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."