A talk by Pam Ledbrook sfo
August 22, 1997
When I started to prepare for tonight, I prayed to Francis to know what to speak of and the answer came, very clearly and not surprisingly, "Speak of Jesus". In view of the coming Jubilee year and the fact that in this year 1997 the Church calls us to reflect upon Jesus, Francis' advice is certainly appropriate. Also, next year, the Catholic Bishops from Oceania will take part in a Synod in Rome on the theme: Jesus Christ and the Peoples of Oceania: Walking His Way, Telling His Truth, Living His Life. There will be consultation with the laity prior to this Synod and as Franciscans, whose way of life is based on precisely this theme, we will, no doubt, have our own contributions to make.
The year 2000 will mark the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus, according to our calendar. It will be a "year of the Lord's favour" celebrating the whole mystery of Christ's life, death and resurrection and we will be asked to commit ourselves at the turn of the millennium to be faithful disciples of Jesus, to live and proclaim the Gospel in the way we live, to strive for personal holiness, to promote unity, work for peace and justice. One can only imagine how Francis would have participated in and anticipated such a year. I'm sure it would have been very close to his heart and the celebration so "heart-felt".
With Francis, as we well know, it all starts with Jesus. All lovers want to be together and the loving Being who made us wants to be present to us. God knows how hard it is for us to love someone we cannot see or touch and so the invisible God took flesh and came among us and was seen in human likeness. The invisible God, whose wonder and love are beyond our imagination, wishing to become visible and close to us is seen in the humanity of Jesus. "Whoever sees me, sees the Father". That Jesus would surrender everything to be with us, to accept the frailties and vulnerability of a man in order to reveal the loving heart of God, drew from Francis the burning desire to return that love. "Love is not loved" this agonising cry reveals his painful awareness of personal failure and human weakness, of inadequacy.
The reality of God's love enraptured Francis; he was overcome with wonder and awe. His litany of praises which at first appearance seem "over the top" and wordy, are simply breathless acclamations of love, acknowledgements of God's greatness. He seems, to me, to be trying to find suitable words to encompass his experience of God, the truths he has come to know. Simple words, containing so much. "You are Good, all Good, the highest Good, Lord God, living and true. You are love. You are wisdom; You are humility; You are patience; You are beauty; You are meekness, You are security; You are inner peace, You are joy;You are our hope and joy... You are our eternal life: Great and wonderful Lord, God almighty, merciful Saviour."
Us and God
Francis' communion with God was one of ecstatic recognition and acknowledgement. His life was centred on a Person, the person of the Incarnate Word. Hence the Rule states: "The rule and life of the Secular Franciscans is this: to observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of St Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the centre of his life with God and people." Our life is to be centred on a person, rather than a programme. Our Constitutions: "Christ, poor and crucified, is the book in which we learn the purpose and way of living, loving and suffering." One thing I have struggled with is to let myself just "be" with Jesus. I have read lots about him, talked lots about him, hear about him each Sunday but I often resist just being with him. And, as I prepared this talk, I read "knowing about is not the same as knowing. To believe in God is one thing; to know God is another." And to know God, I think I must be like Mary and ponder these things in my heart, in personal relational moments in prayer.
Francis' gospel spirituality, which is often seen as focussed on Poverty as material deprivation, encompassed so much more. Certainly, material poverty enabled him to let go of all he may have clung to. He let go of comfort, of prestige, of respectability, and in the end, he even had to let go of the vision of the gospel life his brothers would live. It was spirituality based on having nothing for oneself, of total surrender. It was an attitude, a way of being, based on love and trust. Sr Briege O'Hare says that in each of us there is incredible love and we need to give it life and expression. Francis and Clare gave their love expression, for both had an affective love of Jesus, a person-to-person love, which is THE mark of a Franciscan life. St Bernard of Clairvaux suggested there were four stages of loving -
|We love ourselves for ourselves|
|We love God for what he gives us|
|We love God for himself|
|We love ourselves for God's sake.|
It seems almost trite and a cliché to say that dying to self comes through falling in love with God and finding everything and everybody in him but often what we glibly say, has greater depths to be pondered. Loving him for his own sake means risking all. It is very risky to say wholeheartedly, "God, here I am. I put myself entirely and utterly into your hands" for he just might expect us to do that. It requires much love and trust but as Francis said, "Nothing must be kept back, nothing separate us from him, nothing come between us and him." This is Franciscan poverty and it leads to finding everything, including ourselves, in him.
Poverty also became a means by which Francis deepened his recognition of fraternity, of the common bond he shared with others. We have one Father, one Brother. "Oh, how happy and blessed are we to have... such a brother, our Lord Jesus Christ." Francis learnt from Jesus that we are all related as brothers and sisters for "only one is your Father". We are a fraternity -the Holy Spirit fraternity- not simply because we are geographically placed or not even because we share a common love of Francis. We are a fraternity because the Holy Spirit calls us together. Each of us knows we are to live the Franciscan way of life and it is the Franciscan spirituality which is our bond and which unites us with one another.
The SFO Way
Living the Secular Franciscan way of life today in the Franciscan family is a continuation of living this awareness of Jesus. Fr Regis Armstrong wrote that "a person's spirituality must embrace three realities: personal experience, culture and tradition... and what is true of us is equally true of Francis of Assisi." The influences of 12th Century Christian tradition, the socio-economic culture of Assisi as well as his own personal experiences, all impacted on the person Francis was and became. We live in a different age and culture. New problems require new and creative solutions and, perhaps, different ways of living the Franciscan life are required but the basis is the same. Being Secular Franciscans is not a theoretical exercise; it is a way of life, real life, and the way we live it expresses our beliefs. We live in communities, with families. We work with others who may not share our faith and we have to be willing to create our own way of living our Franciscan ideals in the way most suited to our own lives and circumstances. We integrate our spiritual life into our normal routine of life so it is integral, not a burden. What it means to be a Secular Franciscan doesn't come from reading about it, or talking about, or even reading writings of Francis, but by our efforts to live the life of a Secular Franciscan.
Tony Di Michiel and I were talking about fraternity and I said that when I first started coming to fraternity meetings, I felt that it was little more than a once-a-month get-together. I was obviously a new-comer and not into being Franciscan. Tony explained to me that to him, living his life, being busily involved with others all the time, the monthly fraternity meetings were opportunities to recharge his Franciscan batteries so to speak, to be renewed so that he would go out and live it again. I have since come to understand this. Indeed, preparing this little sharing has been a fruitful exercise and an opportunity to "recharge" my spiritual batteries.
Some years ago the fraternity had a retreat at Galong with Fr Hugh and one of his talks particularly made an impression on me. He reminded us, much as Fr Regis did, that who we are and where we are on our spiritual journey does affect the attitudes we have. Our ancestral history and genetic temperament, our cultural and childhood environments help condition our personal outlook, our responses and our ability to relate to the world and others.
Approaches to Poverty
As a result of these many influences, what poverty means for one person is not necessarily what poverty means to another. The challenge I face to make a reality of simplicity in my life may not be another's who may need the trappings of a wealthy life to entertain clients who do not share Franciscan ideals as I remember Jack pointing out at the last Council meeting. Poverty for these people may be the challenge of being detached, free of avarice etc. Awareness of personal differences, and focus on Jesus, will hopefully free us from any judgements of each other. The last formation book we used gave several interpretations of Poverty:
|Imitation of the poverty of Jesus and Mary. To follow in Jesus' footsteps and live in poverty, was an invitation to share the creative inner liberty of Jesus himself. Jesus was a truly free man. When conflict came, he could not be bought. He was in no way tied down or imprisoned by material possessions, nor did he need to gather them around him, before he could function. Francis first began to follow Jesus in the externals of his itinerant life as a preacher, but as his love for God grew, so he sought increasingly to identify with Jesus' surrender.|
|Having nothing for oneself,|
|Being content with the essentials of life|
|Being ready to be among the poor.|
The Franciscan Way Of Life
How do lay members express the Franciscan charism? By living the Franciscan life in their secular condition, in the environment in which they live, work and play celebrating the Franciscan liturgy and calendar, praying the Prayer of the Church and participating in the Sacraments, sharing in the fraternity dimension of the Franciscan life, share reflections and actions, contribute to fraternity activities and projects, taking Christ and his values as our own, reading Scripture and reflecting on it, reading Franciscan material and deepening our relationship with God in our daily prayer life. Francis gazed into the mirror of creation and saw Christ; Clare gazed into the mirror of Christ. She says "Gaze upon him, think about him and contemplate him, if you want to imitate him." Clare understood imitation as far more than merely copying him. It meant becoming like Christ by doing what he did primarily i.e. being one with the Father, one with His will putting the teachings into action in our own lives. The reality, the concrete actions result from Franciscan ideals.
Evelyn Underhill would have resonated with Francis. She said "There is no real occasion for tumult, strain, conflict, anxiety, once we have reached the conviction that God is All. All takes place within Him. He alone matters. He alone is. Our spiritual life is His affair because... it is really produced by His steady attraction and our humble and self-forgetful response to it." Our gifts -skills, wisdom, knowledge, ability, our good looks if we have them, riches and spiritual gifts- are just that, pure gifts. We cannot glory in them for ourselves, for they are God's. In a video I used with the children in class, Elijah was instructing Elisha about working for God and that after working miracles, he was not to accept reward, not money or praise for it for it was God who did the work. We are the tools. "Lord, make me an instrument" attributed to Francis, does epitomise Francis' attitude.
The Heart of the Matter
One final point. In his poverty and contemplation of God, Francis recognised that everything comes from God's goodness and before God we have no claim to anything but our sins, our bad choices, our weakness. To recognise our sinfulness is not to be false, to be gloomy, to despair - for we stand loved by God, understood by God, sustained by God. We stand before God as we truly are! "Who are you, O God Most High and who am I, poor miserable worm." This is true humility and enlightenment. The recognition of himself as a sinner only spurred Francis to strive to overcome his weakness "Enlighten the darkness of my mind, give me a right faith, a firm hope and a perfect love..." And so I end where I began, with Francis' surrender to God. The words he uttered over and over the night Bernard his first follower, tried to assess the genuineness of Francis. "My God and My All. My God and My All." These words contain Francis' heart.
The dying Francis encourages us yet: Now let us begin to serve the Lord our God for hitherto we have done but little.
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