Sunday 10 October 2010

Day of Reflection 14th September 2010

In the Footsteps of St Francis

Three - The Onward Journey


It is this aspect of the five that I have been considering that most clearly has the character of a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey that begins on earth and ends in heaven. There are four points:

1. Our calling to ever-deepening union with Christ: the way of holiness

For all of us, this is our first vocation. For those who choose the narrow path of religious profession it is guided by the evangelical counsels. This is how St Francis expressed it:

"The rule and life of these brothers is this, namely to live in obedience, in chastity, and without anything of their own, and to follow the teaching and footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Earlier Rule Chap.1:1)

For the rest of us we elaborate it broadly: we are called to identify with Christ in his self-emptying, his "not counting equality with God a thing to be grasped" - the poverty of the Incarnation. This calls us to a life of repentance, poverty, humility, obedience and self-emptying. We also identify with him his public ministry and teaching as we go about our daily lives. This calls us to perfect love of our neighbour, to a life of virtue and forgiveness. Every day starts with self-offering and prayer for guidance.

Francis, in order to know God's will for him, "prayed with all his heart that the eternal and true God guide his way and teach him to do his will." (1 Cel. 6)

Furthermore, "he repented that he had sinned so grievously and that he had offended the eyes of the majesty." (ibid.) Although these quotations come from his earlier search for God, prayer for guidance and prayers of repentance never left him.

"His highest aim, foremost desire, and greatest intention was to pay heed to the holy gospel in all things and through all things, to follow the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and to retrace his footsteps completely with all vigilance and with all zeal, all the desire of his soul and all the fervour of his heart. Francis used to recall with regular meditation the words of Christ and recollect His deeds with utmost attentiveness." (1 Cel.; 84)

The words and deeds of Christ are our original guides on this way, as they were for St Francis.

2. Leaving the world to follow Christ

In the first place, Francis knew the call of God to Abraham:

"Yahweh said to Abram, leave your country, your family and your father's house, for the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name so famous that it will be used as a blessing." (Gen.12: 1-2)

Abram was prompt to obey God's call. He had no idea what it would involve for him and his family.

We have to travel light.

"provide yourselves with no gold or silver, not even with a few coppers for your purses, with no haversack for the journey or spare tunic or footwear or staff..."

These were the words that so moved him at the Portiuncula and whose meaning was explained to him by the priest. These were the words which summoned him to evangelical poverty. He knew it. And he wanted everyone who was going to be a fellow-traveller with him to know it, too; for "None of you can be my disciple unless he gives up his possessions." (LK. 14:33)
This is what he demanded of his followers too: giving up all your possessions. At the very beginning of a man's approach to join the brothers St Francis stipulates,

"...If he wishes and is capable of doing spiritually without any difficulty (let him) sell his belongings and be conscientious in giving everything to the poor." Earlier Rule without Papal Seal 2:4

But it isn't only possessions:

"If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes, and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple. Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple, (LK. 14:26-27)

The familiar scene:

"When the father saw that he could not recall him (Francis) from the journey he had begun....he led the son of the bishop of the city to make him renounce all rights of inheritance and return everything that he had. Not only did he not refuse this, but he hastened joyfully and eagerly to do what was demanded. When he was in front of the bishop, he neither delayed nor hesitated, but immediately took off and threw down all his clothes and returned them to his father. He did not even keep his trousers on, and he was completely stripped bare before everyone."
(1 Cel;14 -5)

The Natural family relations "lost" by this renunciation are more than fulfilled in our relationship with Christ:

"We are spouses when the faithful soul is joined by the Holy Spirit to our Lord Jesus Christ. We are brothers to Him when we do the will of the Father who is in heaven. We are mothers when we carry Him in our heart and body through a divine love and a pure conscience...."
Earlier Exhortation 1:8 - 10

3. Finding the right road to follow

There are two elements to this: first, the large scale vocation; second, the small scale, day to day walking the right path (we get side-tracked, and go-off-course.)

As far as the large scale goes, we can take some comfort that Francis took a while to find the path God wanted to do, though with hindsight we can see he was following dreams. In particular, his desires (a) to be a soldier and (b) to be a missionary/martyr.

(a) the would be soldier

"Ignoring (or ignorant of?) God's plan he vowed, out of vainglory, to do great deeds. A certain nobleman of the city of Assisi was furnishing himself on a large scale with military weaponry and, swollen by the wind of empty glory, he asserted solemnly that he was going to Apulia (southern Italy) to enrich himself in money and distinction. When Francis heard of this, because he was whimsical and overly daring, he agreed to go with him." (1 Cel.;4)

(b) the would-be missionary/martyr: Syria, Morocco, Egypt

Later in 1212, he decided to go to Syria to preach to the Muslims. The ship is beset by contrary winds and he ends up in what is now the Dalmation coast (he got all 95 miles). He got further at the next attempt after 1219 General Chapter, heading for Morocco.

This seemed more promising. The Almohad rulers had created in 1159 a single north Africa state from the various peoples (mostly Berbs) of what is now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Francis travelled via Burgos in northern Spain where king Alphonso VIII ruled. He went on to Santiago de Compostella to pray at the shrine of St James. Maybe he planned to take a boat from there. Whatever his plans, he fell ill, and had to come home again, thwarted in his desire for death or glory (but at least he had travelled further and been to the pilgrim centre of Santiago.)

Others, sent by the same General Chapter, went to Morocco via Castile and Portugal down to Seville, which was then in Muslim hands. They were captured and sent across to Morocco to be martyred in 1220. Francis was distressed and vexed by these martyrdom's - not by the heroism of the brothers, or by the glory they had in heaven from where they could give strength to the Order - but from the distraction that their fate could cause some of the brethren: some brothers might want to choose a course apparently more glorious, but not truly their own in God's plan. He did not want hot-headed young men rushing off without thought or proper preparation. In fact, he discouraged the reading of the accounts of these martyrs deaths.

His last big attempt was more successful (at travelling, at least). He went to Egypt - specifically to the city of Damietta on the eastern end of the Nile delta. we have to remember at this point that St Francis lived in the time of the Crusades. The Fifth Crusade had been called by Pope Innocent III, who had authorised St Francis' order. Jerusalem had been re-conquered by the Muslims in 1187. though the Europeans held the Palastine coast. The new plan in 1218 was to attack further south, Egypt. Damietta was strategically thought of as "the gateway to Egypt". The Crusaders were laying siege to the city. It was a stalemate. It dragged on dismally for everyone well into 1219. Francis arrived that summer bringing his message of peace, and his desire to preach to the Muslim leader. Parley-terms were agreed, and he crossed the Egyptian lines where he met the Sultan al-Kamil who, according to 1 Celano, received Francis "very graciously". He "honoured him as much as he could, offering him many gifts, trying to turn his mind to worldly riches. But when he saw that he resolutely scorned all these things like dung, the Sultan was over flowing with admiration and recognised him as a man unlike any other. He was moved by his words and listened to him very willingly." (1 Cel.;57) But the Sultan was not for turning. Francis made the long journey home.

On the smaller scale, the major problem is not so much finding the right track, but keeping to it. Going our own way. Doing what we want to rather than God wants us to do.

Correcting our course and resetting our sights. This is where the inward journey bears fruit.

This bending of our will to the right path when we have gone astray is our daily experience of the Cross: of our union with Christ in his humility and obedience. Key to this are the morning offering, the mid-course correction throughout the day (especially saying the Our Father), and our examination of conscience at the end of the day.

4. Our Companions on the way

The Church as a whole is a fellowship of the Cross. The various forms of the Franciscan Orders are similarly fellowships of the Cross. We who are not members of that particular fellowship nonetheless share with you communion with Christ and the whole communion of saints.

Whilst each of us makes the pilgrimage following a path that only we can take, we are not only "not alone", we are in fact so con-joined by our membership of the Mystical Body of Christ that we are, as St Paul says, "members of each other."

So let us now take a moment to value and celebrate our companions. The Pope. The Bishop. The Mother General. The Superiors. The other Franciscan brothers and sisters in Canterbury and Crossbush, for example. Priests (especially the Parish Priest and the Chaplain.) The Friends of the FMSL. The Staff. The Residents. The Old Boys and Girls. The many supporters. In different ways they help us and guide us. They give good example and advice to keep us on the right track. They support us on our journey. We travel together, joyfully.

"When they all gathered somewhere or met each other on the road (which frequently happened), in that place a shoot of spiritual love sprang up, scattering over all love the seeds of real delight. What more can I say? There were chaste embraces, delightful affection, a holy kiss. Sweet conversation, modest laughter, joyful looks, a clear eye, a supple spirit, a peaceable tongue, a mild answer, a single purpose, prompt obedience, untiring hands," (1 Cel.; 39)

We are not just a fellowship of the Cross. We are a fellowship of the Resurrection.

Finally, the Decree of Vat II on the Apostolate of Lay Peoples urges,

"Those who travel abroad, for international activities, on business, or on holiday, should keep in mind that no matter where they may be, they are travelling messengers of Christ, and should bear themselves really as such." (14)

Professed Franciscans or not, we can follow in the footsteps of St Francis and know we are on the right path, true "travelling messengers of Christ."

Saturday 10 July 2010

Retreat Wednesday 7th July 2010

St Francis and Creation: some thoughts


St Francis was a man of his time and he saw the whole universe as God’s creation. He looked at the world with spiritual eyes; with the eyes of faith. He knew nothing of science; of theories of evolution to explain the development of the human race; he knew nothing of black holes and big bangs to account for the existence of the world and the heavens. Yet his world was ordered, and hierarchical. God was at the top; below him were the spiritual beings; below them, humanity; below humanity, animals, elements (earth, air, fire, water) and rocks and the like.

All of this was held in unity by God in his providence; and everything was held in being by him, receiving graces as far as their capacity in the order of things allowed them. This unity in God and dependence on him gave St Francis a sense of fellowship with all creatures. From the lowliest to the highest:

He was drawn… also the vile and lowly creatures. Because we read of the Saviour “I am a worm and no man” he would frequently pick up even worms from along the road that they might not be crushed, and would serve strong wine or honey to bees in winter, so they would not die…

Since he traced all things back to their one first beginning, he called every creature “brother” and, as in his own praise, continuously invited all creatures to praise their common Creator.
Julian of Speyer, 44

1. Two senses of “creation” informing St Francis’ response to the world around him:

Creation as God “making” the universe

a) Old Testament: Genesis 1-11, (but even these chapters have their roots in the experience of the covenants). The two accounts: chapters 2-11 (based on ancient catechetical material showing the origins of evils in the world, and put in relation to obedience to origins of evils in the world, and put in relation to obedience to God) and chapter 1 (based in the Exile in Babylon, in particular the Babylonians’ hymn to their God Marduk celebrating his battle with and victory over the water goddess Tiamat, whom he sliced in two create the heavens and the earth; he then made humans as slaves to the gods).

b) New Testament gives a specifically Christ-centred view of creation: e.g. St Paul to the Colossians: “He is the image of the unseen God and the first-born of all creation; for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, everything visible and everything invisible, Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties and Powers – all were created through him and for him.” (1: 15-16)

Creation as forming a people
a) Old Testament: the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David; the prophets and their message;

b) New Testament: the new and eternal covenant in the Cross of Christ – we live as new creatures in Christ:

“Before anything was, he existed and he hold all things in unity. Now the Church is his body, he is its head. As he is the beginning, he was the first born from the dead, so that he should be first in every way: because God wanted all perfection to be found in him and all things to be reconciled through him and for him, when he made peace by his death on the cross.” Col.1: 17-20.

“…You have put on a new self which will progress towards true knowledge the more it is renewed in the image of its creator; and in that image there is no room for distinction between Greek and Jew, between the circumcised and the uncircumcised, or between barbarian and Scythian, slave and free man. There is only Christ; he is everything and he is in everything.

You are God’s chosen race, his saints; he loves you, and you should be clothed with sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another; forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins. The Lord has forgiven you, now you must do the same. Over all these clothes, to keep them together and complete them, put on love. And may the peace of Christ reign in your hearts, because it was for this that you were called together as parts of one body. Always thankful.” (Col.3: 10-17)

St Francis always keeps Christ, his Cross and Creation united in his vision. For him “Creation” is “Redeemed Creation” that is, Creation redeemed by the cross of Christ. He recognises our belonging together in God’s plan for the reconciliation of all things in Christ.

Creation and Covenant are inseparable.

We have a common origin in the Father and so we are all (albeit by adoption) brothers and sisters: hence “brother” rabbit, “sister” moon (and however the gender falls in Umbrian Italian!)

2. Three levels of creation and their connection with our covenant-life:

The theology of St Francis’ time recognised three levels, or spheres, of the created realm (God alone being uncreated.)

At the top are the spiritual beings: in descending order these are (in groups of three) the Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones; then the Dominations (or Dominions, in some titles) Principalities and Powers (two mentioned by Paul in Colossians); and the lowest group, virtues, Archangels and Angels. (The existence of these orders is not an article of Catholic Faith, of course. Some swap Principalities and Virtues round between the second and third group).

These ideas were commonly held by people in St Francis’ day. They had been put in writing by a 5th Century author, thought at the time to be the Dionysius mentioned in Acts 17 – but obviously not. He is known, in the way of these things, as “Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite.” His book, “The Celestial Hierarchies.” In Dionysius’ view the Seraphim are nearest to God. Their name means “the fiery ones”: they consume everything that separates humanity from God, enabling us to rise to the highest fulfilment of our destiny through the perfection and unification of all the activities of the soul and its union with the Divine. It was in the form of a Seraph that the man on the cross appeared in a vision to St Francis on Mount Averna. While he was contemplating this vision the Stigmata was given to him. It was Seraphim who appeared above the Lord Yahweh in the vision of Isaiah, as he receives and accepts his call to be a prophet (Is. 6: 1-13) saying, “Here I am. Send me!”

In the middle level is the spiritual- material creation with souls. That’s us. But though we are in the middle, we are super-special. We were made in the image and likeness of God. And the who plan of salvation came into being to restore us through one like us (hence the Word became flesh).

“For it was not the angels that he took to himself; he took to himself; descent from Abraham. It was essential that he should in this way be completely like his brothers so that he could be a compassionate and trustworthy high priest of God’s religion able to atone for human sins. That is, because he has himself been through temptation he is able to help others who are tempted.” Hebrews 2: 17-18.

But note, we are restored not to the relationship Adam and Eve had with God in the Garden of Eden before the fall (though that was perfect righteousness) – no, our restoration is to be perfectly united with God in Christ, and glorified in him as the fulfilment of our being made God’s children, and brothers and sisters of Christ.

“Since you have been brought back to true life with Christ, you must look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand. Let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not of the things that are on earth, because you have died, and now the life you have is hidden with Christ in God. But when Christ is revealed – and he is your life – you too will be revealed in all your glory with him.” Col 3: 1-4.

Our destiny is to be higher than the angels. We are to judge the angels says St Paul in 1Cor.6: 3.

Our Lady – a creature – is through her Son, the Queen of Heaven.

The lowest level of creation is that of animals (who had what they thought of in St Francis’ day an “animal soul,” which means that God gave them a principle of vitality and a relationship with him as befits their level of life and place in his plan. Humans, by contrast, have a “rational” or “intellectual” soul”) plants, and rocks and mineral etc. These all now have a part to play in the plan of salvation of humanity. But not merely in a passive way, as if creation were simply the stage upon which the dram observation is played out. These beings have a dignity in their own right, and are therefore worthy of proper respect as God’s creatures. The relationship that humans have with them is part of the framework within which God judges us and our faith. Our attachment to worldly things; our selfish use of earthly goods given for all; our lack of respect for all God’s creatures etc.

3. St Francis’ response: Praising God the Creator, Redeemed and Sanctifier; giving thanks.

St Francis ends his Earlier Rule with a great hymn of praise and thanksgiving. After thanking God for creating us and sending Christ as our redeemer after we had sinned he continues:

Because of your love,
we humbly beg
the glorious Mother, the most blessed, ever – Virgin Mary
blessed Michael, Gabriel and Raphael,
all the choirs of the blessed
Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations,
Principalities, Powers, Virtues’
Angels, Archangels,
blessed John the Baptist,
John the Evangelist,
Peter, Paul
the blessed patriarch and prophets,
the innocents, apostles, evangelists, disciples,
the martyrs, confessors and virgins,
the blessed Elijah and Enoch,
all the saints who were, who will be, and who are
to give You thanks for these things,
as it pleases You,
God true and supreme,
eternal and living,
with Your most beloved Son,
our Lord Jesus Christ,
and the Holy Spirit,
the Paraclete,
world without end. Amen. Alleluia!

St Francis and Creation: Meditation

Scene from his life

He reached a place called Bevagna, in which a great multitude of birds of different types gathered, including doves, crows and others…When Francis, the most blessed servant of God, saw them he ran swiftly towards them, leaving his companions on the road. He was a man of great fervour, feeling much sweetness and tenderness even towards lesser irrational creatures. When he was already very close, seeing that they awaited him he greeted them in his usual way (i.e. “The Lord give you peace!” cf.1Cel., 23). He was quite surprised, however, because the birds did not take flight as they usually do. Filled with great joy, he humbly requested that they listen to the word of God.

Among other things he said to them “My brother birds, you should greatly praise your creator, and love him always. He gave you feathers to wear, wings to fly, and whatever you need…He protects you and governs you without least care.” Then be blessed them, and having made the sign of the Cross, gave them permission to fly off to another place…

From that day on he carefully exhorted all birds, all animals, all reptiles, and also insensible creatures, to praise and love the creator, because, daily invoking the name of the Saviour, he observed their obedience in his own experience. 1Cel., 58


All things the Lord has made, bless the Lord:
Give glory and eternal praise to him.

Heavens, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Waters above the heavens, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Power of the Lord, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Sun and moon, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Stars of heaven, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Showers and dew, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Winds, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Fire and heat, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Cold and heat, bless the Lord:
Give glory and eternal praise to him.

Dews and sleet, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Frost and cold, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Ice and snow, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Night-time and day, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Darkness and light, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Lightning and clouds, bless the Lord: Give glory….

Let the earth, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Mountains and hills, bless the Lord: Give glory….
All growing things, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Spring of water, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Rivers and seas, bless the Lord: Give glory….
All creatures of the sea, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Birds of the air, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Beasts wild and tame, bless the Lord: Give glory….

Sons of men, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Israel, bless the Lord: Give glory….
All priests, bless the Lord: Give glory….
All you servants of the Lord, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Spirits and souls of the just, bless the Lord: Give glory….
Devout and humble of heart, bless the Lord: Give glory….

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his love is everlasting.
(from Daniel 3)

Scene from his life

In whatever place a church had been built, even when they were not near it, but could glimpse it at a distance, they would turn towards it. Prostrate on the ground, bowing inwardly and outwardly, they would adore the Almighty, saying, “We adore you O Christ, in all your churches….” Just as striking is that whenever they saw a cross or a sign of a cross, whether on the ground, on a wall, in the trees or roadside hedges they did the same thing. (1 Cel.45)

Spiritual exercise: Look for signs of the cross in creation