Last week I posted the text of a reflection which I gave in my fraternity for the rite of admission for one of our candidates. I found it as I was preparing another such reflection, for a candidate we just admitted, whom I shall refer to as Art. Here is the text.
My dear brothers and sisters, may the Lord be with you, and you with the Lord!
We gather today to welcome our brother Art in his rite of admission to our humble fraternity. Art, you have been called by God to walk in the footsteps of his only Son, Jesus, inspired by St. Francis, the poor man of Asissi, who as our rule says, “made Christ the inspiration and the center of his life with God and with [all] people” (OFS Rule, Article 4). Today, you move ahead on a journey you began in baptism; a long, occasionally difficult journey, but one which will end in glory: you will meet Jesus, and with Francis and Clare and all the saints, you will be brought before “the King of kings and Lord of lords, who dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:15-16). And you will rest in the bosom of Abraham, with Lazarus who once was poor.
But that is the journey’s end. Let’s concentrate on today, a new beginning. Today, Art, you will affirm that you are called to the Secular Franciscan Order, that you want to join us in our life in fraternity. And we, as individuals and as a fraternity welcome you. We promise to support you with our prayers, our words, and our actions. We will make every effort to give of our very selves to you–the only thing that we truly own–and all we ask, all we can ask, is that you embrace our rule and give of yourself.
But what is this rule that you are called to embrace, that each one here has been called to embrace? “The rule and life of the Secular Franciscans is this: to observed the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (OFS Rule, Article 4). St. Francis, in his First Letter to the Faithful, described our life by saying that we are
those who love the Lord with our whole heart, with our whole soul and mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves, and hate our bodies with their vices and sins, and receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and produced worth fruits of penance. (OFS Rule, Prologue)
Art, this may seem overwhelming, an impossible ideal. And there may be times when you have thought to yourself, “What have I gotten myself into?” I have felt that way, and I still feel that way sometimes, 31 years after my profession. But I take comfort from what an old nun is reported to have said to Ste. Therese of Lisieux: “be patient child, the first 30 years in Carmel are the hardest.”
But the question you should ask, Art, the question each of us should be asking, is this: today, and each day going forward, how do I love the Lord and love my neighbor, how do I produce worthy fruits of penance? First of all, do not look backwards! There have been too many times when each of us has failed to do these things. As St. Paul said, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Acknowledge your sins but do not dwell on them: for before, during and after our sins lies the love and mercy of God. God himself created you, his Son Jesus has redeemed you, and his Holy Spirit fills you! And nothing, least of all our sins, can separate us from the love of God.
So let us look forward, and each day keep asking the question, “what must I do today to inherit eternal life?” To begin to answer this question, or more properly, to lay a foundation that we, as Secular Franciscans can stand upon each day to answer this question, I want to turn to the second reading of today’s mass: 1 Timothy, 6:11-16. Our minister and I chose to use this reading today, rather than the reading in the Ritual, because of how it speaks to those called, like Art is. Here is St. Paul’s injunction to Timothy:
You, man of God, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Compete well for the faith.” (1 Tim 6:11-12)
Look first at how St. Paul starts his injunction: “man of God“. Man of God, woman of God, children of God: that is who we are! Each day, before you do anything else, remember who you are, where you come from, and where you are going. Remember God, who is with you in all things, and makes all things possible.
St. Paul then lists six virtues, but also listen to what he says about them: “Pursue them! Compete well for the faith!” The point, I believe, is clear: Art, neither at your admission to candidacy, nor at your profession will you become a Secular Franciscan. Rather, each one of us, whether professed a few years or for decades, is still becoming a Secular Franciscan, striving to produce worthy fruits of penance, still striving to love God and love our neighbor more fully.
So what do we pursue? For God, we pursue righteousness, devotion and faith. For our neighbor, we pursue love, patience, and gentleness.
Righteousness is a complicated word, covered in much history and theology. But at its heart, righteousness means that you should be “right ordered”: that in your heart and mind you should be striving to conform yourself to God’s will. Christ, the image of the unseen God is our model. Like St. Francis, we should strive to “put on Christ” (Romans 13:14). Our goal should be to embrace Christ so thoroughly the we merit, like St. Francis, to bear the wounds of Christ in our own flesh.
Devotion is to be devoted to the works of faith, above all prayer. For if we are men and women of God, children of our heavenly Father, the we need to be in relationship with him. Pray at all times and in all ways–listening as much as speaking, building up our relationship with the Father. But the source and summit of all our prayer must be the Eucharist. Receive with joy and devotion the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and find in it the strength and the grace to put on Christ, and to produce worthy fruits of penance.
Faith is not simply an act of the intellect: we do not become Franciscans by reading the Rule and we do not become Christians simply by being convinced of the words of the Creed. As St. James put it so sharply: “You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble” (James 2:19). Faith is expressed in faithfulness: a lived trust in God’s love and mercy, even when our own experience suggests otherwise. Jesus trusted his Father totally, accepting even death by crucifixion. They mocked him on the cross for his trust: “He trusted God, let God deliver him now if he wants him” (Matthew 27:43). But his trust was fulfilled in the resurrection. Let us trust each day in God. We are heirs of a promise, the promise of God’s love. Have faith in that promise.
For God we should daily pursue righteousness, devotion, and faith. And for our neighbor, we should pursue love, patience, and gentleness.
For our neighbor, let us pursue love. Yes, we are called “to love the Lord with our whole heart, with our whole soul and mind” but we cannot do this unless we “love our neighbor as ourselves.” As St. John forcefully wrote, “If anyone says ‘I love God’ but hates his brother, he is a liar. For whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). True love is rarely easy, though it has its moments. Dorothy Day was fond of quoting Dostoevsky, who wrote “Love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams” (The Brothers Karamazov). Each day, as Secular Franciscans, let us put on Christ, and in doing so let us make a conscious decision to put on God’s love. We are loved, now we must share that love with every single person we meet, as they too are loved by God.
To love our neighbor requires patience, even endurance. We will meet many people each day who do not seem worthy of our love: it will feel like a waste of time to love someone who rejects our friendship, abuses our trust, returns evil for good. There will be people who seem so far gone that we question whether even God can love such a person. Always remember this: God loves them unconditionally, and is offering them every opportunity to return to him. Remember the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son:
But, while he was a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him. He ran to his son, threw his arms around him, and kissed him. (Luke 15:21)
We will often not have the grace, the strength, or the courage to run like this to embrace those we find hard to love. But as Secular Franciscans we should begin each day by seeking the patient endurance, if not to run toward them, then to not run away, and to perhaps take one small step closer.
Finally, we should pursue gentleness towards our neighbor. If we are to put on Christ, we must put on his gentleness, his compassion, his careful consideration of each person he met. As the prophet said of Jesus, “a bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not quench” (Matthew 12:20). Jesus does not want to do violence to anyone, to force them to become something they are not yet ready to become. He wants to support them, tend them, bind up their wounds. As Secular Franciscans we are called like to gently embrace all our brothers and sisters.
This gentleness must be an active virtue: we must show them compassion, and give them what they need at that moment: our attention, a shoulder to cry on, someone to vent to. Or perhaps to give them a sandwich, a few bucks for gas, a hat or some gloves. Sometimes, gentle compassion will require more: it will require a deeper commitment of our time, our money, our very selves.
Often, when we fail to be gentle to our neighbors, it is not that we are harsh or cruel to them. Rather, we are simply indifferent. Sometimes, like the priest or the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we strive to pass them by on the other side of the road,. Or as in the Gospel today about the rich man and Lazarus, we are like the rich man: in our wealth and comfort we simply do not see the poor man, Lazarus: he is part of the landscape, simply the way things are. To be gentle to our neighbor we must first see him and accept him as he is.
As Secular Franciscans, then, each day we are called to pursue love, patience, and gentleness to our neighbor.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, as Franciscans, this is what we are called to. This is what we have chosen to embrace. Art, this is what you are called to embrace, and today, as you join us and become a candidate, we promise to stand with you, in our prayers and in our actions, to help you to live our rule and give of yourself.
Let me close today as St. Clare did in her letter to Ermentrude of Bruges:
Carry out steadfastly the work you have begun, and fulfill the ministry you have undertaken in true humility and poverty. Do not be afraid! God, who is faithful in all his words and holy deeds, will pour his blessings upon you. He will be your help and best comforter, for He is our redeemer and our eternal reward.
Featured Image: Bonaventura Berlingieri – St Francis of Assisi, Wikimedia Commons.