FR. JONATHAN ST. ANDRÉ
In one of his presentations at Franciscan University of Steubenville in February, the Rev. Jacques Philippe spoke about one element of openness to the Holy Spirit as the capacity to be obedient to the circumstances of one’s life.
He expanded on this, saying that as we receive our life as it is, with all its ups and downs, we also receive the Holy Spirit. I don’t think even Fr. Jacques could have appreciated what prophetic words these were, as just a few weeks later the world would be rocked by the changing circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic.
This call to obedience to one’s life circumstances as an exercise of openness to the Holy Spirit is extremely challenging when one gets beyond the concept of it into the lived reality. And yet, I would wager to say that it is the way of the saints, especially of one in particular who has touched my life — St. Francis of Assisi. Using stories from St. Francis of Assisi and questions of reflection, let us explore the call to follow the Holy Spirit through obedience to the circumstances of our life.
Obedience to the circumstances of my life means accepting closed doors and believing that God will open others. St. Francis did not plan to live a poor, itinerant life. His own plan as a young man was knighthood. This was a plan that was probably far-fetched from the start, as he did not belong to the upper-class nobility. Still, it might have happened if circumstances had been different. But the circumstance of his own failure in battle, imprisonment and ensuing sickness led him to recognize that knighthood was not an option.
Francis could have railed against God for this unrealized dream, but instead he was led to bigger dreams. He was inspired with a dream of a castle full of arms that were meant for a different kind of battle. And, in a dream, he heard a voice that would impact him deeply: “Francis, who is it better to serve, the servant or the master?” Francis accepted the new circumstances of his life and followed the Lord.
Do you have any doors that are closing before you right now? Are you accepting this and believing God will open other doors, or are you shoving yourself in the gap, trying to keep them open by your own will?
Obedience to the circumstances of life means seeing and acting on new possibilities by the grace of God. From all we can tell, St. Francis didn’t envision founding a religious community. He followed a call that started with the mission of rebuilding dilapidated countryside chapels, communing with God in prayer and serving the lepers. As he followed this call, an interesting circumstance evolved — others wanted to follow Jesus Christ like him. He welcomed them, seeing that God was about to do something he had not foreseen and that if it was of God’s inspiration then it would endure. In obedience to the circumstances of life, Francis fulfilled the will of God. What are the new possibilities of your life that God is putting before you that you wouldn’t have planned for yourself? Could this be a better path God is offering you?
Fast-forward to the latter part of Francis’ life. At the outset of the growth of the friars, Francis yielded to God, bringing the men who would form his close community. In these last years of Francis’ life, Francis was disturbed by the direction of his order. In the writings about Francis by an early companion, a telling narrative is offered:
“Noticing and hearing at one time that some brothers were giving a bad example in religion and that the brothers were turning aside from the highest summit of their profession, moved inwardly with sorrow of heart, one time he said to the Lord in prayer: ‘Lord I give back to you the family You gave me.’ And the Lord said to him: ‘Tell me, why are you upset when one of the brothers leaves religion and when others do not walk the way I showed you? Also tell me: Who planted the religion of the brothers? Who makes a man convert and do penance in it? Who gives the strength to persevere in it? Is it not I?’” (Source: The Assisi Compilation, #112)
Obedience to the circumstances of one’s life can be personally painful. In this case, Francis had to be humbled by the Lord, reminded that what he thought was his (the Franciscan Order) was not his own. The Lord’s rebuke, though painful, was a necessary circumstance to lead Francis to detachment. When have you experienced the personal pain of unrealized hopes? How has God been with you in this?
Obedience to the circumstances of one’s life is the path of following the Holy Spirit. Yet there is a point that must be made: When brothers or sisters struggle under their circumstances, we should be able to discern how to show them charity and help them under the burden of these circumstances. You guessed it … another story of St. Francis:
“On night, around midnight, when they were all asleep in their beds, one of the brothers cried out, saying: ‘I’m dying! I’m dying!’ Startled and frightened all the brothers woke up. Getting up, blessed Francis said: ‘Brothers, get up and light a lamp.’ After the lamp was lit, blessed Francis said: ‘Who was it who said, I’m dying?’ ‘I’m the one,’ the brother answered. ‘What’s the matter, brother?’ blessed Francis said to him. ‘Why are you dying?’ ‘I’m dying of hunger,’ he answered. So that the brother would not be ashamed to eat alone, blessed Francis, a man of great charity and discernment, immediately had the table set and they all ate together with him.” (Source: The Assisi Compilation, #50)
Francis showed great charity and discernment with the “dying” brother, who was afflicted by the fasting of the brothers. Francis’ discernment led him to show charity; ultimately charity was a greater good than the mortification and penance that were the purpose of the circumstance of fasting. While we can only ultimately walk our own path and accept what God allows for us, we can still step out in solidarity for our brothers and sisters when they struggle under their life circumstances. Who is it whose burden I am being called to lessen? How can I help another in carrying his or her cross?
May the Lord give you and me the grace to be obedient to the circumstances of our lives. In doing this, may we be deeply open to the Holy Spirit. And may the Lord give you peace! Know that the friars are praying for you all, and we miss seeing you in person.