April 2009

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

The foundation of religious belief is existence—beginning with God. When Moses asked God what name he should use to speak of him, God replied, “I am who I am…Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14) For us as well, nothing is more real than the fact that “I am.” Franciscan spirituality begins with a confession that we can only say that because of God.

We know that we exist because of the life that we have been given by God. The Book of Genesis reveals the provenance of life as we know it in Creation. Though it is neither a historical nor a scientific account, the basic truth found in Genesis is not diminished by that fact.

The basic principle is that only life can create. Only what is can be at the source of what will be. If we speak of eternal life it is because it always was—always in the eternal present. I AM has always been and always will be. Our being is a share of God’s being.

God is life itself. All life contains a share of his identity. God created all life from his own. For that reason, we are said to have been created in his image: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:12). I AM is the divine Be-ing from which each male and female human be-ing derives his or her dignity.

It is not surprising then that this dignity is inherent, meaning that it cannot be altered by anything that we do or that is done to us. At the core God’s seed of goodness is never removed, not even by the vilest crime—which is not to say that sin cannot compromise our capacity for living fully out of our God-given potential. It must always be our conviction that what God created was, is and will always be good.

The story of God’s creation of all that is seen and unseen is the greatest love story of all times. We often attribute this title to the verse found in John’s Gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (3:16) As wondrous as this act was, I think of it as a continuation of this spontaneous giving that began at creation when the unfathomable love within the a Trinity erupted in the most magnificent display of fireworks ever—life dazzling the heavens with multitudinous colors and effects.

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.

– Genesis 1: 31

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The denial of divinely inspired existence, of God’s Spirit living within us, is what we call in our moral tradition “sin.” We understand, and perhaps always have, that we can kill life by attacking the heart and the mind as well as the body. Sin is a form of killing—present both as murder and as suicide. We harm others, to lesser or greater degrees, by denying the fullness of their existence in one manner or another. We harm ourselves in the same way.

We damage life, both our own and that of others, anytime we deny the truth of a person and project falseness. We do that whenever we manipulate, deprive, intimidate or exploit another. We do so also whenever we live in fear and with false personalities.

Life is not a commodity to be used for gain or discarded at will. It is sacred. From our Judeo-Christian creation story, we learn that the life of each human being comes from God’s own breath—his Spirit: “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (Gen. 2:7) This fact alone has huge implications for us, for our relationship to God and for our relationship to one another. It speaks to the very nature and purpose of life.

That’s why the notion of sin is never outmoded, even if the word is. It is perhaps more relevant than ever as people in our society struggle desperately to find meaning for their lives. Having rejected traditional categories, many follow illusory paths or simply resign themselves to its apparent absurdity. Perhaps more than ever, beings are dehumanized, which is to say devalued of their God-given dignity.

Sin has been around as long as humans have because of free will. Free will is a wonderful gift from God. It enables us to love authentically as he does. But it also exposes us to enormous perils, most of which are unknown to us until we find ourselves in the depths of one abyss or another. Again, if we refer to the creation of humans as described in the Book of Genesis, we find that “out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

Many people tend to forget that good and evil were present “in the midst of the garden” from the beginning. That is significant. Man did not create evil. Evil was always the antithesis of good, and free will always allowed it to be an option chosen. Good is a choice; it is the path of love. Evil is a choice too; it is the denial of love. What confuses us easily is that this denial of love presents a seductive face, either in the form of avoidance of some difficulty that is necessary to the expression of love or as the quest for some fleeting pleasure that gratifies the ego or the false self.

Most of us spend previous little time reflecting on our lives because we don’t feel that questions of good and evil don’t have much to do with our daily lives. We are clearly not evil people. We do good from time to time. So the knowledge of good and evil is easily dismissed as unimportant. If we thought about it, we’d probably say that it was learned as a child or is already “known” to our conscience. This failure to assume responsibility for living fully is frankly stifling. It stunts the blossoming of life and leaves us vulnerable to all sorts of destructive outcomes. It is for this reason that Scripture is clear about our need to claim and invest our identity, giftedness and mission.

And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, `Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’

– Matthew 25: 22-23

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Much of our life is spent woefully deploring our inability to lead fulfilling lives. We cite countless reasons for living out of a small part of our potential. We readily blame a variety of external forces: our parents, our children, our job, our community, our country, our world, even our luck. Often God gets a share of the blame. While it is certainly true that there are always obstacles, fulfillment is not as elusive as we might think. It is the result of knowing ourselves, respecting our own identity and giftedness, overcoming fear and the pain of woundedness in order to courageously embrace of our life’s mission.

Our mission is precisely to live fully. The familiar story of the arc makes that apparent, describing fullness of life as fruitfulness. We are told, “Noah walked with God.” (Gen. 9:8) After the great flood that washed away the sin of the world, “God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.’” (Gen. 9:1) The command to “multiply” here means to act in a manner that is generative. It means collaborating with him in the creative energy or project of love.

To be truly fruitful, to live fully out of our giftedness and mission, our “I am” must be connected to God’s. The most notable example of this is Jesus’ identification with his (our) heavenly Father: “The glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me. (John 17:22-23) Another is Saint Paul’s who wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 1:20)

The marriage of my “I am” to God’s is also exemplified by two monumental biblical personages—Moses and Mary. Both were called by God, as we all are. The power of their response stems from their courageous, “Here I am.” It begins with an affirmation of life and concludes with a communication of that life with its source: I am in communion with the author of life itself, even though the call to union may elicit some fear in my heart. That is the glory of the gesture, that it be deliberate despite the understandable hesitation.

When called by God out of the burning bush, Moses replies, “Here I am.” (Exodus 3:4) I imagine this said in a variety of ways—Here, I AM or Here I am or Here I am—each having a different nuance. In any case, Moses is resisting the temptation to say, “Leave me alone. I don’t want to speak to you.” Mary has her own formula: “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord. Be it done according to you word.” (Luke 1:38) Connecting my “I am” to God’s is key to fulfilling my life’s mission and, therefore, feeling fulfilled.

To hear God’s word and say, “Here I am” leads to a new sense of who I am. I discover which I am in that relationship with God.

– Timothy Radcliffe, Why Go to Church?

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May the good Lord bless you abundantly with his own Life. May you courageously enter into the mystery of his Life and find in it the purpose of yours. May you find there Life’s joy.

Fraternally in joy and hope

richard

crib and cross Franciscan Ministries