March 2009

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

Living fully and abundantly takes courage. It requires bravery in the face of ubiquitous obstacles, perseverance where endurance is tested, and steadfastness amid doubts that are ever-present. Above all, it requires fortitude to overcome oneself. This task is daunting. Arguably it is impossible without God. That is why we are well advised to heed the often-repeated words of Christ, “Be not afraid.”

The words “full” and “abundant”—like “eternal”—in relation to life, refer to its depth, breath and intensity, not its ease. In fact, almost axiomatically, one could say that the easy life is neither full nor fulfilling. Living abundantly requires risk-taking, overcoming failure, persevering despite occasional discouragement, and having faith in life while struggling with fear and self-doubt.

Jesus’ disciples were intent on following Jesus because, as Peter discovered, only he had the words of eternal life. Only he made sense of absurd circumstances in life. Only he offered the possibility of fulfilling the deepest desire of the human heart. Yet they were fearful.

In chapter six of John’s Gospel, we read of an incident in which they were rowing across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum. They had been waiting for Jesus when a storm arose. Then they saw Jesus walking on the turbulent water, coming near to the boat, and they were terrified. Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid.”

Matthew’s version also has Peter speaking up to say, “Lord, if it is really you, order me to come out on the water to you.” This is an intriguing acknowledgement that friendship with Jesus involves risk but also the possibility of extraordinary outcomes. Along the way, Peter’s confidence flags and he begins to sink. He cries out, “Save me Lord!” Salvation here has many meanings.

Mark’s account adds yet another dimension. After bidding the disciples to have courage and not be afraid, Jesus gets into the boat and the storm dissipates. Then Mark adds, “The disciples were completely amazed, because they had not understood the real meaning of the feeding of the five thousand; their minds could not grasp it.” There is a clear link here between courage and understanding, understanding and abundant life.

Evidentially, to gain a new perspective, one must change vantage points. That means leaving our zone of comfort in order to explore ideas and circumstances that are unfamiliar. According to an adage, only a fool would do the same thing in the same way over and over again and expect a different outcome. But as well, only a fool would wander randomly through the unknown. A wise person always takes a guide.

And that is part of Jesus’ message for abundant life as well. He urges us to not be afraid and, almost in the same breath, to follow him.

Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come follow me, and I will give you rest.
– Refrain from Be Not Afraid by Robert J. Dufford, SJ

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The spiritual journey has always called for courage in the Lord. After the death of Moses, the Lord gave Joshua a series of instructions, and then said, “Remember that I have commanded you to be determined and confident! Don’t be afraid or discouraged for I, the Lord your God, am with you where you go.”

The prophets too needed courage and openly proclaimed its necessity. God told Isaiah that the road to holiness is perilous but “tell everyone who is discouraged, ‘Be strong and don’t be afraid! God is coming to your rescue, coming to punish your enemies.’” When God called Jeremiah, the prophet was reticent: “I don’t know how to speak; I am too young.” These were excuses. No doubt Jeremiah was afraid of how people would regard and treat him. The Lord reassured him, “Do not be afraid of them, for I will be with you to protect you.”

Indeed, courage is essential. Equally obvious is the reality that you just can’t command courage. It must rest on something solid, something that instils confidence. That is why the Lord offers his presence and protection: “Grass withers and flowers fade, but the word of our God endures forever.” (Is. 40:8) That is why we need daily reminders. To help us, Scripture is filled with references to God’s constant commitment. Altogether, the Bible has as many allusions to it as there are days in a year.

They will never be hungry or thirsty. Sun and desert heat will not hurt them, for they will be led by one who loves them. He will lead them to springs of water.
– Isaiah 49:10

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The caution against fear is not only related to its potential for blocking the road to spiritual growth. Fear can also lead to decline and drive us to sin. Sin is the enemy of abundant life. It is a kind of moral pathology and a psychological handicap. Fear, in one form or another, is present in all sins. Indeed, fear takes many forms. One need only think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—physiological needs, safety needs, needs of love, affection and belongingness needs, needs for esteem and needs for self-actualization. Each category—indeed each need within these categories—represents a fear, either in the form of a fear of not having it met or the fear of losing whatever currently satisfies that need. Fear stands behind lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride, each of which, in some way or another, reveals regret or anxiety about unfulfilled needs.

A bigger problem with any consideration of needs is that they can be either real or perceived. The world, if not the evil one, deliberately plays on the confusion that surrounds needs. It plays on fear to persuade us that we need far more possessions, power and prestige than we really do. The only antidote to this constant pressure is to change the frame. The question is not what we need but what we lack. The answer is “very little,” or maybe “nothing.” What we do lack is very often offered at no cost by our loving God.

To receive what God offers requires communion. It is a spiritual meal shared in the intimacy of mutual self-giving. Such a relationship is not merely the pinnacle of faith; it is the ground on which everything occurs. Otherwise, even the exercise of virtue and the avoidance of vice is a struggle. Without God, self-reliance takes the place of grace, and self-righteousness replaces mutuality as the path of holiness. Only joy in the Lord displaces fear. Self-reliance merely suppresses it.

The culture of the world would have us believe that our intellect is equal to all mystery; that our science is up to the most daunting challenge of nature; that ingenuity can solve any riddle. Its mortal sin is the fantasy of omnipotence—the conceit of each person being the only god that any person would ever need. The problem is that our vain attempts to control our world, our community, indeed ourselves often result in failure. The injury that results produces fear. Eventually, all lust and pride produces fear.

Society is fixated on “quality of life,” which it defines as pleasure-seeking and pain- avoiding. It confounds easy roads with idyllic destinations. It presents pleasure as the mark of goodness and pain as evidence of evil. It is enough to confuse anyone. This is at best a naive mirage; at worst, an exploitative deceit. The tenets of much of what we call civilization are in fact dehumanizing and dispiriting.

In his biography of Saint Francis, Saint Bonaventure comments on his tremendous courage, which the poverello opposed to fear: “In the fervent fire of his charity he strove to emulate the glorious triumph of the holy martyrs in whom the flame of love could not be extinguished nor courage be weakened.” The reference to martyrdom here encompasses all manner of renunciations that are associated with spiritual development. Growth inevitably involved loss, which often deters us from progress. We are unwilling to pay the price because the price scares us. Fear stands between the ego and the true self.

Love displaces fear. Referring to the Presentation of the Lord after his birth, Saint Bonaventure counsels, “Rejoice, then, with that blessed old man and the aged Anna; walk forth to meet the mother and Child. Let love overcome your bashfulness; let affection dispel your fear. Receive the Infant in your arms and say with the bride: I took hold of him and would not let go. Dance with the holy man and sing with him. Now dismiss your servant, Lord, according to your word in peace.”

This is where the paths converge. An unlived life is joyless. An unloved life is fearful. Love is life. God is love and God is life. Joy is the fruit of love and our joy is in God who gives us life. Abundant life is a loving life. True joy is the cause and effect of a fulfilling life. A loving life is an instrument of peace and joy.

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.
– 1 John 4: 18

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May God bless you with abundant life. May Christ guide you to new life. May the Holy Spirit rest your life on wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and reliance on the Lord.

Fraternally in joy and hope

richard

crib and cross Franciscan Ministries