Saint Francis of Assisi, whose feast day we celebrate in this piece, is not an easy one to live with. He is deeply and simply radical, to the point where, when you examine his life, like the rich young ruler meeting Jesus, you must either shake your head and walk away, or give your everything to God. Perhaps that is the greatest sign that he was a true follower of Christ.
Francis made the Living Christ the centre of his being. His faith did not live around the edges of his life, it was his life. His goal, if he was aware of one in his utter humility and servanthood, was to allow Christ to live through him. He embraced lepers as well as poverty and saw God everywhere, not as a pantheistic inherent power, but by seeing creation as incarnation, not in competition with Christ, but in coherence with Christ, through whom all was made.
This moves me deeply as I grow in my own small faith, and find myself enraptured by the tiniest of God’s creatures and discover sisterly compassion for every morsel of suffering I see in the world. I thought that being virtually housebound with my illness and unable to socialise, that I would find myself hardening, becoming shielded from empathy. But the opposite has been the case. Last year I wept buckets over a tiny ladybird that hatched crooked from its cocoon that we had to put out of its misery. This year a piece of land covered in trees has been auctioned off behind the main road in my sightline and I am devastated, knowing that those beautiful, growing, living, breathing creatures and all who shelter there will be killed or made homeless.
It seems that if we make Christ and relationship with the Trinity through Him the centre of all, living a life where prayer is a priority rather than an option, we will always find our hearts softening. Love is heartbreaking.
Francis understood this better than anyone. He knew that the passion of the Christ was the ultimate suffering in heartbreak coupled with the ultimate love. His prayer before receiving the stigmata on Mount La Verna near the end of his life was,
My Lord Jesus Christ, I pray You to grant me two graces before I die; the first is that during my life I may feel in my soul and in my body, as much as possible, that pain which You, dear Jesus, sustained in the hour of your most bitter Passion. The second is that I may feel in my heart, as much as possible, that excessive love with which You, O Son of God, were inflamed in willingly enduring such suffering for us sinners.
Love and pain are soulmates in the Christian life. We cannot have the one without the other. There is no eternal life without difficult death, no overcoming without the cross. The Garden of Gethsemane cannot be got around or avoided, no matter how much we try to kid ourselves. But what a love we are compensated with, both to give and receive!
I have little in common with Francis. I struggle to rejoice in my physical weakness or my financial poverty, most days it all just feels too hard to bear. And I am nowhere near courageous or bold enough to pray such a dangerous prayer! Yet I do understand his offering to the world of a Christ-like model of setting everything aside but God: Deus meus et omnia (my God and my all) – another of Francis’ prayers. It seems unattainable in this life, such love and devotion, but like all conversions, though it may begin grandly, it goes on by a process of growth, unstoppable if we give our yes to it daily. And we may always stay little more than beginners next to the deep surrender that Francis became able to give to his saviour. But the important thing is to start, to continue, and to mean it: to learn to love and suffer and let each work together and interchangeably as joy and pain – for in the gospel life there is joy in suffering and pain in love as well as the other way around. To begin that metanoia transformation by giving up that very hardest of sacrifices, our stubborn and selfish will.
©Keren Dibbens-Wyatt 2016 Photo from Pixabay