February 2003 – On Fraternal Love

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

February 2003

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the good Lord give you Peace.

Whatever we might think of the intentions of Saint Francis in welcoming his first brothers, it is evident that he placed much stock in fraternal love. He repeatedly instructed his followers to respect the dignity of all, whether cleric or lay, Christian or Muslim, rich or poor, healthy or leper…man or beast.

“Truly, upon the foundation of constancy a noble structure of charity arose, in which the living stones, gathered from all parts of the world, were erected into a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. O with what ardor of charity the new disciples of Christ burned! How great was the love that flourished in the members of this pious society! For whenever they came together anywhere, or met one another along the way, as the custom is, there a shoot of spiritual love sprang up, sprinkling over all love the seed of true affection.”
– Thomas of Celano, The Life of Saint Francis

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In community, we come to see that the fortitude and love the community affords is much like our Lord’s multiplication of loaves and fishes. The miracle of inexplicable abundance would not have occurred had individuals eaten the two fishes and five loaves before they had been gathered, blessed and distributed. At the Last Supper, as on the cross, the bread had to be broken and shared so that it could nourish those present.

In God we find the quintessential clue of what it means to journey and to grow in community: the Trinity is the ultimate paradigm of community. The Trinity presents the most perfect example of how dynamic community can be…how life-giving it can be…how it can be creative in the very best sense. In the Trinity, we see that we are made holy by the selflessness of our outward view…our profound respect for otherness. In the Trinity, we see the necessity of keeping in balance the requirements of uniqueness and distinctiveness, and the imperatives of connectedness.

Jesus left no doubt about what the Father expects of us. In making an unequivocal declaration about what commandment supersedes all others, he left no doubt that loving God and loving neighbor is one inseparable decree. In fact, it is more than a commandment…it is the key to God’s house. Indeed, it’s also the soothing balm that heals the spiritual ailments that interrupt our journey to it. In this exhortation, Jesus not only includes those who are in close proximity to us…in the next pew, the next house, or the next desk…but also those who do not share our faith in the journey. It is the Holy Spirit that propels us on this journey…and the Holy Spirit is like a wind…it blows where it will. Growing in fraternal love for Christians and non-Christians alike is not just a cute or trendy concept…it is a vital part of the journey: I have come among you so that all might be one…Make peace with your brother before presenting your offering at the altar.

This fact is clear to Jean Vanier. In his book Community and Growth, he writes this: “Community life is lived not only among its own members, but in the larger community of its neighborhood, with the poor, and with all those who want to share its hope: so it becomes a place of reconciliation and forgiveness, where each person feels carried by the others and carries them. It is a place of friendship among those who know that they are weak but know too that they are loved and forgiven. Thus community is the place of celebration.”

Recognition that love of God is one with love of neighbor transformed Dorothy Day’s life.
Another figure of Saint Francis of Assisi…of which there are many in every age…she fed, housed and ministered to the disenfranchised of American society during the time of The Great Depression. She wrote these simple words: “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes from community.” As we are instructed by the evangelist John that God is Love, I invite you to hear her words this way: “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is God and that God comes from community.”

“From his experience of Christ, Francis was confronted with his own inner power. Far from leading him to some spiritualized individualism this experience and consequent “leaving the world” (of illusions) took him deeper into the reality of community. Francis now passionately wanted to live as a brother to all.”
– Leonard Desroches, Allow the Waters

“Since the strength of Francis’ love made him a brother to all creatures, it is not surprising that the charity of Christ made him more than a brother to those who are stamped with the image of their Creator (…) He loved his brothers beyond measure with an affection that rose from his innermost being, because they were of the same household of faith and united by participation in an eternal inheritance according to the promise.”
– Thomas of Celano, The Life of Saint Francis

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Another triad is the Trinity of God, Humanity and Creation. We all know the holy man of Assisi to have been a remarkable person. One pope even went so far as to say that no one has so closely imitated our Lord in living the Gospel. Francis was a wealthy and brilliant young man who had been brutally thrust against a series of life-changing disappointments. His father had been rather rigid in trying to shape his life, wanting him to follow in his own footsteps as a cloth merchant. At the time, this was far from his heart’s dream. Also, Francis suffered a year’s imprisonment following a battle with neighboring Perugia. He was eventually ransomed, a broken man both physically and emotionally. Later, his romantic wishes to gain fame as a knight, heroically battling in the Crusades, were dashed as he heard in a dream that he should return to Assisi…only to face scorn and derision.

These events made Francis withdraw and question…to journey inward as it were. What I have come to discover about Francis is that he had the mind of an artist and that it is this well-developed capacity for contemplative observation that made him the mystic he was. What we know is that he was called to change the Church when contemplating the cross at the abandoned Church of San Damiano. What I now realize is how carefully he noted the detail of this Byzantine presentation of the crucifixion and how this influenced his knowledge of God and his prayer life. The same is true of his respectful and contemplative encounter with the Egyptian Sultan, in whom he saw the working of the Holy Spirit.

But perhaps most dramatic of all is his contemplative observation of Creation…and his appreciation of Creation as a privileged revelation by God about Himself. Consequently, he was free to deepen his relationship with Creation in a manner that culminated in his writing the first poem ever written in Italian…the Canticle of Creation. This is an inspired work of thanksgiving and praise…and it makes vividly clear the relationship between God, Creation and Us. With God and Creation, we form an important and indispensable community. Creation is not a garbage dump…it is the holy work of God’s divine hands …and it is our home. In fact, Francis would tell you that it is family…brother sun, sister moon …sister mother earth, brother fire…brother wind, sister death.

Richard Rohr, one of my favorite contemporary Franciscans writers, penned these words as his personal creed, mindful of the words that Francis uttered near the end of his life: “Until now, we have done nothing. Let us begin again.” Knowing it is never too late for us to be reconciled to sister mother earth, he wrote: “We believe in a personal universe where the divine image shines through all created things. It is an ‘enchanted universe’ where we can always live in reverence and even adoration before the good, the true and the beautiful.”

“Whoever is not enlightened by such splendor of created things is blind; whoever is not awakened by such outcries is deaf; whoever does not praise God because of all these effects is dumb; whoever does not discover the First principle from such clear signs is a fool. Therefore, open your eyes, alert the ears of your spirit, open your lips and apply your heart so that all creatures you may see, hear, praise, love and worship, glorify and honor your God, lest the whole world rise against you.”
– St. Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey to God

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“There is but one body and one spirit, just as there is but one hope given all of you by your call. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all, and works through all, and is in all.”
– Saint Paul, Letter to the Ephesians

May He who invites us to love one another as I have loved you fill you with Peace. May you walk in His footsteps with perfect humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another lovingly. May He who prayed to our heavenly Father that they might be one just as you and I are one fill your heart with infinite Joy.