September 2008 – Finding True Joy VIII

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

September 2008

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

Last month, we reflected on giftedness as the link between our spiritual identity and mission. How can we be sure that we are not ignoring gifts from God? There is probably no failsafe way. But it is helpful to take the time to look where gifts may be found. Each human being is a complex construction of elements related to the body, mind and spirit. For starters, we must ensure that we’ve explored each of these areas for signs of giftedness. God will have blessed us each in unique ways, specifically with regards to our physical abilities, our mental aptitudes and capacities and our spiritual intuitions.

God has gifted us in a manner that brings our identify to life in order to fulfill a purpose, what we sometimes call vocation. We noted that our gifts can be elusive and may need development; the mission itself merits attention as well.

Each of us has a mission in life. All of us share the mission of fostering loving relationships. Our true and particular mission is the authentic expression of our spiritual identity and activates our giftedness, honed by the wheel of woundedness. Very likely, our mission is the ground on which our woundedness will be slowly and mysteriously healed.

We all have a mission. We all have a part in this wondrous dance called life. It may change over time, but there will always be a continuous rhythm. There will always be a familiar melody from the essence of who we are, what we are, where we are and why we are. And, because we have been wounded along the journey, God calls us to restoration through ministry. In a very real way, he calls us to serve others and to be healed by them in the process.

This statement ought not to be confused with acting for the purpose of self-satisfaction. Quite to the contrary, loving service must be our goal. But God’s grace provides consolation to those who are faithful to his call. Healing is the fruit of humble service.

Henri Nouwen wrote a book that is based on this very premise. The Wounded Healer, which in one edition carries on the front cover these bold words, “In our own woundedness, we can become a source of life for others,” argues that ministers—those who serve others, meaning all of us—“are called to identify the suffering in their own heart and make that recognition the starting point of service…(they) must be willing to go beyond their professional, somewhat aloof role and leave themselves open as fellow human being with the same wounds and suffering as those they serve. In other words, we heal from our wounds.”

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence, in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song — but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.

– Pablo Neruda, Toward the Splendid City

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All along my career in corporate communications, I’ve had occasion to assist organizations of all sizes to determine and articulate their mission in the form of a clear, concise and compelling statement. This exercise is mandatory, particularly in a commercial, competitive environment. Two things become apparent when doing this work: All missions are common in the basic requirement to meet needs—real or perceived—and to remain viable by earning a profit in the process. At the same time, all missions must be unique in order to provide the organization with a competitive edge over its competitors.

That’s not how we view our God-given mission, but the analogy does remind us that our own life’s mission has two qualities, shared and unique. Our mission is shared in that we all are called to join in loving communion with God and with one another; to join as one family or one body. Also, we are conferred a particular job within the overall plan, each as unique as a fingerprint.

For example, my general mission is to love. My mission category is to serve the community in God’s corporate plan to communicate love. Even more precisely, in all aspects of my ministry, I have a particular role to play in living fraternally by the example of Saint Francis while conveying joy and hope to individuals and groups, in person or through the medium of writing.

Indeed, an individual can develop a mission statement, to focus on a purpose and to make sound choices. It would define how you will live. Though it may evolve somewhat over time, as you learn more about who you are and where your gifts are needed, there will be constant movement toward the greater integration of the authentic aspects of your personality.

In No Man Is an Island, Thomas Merton sets out a long series of statements about the Christian mission or vocation. I highlight some of them here because they link mission to true joy.

1. Each of us has some kind of vocation. We are all called by God to share in His life and His Kingdom. This, he argues is the key to happiness because God’s is a Kingdom of love (and love ultimately leads to joy).
2. Love is perfect in proportion to its freedom. It is free in proportion to its purity. We act most freely when we act purely in response to the love of God.
3. Every man has a vocation to be someone: but he must understand clearly that in order to fulfill this vocation he can only be one person: himself.
4. Being and doing become one, in our life, when our life and being themselves are a martyrdom for the truth. Our vocation is precisely this: to bear witness to the truth of Christ in preference to our own satisfaction.
5. Therefore asceticism is unavoidable in Christian life. We cannot escape the obligation to deny ourselves.
6. The importance of courageous sacrifice, in accomplishing our work of finding and witnessing to the truth, cannot be overemphasized. We cannot possess the truth fully until it has entered into the very substance of our life by good habits and by a certain perfection of moral activity.
7. Our Father in Heaven has called us each one to the place in which He can best satisfy his infinite desire to do us good.
8. If we are called to the place in which God wills to do us the most good, it means we are called where we can best leave ourselves and find Him. It is a call to the knowledge of God, to the recognition of God as our Father, to joy in the understanding of His mercy.
9. There is something in the depths of our being that hungers for wholeness. Because we are made for eternal life, we are made for an act that gathers up all the powers and capacities of our being and offers them simultaneously and forever to God.
10. Every man in the world is called to teach and to advise and to console some other man, and we are all bound to pray for one another.
11. All vocations are intended by God to manifest His love in the world. For each special calling gives a man some particular place in the Mystery of Christ, gives him something to do for the salvation of all mankind.

The Word became one of us to reveal the face and heart of God and to lead us all into a loving communion with the Father. His yearning, his prayer is that we all become one in him: each one unique but together in unity to the glory of God.

– Jean Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John

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Merton singles out one particular person to exemplify faithfulness to mission—Francis of Assisi. The stigmatization of Saint Francis was a divine sign of the fact that he was, of all saints, the most Christ-like. This reminds us that all vocations are ultimately meant to be Christ-like in some fashion or other. That is the case, in different states of life—single, married, religious and ordained—and functions—medicine, education, public administration et cetera.

Merton adds, “The remarkable thing about Saint Francis is that in his sacrifice of everything he had also sacrificed all the ‘vocations’ in a limited sense of the word.” This reminds us that what we generally call ‘vocations’ are broad categories. When the right fit for state and function is determined, in a very real way the discernment has only just begun. The toughest judgement to make is what unique role each of us is called to play within these categories. That was the existential question that caused such agitation within Saint Francis until he arrived at familiar conclusions. The validity of these answers would not have been apparent, however, had it not been for the spiritual joy that we so readily associate with the little poor man of Assisi.

Gathering his identity, his giftedness and indeed his woundedness, Saint Francis seized upon his God-given mission and carried it out with authenticity. His tremendous legacy is proof that his life was conformed to that of Christ so perfectly that his mission was His loved Saviour’s mission. Indeed, either literally or figuratively, he preached good news to the poor, proclaimed release to the captives, recovered sight to the blind and set at liberty those who were oppressed. (Cf. Luke 4:18)

Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.
– John 15: 5

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Fraternally in joy and hope


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