October 2009 – Abundant Life X

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

October 2009

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

Were it not for the expression “Divide and conquer,” many of us would probably never have heard of Niccolo Machiavelli. In fact, he was so “Machiavellian” that he intentionally made his claims about the means of power provocative in order to win favour with the ruling Medici family. Machiavelli argued that it is the ruthlessness of the individual leader that determines success, even at the expense of moral values.

While the idea of division as the means of conquest may be the way of the world of politics and business, it is manifestly not the Christian way. And, although I believe that it is wrong to vilify the Renaissance author, as many do, I would not hesitate for a moment to suggest that the spiritual force behind this strategy is one of darkness and death. While some would equate earthly power with abundant life, the joy that Jesus promises could not be further from this brutal connivance. Indeed, abundant life comes from unity; not division. It is not conquered; it is received.

Jesus spoke often of unity. He urged all to remain united to him in order that we might be fully alive. He bade us to act as one flock with one shepherd (Jn10:16); to gather others who are dispersed (Jn11:52) He prayed that we would all be one (Jn17:21). Paul counselled unity which the Spirit gives (Eph4:3) Unity is a grace from God. It is a share of God`s own life, life in the blessed Trinity. According to Saint Augustine, everything about God is at once Trinitarian and united. Catherine Mowry Lacugna writes, “The Trinity creates, the Trinity redeems, the Trinity sanctifies…the Trinity dwells in our hearts.” (God for Us, 1991)

It follows then that life in God is a life of unity, and that division, any amount of division, introduces into the soul elements of death. Morally speaking, we call this sin. It is never a virtue. Even when it is necessary, as in the division of responsibilities or even of being, there must be an attempt to be aware of consequences and to take appropriate mitigating action.

Sometimes the tension between division and unity can be creative, such as in the respect of diversity. Each person is a unique, each part of a distinct culture, each informed by a discrete tradition. But the full value of diversity is ultimately found in loving unity. Similarly—contrary to what many would argue—our lives gain in meaning as we become one with its creator and sustainer. We are most alive when we are connected to the source of abundant life.

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.
John 15: 4

+ + +

When we bring together two huge challenges—unity with God and unity with one another—we are soon faced with the question of unity between ways of being united to God. This question is perplexing to say the least. Most of us have lived through the benefits and hazards of segregating religious practice along national and denominational lines. We have also witnessed the benefits and hazards of syncretism, the blending of elements borne out of divergent traditions. Few are those who have gone to the effort of seeking a creative encounter by being both faithful to the foundational principles of their own tradition while being open to the God-gifted uniqueness of the other’s. Those who have courageously done so, even if they have taken awkward steps, can be regarded as trailblazers in our collective pilgrimage to abundant life.

One such person is Bede Griffiths, an English Benedictine monk who lived in India from 1955 until his death in 1994. He wrote, “I had long been familiar with the mystical tradition of the West, but I felt the need of something more which the East alone could give; above all the sense of the presence of God in nature and the soul, a kind of natural mysticism which is the basis of all Indian spirituality. I felt therefore that if a genuine meeting of East and West was to take place, it must be this deepest level of their experience, and this I thought could best come though the monastic life.” (Christ in India: Essays toward a Hindu-Christian Dialogue, 1965.) What ensued was a controversial yet fruitful experiment to find unity in diversity, a kind of spiritual marriage based both on authenticity and transcendence.

Unity was at the centre of life in the Christian community that followed the customs of a Hindu ashram, unity that is well expressed in the ultimate reality of Hindu spirituality: being, knowledge or consciousness, bliss, which I prefer to phrase as ultimate Being, discernment and spiritual joy, three realities that are either explicit or implicit in Christian tradition. This functional commonality is interesting. Rather than incite syncretism, it compels each person to deepen their understanding of their own faith where they will inevitably find a common root in the human spirit, created in the likeness of God. Griffiths likened this to the human hand. Each finger is an ancient religious tradition. If you mix them, you get syncretism. “But if you go deeply into any one tradition, you converge on a center, and there you see how we all come forth from a common root. And you find how we meet people on the deeper level of their faith, in the profound unity behind all our differences.”

Griffiths also makes an important point about the necessity of looking at our own tradition from a different perspective. For instance, even though unity is a foundational principle, our history is rife with dualism, the rigid separation of good and evil, flesh and spirit, God and humanity, etc. We could use an antidote in order to live faithfully our commitment to ones. Hinduism does not juxtapose oneness and dualism but rather advocates non-dualism. While the distinction may be subtle, this makes it impossible to pursue two objectives at once, non-dualism being the only path.

How does this relate to abundant life? Quite simply because fragmentation is the enemy of life. And Western society constantly pressures us to fragment our time, attention and energy—even even our faith, hope and love. Griffiths puts it well, “The more universal you become, the more deeply personal you become.” In other words, the more boxed in our minds and hearts are, and consequently our lives, the less we are able to achieve our full potential as children of God, creator of all. The more limited is our world view, the more timid are our gestures and the more restricted is our love, the less we know the reality of God`s being and the less we are conscious of his loving action in our lives. Our joy is diminished or dwarfed as a result.

Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life. This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales, and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new. At the immortal touch of the hands my little heart loses it limits in joy and gives birth to utterance ineffable. These infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine. Ages pass, and still though pourest, and still there is room to fill.
Rabindranath Tagore

+ + +

If we can celebrate differences while being conscious that values shared among religions make of us all one holy body, if that is the sacred goal of our spirituality, it is no less true between individuals. Abundant life comes from the communion of love, and not from the disunion that is caused by fear. Vice causes division, and underlying most vices is fear. Virtue, on the other hand, promotes unity because its highest achievement is love.

Fear rules. We create divisions to isolate ourselves from people who are different from us, from the forces of change and from the unknown. Mystery, which the other will always remain, is an anathema to us, rather than the beauty that it is because it is a reflection of the ultimate Mystery, which is the reality of God.

Love beckons. Love is a subversive force. When it enters the human psyche, it undermines the prevailing forces that pit one person against another, one community against another. Only love dispels fear. God is love. Calling us to himself, he calls us to love—not in an abstract way but concretely in healthy relationships that are based on mutual respect, compassion and, where appropriate, affection.

I think that we can hold up Saint Francis of Assisi as a model of unity and love. His love of God and all of creation is so evident that it has become the fodder of legends. The stigmata is the crown bestowed by love for his courageous imitation of Love incarnate, Jesus Christ. When we look upon Saint Francis, we see a man who, despite marked differences, was united to the Church and the Pope. We also see a man so committed to unity within the brotherhood that he accepted the verdict of the majority, even when it meant rejection of some of his ideas and of his leadership.

Saint Francis also understood the Trinity to be the image of God, the image in which we are created. In the opening chapter of Contemplating the Trinity: The Path to the Abundant Christian Life, Franciscan Raniero Cantalamessa points out that everyone claims to want unity and that God is unity. The image of God as Trinity is therefore indispensible because it teaches us how to live in unity: We must “move this mystery out of theology books and into our lives. All the great theologians today seem convinced that everything in Christianity stands or falls with the doctrine of the Trinity.”

There are a number of famous works of art that are inspired by the Trinity. Citing the fourteenth-century Russian monk Saint Sergius of Radenezh, Fr. Cantalamessa suggests contemplating the Trinity “to overcome the hateful divisions of this world.” He features the icon of the Trinity by Andrej Rublev. The presentation itself is interesting inasmuch as it does not attempt to “represent” the Trinity but “rather depicts the three angels who appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre (Gen.18:1-15)

It is these three men who told Abraham that—incredibly—his aging wife Sarah would have a son. We must remember this: the Trinity is infinitely creative, life-giving. Fecundity and abundance are one. As human beings, we settle for so little when we seek shelter in behind imaginary walls. In fact, we seek shelter in illusion for we can never escape the fear within us. Only the triune God can help us to overcome it and eventually replace it with eternal life.

God offers abundant life that overflows with possibilities and grace. It is offered on a platter, free for the taking. It is a gift that comes with wonderful features: peace, joy, hope, love. All we need to do is courageously claim it and acknowledge that its central force is unity with God and others. It is God`s life, generously shared. It is a song, a dance, a breath of pure delight.

Communication takes place between subject and object, but communion is beyond the division: it is sharing in basic unity.
Thomas Merton, Love and Living

+ + +

May the good Lord guide us as one body toward greater awareness that the hope of the world, the hope of our community, the hope of our family, and the hope of our soul is in unity. From the oneness of the holy Trinity, may love gently rain upon the parched land and bring us abundant life.

Fraternally in joy and hope


crib and cross Franciscan Ministries