February 2006 – On Servanthood

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

February 2006

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

The word “servant” appears dozens of times throughout the writings of Saint Francis of Assisi, evidently with good reason. Indeed, it is foundational to his understanding of the relationship of the disciple to Jesus as well as to his neighbours. It is the quality that Jesus most earnestly wished to impress upon those dearest to him, particularly as he washed their feet at the Last Supper.

Saint Francis used the word 27 times in his Admonitions, which is one of the most stirring parts of the poverello’s legacy. Although the circumstances of their writing are unclear, scholars appear to agree that they comprise his most essential spiritual counsels; they constitute what has been termed “The Franciscan Sermon on the Mount.” Perhaps the most significant are these:

· Chapter XVII. On the humble servant of God: “Blessed (is) that servant” (Mt 24:46), who does not exalt himself more because of the good, which the Lord says and works through him, than that which He says and works through another. · A man sins, who wants rather to receive from his neighbour, what he does not want to give of himself to the Lord God.

· Chapter XVIII. On compassion for one’s neighbour: Blessed (is) the man, who supports his neighbour during his frailty to the extent that he would want to be supported by him, if he falls into an exactly similar situation. · Blessed (is) the servant who renders all his goods to the Lord God, 36 because he who has retained anything for himself “conceals” within himself “the money of his Lord” God (Mt 25:18) and “what” he thought he “had, shall be born away from” him (Lk 8:18).

· Chapter XIX. On the humble servant of God: Blessed (is) the servant, who does not consider himself better, when he is magnified and exalted by men, as when for example he is considered to be vile, simple, and despised, · because as much as a man is before God, that much he is and nothing more. Woe to that religious, who has been placed on high by others and does not wish to descend by means of his own will. · And “blessed (is) that servant” (Mt 24:46), who is placed on high not by means of his own will and desires always to be beneath the feet of others.

Saint Francis seems to associate servanthood directly with discipleship. He would have found plenty of evidence for this in Luke’s Gospel, which in many ways best reflects the foundations of Franciscan spirituality. Chapter 10, for instance, calls for an attitude of servanthood in the mission of disciples, as illustrated in the story of the Good Samaritan as well as the hospitality of Martha and Mary. In addition, the chapter is laden with counsels, including a plea to travel in poverty, to remain untouched by the affairs of others, to enter a house in peace, to eat what is offered; to heal; to preach, and to do all of these in joy.

Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road.
Whatever house you enter, first say, `Peace be to this house!
– Luke 10: 4-5

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If an attitude of servanthood is so vital to Franciscan spirituality, what are its key ingredients? I offer three for your consideration: simplicity, wisdom and compassion.

Simplicity is the basis of everything Franciscan. It is particularly important in the case of servanthood because it help to stay focused on the mission of discipleship. All else is extraneous and a potential distraction.

Notwithstanding this sharp focus on the mission at hand, disciples are required to make frequent and difficult decisions, often on their own. Much wisdom is needed. To be wise in servanthood is to accept that God’s ways are not our ways (Cf. Is.55:8-9) It is a knowing that comes from familiarity with the precepts of faith but also from an intuition that recalls Jesus’ admonition for us to “become like little children.” (Mt.18:3)

Wisdom also urges us to be cautious (“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise” – Eph.5:15; “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” – Mt.10:16; “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” – 1Pt.5:8) And, wisdom asks us to be resilient, despite our inadequacies, with the strength of God’s anointing (“…but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” – 2Cor.12:9)

If simplicity is the root and wisdom the tree, the blossom from which the fruits of servanthood grow is compassion.

Jesus traveled with remarkable ease among the poor and the outcast people around him. His treatment of them was as with the hypocrites whom he chastised or even the privileged that he loved with grave concern for their spiritual welfare. With the marginalized and the disenfranchised, he spoke tenderly and with special regard for their frailties and infirmities. (“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” – Mt.9:36)

It’s impossible to speak of Saint Francis for long without suing the word “compassion.” From all that is written by and about him, it is evident that his heart resonated with the joy and suffering of others, indeed of all parts of Creation. Mostly, his compassion was directed to the poor that he genuinely regarded as a servant would his master, including the most despised and discarded of these, the lepers that he had dreaded before his conversion. He served them with reverence and consideration that he would if they had been his beloved Saviour in the flesh, Christ crucified.

Saint Francis understood compassion as “suffering with”, which caused him to so identify with Jesus who lived, died and rose from the dead so that we might live forever – fully and secure in God’s love – that his love was crowned near the end of his life with the stigmata, the wounds of Christ.

Clearly, Franciscan spirituality is marked indelibly by compassion.

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience.
– Colossians 3: 12

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For my part, I have come to see begging for the poor to be a part of what it means to be a servant of God. The Advent parish mission that I preached at St. Thomas A Becket parish in Pierrefonds (Montreal, Canada) provided parishioners and others with a unique opportunity to encounter the infant Jesus by reaching out to strangers. In solidarity, we focused on the AIDS orphans in a remote part of Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world.

In collaboration with a team of those who shared a vision of making a difference in the lives of 4,000 malnourished and often forgotten children, I dreamed of raising money in aid of three life-giving initiatives: to supply nutrition supplements, to provide paediatric medicines and to help build a modest vocational training facility.

We did this for them, but we also did it for the people of St. Thomas a Becket. People there have huge hearts. We wanted to give them a chance to witness the love that binds them as a faith community. We wanted them to see how compassion can grow when it takes the form of solidarity, particularly with strangers who reveal how awesome the family of God is.

The result is truly astounding. Donations came in all sizes, as did the donors. There were almost 500 donors and as many stories of lives changed to some extent by the orphans of Karonga.

Among these is a group of young children who pooled all their money to make this special gift of selfless love; a 75-year-old woman who always wanted to adopt a child; a woman who gave a gift card to her teenaged niece who replied that her gift was the best one she had received. One parishioner shared how the mission – “Epiphanies in Our Lives” – had changed him and his perceptions of what Christmas is really all about.

For those who are interested, information regarding the Malawi Program is available at www.cribandcross.com. You can still go to “Hope for Africa” and check out the page marked “Malawi Program.”

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May the Lord who taught us by his own loving action on earth what it means to be a servant of God bless you with joy and peace, for in obedience to his ways we are truly his friends, his sisters and his brothers.



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