“How could I not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been eaten out by fire?” The king asked me, “What is it, then, that you wish?” I prayed to the God of heaven and then answered the king: “If it please the king, and if your servant is deserving of your favor, send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, to rebuild it.”
Nehemiah 2: 2-5
And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” Jesus answered him, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.”
Luke 9: 61-2
Today is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. By sheer coincidence, the readings from the yearly cycle for today afford a rich opportunity to deepen our reflection on the heart of the call of Francis. In the passage from Nehemiah, we hear of Nehemiah’s heart being deeply touched by the condition of the holy city and of his determination to rebuild it, as Francis will be touched by the dilapidated condition of San Damiano, as a symbol of the whole Church, and realize his call to rebuild it. In the passage from Luke, we read of the condition of true discipleship. It is by divesting of all possessiveness that one becomes an instrument of God’s work. It is by a purity of heart and singleness of purpose that releases whatever hold anyone or anything has on him or her, that one becomes a disciple and servant of the Lord.
The Nehemiah whom we meet in today’s reading is a perfect exemplar of how the sensible and responsible heart faithfully gives form to life and world. As Nehemiah, the cup bearer to King Artaxerxes, goes about his serving, he betrays in a way the King clearly recognizes that he is suffering sadness of heart. The sadness is due to the state of his homeland, the place of his ancestors’ burial. This sensible recognition of the sadness of things evokes in him a response, the desire and determination to rebuild it. This is akin to the experience of Francis, who suffers at the sight of the ravaged state of the Lord’s house at San Damiano.
At our depth of spirit, we are a capacity to be deeply touched in such a way that we, in our original call and Divine direction, are moved to respond. The “sensibility” of our hearts, in the deepest sense, is not merely the the triggering of our unconscious affects. It is rather a felt reaction to the reality of the life situation that contains within it a directive for our response, a summons to our transcendent-functional responsibility. Nehemiah is described as “sad,” not as angry or frustrated. Quite often our first reaction to the fact that things are not what we would like them to be or think they should be is anger and frustration. Anger and frustration, however, are affects that are most closely related to our ego or functional dimension. They are based on our mistaken understanding that our way is the right way. They are a source of compulsion in us, the compulsion to set the other or the world straight, according to our lights.
A friend has always pointed out to me that beneath anger we shall usually find sadness. Sadness is more related to our heart and our spirit. it arises out of the disappointment of our deepest longings and aspirations. So, Nehemiah grieves that the very place where his ancestors are buried has fallen into ruin. This sad experience of the reality of the situation requires of him a wholehearted response. This response comes not from a place of frustration, and so of compulsive action, but rather from the deepest longings of his heart which leads him on a course of action that is determined and committed.
This is precisely the experience of Francis. He has come to know to his very core the love, joy, and peace which the Lord alone brings. In this light, the lack of care and attention to the Church (and it should be added of the Church to Jesus himself) becomes a pain and a summons to him. This former wealthy and spoiled person, who had “lived rather delicately,” now gives every iota of his life and strength to the hard physical labor of rebuilding San Damiano, as he will later call himself and his brothers to the “rebuilding” of the spirit of the entire Church by means of their radical and joyful following of Jesus by means of Lady Poverty.
The distinguishing characteristic of Francis’ way of discipleship is his requirement of himself and his followers of radical poverty. To the current time, each “renewal” in the Franciscan tradition includes a return to Jesus’ demand that once we set our hand to the plow, we must never turn back. Francis profoundly grasps the complexity of our human sensibility. To fully realize the purity of heart that would allow us to know and trust the direction of our affects and feelings, we must be attached to nothing or anyone other than the Lord.
Although having spent 53 years of my life as a religious, I have accumulated over time some possessions, objects that have associations with the significant persons and places of my past. There are gifts I have received from dear friends, a few possessions that belonged to my parents, many books I have accumulated through the years. Moreover, there are ways of doing things that my relative independence of recent years has rooted deeply in my personality. As I ponder the likelihood of necessary moves in the not too distant future, I feel the pull of these objects, these memories, these ways of acting and being. I experience feelings of loss and of fear as change and aging strip away what I pre-consciously take as components of my very self. The many possessions and the competing relationships make it complicated and difficult to recognize and be responsible to the Divine direction for my life at this time. What seems like the eternal struggle between my way and God’s way continues.
Recently I communicated with a confrere and friend who participated in the drafting of the Fundamental Principles, the renewed Rule of Life for the Xaverian Community. He told me an incident from the first time the Fundamental Principles had been shared with the entire membership. A Brother, a good friend of his who had read them for the first time, spontaneously reacted by saying: “”This g…..d…. thing asks for your life.” Being human means that we shall, for the most part, always experience a tension in our life and work between doing God’s work and doing our work. Our work, as distinct from God’s, is work that we do to support the self we have created, that self which is related to but also a concealing of our unique life call.
The stories of St. Francis are replete with examples of his experiencing joy in those moments of greatest poverty and desperation. How is it that such moments were characterized by joy for him? It seems that at each of these moments he experienced more of who he really was by discovering that he was not those attachments to things, people, and feelings with which he had identified himself. In today’s terms we might say that Francis discovered the truth that human wholeness lies in the capacity we are to give ourselves away to the service of the one necessary thing that is asked of us. In this sense the radical poverty of Francis is not deprivation; it is rather realization.
In his book On God’s Side, Jim Wallis writes: “Christianity is . . . a call to a relationship that changes all our other relationships.” (pp. 3-4) Poverty, in Francis’ sense, does not lead us away from loving others and the world. To the contrary, it is how we learn to love others and the world in truth. As long as it is for ourselves that we love, we never love the other as ourselves. When we come to dispossession, then we become aware of the radiance that shines from all others and from creation. The light, the life, and the love of all others becomes a source of true joy to us.
The priest of San Damiano church in Assisi judged that the work of re-building his church was beyond the strength of Francis, even though he was offering himself so enthusiastically to divine service. Although poor himself, he obtained special food for Francis, for he knew that, while he was in the world, he had lived rather delicately. . . .
One day, when he noticed what the priest was preparing for him, Francis said to himself, “Will you find a priest like this wherever you go who will offer you such human kindness? This is not the life of the poor that you have chosen. As a beggar, going from door to door, you should carry a bowl in your hand and, driven by necessity, you should collect the scraps they give you. This is how you must live willingly, out of love for him who was born poor, lived very poorly in this world, remained naked and poor on the cross, and was buried in a tomb belonging to another.
As a result, one day he took a bowl and , entering the city, he went door-to-door begging alms. Whenever he put various scraps in his bowl, many who knew what a pampered life he had lived were astonished at how marvelously changed he was, seeing that he held himself in such contempt. But when he wanted to eat the mixed food offered to him, he felt revulsion because he was not accustomed, not only to eating such things, but to even looking at them. At last overcoming himself, he began to eat, and it seemed to him that no delicacy had ever tasted so delicious.
The Legend of the Three Companions of Saint Francis, II, 81ff.