Archive for October, 2019

A Strange New World

October 15th, 2019

Ways of Knowing

A Strange New World
Tuesday, October 15, 2019

I grew up relatively sheltered in my Kansas home and in Catholic schools. However, over the years, life has provided me with countless opportunities to meet people whose different experiences and understandings have opened unseen doors and enriched my knowing. Moving out of our comfortable bubbles is essential to knowing God and reality in a self-critical way.

Presbyterian theologian and activist Robert McAfee Brown (1920–2001) wrote about what Karl Barth (1886–1968) referred to as “a strange new world.” Brown begins by telling a story:

A retired Air Force major, now a seminarian, went to a conference on “The Church and Central Africa.” As the talks proceeded, he got angry. One speaker, he reports, “was basically saying that the United States is greatly responsible for the suffering in third world countries.” . . . [He] went back to hear the African speaker a second time. His outlook was modified:

[The speaker] was showing us that our imperialism is often unconscious, done through economic arrangement. As Christians who have compassion, we need to know these facts, even if they hurt. . . . I came away . . . with a deeper awareness that we have to attempt to see the world the way others do. . . . [1]

What [he encountered] is what Swiss theologian Karl Barth described . . . [as] “The Strange New World Within the Bible.” [2] . . . When [Barth] approached the Bible, every bit of spiritual and mental equipment he brought to the task was shattered by that “strange new world” and that as a result he had to begin looking at both the Bible and his own world in a new way. . . .

Christians make the initially bizarre gamble that “the strange new world within the Bible” is a more accurate view of the world than our own and that we have to modify our views as a result. This means engaging in dialogue with the Bible—bringing our questions to it, hearing its questions to us, examining our answers in its light, and taking its answers very seriously, particularly when they conflict with our own, which will be most of the time. . . .

We must be in dialogue not only with the Bible but also with Christians in other parts of the world who read the Bible in a very different way . . . [especially] Christians . . . who are generally poor and powerless, victims of political and social and economic structures . . . that oppress them on all levels of their lives, while those same structures support and enrich us. . . .

When [they] listen to the Bible, they hear different things than we hear. It often seems as though they and we are reading different books. . . .

People like us read the Bible from the vantage point of our privilege and comfort and screen out those parts that threaten us. [People who have been marginalized] tell us that the basic viewpoint of the biblical writers is that of victims, those who have been cruelly used by society, the poor and oppressed. . . . Consequently, when they hear the Bible offering hope and liberation to the oppressed of the ancient world, they hear hope and liberation being offered to them as the oppressed of the contemporary world. If God sided with the oppressed back then, they believe God continues to side with the oppressed here and now.

Ways of Knowing

October 14th, 2019

Doing the Homework
Sunday, October 13, 2019

Contemplation is an entirely different way of knowing reality that has the power to move us beyond mere ideology and dualistic thinking. Mature religion will always lead us to some form of prayer, meditation, or contemplation to balance out our usual calculating mind. Believe me, it is major surgery, and we must practice it for years to begin to rewire our egocentric responses. Contemplation is work, so much so that most people give up after their first futile attempts. But the goal of contemplation is not success, only the continuing practice itself. The only people who pray well are those who keep praying! In fact, continued re-connecting is what I mean by prayer, not occasional consolations that we may experience.

The capacity for nondual knowing that is developed through contemplation allows us to be happy, rooted in God, comfortable with paradox and mystery, and largely immune to mass consciousness and its false promises. This is true wisdom knowing, and it is the job of elders to pass it on to the next generation so we need not start at zero.

Contemplation is meeting as much reality as we can handle in its most simple and immediate form—without filters, judgments, or commentaries. The ego doesn’t trust this way of seeing, which is why it is so rare, “a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14, New Jerusalem Bible). The only way we can contemplate is by recognizing and relativizing our own compulsive mental grids—our practiced ways of judging, critiquing, blocking, filtering, and computing everything. But we first have to catch ourselves in the act and recognize how habitual our egoic, dualistic thinking is. Each person must do this homework for themselves. It cannot be achieved by reading someone else’s conclusions.

When our judgmental mind and all its commentaries are placed aside, God finally has a chance to get through to us, because our pettiness and self-protective filters are at last out of the way. Then Truth stands revealed on its own—quite simply—and we will experience a rebirth of the soul.

Coexistence: Beliefs and Experience
Monday, October 14, 2019

We cannot know God only by thinking thoughts. Unfortunately, for much of Christianity, faith largely became believing statements to be true or false (intellectual assent) instead of giving people concrete practices so they could themselves know how to open up (faith), hold on (hope), and allow an infilling from another source (love). Contemplation opens our heads, hearts, and bodies to God’s living presence. 

Over the last couple weeks, I shared about my own Franciscan order. Benedictines, who follow the Rule of St. Benedict (c. 480–547), are another Catholic order that often emphasizes practical, experiential spirituality. During one homily, Brother Michael, a member of the Benedictine monastic community of Weston Priory in Vermont, reflected on the day’s Scripture readings (1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Luke 4:38-44):

What I heard Paul saying, basically, was that although he has preached, there was something more for the Corinthians than simply listening to preaching. It was their actual experience of believing. And I think Paul was trying to ask them really the question: what do you believe?

I think that’s such an open question for ourselves right now, when there’s a lot of information, a lot of preaching, a lot of answers given to us. But the same basic question remains: what is our experience of our beliefs?

For myself that was the real window into the Gospel today that talks about the miracle stories of Jesus. These stories are not about the suspension of natural laws. The Gospel writers are trying to tell us that something new was happening. I think that Jesus was somehow able to wake people up, to cure them and heal them of their dis-ease. I think that there was something in his message; the reign of God is close at hand. What does that mean? What does that experience signify for us? I think it brings it right into our own time, into our life together. Trying to move into our experience of believing, of living, of loving, and finding within it, within the many challenges, that that’s where our hearts are fully engaged.

Maria Guarino reflects on Brother Michael’s message: 

It may seem radical for a man in a Christian vocation to call the literal truth of the miracle stories into question, but this is exactly the kind of grounding . . . spoke[n] to in [his] reflections. Just as [another] admonished his monks to take the Rule of Benedict very seriously but not to take it literally, so the brothers took matters of spirituality, scripture, and faith very seriously but with an open-mindedness grounded in the immediate reality of experience. . . . As in all aspects of the Benedictine life, there is a balance to be struck. . . . The brothers were open to mystery and the ineffable, but . . . the mysterious did not require suspension of the rational or the intellectual. For them, the rational mind and the spiritual heart coexist. Head and heart, rational and spiritual, need not stifle or silence one another. Both are necessary as the brothers position themselves toward an experience of God that is immediate yet distant, familiar yet ineffable, immanent yet transcendent, and as rational as it is unknowable.

Summary: Week Forty-one

Franciscan Way: Part Two

October 6 – October 11, 2019

This is the miracle of love: to discover that all creation is one, flung out into space by a God who is a Father, and that if you present yourself as [God] does, unarmed and peaceably, creation will recognize and meet you with a smile. —Carlo Carretto (Sunday)

If we haven’t been able to kiss many lepers, if we haven’t been able to tame many wolves, it’s probably because we haven’t made friends with our leper and wolf within. (Monday)

Francis and Clare of Assisi both found their inner and outer freedom by structurally living on the edge of the inside of both church and society. (Tuesday)

Francis was fully at home in this created world. He saw all things in the visible world as endless dynamic and operative symbols of the Real, a theater and training ground for a heaven that is already available to us in small doses in this life. What you choose now, you shall have later seems to be the realization of the saints. Not an idyllic hope for a later heaven but a living experience right now. (Wednesday)

With great wisdom, Francis was able to distinguish between institutional evil and the individual who is victimized by it. (Thursday)

Intercession visualizes an alternative future to the one created by the momentum of current forces. Eight centuries after Francis we are called, as he was, to pray and act for a new future of peace. —Louie Vitale, OFM (Friday)

Practice: Lectio Divina in Nature

Step out onto the Planet.
Draw a circle a hundred feet round.

Inside the circle are
300 things nobody understands, and, maybe
nobody’s ever really seen

How many can you find? 

—Lew Welch [1]

We are created to read the book of creation so that we may know the Author of Life. —Ilia Delio, OSF [2]

Lectio divina (Latin for sacred reading) is a contemplative way of reading and praying with Scripture. Rather than trying to rationally understand a static text, this practice helps us be present to the Living Word of God and allow it to change us. In lectio divina, God teaches us to listen for and seek God’s presence in silence. Although the Bible is most often used, many people practice lectio divina with nature. Franciscans believe that the first act of divine revelation is Creation itself, so it makes sense to “read” or observe God’s presence in Brother Sun and Sister Moon, in animals and plants.

As with other forms of lectio divina, the practice is divided into four steps. Find a place where you are surrounded by the beauty of nature and where you feel safe to be quiet and alone for 20 or more minutes.

1. Lectio/Read

In silence, be attentive to your surroundings, opening to the mystery of these beings’ existence and prayerfully asking them to address you. Simply asking is creating a space in which a response can happen. If you like, use a journal to write down any impressions that arise.

2. Meditatio/Meditate

Ponder what you are observing, being attentive to whatever is in front of you as though you could be in dialogue with it. For example, as you look around, if you see a flower, gaze at it and also consider what it would feel like for the flower to look back at you. What it would be like to be in mutual relationship with all of Creation?

3. Oratio/Pray

Oratio is an opportunity to enter into dialogue with God, offering gratitude as well as lifting up your hopes, fears, and pains. In oratio, you are invited to surrender all of these things and allow God to transform you and the world through this encounter.

4. Contemplatio/Contemplate

Contemplatio is simply abiding in the presence of God. Rest joyfully in Mystery after lifting up your prayers and problems to God, confident that your needs are known.


Making Peace Like St. Francis

Friday, October 11, 2019

My Franciscan brother Fr. Louie Vitale, who has been a peace activist for almost 40 years, tells how St. Francis was working for peace even at the end of his life. At the time, Bishop Guido of Assisi excommunicated the mayor of Assisi on the pope’s orders because the mayor supported another war with Perugia. In response, the mayor proclaimed that no one could sell to or buy anything from the bishop or have legal dealings with him. This story illustrates the practical power of nonviolent, restorative justice. Vitale writes:

This was not just a misunderstanding or an argument between the bishop and the mayor. There was serious structural violence involving the nobility, the new merchant class, the city and the Church. . . . Theologian and biblical scholar Walter Wink would name this as an example of the “Domination System” and its efforts to control society. In the case of thirteenth-century Assisi, this struggle turned on the question of who would be in control—the powerful factions in the city or the people allied with the pope?

In Wink’s terminology, these institutions are “powers” which enforce domination and preclude peaceful resolution. “What people in the Bible experienced and called ‘Principalities and Powers’ was in fact real,” Wink writes. “They were discerning the actual spirituality at the center of the political, economic and cultural institutions of their day. . . . I use the expression ‘the Domination System’ to indicate what happens when an entire network of Powers becomes integrated around idolatrous values [like greed and superiority].” [1] . . .

Wink writes: “The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers must be redeemed.” [2] While recognizing the demonic in each of the institutions involved, Francis also acknowledged the source of their creation and sought to restore them to the God-given purpose for which they were created. . . . Wink sees the Gospel as the alternative power to the Domination System. Francis brought this Gospel alternative to new life. . . .

[Knowing that] both the mayor and the bishop held Francis in the highest esteem, Francis used a subtle nonviolent approach. He added another verse on peace to his Canticle of the Creatures. He sent one of his brothers to invite the mayor to go to the bishop’s palace, and another to prepare the bishop. Francis did not go but remained in prayer. The brothers sang the canticle with its message of peace to the mayor and the bishop, which included the new verse:

Happy those who endure in peace,
By you, Most High, they will be crowned.

Both were moved to great repentance and mutual embrace. “In this moment, a centuries-old struggle for power ended,” historian Arnaldo Fortini [himself a former mayor of Assisi] wrote, crediting this intervention with bringing true peace into being.

Walter Wink stresses that a key dimension of nonviolent action is prayer. . . . Intercession visualizes an alternative future to the one created by the momentum of current forces. . . . Eight centuries after Francis we are called, as he was, to pray and act for a new future of peace.

Francis and the Sultan

October 10th, 2019

Franciscan Way: Part Two

Francis and the Sultan
Thursday, October 10, 2019

The connection that Francis of Assisi made with “the enemy” in his lifetime may be his most powerful statement to the world about putting together the inner life with the outer, and all of the resulting social, political, and ethnic implications. He also offers an invitation to—and an example for—the kind of interfaith dialogue that provides a much-needed “crossing of borders” so that we can understand people who are different from us. Francis’ kind of border crossing is urgently needed in our own time, when many of the same divisive issues are at still at play between Christians and Muslims and so many other religious, political, national, and racial groups.

Francis made several attempts to visit the troops fighting in the Holy Land, and in September 1219 he met with Sultan Malik al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt. [1] At the time, in thirteenth-century Europe, there was almost no actual knowledge of Islamic culture or religion, but rather only stereotypes of “the enemy.” The vast majority of voices in the Western Church—popes at their lead—had been swept up in the fervor of the anti-Islamist Crusades which began in 1095. (There were nine Crusades; Francis intervened in the fifth.) Popes repeatedly used promises of eternal life and offered indulgences and total forgiveness of sin for those who would fight these “holy wars” that were then backed up by kings and official Crusade preachers. Hardly anyone objected or recognized that this was a major abuse of power and of the Gospel.

Francis left his own culture at “great cost” to himself to go to the Sultan, to enter the world of another—and one who was considered a public enemy of his world and religion. Francis seems to have tried three times, but only succeeded in getting to his goal on the third try. On this attempt, he went to Egypt primarily to tell the Christian troops that they were wrong in what they were doing.

Francis’ humility and respect for the other, and thus for Islam, gained him what seems to have been an extended time, maybe as much as three weeks, with al-Kamil. The Sultan sent him away with protection and a gift (a horn that was used for the Muslim call to prayer), which suggests they had given and received mutual regard and respect. This horn can still be seen in Assisi.

With great wisdom, Francis was able to distinguish between institutional evil and the individual who is victimized by it. He still felt compassion for the individual Christian soldiers, although he objected to the war itself. He realized the folly and yet the sincerity of their patriotism, which led them, however, to be un-patriotic to the much larger Kingdom of God where Francis placed his first and final loyalty.

Patron Saint of Ecology

October 9th, 2019


Wednesday, October 9, 2019

One of the things Francis of Assisi is best known for is his love of nature. Pope John Paul II named him the Patron Saint of Ecology in 1979. Pope Francis entitled his encyclical about caring for our common home Laudato Si meaning “praise be to you,” a phrase which Francis used repeatedly in his Canticle of the Creatures.

St. Bonaventure (1221–1274), an early Franciscan mystic, taught that, “As a human being, Christ has something in common with all creatures. With the stone he shares existence; with plants he shares life; with animals he shares sensation; and with the angels he shares intelligence.” [1] In saying this, Bonaventure was trying to give theological weight to the deep experience Francis, who, as far as we know, was the first recorded Christian to call animals and elements and even the forces of nature by familial names, much as indigenous people have done for centuries: “Sister, Mother Earth,” “Brother Wind,” “Sister Water,” and “Brother Fire.”

Francis was fully at home in this created world. He saw all things in the visible world as endless dynamic and operative symbols of the Real, a theater and training ground for a heaven that is already available to us in small doses in this life. What you choose now, you shall have later seems to be the realization of the saints. Not an idyllic hope for a later heaven but a living experience right now.

We cannot jump over this world, or its woundedness, and still try to love God. We must love God through, in, with, and even because of this world. This is the message Christianity was supposed to initiate, proclaim, and encourage, and what Jesus modeled. We were made to love and trust this world, “to cultivate it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15), but for some sad reason we preferred to emphasize the statement that comes in the previous chapter, which seems to say that we should “dominate” the earth (Genesis 1:28). I wonder if this is not another shape of our original sin. God “empties” Godself into creation, and then we humans spend most of history creating systems to control and subdue that creation for our own purposes and profit, reversing the divine pattern.

In the spirit of St. Francis, read aloud this prayer of repentance, intention, and longing by one of his contemporary followers, Mirabai Starr:

Dear God,
You created the world
to serve our needs
and to lead us to you. 

Through our own unconsciousness
we have lost the beautiful relationship
we once had with the rest of creation.

Help us to see
that by restoring our relationship with you
we will also renew our connection
with all your creation.

Give us the grace to see
all animals as gifts from you
and to treat them with respect,
for they are your creation. 

We pray for all animals
who are suffering
as a result of our neglect.

May the order you originally established
be once again restored
to the whole world. . . . 

Amen. [2]

Inner and Outer Freedom

October 8th, 2019

Franciscan Way: Part Two

Inner and Outer Freedom
Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Francis and Clare of Assisi were not so much prophets by what they said as by the radical, system-critiquing way that they lived their lives. They found both their inner and outer freedom by structurally living on the edge of the inside of both church and society. Too often people seek either inner or outer freedom, but seldom do they find both.

Francis and Clare’s agenda for justice was the most foundational and undercutting of all: a very simple lifestyle outside the system of production and consumption (the real meaning of the vow of poverty) plus a conscious identification with the marginalized of society (the communion of saints pushed to its outer edge). In this position we do not “do” acts of peace and justice as much as our life is itself peace and justice. We take our small and sufficient place in the great and grand scheme of God. By “living on the edge of the inside” I mean building on the solid Tradition (“from the inside”) but doing it from a new and creative stance (“on the edge”) where we cannot be coopted for purposes of security, possessions, or the illusions of power.

Francis and Clare placed themselves outside the system of not just social production and consumption, but ecclesiastical too! Francis was not a priest, nor were Franciscan men originally priests. Theirs was not a spirituality of earning or seeking worthiness, career, church status, or divine favor (which they knew they already had). They represented in their own unique way the old tradition of “holy fools” among the desert fathers and mothers and the Eastern Church, and offered that notion to the very organized and “efficient” Western Church.

For the most part, the path they offered has been ignored or not understood. Most of us prefer quid pro quo (retributive justice) to restorative justice. But those formed by the Gospels should know better. When we try to find personal and individual freedom while remaining inside structural boxes and a system of consumption, we are often unable or unwilling to critique those very structures. Whoever is paying our bills and giving us security and status determines what we can and cannot say, or even what we can or cannot think. We cannot remove the plank we are standing on. Self-serving institutions that give us our security, status, or identity are almost always considered “too big to fail” and are often beyond any honest critique. And thus corruption grows.

The way of radical Christianity is simply to stay out of such systems to begin with, so they cannot control your breadth of thinking, feeling, loving, and living out universal justice.

When Jesus and John’s Gospel used the term “the world,” they did not mean the earth, creation, or civilization, which Jesus clearly came to love and save (John 12:47). They were referring to idolatrous systems and institutions that are invariably self-referential and always passing away (1 Corinthians 7:31).

Franciscan Way: Part Two

October 7th, 2019

Francis and the Lepers
Monday, October 7, 2019

The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord . . . led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards I delayed a little and then I left the world. —Francis of Assisi [1]

When Francis said, he “left the world,” he was not talking about creation, which he loved. He was talking about the “rotten, decadent system” as Dorothy Day called it. [2] He was giving up on the usual payoffs, constraints, and rewards of business-as-usual and was choosing to live in the largest Kingdom of all. To pray and actually mean “Thy Kingdom come,” we must also be able to say “my kingdoms go.” Francis and Clare’s first citizenship was always, and in every case, elsewhere (Philippians 3:20), which ironically allowed them to live in this world with joy and freedom.

Augustine Thompson, a Dominican friar, writes:

This encounter with lepers, not the act of stripping off his clothing before the bishop, would always be for Francis the core of his religious conversion. . . . Wherever the leprosarium was, Francis lodged there with the residents and earned his keep caring for them. . . . It was a dramatic personal reorientation that brought forth spiritual fruit. As Francis showed mercy to these outcasts, he came to experience God’s own gift of mercy to himself. As he cleaned the lepers’ bodies, dressed their wounds, and treated them as human beings, not as refuse to be fled from in horror, his perceptions changed. What before was ugly and repulsive now caused him delight and joy, not only spiritually, but also viscerally and physically.

Francis’s aesthetic sense, so central to his personality, had been transformed, even inverted. The startled veteran sensed himself, by God’s grace and no power of his own, remade into a different man. Just as suddenly, the sins which had been tormenting him seemed to melt away, and Francis experienced a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing. Not long after this encounter, later accounts tell us, perhaps in allegory, that Francis was walking down a road and met one of these same lepers. He embraced the man in his arms and kissed him. Francis’s spiritual nightmare was over; he had found peace. [3]

Deep within each of us live a leper and a wolf. These stories did happen historically with Francis, but first they operate in the soul. We must first encounter and embrace the leper and wolf inside. If we haven’t been able to kiss many lepers, if we haven’t been able to tame many wolves, it’s probably because we haven’t made friends with our leper and wolf within. Name your poor leper within. Nurse and tend her wounds. Name your inner wolf; tame him by gentle forgiveness.

Francis and the Wolf
Sunday, October 6, 2019

Carlo Carretto (1910–1988) was a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, a community of contemplatives based on the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi and founded by Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916). Carretto’s life, like that of Francis, was a combination of action and contemplation. In his book, I, Francis, Carretto speaks in Francis’ voice, combining biography with what Francis might say to us today.

Carretto describes Francis’ experience with a hungry old wolf who had been terrifying the people of Gubbio and preying on their livestock. Francis went out to meet the wolf armed only with love. The townspeople were sure the wolf would eat Francis. But Francis simply considered the needs of both the wolf and the community. He discerned that the wolf was too old to hunt wild animals and just needed to eat, while the people needed safety for themselves and their animals. Francis proposed that the wolf be given food each day, and the wolf agreed to leave their sheep and chickens alone. Carretto writes in Francis’ voice:

No, brothers [and sisters], I was not afraid [to meet with the wolf].

Not since I had experienced the fact that my God is the wolf’s God too.

What is extraordinary in the incident of the wolf of Gubbio is not that the wolf grew tame, but that the people of Gubbio grew tame, and that they ran to meet the cold and hungry wolf not with pruning knives and hatchets but with bread and hot porridge.

This is the miracle of love: to discover that all creation is one, flung out into space by a God who is a Father, and that if you present yourself as [God] does, unarmed and peaceably, creation will recognize and meet you with a smile.

This is the principle of nonviolence, and I want to recommend it to you with all the enthusiasm I can command. . . .

If human beings go to war, it is because they fear someone.

Remove the fear, and you re-establish trust, and will have peace.

Nonviolence means destroying fear.

This is why I, Francis, tell you this once again: Learn to conquer fear, as I did that morning when I went out to meet the wolf with a smile.

By conquering myself, I conquered the wolf. By taming my evil instincts, I tamed those of the wolf. By making an effort to trust the wolf, I found that the wolf trusted me.

My courage had established peace. 

You can deduce the rest by yourselves.

Just think what would happen if one day you became nonviolent, and took the huge sums of money you spend on defending yourselves against fear and used them to help the people of whom you are now afraid. . . .

You will know peace then.

Is that too much to hope?

Perhaps someone is listening to me!

To whoever it is, I, Francis say: Be brave!

Summary: Week Forty

September 29 – October 4, 2019

Much of Francis of Assisi’s genius was that he was ready for absolute “newness” from God, and therefore could also trust fresh and new attitudes in himself. (Sunday)

In his “Testament,” Francis said, “No one showed me what I ought to do,” and then, at the very end of his life, he said, “I have done what is mine to do; may Christ teach you what is yours!” (Monday)

If God became a human being, then it’s good to be a human being! The problem is already solved. That Jesus was born into a poor family shows God’s love for the poor. (Tuesday)

Unlike the monastic life, which strove to domesticate nature and to bring it under control, Francis expected to live lightly on the earth, a burden neither to the earth nor to those who fed and clothed him. —John Quigley (Wednesday)

The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. (Thursday)

“My son,” the bishop said to Francis, “have confidence in the Lord and act courageously. God will be your help and will abundantly provide you with whatever is necessary.” —Mirabai Starr (Friday)

Practice: Lectio Divina

Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of ecology, animals, non-violence, and peacemaking—because he understood that the entire circle of life has a Great Lover at the center of it all. In Francis’ world, the sun, moon, animals, plants, and elements are all shown reverence and even personal subjectivity as “brother” and “sister.” He refused to exclude anything. He went to the edge, to the bottom; he kissed the leper, he loved the poor, he wore patches on the outside of his habit so everybody would know that’s what he was like on the inside. He didn’t hide from his shadow. He wasn’t an intellectual; he didn’t begin with universal philosophies and ideas and abstractions. For Francis, there was one world and it was all sacred.

Today I invite you to practice “sacred reading” (lectio divina) using the prayer often attributed to Francis of Assisi. Lectio divina is a contemplative way to read short passages of sacred text and discover meanings running deeper than the literal layer. There are many variations of sacred reading; all are an invitation to take a “long, loving look” at some aspect of life, with scripture, poetry, music, or nature.

With the first reading of the Peace Prayer, listen with your heart’s ear for a phrase or word that stands out for you.

During the second reading, reflect on what touches you, perhaps speaking that response aloud or writing in a journal.

After reading the passage a third time, respond with a prayer or expression of what you have experienced and ask yourself what this passage calls you to do or be.

Finally, after a fourth reading, rest in silence.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.


Naked Before God

Friday, October 4, 2019
Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

Mirabai Starr is a friend, fellow New Mexican, and a respected author known for her work translating many mystics. Her words provide insight to a pivotal experience of St. Francis’ life.

After Christ spoke to Francis from the [crucifix in the] ruins of San Damiano, directing him to rebuild his church, Francis reached for the most immediate source of funds available: his father’s fabrics. Francis entered Pietro Bernardone’s warehouse when his father was away on business and helped himself to two bolts of expensive cloth.

Francis rode to a nearby village, where he sold both the fabric and his horse. Pocketing his purse of gold, he set off on foot for the crumbled church of San Damiano, where he offered the money to the priest. . . .

But Bernardone’s wrath was infamous, and the priest had no interest in incurring it. He refused the money.

When Francis’s father returned to Assisi and discovered what his errant son had done now, he predictably exploded. He had endured Francis’s outrageous disregard for his hard-earned wealth long enough.

In Francis’s youth, the boy had squandered entire fortunes on entertaining himself and his friends. His father had spent a huge sum to bail him out when Francis was captured as a prisoner of war. He had allowed Francis to do nothing for two years as he recovered from an illness contracted during his incarceration. And now this: stealing from his own father to pursue some crazy new whim.

Bernardone found his estranged son . . . begging in the streets of Assisi for stones to rebuild the church of San Damiano. . . .

When he was summoned before Bishop Guido, Francis went willingly, considering the bishop to be a representative of God. Guido, known for his violent temper, was surprisingly tender with [Francis]. . . . He tried to reason with him, explaining that he had “scandalized” his father and that God wouldn’t want him to use ill-gotten gains to do his work.

“My son,” said the bishop, “have confidence in the Lord and act courageously. . . . [God] will be your help and will abundantly provide you with whatever is necessary.”

These words penetrated Francis’s heart. Moved by a surge of faith, Francis stripped off his clothes in front of the entire assembly and handed them to his father, along with the purse of gold the priest at San Damiano had refused.

“Listen everyone,” Francis called out to the crowd that had gathered to observe the trial. “From now on, I can say with complete freedom, ‘Our Father who art in Heaven.’ Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father.”

Stunned, the bishop wrapped his own cloak around Francis’s naked shoulders. His father left the cathedral defeated. This is not the way Bernardone hoped things would work out. What he really wanted was to have his son back. But Francis, released into the service of humanity, was lost to him forever.

A New Way of Thinking

October 3rd, 2019

Franciscan Way: Part One

A New Way of Thinking
Thursday, October 3, 2019

God gave St. Francis to history in a pivotal period when Western civilization began to move into rationality, functionality, consumerism, and perpetual war. Francis was himself a soldier, and his father was a tradesman in cloth. Francis came from the very world he was then able to critique, but he offered a positive critique of these very systems at the beginning of their now eight centuries of world dominance. Rather than fighting the systems directly and in so doing becoming a mirror image of them, Francis just did things differently. The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better (one of the Center’s core principles). [1]

As Adolf Holl put it, Francis emerged precisely when we started “putting clocks into church towers.” [2] When Christian leaders started counting, Francis stopped counting. He moved from the common economy of merit to the scary and wondrous economy of grace, where God does not do any counting, but only gives unreservedly.

As Europe began to centralize and organize everything at high levels of control and fashion, Francis, like a divine trickster, said, “Who cares!” When Roman Catholicism under Pope Innocent III reached the height of papal and worldly power, he said in effect, “There is another way that is much better!” Exactly when we began a style of production and consumption that would eventually ravage planet earth, he decided to love the earth and live simply and barefoot upon it. Francis of Assisi is a Prime Attractor to what we really want, what we definitely need, and who we finally are. And, apparently, he did it all with a “perfect joy” that comes from letting go of the ego!

We are only afraid of death as long as we do not know who we are, but once we know ourselves objectively to be a child of God, we are already home and our inheritance is given to us ahead of time. Then we can begin living and enjoying instead of climbing, proving, or defending. Our false self, as all religions say in one way or another, must “die before we die.” Only then can we sincerely say with Francis, “Welcome, Sister Death” which he said on this day in 1226. Those who face this first death of dying to self lose nothing that is real. And so, “the second death can do them no harm,” as Francis says in his “Canticle of the Creatures.” [3] Death itself will only “keep opening, and opening, and opening,” which is what resurrection means. [4]

All of this creates a very different form and shape to our spiritual life. It is no longer elitist, separatist, or competitive, but changes our deepest imagination in the direction of simplicity. Our worldview will not normally change until we place ourselves, or are placed, in new and different lifestyle situations. Another of the Center’s core principles is: You do not think yourself into a new way of living, you live yourself into a new way of thinking. Francis and Clare displaced themselves into different worlds where their hearts could imagine very different things and they had to pay attention to something other than comfort or convenience.

Franciscan Way: Part One

October 2nd, 2019

To Live Lightly
Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Today, we will continue with my Franciscan brother and long-time friend John Quigley’s summary of Franciscanism. I’ve added my thoughts in italics within brackets.

[Francis] knew that we share this earth, our loves and work with all of God’s creatures, our brothers and sisters. Unlike the monastic life, which strove to domesticate nature and to bring it under control, Francis expected to live lightly on the earth, a burden neither to the earth nor to those who fed and clothed him.

[Jesus never told us to separate ourselves from the world. That’s why Francis would not be a monk. The friars were a totally new religious movement. Francis wanted us to live in the middle of the cities right with the people and not to separate ourselves. That’s because he didn’t hate the world. He said you have to find a way interiorly to love and have compassion for the world, which may mean going apart for a time for the purpose of prayer and contemplation.]

There are many lively legends about Francis and Clare [which soon took philosophical and theological weight through luminaries like Bonaventure and John Duns Scotus]. These seminal stories and the insights that arise from them have given emphasis to specific themes in Franciscan philosophy and theology. They include the idea that Jesus did not assume flesh to correct Adam and Eve’s sin; rather, Jesus would have taken flesh whether we had sinned or not. Love by its very nature wants to be one with its beloved, so our salvation has been announced and realized in an Incarnate God. The suffering and death of Jesus confirms for us how deep and committed is God’s love in the Incarnation.

[The Franciscan view is that Creation is the first Incarnation. The Christ Mystery was the blueprint of reality from the very start (John 1:1). Francis saw all of creation, including all humans, as part of the one family of God. That’s why he called them Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Duns Scotus gave this a theological explanation by saying, in essence, that God’s first “idea” was to pour out divine, infinite love into finite, visible forms. The Big Bang is the scientific name for that first idea, “Christ” is Christianity’s theological name, and it is all about Love flowing outward in all directions.]

Each individual existence—person, plant, stone, amoeba—is absolutely precious. Each has a certain unique “thisness,” which cannot be completely shared or described by another. [Duns Scotus called this haecceity, from the Latin “haec” or “this.”] Each creature of God must attain the full measure of its own uniqueness, its “thisness” before the full expression of God’s love can be realized in creation.

Simplicity is another Franciscan theme and sign of God’s love. We should multiply words, explanations, and actions only when necessary, he tells us. [You have probably heard the axiom that summarizes part of our Franciscan Rule: “Preach the Gospel at all times; and when absolutely necessary, use words.” Francis was all about orthopraxy, or living the Gospel, rather than orthodoxy, or merely verbal beliefs.] Others may say that we come to understand God by analogies. The Franciscan perspective is that we can have a direct effect and univocal understanding of God by reflecting and understanding our experience of ourselves as human beings. [“Who are you, God? And who am I?” [1] was Francis’ unending prayer. Some have said it is the perfect prayer because it is both humble and honest. Franciscans believe we all participate in God’s Being. Duns Scotus called this the univocity of being. Our being is not just analogous to God’s being, but we may speak of our two supposedly different beings “with one voice.”] Finally, everything, every Scripture, every law, every action, history itself is to be interpreted in light of the primacy of Love and Christ over all [the cosmic or universal Christ].

The Minores

October 1st, 2019

Franciscan Way: Part One

The Minores
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
Feast of Thérèse of Lisieux, “The Little Flower

My friend since 1962 and fellow Franciscan, Father John Quigley, OFM, has written a helpful, succinct summary of Franciscanism. We worked closely together with the New Jerusalem Community in Ohio and could practically finish each other’s sentences, and so it feels natural to freely insert my own views in brackets within his wonderful description.

For the past eight hundred years other men and women, inspired by the simple genius and freshness of Francis and Clare, have been developing and popularizing the original Franciscan revelation. This continual aggiornamento, or updating, has had a profound humanizing effect within Christianity, Western civilization, and other cultures. [Francis fell in love with the humanity and the humility of Jesus; while most of Western and even Eastern Christianity focused on proving the divinity of Jesus.]

It is not easy to put into a capsule the spirit and gifts of Franciscan thinking. Its hallmarks are simplicity, reverence, fraternity, ecumenism, ecology, interdependence, and dialogue. Its motto and salutation is “Peace and All Good!”

Francis believed that God was nonviolent, the God of Peace. This belief may be a simple presupposition for us today [although I still find far too many Christians have been raised to fear God as judgmental and punishing and seem to reflect that in their own lives], but at the time when the Christian church was waging a Holy Crusade against its enemies, the Saracens [Arab Muslims], Francis’s interpretation of the gospel life and its demands was revolutionary. Francis saw it from the viewpoint of the poor, especially from the place of the poor, naked, suffering Christ. He had deep devotion to the God who is revealed as nonviolent and poor in the stable of Bethlehem, as abandoned on the cross, and as food in the Eucharist. God’s meekness, humility, and poverty led Francis to become “perfected as his Heavenly Father was perfect.” [1] [Francis agreed with Luke’s understanding of “perfect” as meaning merciful or compassionate.] Francis identified with the “minores,” the lower class within his society. . . . [The letters OFM after our names stand for Order of Friars Minor or Ordo Fratum Minorum, which means the Little Brothers. Like Thérèse of Lisieux centuries after him, Francis reveled in littleness.] And he passionately pointed to the Incarnation [of Jesus] as the living proof of God’s love. He frequently cried out in his pain that “Love is not loved!”

[Incarnation is absolutely foundational to the Franciscan worldview. It is said that Francis created the first live Nativity scene. Franciscans emphasize Incarnation perhaps even more than redemption. In other words, Christmas is more important than Easter. Francis said that for God to be born a human being, born in a stable among the poor, shows that we already have redemption. Christmas is already Easter because if God became a human being, then it’s good to be a human being! The problem is already solved. That Jesus was born into a poor family shows God’s love for the poor.]