St. Joseph Catholic Church
To leave the world is to leave a false sense of independence, of disinterest in others, of abandonment of God. We see that to move beyond the static and limited understanding of prayer requires us to reimagine our relationship with God. This is what Francis and Clare did nearly eight centuries ago. It is why their lives shine as examples for people of every age and continue to capture the attention and imagination of so many. The life of the Franciscan is to live the gospel, to transform one’s entire life into prayer.
A childlike person has a heart that is both uncomplicated and wise, loving, and trusting in God as Father. A childlike person feels sheltered and safe in God’s love, with a sound faith and confidence in both God and in his own strength (which has been given to him by God). He lives his life peacefully and without worry about the past or future. A truly childlike person can cope with, and even overcome, anxiety. A child knows that whatever happens to him at every moment was foreseen for him by the Father and will contribute to his formation. The childlike person’s only concern is to discover what God wants from him right now.
Love God and do as you will, says St. Augustine, for love is its own commandment. That is how St. Francis took it and lived it. He sinned, as all humans do, but after his conversion, he always knew when he had sinned because Love’s commandment drew him back to the divine love that underpinned everything he was and did. It was not so much fear of punishment that motivated Francis but rather his commitment to him whom he loved, Jesus Christ. To separate oneself from Christ would be the sin for Francis. If he feared anything, it would have been that he would betray Christ, the love of his life.
Mystics through the centuries have described their passionate and intense experiences of God in prayer as though God were a lover. Others, such as the medieval English abbot Aelred of Rievaulx, have considered God as like a friend. Still others, including Jesus of Nazareth, speak of God as a father or a mother. Just as each of these images—lover, friend, and parent—does not exhaust the richness of God’s ability to relate to us in ever increasingly personal ways, to think of God in terms of dating will also inevitably fall short of perfection. Nevertheless, I believe that this way of looking at our relationship with God, new as it may seem to us, might be just what today’s spiritual seekers need to rekindle a sense of the divine in their lives or to discover it for the first time. An experience like dating—that is, a relationship of increasing intimacy, complication, and change—is exactly what Francis and Clare of Assisi knew in their lives lived as prayer. Perhaps it’s time that, following their cues, we go on a date with God.
A very early Franciscan document, Sacrum Commercium, The Sacred Exchange, begins with words reminiscent of the Bible’s Song of Songs: “Francis began to go about in the streets and crossings of the city, relentlessly, like a persistent hunter, diligently seeking whom his heart loved. He inquired of those standing about, he questioned those who came near to him, saying, ‘Have you seen her whom my heart loves?’” This kind of language and imagery for Franciscan poverty makes of poverty and penance a joyful enterprise, the joyful knight, Francis, going about the countryside as the embodiment of the good knight whose virtues are those of a knight of the new Round Table of the Lord. Poverty and penance, then, are not a grim affair, but the kind of derring-do a knight would perform to impress the Lady of the Castle, even rolling in briar bushes in the dead of winter to show his fidelity to her. This charges the tone of the early Franciscan Order with the chivalry and adventure of the Quest, a Spiritual Battle, fired by a deep and abiding love for Christ the Lord whose self-emptying is symbolized in Lady Poverty who was Christ’s vesture.
None of us is perfect. We’re all a mixed bag. Inside each of us coexists light and darkness, good and bad, grace and sin. Ideally, sacramental marriage is a safe place where we can be confronted on our “stuff.” Left to our own natural devices, our first and only reaction would be to fortify our ego, stand our ground and be right. Grace enables a relationship to transcend our natural inclinations. Grace can transform what would otherwise be a convenient living arrangement into a sacred space where we feel safe enough to expose our brokenness and receive forgiveness.
In every marriage, there comes a sobering awareness that you are not able to do as much of your own thing. Even with a great marriage preparation experience, it is still normal for couples to wake up one day and think, “This is not the person I married. What happened?” It is natural for couples to experience some disillusionment in the early years. A time comes when you realize that your spouse isn’t all you thought and things aren’t working out quite as smoothly as you once hoped. We were not created to bear the weight of perfection. Let us be content to be who God made us—broken, imperfect beings. In marriage we face the ever present challenge to love one another despite our brokenness and many shortcomings.