Here I am, Lord. - John Michael Talbot, SFO

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Trying to develop the 'Flaming Love' within so as to not feel the 'Cold from Without'!

Followers of Francis have learned that they should reverence and cherish Poverty.  However, there is real trepidation in our hearts when we talk about what that means - what real poverty is. The spiritual idea behind it - that we must be empty of self to be filled with God and His blessings - is understandable and seems desirable.  However, when Francis spoke of Poverty he wasn't only referring to this 'spiritual' ideal.  Francis meant literal physical/material poverty.  He saw it as the only real way to experience the spiritual Poverty the saints (and Christ) spoke of.  

Poverty is suffering need and not being able to do much about it.  Living in poverty means always being in need. Poverty has little to do with what we like or want - our choice to fore go the comforts and pleasures of the world that we have ready access to.  It has everything to do with real need and, specifically, what we need to survive and function in the world. This is the poverty that our father Francis lived, suffered and . . .  celebrated.

In Jesus' travels he was one day accosted by a man who said, "Lord, I will follow You wherever You go!"  Jesus stopped, and looked deep into his eyes.  He knew what this man was thinking - 'You are the King of Israel!  Ultimately You will end up in holy Jerusalem, for it is there that You will assume Your throne.  You may travel around a bit between now and then, but in Jerusalem You will be surrounded by the power, riches and glory that is Your right as King.  I want to go with You, prove a good follower, so I can have a share of those things.'

This man did not understand God's plan.  Jesus didn't condemn the man but simply said, "The foxes have holes.  Even the birds of the air have nests. But, the Son of Man has no place to even lay His head!"  Jesus would never be at home in this world, never have a place He could relax.  It goes without saying that there would be no earthly power, wealth or pleasures.  This man, if he followed Jesus, could expect to be just as homeless - just as poor and destitute - as Jesus was.  Even worse, Jesus later said, 'Those who would be with Me . . . must deny themselves take up their cross and follow me'.  The cross meant absolute poverty, shame and death.  

Francis wanted to follow Jesus and would follow Him to the ends of the world even if that meant there was NO PLACE in the world for him.  He took on the poverty Jesus lived and shouldered his cross bravely - putting aside earthly temporal dreams on the journey to Calvary.  Francis became a banner for others to follow and many did, enduring the same sufferings with hope of an eternity lived in Christ's presence.

The brothers who followed Francis had, like him, . . . nothing. Their clothes were donated by others and were often so worn that they were worthless - not worth even trying to mend.  The brothers slept and worked in these clothes, the only clothes they had - a pitiful assemblage of rags.  But Francis made it clear that, even the clothes on their backs were on 'loan' until 'a poorer person comes along'.  Francis often gave parts of his clothing away (sometimes all of it) - to the naked poor.  When he told them they must be just as ready to give, they knew it wasn't just a mental exercise or 'point of discussion'. It could be very HARD to live without clothes, especially in the winter!  It is hard to pray, work - do anything - when you are shivering and your teeth are chattering!  Francis wasn't afraid of this poverty and the suffering that came with it. He encouraged his brothers to be just as fearless.

One winters day, the brothers were together and it was very cold.  They were shivering terribly, clutching their threadbare clothes to their hungry thin bodies.  The wind was blowing and brought with it a mixture of snow and rain.  The brothers, to say the least, were miserable. Suffering can bring out the worst in us leading us to complain.  The brothers knew better than to complain around Francis who 'celebrated' poverty and suffering.  He would just point out to them that they knew what they were getting into in choosing to follow him in the footsteps of Christ.  They didn't say anything but Francis could see on their faces their unhappiness and so, to bolster their resolution and help them to refocus, he gave them a strong exhortation.

Francis said through his chattering teeth, "If we were well covered within with flaming love for our home in heaven, we might easily bear the cold from without".

Francis acknowledged that the brothers were not 'well covered' with clothes.  He knew that they were suffering - he was shivering himself!  Using their physical reality as a starting point, he sought to open their eyes to the spiritual reality that they were not 'well covered' by love and faith.    Francis, aware of their desire for the warmth fire brings, mentions the 'fire of love'.  However, Francis wasn't talking about God's love for them here but THEIR love for God.  Their fervor for God, for His love, and their faith in His love for them was weak!  He knew it was hard, they were suffering, but none of this changed the fact of God's love for them or their need to try to show faithful love to Him.  Francis didn't talk about God's love because what greater proof of God's love - of His Divine provision for them - than Jesus hanging on the cross?!  The real issue here was whether the brothers truly appreciated that love and were allowing that love to transform them into Christ - making them like Him in His willingness to suffer and die for the love of God.

Francis was telling them that it was their choice - something they must WILL with God's help - to cloth themselves with these 'flames of love'. These flames would warm them, give them peace and joy - even in their sufferings. If they could only see with the eyes of faith like Francis did they would realize it was this very suffering that was the gurantee, if they believed, of the precious and priceless treasures of heaven - eternal life - in the presence of their Divine Father.

Francis knew that if they could warm themselves with the promises of Christ, they could easily endure the 'cold from without'.  St. Paul said, "For you not only shared in the sufferings . . . but accepted with joy being stripped of your belongings, knowing that you owned something that was better and lasting.  Do not lose your fearlessness now, then, since the reward is so great.  You will need perseverance if you are to do God's will and gain what He has promised".  Later he adds, "Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection.  For the sake of the joy which lay ahead of Him, He endured the cross, disregarding the shame of it, and has taken His seat at the right of God's throne . . ."  Finally, St. Paul said, 'That is why we do not waver; indeed, though this outer human nature of ours may be falling into decay, at the same time our inner human nature is renewed day by day.  The temporary, light burden of our hardships is earning us forever an utterly incomparable, eternal weight of glory . . .".

Actually, to warm ourselves with the 'flames of love' is impossible.  However, 'with God all things are possible'.  St. Paul explains how this work of grace is accomplished when he said, '. . . the immensity of the power is God's and not our own.  We are subjected to every kind of hardship, but never distressed; we see no way out but we never despair; . . . we carry with us in our body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus, too, may be visible . . .".  He said to St. Timothy, '. . . share in my hardships . . . relying on the power of God . . . I know in whom I have put my trust and I have no doubt at all that He is able to safeguard until that Day what I have entrusted to Him".  It is God who gives us strength to persevere making it so that 'the peace of God which is beyond our understanding will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus' during our trials and sufferings.

Most of us - even us Franciscans - don't live as Francis' first followers did - in absolute physical/material poverty.  This makes it that much harder for us to make progress in dieing to self and learning to let God's power live and work through us.  However, all of us experience suffering.  Throughout our days there are painful, uncomfortable, humiliating things that happen which we can't do anything about.  Francis tells us to see these experiences for what they are in the spiritual realm - opportunities to grow close to God, to experience His saving grace and the power of His love to transform us.  I pray we don't let any more of these opportunities to draw near to God pass us by.  If unappreciated it is possible God will hesitate to send these blessings our way!  We should welcome these opportunities to experience poverty for . . . God is calling us to Himself, seeking to embrace us with both His power and His love.