky and every blossoming tree are the artistry of her Bridegroom given as a pledge of His Enduring Love.  Like Saint Francis, his Poor Clare daughters come to surpassing joy, gratitude, and reverence by finding God in the wonders of His World.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Venus Morning Star

Venus has always fascinated me.  Her orbit is closer to the sun than that of our native planet, so when we are gifted with her appearance, it is always at dawn or dusk, earning her the name of “Morning Star” or “Evening Star” as the case may be.  Only in the twilight, that evocative and transitional time when the sky is just dark enough, can we see her, yet the sun is never far away.  Astronomers tell us that her surface is hidden from the strongest telescope by a thick veil of cloud which also acts as a reflective mirror, giving her that brilliance which so enthralls the heart.  Last week, during my predawn watering of our vegetable field, I was able to see her shining in the all too cloudless sky.  Venus seems to me to be a good image for the contemplative Poor Clare Nun.  She is hidden from the world in her cloister, but she radiates a light that is not her own; it comes from Christ, the near center of her life’s orbiting.

The drought which occasioned my extra watering also gave me moments of beauty to enjoy.  When I finally thought to get my camera, the drought ended.  So this picture is from the handy Internet and will serve to introduce a poem called…

Morning Star

The morning star appears before the sun,
A diamond on the trailing veil of night;
The mirror surface ever turned upon
Him whose rising is her very light.

Does any brilliance penetrate the cloud
That makes of her a beacon in the dark?
Or is her sky a misty glaze allowed
To seal her face, setting her apart?

Gathered now in arms of dawning Day,
She disappears in His embracing ray.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Fraternal Charity and Holy Living

It is hard to believe that August has turned into September, but such it has.  For us, that means that we have entered upon the season of our Father St. Francis.  So it seems opportune to resume our series on the Life of St. Francis and Poor Clare Spirituality.  Here begins

Part Three, The Threshold of Love

Fraternal Charity and Holy Living
      The spirit of grace shone so strongly in Francis that his brothers were soon ignited by the flame of his holiness and burned with intense zeal.  In these early days they reached for the perfection of virtue and sought in all things to deny themselves.  From such habitual selflessness they conceived a wonderful charity toward one another.  Thus they became masters of themselves and lived securely without anxiety, spending themselves freely for the good of others.

     Human beings were not created to be alone.  God calls some, a precious few, to live as hermits far from their fellow men.  Yet even these are called apart only so that they might live more intimately with God, and they will be reunited with their brothers and sisters in heaven.  We were made in the image and likeness of the Triune God Who is Himself a Communion of Love.  Therefore our destiny is not isolation but the deepest union with God and all His people.  From the earliest years of Christianity members of the Church have found it profitable to gather together in the same spirit and ideal to discover the fullness of prayer.

    The Holy Spirit inspired Saint Francis with a new view of the world.  It is new with an eternal newness that never grows stale: the clear perception of reality and truth.  Open and ready to receive the imposition of grace, Saint Francis gazed upon his Creator and, as through a lens, upon creation as seen by the Creator.  He discovered the reality of Poverty as freedom from the vain and selfish pursuits that constrict, bind, and limit our lives to a shallow and futile mortality.  The more this understanding seeped into his being, the more Saint Francis experienced sentiments of humility and gratitude.  He then saw that Poverty is a return to the central purpose of pleasing God.  From this positive vision of God’s Supremacy and his own position of privileged servant flowed a spring of fraternal charity and boundless generosity. 

    The Franciscan Tradition has always valued communal living and the uniting of persons in the praise of God.  The experience of common life, self discipline, and menial service to others contributes to promoting the spirit of mutual respect.  The practice of Poverty requires each one to treat material goods with care, as if they belonged to another, and so nurtures the disposition of concern and self-gift.  Moreover, the real presence of community greatly aids the progress of virtue and the development of a tender conscience. 

    Another grace of fraternal life recognized by Saint Francis is edification.  There are many aspects of ourselves which we cannot easily identify unless we have observed them in others.  The faults and differences of others challenge us to expand our outlook and develop a real view of the world.  Our interaction and patience with others prepare us to live selflessly and ultimately show us what it means to have a loving relationship with God.

    Any authentic experience of God begets gratitude, gratitude begets humility, humility begets generosity, and generosity begets goodness.  From goodness proceeds clear vision, true recognition, and an appropriate response to the value of God and of each person.  The Franciscan ideal of Poverty fosters an inner purity and security which engenders a true and invincible joy of heart that is capable of giving with generosity surpassing human means.  Discipline forms us in personhood and enables us to grow in supernatural virtue which brings us to the realization of the fullness of our human nature.  For a Franciscan mutual charity is essentially intertwined with holy living and the attainment of human potential.  Conversion and Relationship are directly linked: Relationship must be imbued with goodness, and true goodness fosters Relationship.

A Household of Faith
     On one occasion when Francis and his brothers were without shelter they came upon an abandoned hovel in a place called Rivo Torto.  Here they stayed in utter poverty, working and begging for their bread.  The hovel was so small that there was hardly any room for all of them to rest comfortably in it together.  Wishing to avoid discord and confusion, Francis wrote the names of the brethren on the wall, so that each might go peacefully to his own space to pray or sleep.  Yet they outdid one another in charity and mortification and never complained.  When a man drove a mule into the hovel wishing to occupy it, Francis and his brothers quietly moved on to another place.

    One of the greatest sorrows of our time is the invasion of secular principles into family life.  The deep and mysterious holiness of Matrimony and human life is being forgotten.  The formation of the person and growth in graceful maturity is being replaced by noise and meaningless pursuits.  The popes in recent years have striven to reintroduce and protect the basic value of the family in society.

     A great advantage that comes from persons living together in community is growth in virtue and generosity.  When we, as imperfect human beings, are together with other imperfect human beings, our faults work like sand paper on one another.  We rub each others’ roughness until we are smooth and fit together.  For a cloistered contemplative Poor Clare these benefits are intensified in much the same way as they were for Francis and his brothers in the small confines of Rivo Torto.  In order to become a little poor one of the Kingdom she must learn to place herself at the service of all in gentleness and humility.  She must overcome her tendency to be annoyed with the shortcomings of others and focus on becoming perfect in charity. 

    Fraternal life in Franciscan living is an invitation to become the poorest of all.  It is an opportunity to curb one’s pride and imitate the meekness of Christ.  In time the experience of relationship gives one power over his own passions so that he may experience deep interior peace and tranquility.   

    The common life lived in a monastery is a discipline of grace.  To do together with others what one has resolved to do and to endeavor to conform to a common rule gives one a sense of responsibility and obligation.  In this way she can train herself to habitual self-giving.  She needn’t be distracted by privileges and arrogant superiority, but can be before others as she is before God.  Through the familial experience she will be led joyfully to self-fulfillment and the fruits of true love.