August 2009

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

“I want to live until the day I die,” declared a middle-aged African woman living with AIDS. She was speaking to an audience in Winnipeg comprising a variety of people from various Christian denominations who shared a common interest in the plight of those suffering under the crushing weight of this pandemic. I knew immediately that this lovely lady understood what Jesus means by “abundant Life.”

What the speaker did effectively was to drive home the fact that life is not made less abundant by things that lie ahead, whether loss of power, prestige or possessions. Similarly, it is not curtailed by future events, such as illness and death. It blossoms in the present moment. However, our anxiety about the future can, and often does, dwarf the life that we lead today.

The reduction of life energy to which we all too often abdicate is also due, in part, to values that underestimate what contributions people can make at all stages in life in all conditions of health, and in all sectors of society. We are deluded by false systems that inflate the merits of industrial productivity and communal activism while shamelessly discounting the part played by persons whose worth is more intrinsic or relates to activities for which there is no evident measurement.

That means that the deck is stacked against many people. The house wins if they go home early, having had their proverbial pockets picked by master craftsmen who know that the biggest payouts come after the sun sets. Those who realize, therefore, that they are fully alive throughout the day and the night, despite the odds, are twice blessed. They are among the few that realize that quality of life is not what advertisers insist that it is; they actually stand a better chance of experiencing true joy and hold on longer to their winnings than those who cash in all their chips when their luck runs out.

The secret is to live according to the ways of God and not the ways of the world. God’s ways are timeless and endless. They are not rooted, as are human customs oftentimes, in fear. In fact, they are not rooted at all. Life in God floats on living water and progresses along currents of grace.

If survival is an art, then mangroves are artists of the beautiful: not only that they exist at all…but that they can and do exist as floating islands, as trees upright and loose, alive and homeless on the water.

– Annie Dillard, Sojourner

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Terminal or chronic illness and physical or mental handicaps constitute another major camp of conspirators that limit or threaten abundant life. Probably out of fear of our own vulnerability and certainly because of our obsession about productive work, most people and most governments marginalize those deemed less “useful” to greater or lesser degrees. Some isolate them through the use of institutions and programs. Others integrate them into the mainstream but fail to take the necessary steps to make full participation possible.

When this happens, we blame others. Yet, we are often the culprit. Moreover, we are often the victim as well. We all question the value of a life in which quality factors are compromised—energy, creativity, mobility, autonomy. As each deteriorates, we tend to think less of the person, even when we are that person. When this happens, we are all impoverished.

Jean Vanier has for several decades already advocated for the mentally handicapped. His premise, analysis and remedy are critically important for all of us who hope to achieve abundance in our own lives. He points to the fragility in each of us; to the fear that causes us to eschew those whose woundedness disturbs us; and to the need for a community that is marked by hospitality, forgiveness and hope. He reminds us that love is not achieved without a price, a sometimes painful transformation of the heart.

Our universe is a wounded universe, divided, suffering, with great despair and poverty, where there are many signs of death, division and hatred. But all of these signs of death are taken up in the Cross of Jesus and transfigured in the Resurrection. Our hope is that the winter of humanity will gradually be transformed to the bursting forth of love, for it is to this that we are called. (Jean Vanier, Be Not Afraid)

We live in an age of victimization. Most of us are guilty to some degree of blaming people or circumstances—and sometimes God—for our inability to live to our full potential. We blame parents, children, co-workers, politicians, administrators, bankers and even weather forecasters for the diminution of our lives as time passes, opportunities vanish and health fades. Yet there is one thing that we can learn from people who constantly live in the shadow of death—those who live in the poorest countries in the world. People such as the African woman living with AIDS can teach us something about living fully each day. It seems that living in the constant presence of death drives a person to not make excuses but to make the best of life.

We live in anxious times—so much uncertainty; so much instability; so much to worry about. The human spirit is quick to oblige. We are a fretful lot even though we understand that anxiety kills our motivation to live abundantly. It shortens our breath, constricts our gate and limits our reach. Worrying is the sworn enemy of abundant life.

I tell you, do not worry about your life…do not worry about tomorrow.

– Matthew 6: 25, 34

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Aging is often seen as a threat to abundance in life. For most people today, aging is a curse. As certain faculties slowly deteriorate, individuals gradually feel that the quality of their life is undermined. In many cases, they are stigmatized by ageism. Ageism is rampant in the workplace, the marketplace and the political arena. Ironically, it is also manifest in community groups, and even the family and the local church. Again, society is impoverished by such distortions.

This is so unfortunate. God does not withdraw from a person’s life as years advance. In many ways, God’s action intensifies. Life in later years is blessed with special graces that actually make “abundance” more achievable, not less.

In a healthy setting, this time of abundant grace is marked by a few signs that are unmistakable—a clarification of values and priorities; an increased awareness of one’s gifts and their utility to others; a profound sense of gratitude; and an unprecedented stillness that differs substantively from previous periods of serenity.

Courage is needed at this stage of life in order to let go of familiar categories and to soar across horizons previously unimagined or that we would not have previously dared to dream. Herman Hesse wrote, “Serenely let us move to distant places and let no sentiments of home detain us. The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us but lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.” Wider space is a metaphor for more abundant life. Letting go graciously is the price of God’s promise of abundant life.

Neurotic behaviour in people is often attributable to an inability or refusal to move on, grow up and to surrender things that keep us from advancing. Healthy ageing requires a willingness to let go and to enter into the mystery of life along with its many surprises, some of which will be distressing but most of which would be blessings if we allow them. In fact, as we grow older, we must necessarily be more open to the unknown and not replace one form of busyness with another. This, of course, does not mean that we should be passive but only that we should be attentive to our surroundings and to the people who surround us. Aging is therefore a grace-filled opportunity to live less by automatisms and more by intentionality—by chiselling away excess rock to reveal the exquisite sculpture that is our life.

Peter van Breeman, author of “Summoned at Every Age,” identifies a series of values that we have an opportunity to enhance as we age.

· To practice silence and seek conscious contact with the source of our being

· To stop being busy in order to be able to listen quietly to those close to us

· To rid ourselves of unholy or even holy compulsions

· To set out on the longest journey of all

· To let important recollections and memories surface and quietly enjoy them

The longest journey is perhaps the most meaningful of all. It engages the whole person freely, authentically and abundantly.

My Lord and my God, take everything from me that keeps me from Thee.
My Lord and my God, give everything to me that brings me near to Thee.
My Lord and my God, take me away from myself and give me completely to Thee.
– Nicholas of Flue (1417-1482)

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May the good Lord remove obstacles that block your freedom, particularly fear and its many obvious and hidden consequences. May Jesus bless you abundantly with life in the Holy Spirit of Truth and Love.

Fraternally,

richard

crib and cross Franciscan Ministries