October 2006 – On Authenticity

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

October 2006

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

When I think of Saint Francis of Assisi, whose feast we celebrate on October 4th, several qualities spring to mind, but one stands above all the others—authenticity.

One theologian, Bernard Lonergan, distinguishes a twofold authenticity: a minor one regarding faithfulness to the tradition that nourished him, and a major one that is able to justify or condemn the tradition itself when failure becomes the norm. Human beings achieve authenticity, he argued, through self-transcendence and through a continual withdrawal from what is not authentic.

I imagine that Saint Francis was restless as an adolescent, struggling to reconcile his new-found understanding of traditional biblical values with his secular and ecclesial surroundings. We know that he would later battle his own fears rather than satisfy the expectations of his domineering father, who represented all that he had come to dislike about the social and economic revolution underway. Eventually, he would engage in a life-long effort to grapple with what it means to adopt a fully evangelical life despite the materialism of civil society and the triumphalism of the church.

He must have been an intriguing figure because of his authenticity and an enigma because of the inner and outer struggle that it entailed. He must have been an attractive figure because of the integrity that his authenticity expressed and the exciting possibilities that it revealed. Saint Francis would strive to always be faithful to the truth and not be afraid to reveal it to others, however awkward. He so often flaunt social conventions that he was regarded by many as a fool, a role he joyfully accepted in the name of Christ.

He would have known the pitfalls of conformity and the dangers of rebellion. These were times of staggering social change but also times of brutal sanctions against those who deviated from the norm. There was no clear roadmap for him to follow, save for the sketchy indicators found in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. There would be trial and error and glimpses of success. His insights would not come easily.

Yet we know that Saint Francis settled on choices that are absolutely faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and this gave him the protection that he required to progress in his promotion of the evangelical life. He would opt to be humble, powerless and poor; to be radically and rigorously faithful to the church while charting a course that was both unusual and controversial. Despite, or maybe because of, his innovative ways, he held astonishing influence not only in his native Umbria but eventually across Christendom as well as through the centuries.

From the beginning of his protracted conversion, Saint Francis sought to be attentive and faithful to his particular call. In fact, he would say near the end of his life to those who followed him: “I have done my part; may Christ teach you to do yours.”

People believed in him. They wanted to believe in the dream and he was proof that it was. His name was Francis, and he lived and died quietly and peacefully in Assisi. When the light of the spirit was dying out all over the world, this man, this little man, this one man, re-enkindled the flame. He was only 45 years old when he died, but he left behind a dream to dream and a journey to challenge every man – a journey that gives the peace and joy that surpasses all understanding.

– Murray Bodo, The Journey and the Dream

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A useful definition of what it means to be authentic is proposed by a Lonergan scholar, Carla Mae Streeter: “The precarious and ever-developing state of a human being reached only by long and sustained faithfulness to the transcendental precepts. A person who evidently is consistent in the struggle to be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable, be responsible, and be in love.”

I believe that this is an apt description of the singular spiritual journey of a wealthy cloth merchant’s son who would cast aside everything that detracted from his true identity and passionate pursuit of a meaningful relationship with God. In radical poverty and fierce if sometimes exaggerated obedience to the Gospel, this 13th century Italian, this diminutive and self-effacing man became the public conscience of his age.

Like Jesus, Saint Francis must have had a noticeable manner about him, enough to garner attention. I think that among the special traits that they shared were the capacity for honesty and integrity as well as the courage to express these in an even-handed way, regardless of the nature and intensity of the opposition that they faced. This alone would have accorded them both extraordinary moral authority.

Like Jesus, Saint Francis led a life that dramatically amplified his spoken words. Like Jesus, Saint Francis was far less inclined to condemn those who had been drawn away from pure faith, by the allurements of power and privilege, and more inclined to modestly affirm the effective and enduring merits of a life of obedience to the Father.

0 how beautiful, how splendid, how glorious did he appear in the innocence of his life, in the simplicity of his words, in the purity of his heart, in his love for God, in his fraternal charity, in his ardent obedience, in his peaceful submission, in his angelic countenance!

– Thomas of Celano, Life of Saint Francis

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Following his conversion, Saint Francis began to reform his life and to orient all of his energy and time to the pursuit of a simple goal— to conform his life to that of Jesus Christ.

His first biographer, Thomas of Celano, vividly described a pivotal moment in these terms: “It was at the Portiuncula, on the Feast of St. Matthias, the Apostle, that Saint. Francis began the religious life for which he is famous. While attending Mass he listened intently to the priest, as he read the Gospel: ‘Take nothing with you on the way, neither gold, nor silver…’

“After Mass Saint Francis asked the priest to explain the meaning of this reading. Thereupon the cleric described to him the life Christ taught to the Apostles. At this Saint Francis exclaimed, ‘This is what I want; this is what I long for with all my heart!’”

Saint Francis was faithful to the Gospels. He was attentive to these, perhaps more than others books of the bible, because they described the life of Jesus Christ who was the special sign of the Father’s love. It was abundantly clear to him that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3: 16). All the potential of God’s promise through the centuries would be fulfilled in Jesus who “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men, and being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2: 6-8) Saint Francis took this personally; he imagined the Father’s self-emptying love in the Incarnation and the Son’s self-emptying love on the cross as being directed to him, unworthy as he was.

If this was true, it was important for Saint Francis to pay special attention to everything that Jesus would said, as Mary had urged the servants to do during the wedding at Cana: “(Jesus’) mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’” (John 2: 5) But the particular genius of Saint Francis was to pay extra special attention to what Jesus did. His far-reaching insight would be to understand that action is more revealing than words. What Jesus did during his final days would be his ultimate legacy. What he did would save us from fear and illusion.

Saint Francis set out to imitate the actions of Jesus. His espousal of poverty honoured the total poverty of Jesus’ birth and death. His humility honoured the fact that “the Son of man came not to be served but to serve.” (Matt. 20: 28) His objective was to sow seeds of peace because these had been handed to him by his beloved Saviour (Cf. John 14: 27) In effect, his deepest desire was to discern God’s will for his life because Jesus had lived according to God’s will rather than his own. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22: 42) “The glory which you have given me I have given to them that they may be one even as we are one.” (John 17: 22)

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

– Col. 3: 1-4

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May the life of Saint Francis remind us all of the timeless wisdom of what Jesus said and did during his time on earth. May the spirituality of the poverello inspire us to be more attentive to Gospel values and to discern their meaning for our lives. May the good Lord grant us the necessary graces to be faithful to our baptismal promises so that our joy may be complete.



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