Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
One of the most poignant moments in the life of Jesus, as recounted by Saint Luke, is his vigil on the Mount of Olives after his Last Supper with his twelve closest friends. He prayed alone in anticipation of the cruellest death imaginable. The evangelist tells us that “in his anguish he prayed more earnestly and his sweat became like drops of blood falling down on the ground.”
There are many gripping aspects to this scene but I also find remarkable his earlier admonition to his disciples. He warns them to “pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” What did he mean by that?
The answer can be found by returning three years earlier when Jesus was tempted in the desert. This was a pivotal moment in his life and ministry. At the conclusion of this clever confrontation, the devil “departed from him until an opportune moment.” At Gethsemane, that moment had arrived. The temptation to avoid agony would not only test his fidelity to the Father, but to his identity and mission as well.
Jesus would consider the temptation, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me,” but respond to it by reaffirming the meaning and purpose of his life: “Yet, not my will but yours be done.” In asking others to pray that they not be tempted, Jesus must have known that, faced with this cup, they would not have the strength to resist.
When we think of the betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, and the doubt of Thomas, we can be quick to judge and even hasty to dismiss them as cowards. Would we have been any different? Indeed, would Jesus have had the strength to stay the course had he not developed over time an unwavering solidarity with the Father’s redemptive plan, which I do not so much view as the result of his submission to torture and murder, but the fruit of his unflinching commitment to truth and love—even onto death, death on a cross?
Contemplate the ineffable charity that led Him to suffer on the wood of the Cross and to die there the most shameful kind of death…let yourself be inflamed more strongly with the fervour of charity.
Saint Clare of Assisi, Fourth Letter to Agnes of Prague
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From a distance, La Verna looks bare. It rises very gradually at first and then suddenly shoots sharply skyward to a table set for hungry souls. A feast waits: The sanctuary turns our attention inward, satiating the deepest desires of the human heart. By contrast, its outer walls reveal the splendour of the Tiber and the Arno valleys, leading the eye into infinity and the imagination into eternity.
The place where Saint Francis received the wounds of the crucified Christ near the end of his life is commonly called Mount La Verna, although it is actually Mount Penna; La Verna is the name of the forest. La Verna is an imposing rock on which stands a sprawling yet plain-looking monastery—3,700 feet above sea level—that was built in stages, beginning in the early 13th century. The entire mountain was given to Saint Francis in 1213 by the Count of Chiusi of nearby Casentino, as an expression of gratitude for a conversation that the Count regarded as illuminating and redemptive.
He could not have offered Saint Francis a more fitting gift. Still today, it is, in the words of his benefactor, “Very solitary and wild and is extremely well adapted to anyone who wants to do penance in a place remote from people, or wants to lead a solitary life.” The entrance to the sanctuary is lined on the right by almost white, sheer-faced, weather-worn stone, topped by a range of tall, naked beech trees that stretches eerily against the October skyline. On the left, a leafy hill falls steeply to the valley below. A statue of Saint Francis, gently urging a boy to release doves destined for market, gives form to a presence that is palpable.
The 16th-century well and guest house sit in the paved “Quandrante,” a piazzale named for the clock-face that adorns a stone wall. More than a dozen chapels and oratories seem randomly located, testifying to the organic growth of this oasis sought by mystics and contemplatives, including Francis, Bonaventure, Anthony of Padua and Peter of Alcantara.
Perhaps the most striking one is the 13th-century Chiesina St. Mary of the Angels. At the far end of the exquisite azure and white glazed terracotta altarpiece depicting the Assumption of Mary by Andrea della Robbia (1435-1528), whose work is handsomely displayed throughout the nearby Basilica. On the floor facing it is a discreet marker: Here is the precise place where the poverello stood or knelt when his conformity to the life of Christ was crowned by five sacred wounds to his hands, feet and side. Along both walls, arched by an expanse of plain eggshell plaster, run walnut choir stalls.
As beautiful as this mountain is, what makes it holy is the presence of God drawn into intimacy with a simple man who placed relationship with God above all other delights. What one senses here is both the presence of Saint Francis who prayed with both sorrow and joy but also that of the seraphic angel who etched onto his body the evidence of unfathomable love.
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts.
Psalm 24: 3-4b
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Twelve centuries later, Saint Francis would recall the words of Jesus: “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” He would retreat to solitary places, as Jesus had done, to pray in order to renew his commitment, deepen his relationship with God, and clarify his mission. In the process, he would confront his demons, repent, and resolve to continuously purify his body, heart and desire in order to conform his life to that of Christ.
Now he calls to us to do the same so that we can face temptation with grace. Temptation can take many forms. Three important ones come to mind in relation to the lives of Jesus, of Saint Francis, and of our own life: (1) those that distract us from our spiritual identity; (2) those that deter us from our mission; and (3) those that undermine the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.
According to the traditional teaching of the church, we are all inclined to sin, which is not to deny that we are also hard-wired for union with God. This inclination is tightly woven into our nature, not by design but as a result of inherent weakness, whether in the form of “evil” inherited from the first man (Adam: original sin), or in the form of insecurity inflicted by the bruises of life, especially the very earliest stages (in uterus through early childhood.)
Recently, we considered the temptations that Jesus faced in the desert as including a challenge to his self-understanding, especially his status as the beloved son of God the Father. Saint Francis, too, dealt with huge existential questions about his identity, particularly as he distinguished his own from that of his father, a rich worldly merchant. For us, the challenge is even greater. Few among us have a clear sense of our unique “name.” (Cf. Isaiah 43:1) We are always subject to doubt, always vulnerable to the discouragement or false counsel of others. There is always room for the evil one to nudge us off course.
Now secure in his identity, the temptation at Gethsemane would attack the mission of Jesus. Bone-crushing fear can drive anyone to abandon any mission. Jesus would have to draw on his sense of self, his experience of the Father’s fidelity, and his embrace of higher values to set aside personal satisfaction and even the natural instinct of self-preservation. Saint Francis must have spent countless hours doubting his call. In the beginning it conflicted with his dreams of knighthood and his inclination for pleasure. Later, it would bring an agony in his heart as he saw his vision unravel. Could this truly be God’s will?
We don’t have reliable evidence of temptation insofar as faith, hope and love in the lives of Jesus and Saint Francis, but we have plenty in our own. Doubt coexists with faith, undermines hope and impoverishes love. No matter how hard we pray, we will never eradicate it entirely. As long as we have a mind to reason, as long as we experience disappointments, and as long as insecurity lingers in our heart, doubt will shake the very foundations of faith, hope and love.
Ultimately, the greatest temptation is to overly trust our own wit and ingenuity and, by rationalization, to render unimportant or irrelevant the wisdom that took centuries to consolidate. Why bother to discern our identity when uniqueness is smothered by mass marketing? Why harbour hope if science can control the destructive forces of the universe? Why have love for another if I can cocoon myself and satisfy my own needs.
I think the big temptation of our culture is trivialization.
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May Peace be with you, now and always. May the Hope of faith and the Joy of loving fill your heart.
crib and cross Franciscan Ministries