Updated: Oct 26, 2018
When you listen carefully to the Prayer of St Francis you’ll notice that it points out the major polarities of tension that each of us individually and collectively experience. Hatred v. love, injury v. pardon, doubt v. faith, despair v. hope, darkness v. light, sadness v. joy. Francis was no stranger to any of these although in the exuberance of his youth he ignored them. That was before his conversion. Nominally Christian, Roman Catholic to be specific, he was probably like many young people today, culturally Christian but not practicing.
Recently, I read a quote from Sr. Nancy Sylvester in the Global Sisters Report. Although she was specifically writing about anger and clerical abuse, what she said about her reaction was how I imagine Francis’ conversion experience. She writes: "I breathed out the images of chains falling away that have bound this worldview to them; Pentecost fire opening minds and hearts to see in new ways; a humility that invites a profound prostration asking forgiveness and signaling transformation; and a courage to let go of all the privileged trappings. Breathe in the pain. Breathe out the gifts."
It was in and through Francis’ unexpected and rather startling religious conversion, in his profound experience with the risen Jesus, that his life changed quickly and dramatically. It’s important to understand that Francis’ conversion and calling were very Christocentric. Specifically he took on the mind of Christ. Often, it’s tempting to dismiss this aspect of Francis because of modernity’s deep desire to separate him from a church and a faith that has caused such deep wounding. But to dismiss his relationship with Jesus as the Christ is to misunderstand what motivated and animated Francis and made him, and his order, so charismatically attractive.
To have and take on the mind of Christ is to do two things: 1) to love all of creation and 2) begin to love like God.
So you see, Francis didn’t just enjoy nature, he didn’t just have respect for the environment surrounding him or it wasn’t just a kinship with animals and creatures of the earth that he enjoyed. No, it was something much more. It was an unbridled passion, some today would say a mania, for all of God’s creation. Francis saw in the world the possibility for a new creation as the Christian scriptures address in Galatians 6:15. “a new creation is everything!” Francis truly believed that as Romans 8:22 states “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole of creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.…” We too are part of the new creation precisely because in our actions we are making the world anew.
We see this in his Canticle of the Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Listen to how he addresses nature: Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brothers Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Fire, Sister Mother Earth, and Sister Death. In Francis’ prayer, he addresses each of these as brothers and sisters, not elements foreign to him, but intimate members of the cosmic family of which he feels very much a part and invites us to experience as well.
But, as mentioned earlier, after his conversion, after the cataracts were lifted from his eyes, Francis also began to love like God. 1 Corinthians 13:13 says: And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love. How many times have we all heard this?
Faith, hope and love are each addressed in the prayer of Saint Francis that we just heard. We are asked that “Where there is doubt we are to bring faith.” In his Brilliant book Make Me An Instrument of Your Peace, Kent Nerburn points out that what Francis is saying is that each of us is called to minister not to people’s faith but to people’s doubts. He says, “We must remember that more people live in the shadow of doubt than in any blinding light of faith. All of us who share a belief in God—however we understand that God—can perform” this and that “sometimes we must…brush against great spiritual truths with our own spiritual gifts, however humble they may be.” (Nerburn, P36)
Nerburn reminds us that like Francis, “we must never lose sight of the fact that faith is not the same as certainty. It if were, it would be knowledge.” He says, “Faith is the great leap across the chasm of the unknown into the uncertain darkness. It is the capacity to step with confidence where there is no knowledge, to move forward in the darkness toward the light, however small that light may be.” (Nerburn, P36)
Hope, where is hope? Nowadays this is a question that begs almost daily everywhere and almost with everyone. Our technological age brings despair into our homes and inboxes at a furious rate. The New York Times reported that according to a Gallop World Poll, “humanity just had its gloomiest year in more than a decade, according to a new survey of the emotional lives of more than 154,000 people around the world.” The poll interviewed adults in more than 145 countries. “More people reported negative experiences, defined as worry, stress, physical pain, anger or sadness, than at any point since 2005.” (NYT, September 19, 2018)
Francis professed that where there is despair, we must bring hope! He didn’t suggest this, he didn’t tell us this, he lived this! Nerburn contends that Francis knew first hand that “despair is perhaps the greatest crime against the human spirit. It cries out that our world is not great enough to overcome the darkness that surrounds our heart. It rips from God and the universe the possibility of redemption. It robs us of hope.” (Nerburn, P39)
The answer? How do we bring hope? Francis would say that “It is the gift of our presence that the despairing soul needs, no more, no less.” When we stand in vigil with the despairing spirit, more than anything else we are denying the emptiness into which the spirit wishes to plunge. By our presence we are affirming a worth that the spirit does not feel. We are bearing witness to a possibility in which the spirit does not believe. We are defying the darkness.” (Nerburn Pp 42- 43)
Love. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly because all of Francis’ teachings, most of which he did by example, rest in his resolve to sow love where there is hatred. “Hatred is the most frightening of all human emotions. It is willful and predatory. It consumes everything around it. In order to keep its dark life alive, it needs an object on which to feed. If we stay near it, we know that eventually it will turn on us and try to consume us as well.” (Nerburn, P13) Francis “wants us to realize that even in the presence of something as frightening and predatory as hate, our own small love, struggling and fragile as it is, can prevail.” (Nerburn, P19)
All of us have often heard the familiar virtues of faith, hope, and love, but Francis’ example, life, and teaching continue to give us fresh insight in how each of us can be catalysts for these virtues in the world. Each of us is called to begin to love like the God or the Divine One of your understanding. Some of us are called to heroic standards while most of us are simply asked to do good, to do what we can, to show up, to love each other, to love our enemies, to love Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brothers Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Fire, Sister Mother Earth, and Sister Death. We should not seek so much to be loved as to love.
Nerburn asks a very incisive question toward the end of his book. He wonders “What was it,…about this simple Italian man that so transcended the boundaries of faith and belief and made so many take him to their hearts as one of their own?” (Nerburn, P93) After deep reflection, he believes that Francis “always acted like a man who had just fallen in love.” I found this incredibly and fascinatingly instructive. “Falling in love is the secret dream that lives inside each of our hearts. It is the human expression of our deepest yearning for union, our desire to have the walls that separate us from others broken down.” (Nerburn, P94) And that is why, Francis did not yearn for someone to love him. Instead he yearned for someone he could love.” (Nerburn, P96) And why we must not seek so much to be loved as to love.
May each of you delight in the blessings of Brother Francis as his spirit continues to illuminate our hearts and minds and bring joy and healing into the world. I pray that all of us go forth with joy in our hearts as if each of us has just fallen in love.