Many have left home, ease and comfort and friends to join religious orders, cut off all ties because they desired to take Christ as their Companion forever. Secular Franciscans, by their perpetual profession have taken Christ as their Companion but, unlike religious, we have not left home or the ease and comfort. All our friends are still with us.
Men and women, married and single, many members of the diocesan clergy are called by God to follow the way of perfection of the gospel life after the example and manner of Saint Francis of Assisi, to share his charism, and to make it present in the world. They promise to follow Jesus Christ and to live the gospel in fraternity by entering the Secular Franciscan Order. In this way they manifest the priceless gift of Baptism and realize it in a fuller and more fruitful way. (from the Preface, Ritual of the Secular Franciscan Order)
Even though we live our vocation in the marketplace, loving our brothers and sisters in and out of fraternity according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we need to work on ourselves as well. What we do for others needs to come from our love of Jesus. It is essential that Secular Franciscans develop a deeply spiritual relationship with Jesus, otherwise our external work means nothing.
As Franciscans we must go through a continual conversion, day by day. Our objective is perfection. Jesus is perfection itself. Our love for Him reflects the love we receive by serving others, for in the goodness of other people we see Jesus in His humanity. We cannot, however, see Him in others unless we have a life of the soul, a spiritual life with Jesus. As we mature we learn how to keep Jesus company every minute of our waking hours.
In our lives, spiritual and otherwise, the main thing we must realize is that HE must increase, and I must decrease. As we progress we see our vocation with gratitude for it is a gift of God to us. We strive to honor this new relationship with God by keeping watch, by consciously trying to reduce even venial sins in our lives. The burden of sin keeps us from loving God and therefore it also keeps us from loving one another. "When the soul has surrendered her powers to God, her light is lost in Divine Light."1 And, each new degree of purity and of love increases the brilliance of light.
When we stray away from Jesus, we drag our aching soul to that lonely, hallowed, spot within the shadow of Gethsemane. The pain of loneliness and isolation that we can feel in our inmost being even though Franciscans are almost never lonely or isolated, it is at Gethsemane where Our Lord invites us to come and keep Him company and where he invites mankind to "come weep with Me."
When we as Franciscans help the suffering in our various ministries, we come to weep with them and Jesus. The other morning when I brought the Body of Christ to about 9 people at a local nursing home, this thought of weeping with Jesus came to me starkly, as I passed in a hallway, a couple of very elderly people, obviously in great pain, totally alone and unattended, at least for the moment. There is real loneliness and isolation for those in nursing homes who have no one who visits them and where the staff has minimal contact because they seem peacefully asleep most of the time. If only people knew what goes on in the mind behind the outer facade of those seemingly asleep. Sometimes deep torment.
If the life of our souls are to reach a plateau of relative peace, there are some things we need to do while keeping company with Jesus. We have to be alert for any danger that will upset our inner relationship with Jesus. Self-control means keeping silent when we have nothing to contribute to a situation that is going nowhere. And if we have a temper, perhaps holding ones' tongue - for when we let our temper get away from us, we damage our inner relationship with Jesus. There is a dignity to our vocation for a Franciscan whose inner relationship with Jesus is strong and calm, who is not swayed by the endless vicissitudes of daily life, who is always gracious and kind, such a friend of God will reap the spiritual harvest to come.
Be always charitable, praise people, whether they seem to deserve it or not. Highlight the positive about the person you are speaking with. Don't even begin to think about all that is wrong with him. He comes to you out of need, asking you, perhaps, for a few dollars. Don't immediately jump to the conclusion that he's not going to use that money for food. I had such an encounter recently in a large parking lot. I did not see him approach and as I was getting out of my car, a hand tapped me on the shoulder (itself, sometimes, an unnerving experience). I was looking at a haggard face, someone whose life experience showed in his eyes. Could I spare some money. Yes, of course I could. After I put my wallet back in my pocket I looked around. He was totally gone as if he never existed. I remember this encounter here because we never know who taps us on our shoulders. It could be Jesus himself.
We are expected to show refinement for "stepping aside is a graceful movement of the soul." Don't seek praise... but give it, as the Prayer of Saint Francis says. "We seek to take on the manners of Heaven. Stepping aside is the outer garment of humility. Also, always speak the truth. Even to yourself. Truth is strength, Truth is God.
Practice detachment from worldly goods. As Secular Franciscans we do not have a vow of poverty, but nonetheless, we know that amassing worldly goods is not the way to heaven. Also, a person who practices detachment does not deprive others of their rights. Do not judge others, just try to help where you can. St. Francis of Assisi could have scorned the lepers as the outcasts of society they were in the 13th Century, but he helped them and bathed their wounds.
Pride is a terrible obstacle to attaining perfection. Humility kills pride. It is a gift: "Were it not for our Master and Lord, not one of us would strive to acquire humility." Bear irritations and humiliations silently. Remember St. Francis' description of Perfect Joy - he bore irritation and humility with perfect joy! Silently accept sorrow as he did. You'll find out that being humble is real suffering at times, but offer it up for Jesus. "We catch a glimpse of God's patient and absorbing love," when we strive to be humble and patient.
Obedience to the Will of God takes total surrender. Breaking our own will, that very free will He gave us, takes an immense amount of pain and suffering. But we must... Jesus loves us totally and unconditionally. Can we do any less for Him? All this falls under the subject of personal conversion and we, as Franciscans, work on that every day.
Also, feelings have no place in the life of the spirit. How often I hear someone say... it feels so good to pray. Our feelings must never be the issue in prayer... because our feelings is pride. The Eucharistic life is a marvel of love. Feelings have no place in this Eucharistic life - deep convictions do. Craving for anything outside of God will do us harm.
Our focus is clear from our Charism, our vocation. Service to others, our brothers and sisters, also to those who are marginalized and whose rights as human beings are trampled upon, that service is the loss of self in the interest of God. Service is the purchase price of peace. And, "whoever does not carry my Cross, cannot be my disciple." (Lk 14:27) Love all, do not overlook anyone. "A radiant smile is a blessing; bad humor, a poor choice of words, casts a pall of doom."
"Joy is one of the marks of sanctity. Smiles are sweet messengers." Have sympathy and empathy rather than apathy. In other words, have compassion as Jesus did, live with the pain of others rather than shun their grief because it is inconvenient. Bear ye one another's burdens (Gal. 6:2) And, take people as they are. Meet them where they are at and start there. Never betray their trust. Any private conversation between two people does not go anywhere. Gossiping is what kills relationships. It is not of God.
Pray to the Father in secret (Mt 6:6). That's our personal friendship for Jesus, the inner life of our souls with Jesus. Pray always. Prayer is conversation with God. Let Mary, our Mother and the Mother of God be our example. The example of holiness. "Mary is the veil through which God's beauty shines."
We should strive to empty the soul of anything not of God. That means constantly asking the question, is this what Jesus would do? Is this what He would look at? Is this what He wants to hear or touch? And be honest in answering these questions of the soul. Many people have lost the perspective of what is right and wrong. Their reasoning hinges on "if it feels right, do it." That's dangerous because our feelings are usually not of God. Feelings is the false cushion that is pulled away by reality.
The spiritual life, that life that allows us to keep Jesus company in the innermost region of our soul, is indeed a strange land. It is the land of trial, struggle and isolation. "Close union with God transforms life here on earth into a veritable exile for the heroic soul."
Jesus died a gruesome death on the Cross so that we may have Life. Life with Him in all eternity. Have we really thought about the amount of suffering He experienced? It is good to reflect on that; those who have a strong inner life with Jesus live in the sacredness of the Passion. We are preparing for that subtle separation between earthly life and his Kingdom, and this journey brings much agony. There is no way around it. Every day we suffer in some form. The important thought here is to take this suffering and bear it gracefully for Jesus, so that the fruits of the suffering we bear may bear fruit elsewhere. Yes, my brothers and sisters, our suffering makes us stronger inside, and can be offered for others for the love of God.
If we are to follow in the footsteps of Jesus among our brothers and sisters in the way of Saint Francis of Assisi, it can only be done in a quiet and understated way to have any chance of succeeding. Our "self" or our ego has no place in this concept. The "self" is a "sly, elusive sprite, clever and shrewd, defying even death." It is very destructive. Self is the enemy of the Will of God. Our "self" is what Jesus died for on the Cross. Self is arrogant and must be humbled. Self is ambitious and does not serve us well in charity. Self has to be put in chains and eradicated from our life. Jesus has called everyone to intimacy with Himself. It is a soul's highest possible achievement. Few try to reach that high. And most of those are religious in cloisters. Franciscans can reach that high, if they try hard and learn to recollect their minds. Prepare your soul to become the habitat of the Presence of God. Keep Jesus Company all the time.
Pax et Bonum!
January 16, 2004 (rev. July 2014)
(1) Quotations not contributed to other sources are from "Vigil" by a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur. P.J. Kenedy and Sons. New York. 1929. Note that only a few copies of this most inspiring text are still in existence, primarily in monastic libraries. While reading and studying this book while with the Monks of Adoration, I made 26 pages of notes, which have been useful here.