FR. JONATHAN ST. ANDRÉ, T.O.R.
Have you ever been caught up in the following self-talk: “I never thought I would be dealing with this trial … this sickness … this struggle. My life is hard — what did I do wrong Lord?!” We might talk about the cross and the value of suffering, but if we’re honest, we don’t really want it. This is part of the good news of the Gospel — life is supposed to be hard; there, in the difficulty itself, is found the grace. In the words of St. Paul, “God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.”
We cannot find a saint who didn’t experience hardship in some way, form or manner. Likewise, we cannot find a saint in whom God’s glory, God’s goodness, God’s benevolence was not made visible in him or her going through hardship.
In the hardship, the beauty of human weakness becomes the canvas upon which the divine brush strokes create a beautiful picture … a picture of the suffering Christ. There is no risen Christ without the suffering and dying Christ.
St. Francis of Assisi lived this reality. When we look at the canvas of his life, we find God’s working throughout. But it is particularly in the last six years of his life (1220-1226) that we see an especially brilliant reflection of the glory of God. This last six years were arguably the most difficult years of Francis’ life. He had to deal with the deterioration of his physical health, the reality of his closest human companions failing to meet his expectations and spiritual dryness and struggle. In these difficult years, God’s grace did amazing things in the life of St. Francis.
God worked through the hard reality of the deterioration of Francis’ health. The combination of great physical austerity, extensive travel and just the harshness of the age led to a decline in Francis’ health. Most notably, in the last few years of Francis’ life, his eyesight was failing (it doesn’t help that the treatments included cauterizing his eyes with fire). Francis may have also had the symptoms of tuberculosis, which may have led to his death.
In the midst of the hard lot of sickness, God’s grace shone through Francis. It is notable to mention that it was in his blindness that Francis dictated the famous Canticle of the Creatures. This poem of praise to God through God’s creation was shared when it’s author could hardly see Brother Sun and rejoice in the glow of Sister Moon! The vision of God’s grandeur was not forgotten by a man lost in the crisis of failing health. Francis praised God in his very weakness, and God blesses us still with his words.
Life was hard for Francis because he faced grave disappointment with the brothers to whom he felt closest. In a famous story chronicled in one of the biographies, Francis of Assisi cries out to the Lord with the bitter complaint that the Order he founded was straying away from where he had led it.
Francis felt the pain of betrayal, and he let God know it. The story goes on to relate how God reminded Francis that this was not Francis’ Order; rather, this was God’s Order. In the deep anguish of others not living up to his desires, Francis of Assisi was led to detach himself and trust that what was God’s would be taken care of.
A final trial for Francis in the last years of his life was his own spiritual struggle. In a period of prayer before the exaltation of the cross, Francis and his companion Brother Leo ascended the heights of Mount Alverna for an extended time of prayer. During this time, Francis experienced a vision of some sort of a seraph mounted to a cross, and he descended the mountain, bearing the wounds of Christ.
We should be careful not to underemphasize the pains these wounds must have brought and the great burden of notoriety that led Francis to hide them out of humility. Francis certainly wanted to mirror the crucified Lord, but he didn’t ask for the stigmata, and he probably didn’t expect to receive it.
Even in this unexpected challenge, the beauty of God’s overflowing presence came out of the little saint from Assisi. Coming down the mountain, Francis revealed to Leo a prayer that came out of this time of spiritual struggle: “The Praises of God.” In this beautiful prayer, Francis expresses the superlatives of God eloquently (You are beauty, You are charity, You are enough for us, etc.).
There are many people struggling on this campus! Whether it is mental illness or physical illness; struggles with your family or your friends; or feeling distant from God or unable to place God at the center — life is hard.
Francis of Assisi and all the saints invite us to do something counterintuitive — they call us to open ourselves to the reality that God provides the grace to face the challenges that each of us uniquely face. If we disdain the difficulties of our life, we risk closing ourselves off to the working of the Lord. Francis was faithful when life was difficult, and we are called to the same.