Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
May the Lord give you Peace!
I am haunted by the inscription at the beginning of Richard Rohr’s Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer. It reads, “One always learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence.”
The Christian expression “abundant life” refers to a quality of being that lies beyond superficialities. It is the ultimate expression of authenticity. That’s what makes it so challenging. It is a pearl of great price. It is desirable, even haunting like the mariner’s siren. It is filled with goodness and holds the promise of complete joy. Yet it lies on the other side of a great chasm, across a stormy sea, beyond a frightening darkness.
That is why we settle for facsimile life, which narcotizing us with false comfort. Our pleasure seeking, pain-avoiding nature inclines us toward the familiar rather than the foreign, the bird in hand of fleeting pleasure rather than elusive spiritual joy. Yet, there is a deep-down knowing in our heart that recognizes that abundant life is only to be found in the ultimate truth about ourselves and about the universe, and not in the fairy tales of childhood or the cynical reductionism of adulthood.
We are all seekers of truth and the fullness of life. Compelled as we are to find this Holy Grail, we intuit that it contains something that we would fear to drink. For this reason, daily doses of contemplative prayer are needed to fortify us for the journey. It is an unknowable pilgrimage into the mystery of our own unique “I am.”
The darkness of which I write, the loss of innocence, is the inescapable reality of suffering.
We find strains of this in Judaism and Christianity as well as Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism. Also, we find an amazing convergence of views among classic philosophers. (Peter Kreeft, Making Sense out of Suffering)
The prophets of Hebrew Scripture hold our feet to the fire. Abraham teaches us that faith suffers; Samuel, that suffering speeds history’s cycle; Jeremiah, that no one is irreproachable; Hosea, that suffering is a note in a love song; Joel, that one day the mystery of suffering and the deeper and more original mysteries of sin and death will be solved; and Isaiah, that we begin to fathom their depths with the Messiah’s atonement and resurrection.
Suffering must never be sought. Such an attitude would be unhealthy. But suffering must be accepted as an inevitable part of the abundant life that we seek out of healthy desire. Suffering must not be a goal but it does mark important milestones along the journey to the destination of our life. The cross, which is foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others, is part of the human experience. Knowing this is an important part of Christian wisdom.
Ultimately, the joy of our life, the fullness of its meaning, is to be found in service, which is the truest expression of Christian love, also known to us as charity. Service that is not romantic idealism but concrete self-giving is a cup of suffering and joy. Once we realize that fact, the only question left for each of us to answer for ourselves is where to find the place, manner and price of that service. As Albert Schweitzer once remarked, “The only ones among you who will be truly happy are those who seek and find how to serve.”
It is often much easier to succumb to the darkness of tunnel vision than to permit the Lord to expand our world view as we discipline ourselves to tune in to his plan for our life.
– Barbara Leahy Shelmon, Healing the Hidden Self
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Living life in all its fullness is a struggle. We can only deny that fact by sitting and watching from a safe distance. Falling does not deter the child from learning to walk. He stubs his toes even with his first steps toward meaningful existence. Later, he endures scrapes, bruises and even broken bones as he ventures into the mysterious wider world. Spiritually, while so many of us are content to crawl, the heroes of our faith beckon us to stand, walk and even run.
Job is a figure of suffering and growth. He stands at the centre of a puzzling story. Blameless and upright, he ought to be the object of bountiful blessings yet he is visited by numerous curses. How can God be called God and allow such a night of darkness? Yet it is precisely during the long night of loss that he is transformed and doubly blessed: “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees you.” (Job 42: 12) This is reminiscent of Saint John of the Cross’ Dark Night: “O guiding night! O night more lovely than the dawn! O night that has united the Lover with his beloved, transforming the beloved in her Lover.”
Tragedy can send us in one of two directions—despair or the discovery of deeper meaning.
In some ways, Saint Francis is a Job-like figure. Following deprivation and illness during and following his year-long imprisonment, the joy of his exuberant youth was replaced with what a long period of crushing meaninglessness that resembles depression. The failed knight enters the dark night. Like Job, he remains faithful to an authentic search for meaning amid the vestiges of adolescent dreams. His tenacity is eventually rewarded with a joy that surpasses the false consolation of earthly pleasures. Learning the meaning of true joy is perhaps the greatest insight of his life.
As a result of his obedience to the exigencies of the dark night, Saint Francis’ life—like that of Job—becomes all the more fruitful. He is blessed with the fellowship of countless brothers and sisters, both in his own lifetime as well as through 800 years of Franciscan tradition.
And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.
– Job 42: 10
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The innocence that must give way to mystery is the naïve idea that God has a plan that is opposed to the deepest, most authentic desire of the human heart. That illusion is innocence inasmuch as it emerges from a pious perception of God as omnipotently micromanaging our lives or, even more foolishly, of faith as a magical amulet that guarantees eternal bliss. And it presumes that humans are instruments of evil, inherently undeserving of inner peace or true joy. These images of God and of men and women are impotent at best and potentially very dangerous.
Friendship is a more helpful model of relationship with God. I’m not suggesting that we are equal to God but only that God’s will is that we grow into loving relationship that honours the fact that he created us in his image. Jesus said as much, “I no longer call you servants…Instead, I call you friends… You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (John 15:15-16)
Friends love one another, but they sometimes quarrel, and even do so forcefully. Take the case of Jacob. In the Book of Genesis, we find Jacob in combat during a dark night. The figurative imagery is striking.
Jacob was left alone; and a man got him in a body-hold until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint and he held him in a body hold. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven-with God and with-humans, and have prevailed.” 32:24-28)
Jacob’s insistence on being blessed is amazing. It is at once irreverent and necessary. It comes at a price. He will limp for the rest of his days. But he will walk far. He is now a free man who can live abundantly. Like the resurrected Jesus, he will always carry the marks of his passion. But his life is renewed and operates at a more cosmic level than before.
For Jacob, as for each of us, abundant life involved struggle. God’s blessing was imperative and he would risk everything for it. One can argue that he fought with God or one can say that he wrestled with a demon. Either way, the result is the same. Blessing and curse are the choices that stand before us at all times (Cf. Deut. 30) Our woundedness and giftedness are in the same place. We cannot wrestle with one without engaging the other.
It is far more likely that Jacob’s wresting happened within rather than without. In the end, that’s where the real struggle occurs, even when it begins with an external experience. What surrounds us is mere inspiration for the real story of our life. The inner narrative is its ultimate reality.
The dream hypothesis has allowed us to get to the authentic Jacob. Dreams, vision or reality, when all is said and done what counts is that he is given the opportunity to see himself as he is and as God sees him.
– Lytta Basset, Holy Anger
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May the good Lord bless you with Light that cannot be diminished by the darkness.
crib and cross Franciscan Ministries