Beginning in 2014, Following Francis, Following Chiirst will be printed in the Confraternity of Penitents Newsletter. Hence, from 2014 on, archives of this column will be found in archived newsletters
2013 Following Francis, Following Christ Archives
January 2013: New, Unexpected Path
We all experience times when life takes us on a path that we had not anticipated. When we think of Saint Francis, we often assume that his first unexpected path was the most traumatic and life changing for him. But that may not have been the case.
What was that first unexpected path? Francis did not expect to be captured and made prisoner after his first major battle as a knight. He expected to come away from the field in honor and glory. Being a prisoner of war for a year forced Francis to reflect on where his life was taking him. The harsh deprivations, and possibly tortures, suffered in prison initiated the process of conversion in the soul of this young, flamboyant, pleasure seeking merchant.
Much later in his life, Francis found himself on another unexpected path. After years of conversion and difficulty, Francis had learned the great value of being poor, simple, unlearned, at the mercy of the elements, and dependent on the charity of others and the providence of God. He wanted his friars to always be in this state of want, simplicity, and insufficiency because these virtues attached them to God, their provident Father Who would provide for all their needs if only they would trust. However, in his declining years, Francis witnessed his Order’s rapid expansion with the addition of learned men who wanted to not only preach repentance but who were also highly qualified by their theological training to teach the doctrines and dogmas of the faith. These men did not see their own personal conversion and simple witness as the primary objective of their becoming Friars Minor. They felt what they considered to be a higher calling—the evangelization and instruction of the populace in the Catholic faith. In the final years of his life, Francis saw his Order rapidly transforming itself from a group of vagrant penitents to a structured militia of educated men determined to do battle with the forces of evil by both prayer and preaching. This was not necessarily a bad development, but it was far from Francis’ vision. Today it is rare to find any Franciscan who embodies the raw simplicity of the first friars who simply told the people, like mini John-the-Baptist’s, to “Repent and believe the Good News.” Today’s friars will tell you that, but more. They will explain the faith that they live and use their knowledge as well as example to encourage conversion and surrender in their listeners.
Have you found yourself right now on an unexpected path? It may be unexpected to you, but it did not take God by surprise as He is the One Who carved out that path for you. You have no idea where that path will lead or how you will walk it, but does that matter if God knows? The Blessed Mother, when called to her unexpected path of being the mother of our Lord, simply said “yes,” and then walked on with confidence and trust. The same God Who led her, Who led Francis, is leading you. May you take up your cross and follow wherever He leads, because the unexpected path will bring you to sanctification.
Let us pray for everyone walking unexpected paths this day.
Madeline Pecora Nugent
February 2013: Franciscan Virtue: The Courage to Know Thyself
Who called himself an idiota, a simpleton?
Who preferred blame rather than praise as a way to greater virtue?
Who, when someone called him a saint, said, "Don't do that. I might yet have sons and daughters," meaning, I could abandon my vocation as a religious or fall into sexual sin so don't canonize me?
Who, when he felt prideful, would enlist a friar to enumerate his faults and to taunt him with, "That's the way a son of a merchant should be treated?"
Who said, at the end of his life, that he had not lived perfectly the Rule that he himself wrote?
Saint Francis of Assisi.
Francis courageously knew himself, and he wanted every one of his friars to know not only Francis' weaknesses but their own particular ones. Francis was quick to attribute faults to himself. He knew himself well enough and recognized his shortcomings. To himself, he was not a saint. He believed himself to be the world's greatest sinner, and recognized that God had shown him great favors to prove that, if God could do an act of great grace in Francis, He could do it in anyone.
We often don't think of self-knowledge as a Franciscan virtue, and yet it is. If we are to remain humble before God and before our fellow human beings, we have to know ourselves. We are often quite adept at recognizing our strong points and talents. But we don't like to face up to our weaknesses and lacks. They hurt! And if someone else points them out to us, we may react strongly. "How can you say I don't care about anyone but myself?" "I'm not frustrated!" "I am not prideful." And so on.
Francis used to have his friars point out his faults to himself. That way he was aware of how he was being viewed by others. And, if they refused to point them out to him, he pointed his faults out to the friars. He always wanted to be considered the least of the friars because that is how he saw himself. When he realized that he could not lead the Order which came to life because of him, although he never intended to found it, he stepped aside and put another friar in charge. That was true humility and self-knowledge. At one time of his life, when his Order was fragmenting, he lashed out, 'Who are these people? I will show them what I can do!" but he never followed through on his threat of angry retribution. He allowed the Order to go on with the factions hammering out their differences among themselves.
As penitents, we are called to a deep self-awareness. We need to realize that others are not perfect, even those we emulate and try to pretend are saints. But we also need to realize that we are not perfect either and that the faults someone may charitably point out to us are the ones we need to address. When we are criticized or corrected, instead of taking offense, look for the truth in what was said. People generally don't tell you that your cooking is terrible, for example, if your concoctions taste like a popular dish from the Waldorf Astoria. Ask them to explain why they said what they said and listen. Don't take offense even if what they share seems exaggerated. This is the way that person sees YOU. What are you doing to come across that way? What truth is there in what the person says? And there will be truth in it. Maybe you aren't as black as someone thinks, but there must be some grayness there to cause the reaction.
This self knowledge can be painful, but we will certainly come to it in Purgatory if not here. How can we appear before the throne of God wearing the mask with which we hid our personality from ourselves? No one wears a mask in heaven. There everything is upfront. So isn't it better to know our limitations and weaknesses here and, if we can't correct them, then at least recognize them and learn to deal with them so that we stop hurting others because of them.
During Lent we often fast and do other penances such as extra prayers or extra works of charity or give extra alms. How about asking God to give you the penance of knowing yourself? I had an opportunity of getting a little window into myself when I spent time with our daughter and husband and their children. One of them reminds me so much of myself. I realized, "My goodness! I am like that!" She's a delightful child, but I see her faults readily and realize that they are mine. Yikes! But that is good because I need to know that I go my merry way without realizing how I'm coming across to others, without taking into consideration their own needs and desires, and assuming that everyone sees things my way and will want to do what I ask. I make hasty judgments and do what I like and make excuses to get out of doing what I'd rather avoid. I tend to think that my ideas are the best ones and will interrupt or be impatient with others so that I can share what I want to share because, after all, everyone would want to listen to ME, wouldn't they? Yikes again! And that's just the beginning of my faults. Others have told me more, some charitably and some not so charitably, but it's good to hear them. The sad thing is that I still have a long way to go to be purged of these traits. The good thing is that God does not give up on us. He, after all, made us with our faults and shortcomings so that we can confront them in humility and trust in Him, and not ourselves, for our sanctification. Often the less desirable traits become means of our sanctification. God can use our faults to advance His Kingdom, if we give them over to Him for His amendment.
How about asking the Holy Spirit to know yourself? Self-knowledge is a great knowledge. You don't have to have a PhD to obtain self knowledge. You merely have to be humble, to listen to those around you, to see what reactions you cause in others, and to be open to what the Lord lets happen in your life so that your faults float to the surface. "Lord, let me see myself as others see me. Help me to be a better witness to you. Purge me of my faults and make me holy. Amen."
--Madeline Pecora Nugent
March 2013: Franciscan Virtue: Imitation of Christ
Thomas a' Kempis is the generally accepted author of a popular book called The Imitation of Christ. Thomas was born about 150 years after the death of St. Francis of Assisi, and some people believe that St. Francis was an inspiration for this work. That could be true, for St. Francis certainly sought to imitate Christ as closely as he could.
The idea behind his imitation was quite simple. Until his conversion, Francis had imitated the ways of the world. He had given in to his own desires, sought his own glory, and envied those with money and power. Then he realized that he was on a dead end street. Everything he was seeking and striving for did not bring him the happiness and peace which he craved. There had to be a better way. He found that way by finding Christ. Not just a head Christ but a heart Christ. Francis embraced Christ with all his heart and thought that, if anyone pointed the way to happiness and peace, it had to be Christ Who had come from the Father to show us the way back to Him. Francis had been trying to imitate the nobles and knights. After his conversion, he did not seek to imitate the priests or clerics, many of whom were living worldly, self indulgent, self centered lives. Rather, he went right to the top. He decided to imitate Christ.
If Christ said to do something, Francis would do it. If Christ lived a certain way, Francis would live that way. His interpretation of Christ's teachings and life style was quite literal. So he quite literally lived the way Jesus did. When followers began to appear, Francis taught them to live the same way, too. After all, if a certain lifestyle was good enough for God, it certainly had to be good enough for mere men.
Francis' imitation of Christ took him right to the crucifixion, a crucifixion that, for Francis as for Jesus, was both spiritual and emotional. Neither Jesus nor Francis sought misunderstanding, but others' misunderstanding of their mission found both of them. Francis did not ask for the many physical ailments that tormented his body. He did not seek to remedy those torments either until his fellow friars insisted. He preferred to unite his physical ills with those which Christ suffered in His Passion. Likewise Francis did not dream of the stigmata--they were entirely new to human consciousness when he received them on his person and could never have imagined such a phenomenon. But he used those painful wounds of Christ in his body to bind him ever more closely to Jesus. Since Jesus bore these wounds without complaint, dying with them, so would Francis, no matter how much pain and inconvenience they caused.
During this Lenten season, we have an opportunity to imitate Christ through our penitential practices. Christ fasted so Francis fasted so should we fast. Christ prayed so Francis prayed so should we pray. Christ gave help to the needy and poor and so Francis gave help to the needy and poor and so should we do the same. Only God knows why He impressed the stigmata onto Francis' body, but theologians speculate that God confirmed in his body what Francis had been trying to do--imitate Christ. The stigmata were the ultimate conformity to Jesus. And they embarrassed Francis who wanted no one to know of this grave gift.
Could people say that we are an imitation of Christ? If not, how can we move in that direction? How can we use our sufferings and struggles to become more like Jesus? Lent should help us get in step with the Lord. May the Lord show us how to do this.
--Madeline Pecora Nugent
April 2013: The Faith of Saint Francis
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was and who is to come. Let us praise and exalt Him above all forever.
Worthy art Thou, O Lord, our God, to receive praise, glory and honor, and benediction. Let us praise and exalt Him above all forever.
The Lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power and divinity and wisdom and strength and honor and benediction. Let us praise and exalt Him above all forever.
Let us bless the Father and the Son with the Holy Ghost. Let us praise and exalt Him above all forever. (The Praises of God by St. Francis of Assisi)
The faith of St. Francis of Assisi is evident throughout all of his writings and his life. The words above are from the "Praises of God to Be Prayed at All Hours" witch St. Francis composed. It is quite possible that these praises were also sung. The Easter season was a time of great rejoicing for Francis. It is at this season that he celebrated the great glory of Christ following His great sacrifice. At the beginning of his conversion, Francis prayed in front of the crucifix of San Damiano, asking God for direction. Once Francis knew what God wanted him to do, he gave it his whole energy and his whole will.
It may seem evident that the saints had a great faith in God. And, of course, they all did. But Francis had as his mission the living out of that faith and penance and conversion and evangelization. Although he tended lepers he did so because of his faith and not because of a mission to care for the poor. The caring of the lepers was a way to advance Francis's conversion and that of the his followers. In other words, he did not found a hospital order to tend the lepers. He founded an Order of penitents who were bent on surrendering themselves to God and who wanted to encourage others to do the same. Such an Order would make no sense without faith in the God to whom the men and women were surrendering. It is difficult to imagine Francis ever entertaining the idea that God did not exist. To him, God was the most real reality of all, and Francis's will had to get in line with God's plan.
As penitents living the rule that Francis gave to us, we, too, must surrender ourselves to God in utter faith. There is no better season to do this than this one of the Easter.
Let us all give God ourselves as He so generously gave Himself to us.
In Him with my prayers for you and asking yours for me,
Madeline Pecora Nugent
May 2013: Praying for Those Who Do Us Harm
" . . . let them pay attention to what they must desire above all else: to have the Spirit of the Lord and Its holy activity, to pray always to Him with a pure heart, to have humility and patience in persecution and infirmity, and to love those who persecute, rebuke, and find fault with us, because the Lord says: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute and calumniate you. Blessed are those who suffer persecution for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. But whoever perseveres to the end will be saved." (Saint Francis of Assisi, Later Rule, Chapter X)
Did you see, in your local or national media, news coverage of this event?
On April 18, radicalized and hate-filled feminists assaulted Brussels Catholic Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard during his public presentation on the nature and dignity of marriage and human sexuality. The topless homosexual activists physically assaulted the Archbishop, doused him with water while cursing and shouting bigoted slurs to shame and silence him. The Archbishop bowed his head and prayed while under attack. The water bottles used to assault him were similar to those used to collect holy water at Lourdes, shaped in the image of Our Lady. Following the assault the Archbishop took one of the bottles and kissed the image of the Blessed Mother.(summary of the event by Catholicvote.org)
You know, I didn't see anything about this either. I did find it on the internet, however, by doing a search. The event was posted on an atheist site which posted a supposedly non-judgmental article but which certainly issued no negative words about the event. Some blog comments following the post criticized the women for not using more vile methods of abuse. Another article on an Australian news site gave a quick summary, mainly about the women, but did show the drenched Archbishop in prayer and kissing the Virgin's image on the bottle. On neither site was there any suggestion that the Archbishop is deserving of respect simply because he is a human being. Is bullying OK if the person being bullied holds certain unpopular beliefs on faith, ethics, and morality?
The Archbishop behaved exactly as St. Francis would have wished. No doubt he was praying for the women, praying for strength, praying for courage. He uttered not one word of reprimand to them nor did he retaliate afterwards. His defense was to recommend all to the Blessed Mother and to take the abuse as Christ did. CatholicVote.org is hosting a letter in support of the Archbishop--I'm glad someone is. But, as those pledged to live a penitential rule of peace given to us through St. Francis, we need to look at our response to abuse. Do we rise to defend anyone from abuse, no matter what their position on morality or faith? Certainly we support the Archbishop, but we also should defend the rights of the women, misguided as they are, not to be unduly harmed by the officers who removed them from the stage. They have a right to freedom from abuse, too, simply because, no matter what atrocities they have committed, they are made in the image and likeness of God. The existence and value of an immortal soul does not depend on a person's recognition of it.
We, as penitents, have an obligation to pray for our persecutors as Jesus said, so praying for the women would be an act of charity. You see how we can so silently battle the swelling evil and faithlessness that is engulfing the world? We can pray for the perpetrators and they can't stop us from praying! They can block our writings, silence our voices, refuse to print our newspaper ads, ignore the letters we write to our government, but they can't stop the prayers. They will go up like a persistent, swelling song. And if they kill us (and it may come to that), they have still not silenced the prayers, for won't those be far more effective from heaven when issued in the very Presence of God than from here where we are still in exile?
There are many people on my prayer list, but these four women are now added to it as are the bloggers and site managers that supported those women and their abusive behavior. May all of these people someday embrace the love of Christ and claim for their own salvation the blood which He shed for them and the sufferings and abuse which He endured for their souls. The grasp of evil is strong and great, but grace is stronger and greater. Grace can abound where nothing else does. And God has His ways that humans cannot fathom. Let us pray, as Francis did, as he encouraged us to do, as Jesus did and as Jesus told us to do, for those who do us and others harm. God wants ALL to be saved, and that ALL excludes no one.
In His Love with my prayers and needing yours,
Madeline Pecora Nugent
June 2013: Cleaning Up Messes
"The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards I delayed a little and left the world. (St. Francis of Assisi, The Testament)
When St. Francis began his conversion, he had no idea where it would lead. He knew only that he was in sin, and that he had to change. At that moment, he had no idea how deep the change would be. For Francis, his conversion took him from being a generous and popular merchant's son to being a generous and popular pauper. But before the transition was complete, Francis had to undergo a great deal of change, opposition, prayer, questioning, and want.
When we begin to clean up the messes in our lives, we often do not realize how messy our lives really are. It is similar to cleaning a celler or an attic that has been neglected for a long time. We begin with the idea that we are going to straighten up and discard items no longer needed or used. But as we begin to go through the accumulated possessions, we find some that we want to keep in disrepair and so they must be fixed. We find others that people we know may benefit from, and so we put them aside to give away. We find others that are simply rubbish and we throw them out. But we find more. We discovered dust and dirt that has accumulated over the years, and we begin to clean it up. But then we find out that someplace in the attic or cellar itself actually needs repair, and so that must be done in order to prevent further damage to the house. And so what began as a simple project becomes a complex and much longer ordeal than what we originally envisioned.
The process of conversion is not to be entered lightly are with the flippant idea that we will soon be saints. Becoming saints is a long process, and only those who get to heaven make it. We do know, however, that when we do get to heaven, even if it's after a long period of Purgatory, we will be saints even if no one ever asks our intercession or remembers our name. Being in the presence of Christ for all eternity is the essence of being a saint. The first step is to begin to clean up our lives.
St. Francis was courageous in beginning his journey of conversion. Of course, we all know that the journey of conversion is not something we just decide to do. It is the journey onto which we are pushed by the Holy Spirit when the time is right for us to begin. This is why it is important not to balk when God is leading us Into a deeper union with Him. If the time is right for God, then it must be right for us, and we need to get in line with God's program even if it does not seem to meet our time schedule are our goals or preferences at the moment.
You will note that St. Francis stated that his conversion began when he did the very thing that he most loathed to do, and that was to go among the lepers. Francis would never have gone among the lepers had his conversion not been started already, but that initial stage was not the definitive one for Francis. The definitive one was doing precisely what he never would've imagined himself doing had his conversion not been complete.
Do not be surprised if God asks you to do the unexpected, the unanticipated, the very thing that has always frightened you but which you know is God's will. We are not truly surrendered to God unless we are willing to do whatever He asks us to do. So, wherever we are in our conversion, wherever we are in our faith journey, let us begin to do penance today and leave behind our own way of acting, our own choices, and go with God's plan. Then we will know that our conversion is sincere.
May God give us the grace to love Him, serve Him, and follow Him, wherever He takes us. Amen.
With my prayers and asking yours, Madeline Pecora Nugent
July 2013: Franciscan Virtues
What are the Franciscan Virtues? They are virtues (good qualities) which St. Francis especially embraced. Virtues like poverty, simplicity, humility immediately come to mind. It's not that St. Francis embraced these virtues more than any other saint, but he made the the cornerstone of his Order. Francis started out in his conversion to live poorly, simply, chastely, and humbly. He wanted to appear a fool for Jesus, and he would treat with charity those who mocked him for that (after all, aren't fools to be mocked and laughed at?). He did not intend to have others imitate him in his life. He simply began to live a certain way because that way seemed best to him, through prayer and discernment, and he knew without a doubt that it was absolutely right for this self-centered, conceited young man to totally empty himself, become the laughing stock of his town, and give all the pain and anguish to Jesus. For Francis, it was a total reversal of his previous life. it was his conversion.
The Franciscan Virtues can be summed up in the phrase, "It's not about me." No, life isn't about me. It's about You, God, and about my neighbor whom You have made in Your image, the same as You made me. So my life is of infinite worth, my Lord, but so is everyone else's life. It's not about ME. It's about YOU. And how do I live my life so that I constantly remind myself and others that it's about YOU and not about ME?
In seeking the answer to this question, Francis began to live as Jesus instructed. Now we all try to do that, don't we? But do we REALLY? Francis was determined to REALLY live the way Jesus instructed. Jesus said to give everything to the poor and come and follow Him. So Francis did that. Jesus said to turn the other cheek if someone struck you, so Francis did that. Jesus said to give your cloak to anyone who asked, so Francis did that. Jesus said, when traveling, to stay with whoever would let you remain there. So Francis did that. He took Jesus literally at His word. Francis did not cut off his hand if it made him sin--but he did cut off the life style that led him to sin, that of a rich merchant with a lot of money to throw around. In fact, he would not let his hand cause him to sin. He refused to touch money which had been the cause of Francis's sinful and self indulgent life style. He didn't pluck out his eye which caused him to sin, but he didn't let his gaze linger on women or wealth, both of which had caused him to sin in the past. So instead of mutilating his body, which he could use to praise God and do good, he suppressed the temptations.
We might, therefore, consider as a primary Franciscan virtue one that people seldom recall--courage. It takes a great deal of courage to do what Jesus asks. Francis was big on courage. He fought as a knight which required a certain measure of courage, but fighting against his own temptations to the world, the flesh, and devil required a great deal more courage than fighting the Perugians. Francis took on the hardest enemy--his self will. That happens to be our own worst enemy, too. "I don't want to. I don't feel like it. Not now. What will people say?" Self-will.
When we think about the Franciscan Virtues, we might think about what would be our own virtues. What would Sally's virtues be or John's? What about yours? How do they measure up to what Christ asks of us? Do you need more courage to do what God is asking? You can always pray for that. And that takes courage, too.
May God give us the courage to make the Franciscan Virtues our own.
With my prayers and asking yours, Madeline Pecora Nugent
August 2013: The Crosses of Saint Francis
Father David Engo of the Franciscan Brothers Minor was retreat master for CFP Retreat 2013. He spoke on the Crosses of Saint Francis. The titles of Father David’s talks were
The Cross of the Cave: Penance
The Cross of San Damiano: Discernment
The Cross of the Habit: The Proclamation of the Gospel
The Tau Cross: The Call to Conversion
The Cross of the Order: Fraternal Life
The Cross of the Stigmata: The Cross of Love
Father David began the retreat by reminding the penitents that we are all broken. Everyone comes from a dysfunctional family of some sort, and Saint Francis was no exception. His father loved him conditionally—on the condition that he be a great merchant or a great knight. His brother taunted him so the relationship there was not perfect, and his mother, after Francis’ conversion, figures no more in the stories. Did she ever go to visit her son? No one knows. In the darkness of a cave, Francis came into touch with his own sinfulness and sought to do penance, that is to enter conversion. Before the Cross of San Damiano, so rich with imagery, he began to discern how God was calling him, and he didn’t find his path right away. In fact, it took Francis a year or two to have a clear vision of what God wanted him to do. Nevertheless, he kept moving forward as he felt God was leading. Francis adopted a poor habit and went out to live as Christ lived. His proclamation of the Gospel was to do what Jesus did and to call others to get to know and love and to follow Christ. Francis saw the world as good and evil as corrosion on it that needed cleansing. When the Pope extolled the Tau as the cross of conversion, Francis adopted it for his Order, using it instead of his name for a signature. It was as if Francis were saying, “Convert. Come to Christ.” While Francis had begun his life of penance privately, others came to join him in time. These others had their own quirks and faults just like Francis did, and some of them tried to change his vision. So while those on the outside of religious life may think that everyone in it is a saint, those inside the convents and monasteries and cloisters know that penance comes about just by putting up with one another and helping each other to reach eternal life. Finally, at the end of his life, Francis was very much in love with God Who loved him without measure. He prayed to God to experience in his flesh what Christ experienced on the Cross and to experience in his heart the love that Christ felt on the Cross for sinful humanity. God granted these two favors to Francis, as much as he was able to bear them, when Francis received the wounds of Christ in his own flesh, the stigmata and felt such love for others that it caused him to weep over their sins as well as his own. God gave Francis a virtue that was also a flaw—he was not able to see the bad in others but only the good. Francis’ stigmata, too, were unique. They differed from those received later by other mystics in that nails made of Francis’s own flesh appeared in his hands and feet, and these could be moved around in the wounds. At the end of his life, Francis told his brothers, “I have done what was mine to do. May you do what is yours to do.”
Francis had a deep Eucharistic spirituality. Father David suggested to retreat goers that, at Mass, they ask themselves four questions, which priests ought to ask while serving Mass.
Who are you?
Where are you?
What are you doing?
Who are you talking to?
We must always be aware that we are in God’s Presence at Mass and that we receive Him, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the Eucharist. He, perfect, eternal, indivisible, unites bodily with us in our sinful, fleshly state to sanctify us. Do we treat this great gift with reverence, awe, love?
Francis’ prayer must become our own. “My God and my All.” And “Lord, give me RIGHT faith, CERTAIN hope, and PERFECT charity.”
The message of Saint Francis fits perfectly with the new evangelization, the re-evangelization of Christians who have forgotten Christ. Francis’ Order was founded to love the Gospel, to live the Gospel, to preach the Gospel, to live the virtues Jesus extolled. This is the basis of the Confraternity of Penitents, too, whose members are living the original Rule which Francis gave t the penitents in 1221.
Retreat tapes are available from the CFP Holy Angels Gift Shop on this link.
May St. Francis inspire us to follow Christ’s footsteps and give our lives to Him Who gave His Life for us!
Madeline Pecora Nugent
The Triumph of the Cross
September 16 is the celebration of the Triumph of the Cross. On this day, the Church recalls how Christ triumphed over sin and death through His own sacrificial death for sin on the cross of Calvary. Saint Francis was observing a "lent" (that is, a time of fasting and prayer) around this time, asking God to let him feel in his heart the love which God had for us on the cross and to feel in his body the pain Christ felt in the crucifixion, as much as it would be possible for Francis to feel these. So much did Francis wish to identify with Christ that he would ask these two gifts from God. Around the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, Francis received the Stigmata, the wounds of Christ, in his body, and his heart expanded considerably with love for humanity. Thus, God granted his prayers.
Hardly any of us would dare to ask God for these gifts, but God gives us many unrequested gifts, and the most grace filled of these come wrapped as "crosses." Perhaps if they actually looked like crosses, we would recognize them better, but they don't leave any wounds of Christ on our body and they don't fill our heart to bursting with love for others. Alas, most of these crosses which God intends for our spiritual growth come as annoyances, frustrations, trials of patience, and thwarting of our wills. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was able to see Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor. If only we could see the purifying cross in the more distressing disguise of every day bumps in the road.
When we are busy with something and a child comes and asks a question, that annoyance is a cross in disguise.
When we are running late to an appointment and road construction looms ahead, slowing traffic to a crawl, that trial of patience is a cross in disguise.
When we have planned the perfect party and all the guests are coming, and we come down with the stomach flu hours before, that thwarting of our plans is a cross in disguise.
When we are trying to assemble something that comes with "easy to follow" instructions and the parts don't seem to fit together, that frustration is a cross in disguise.
What are you facing right now that is a cross in disguise? How are you handling it? When Francis received the stigmata, he tried to hide his wounds from the friars and refused to talk about them. Put another way, instead of groaning in pain and trying to have others help him, Francis tried to let others think that his life was going along perfectly normally and he needed no extra assistance. Of course, this was not true, and the friars soon discovered his weakness and pain and had to help him, but it is not what Francis wanted. Part of the cross of the stigmata was its singularity, and Francis did not want to be singular. He wanted to fit in with all the other friars and in no way stand out. So the cross, even as God gives it, may have ramifications that we don't originally see.
When I broke my leg, the evident cross was my inability to get around, to drive, to carry things, to do what I used to do and to have to have others do these in place of me. The secondary cross, which I saw immediately, fell to my husband who had to do so much for himself and for me that I used to do. But a cross I didn't think of was that of others’ curious or pitying looks that made me realize how conspicuous people with disabilities must feel. No more blending into the background for me. I definitely was an eye-catcher. For me, an unanticipated cross.
Anne, one of our CFP life pledged members, fell and shattered her elbow while having fragments of bone pierce an artery so severely that she required a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. This commuted fracture was secured with five pins during surgery. Put on massive antibiotics, Anne was told that this sort of fracture and surgery is extremely susceptible to infection which could be devastating. Recovery time would be up to two months. Her attitude during this trial shows how we are to bear crosses. “God must have some reason for this and I’m taking this as a time to slow down, pray more, and ascertain His Will better.” Being out of work during will allow Anne time and peace to meet those goals.
We anticipate some crosses and can prepare for them, like a planned move or the arrival of a new baby. But many are totally unexpected and often unrecognized. Suppose we all keep our spiritual eyes open for the crosses that come to us moment by moment. Will we be more likely to see them with the eyes of someone like Anne who knows that God is at work on us through the crosses He permits or sends? May our crosses triumph in our lives, so as to make us receptive to the graces they send.
Let us pray for one another and for all doing penance worldwide.
Madeline Pecora Nugent
October 2013: Saint Francis and "Stuff"
Having just moved to Indiana, I am painfully aware of stuff which, even though we follow the Rule of 1221 and try to have little stuff, we find that it tends to multiply and accumulate and, when you move, you discover what's been building up over thirty years.
Thirty years in one house can generate a lot of "stuff," some of it belonging to children who have left the nest but who left their "stuff" behind. Francis had the same idea--when he left his family, he left his "stuff" behind, and a good amount of "stuff" it was, I imagine. The histories make no mention of him giving away all his "stuff" as they do tell about Francis counseling his two first followers Bernard and Peter to do that very thing. Francis had no need to do away with his "stuff" as he made a clean break with his family, and with everything in his past life, when he disrobed in the presence of the Bishop of Assisi and symbolically gave everything he owned to his earthly father, while calling God his heavenly Father. Saint Francis never, as far we know, went back home to clean out his "stuff." He left it all behind for his mother Pica and his father Pietro to deal with.
As penitents, we don't generally have the luxury of leaving our "stuff" for others to sort through. Our children took the "stuff" they wanted before we moved and gave the rest to a thrift organization that raises money for needy teens. We did the same with "stuff" we didn't need. The "stuff" left in the house we came to will also be given to charity if can't use it here. Better to have others use it than to fill a dumpster with it.
Francis wanted to eliminate not only physical stuff but also emotional baggage. He tried very hard to detach himself from attachments to anything and anyone but God alone. There is a story about St. Francis in which he worked hard to make a bowl and then, in the process of admiring it, he realized that it was distracting him from God and so he threw the bowl into the fire.
A few days after our move, our daughter Kay-Marie, who moved with us, was praying in the in-home chapel along with her friend Patrick. When prayers ended, Kay-Marie pushed herself up by pressing against a small table which collapsed under her weight, breaking one of the table legs. Glad that she was not hurt, we were not upset by the broken table and so threw it out. One less item of "stuff." Our reaction surprised Patrick who had thought that our reaction would have been much stronger. Had it been, it would not have been very Franciscan.
Does any "stuff" have a claim on you? What would be your response if you lost that "stuff" or if it was damaged? Your responses will tell you how close you are to a life of detachment from things. If you have a way to go, ask the Lord to help you get there and don't be surprised when He gives you a chance to prove that your prayer was sincere.
In Him Who chose poverty when He had all the riches of heaven.
Madeline Pecora Nugent, who still has too much "stuff"
November 2013 -- Fasting, Franciscan Style
This month on November 12, the Confraternity of Penitents begins the Fast of Saint Martin. For CFP members at the Novice 2 stage and above, this means one large meal and one small meal daily with no solid food between (although a bite to eat may be taken at another time of the day, if needed, provided that the "bite to eat" and the smaller meal, if taken together, do not equal the amount of food taken at the large meal of the day). This is the way fasting was done in the Rule of 1221 and so it is the way we do it today.
The Franciscan Brothers Minor have a different type of fasting. For all of their "Franciscan Lent," as they call it and which they start on November 2, they eat no meat or sweets. They remind their benefactors of this fact.
The Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate have a slightly different fast as they don't eat fruit during their fast times.
So what is fasting, Franciscan style, when we have already discussed three different styles of fasting?
Fasting Franciscan Style is not so much what you do or don't eat or how often you eat or what you give up eating. Rather it involves what attitude to you have to this fast. What are you preparing for? How are you preparing for it?
Fasting is a discipline which is intended to bring our bodies and minds into greater surrender to God. Since we are such fleshly people, we need to be reminded in the flesh of how we are to live. So we purposely inflict something difficult on the flesh to curb our will. We need constantly to curb our will and get it in line with God's Will. Fasting is a good practice for doing that.
Franciscan fasting needs to be combined with extra prayer. When St. Francis took his "lents" as he called them, he went off by himself to a hermitage and fasted and prayed. During one of these "lents," that preceding the Solemnity of St. Michael the Archangel, Francis received the stigmata. Francis seems to have spent about one third to one half of the year in these "lents" or times of intense prayer and fasting. Certainly they fostered his spirituality in profound ways and enabled him to then return to the people, fueled with grace and spiritual insight.
We as lay people cannot generally go off to a hermitage for forty days and leave the world behind. We fall too easily into the category of folk lamented by William Wordsworth in his sonnet:
THE world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; The winds that will be howling at all hours, And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers; For this, for everything, we are out of tune; It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
Francis took his "lents" in the wilderness where he was certainly moved by God revealed in nature. Far from being a "Pagan suckled in a creed outworn," Francis had a faith in God that was deeply strenghtened by contemplating the beauty of Creation. Wordsworth imagined that, if he had a pagan's faith, he would have a sense of God in nature, but he did not need to believe as a pagan does. He needed only to release himself from his worldly cares, get away from society for a bit, and immerse himself in nature. He would then have seen the Spirit of the Living God throbbing in Creation around him and would have been able to praise the God Who made all.
What are we to say about Franciscan fasting? In addition to abstaining from certain foods and eating less, let us feed our souls with an abundance during this Fast of Saint Martin. Let us fast from worldly things and spend some time with God in nature, even if it means finding that patch of sky among the skyscrapers where we live or pondering a blade of grass. Walt Whitman wrote, "a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels." How did he come to this conclusion? By studying a mouse!
Fast from food during the Fast of Saint Martin. But feast your eyes on God's Creation. Fill your soul with the glory of the Lord shown in His creatures. St. Francis, after many "lents," was able to write the beautiful Canticle of the Creatures. He was, in fact, suffering greatly from blindness and illness at the time of his writing. Perhaps one discipline during the Fast of Saint Martin would be to read and pray with the Canticle of the Creatures and then add some verses of your own.
May this be a fruitful Fast of Saint Martin with less an emphasis on food and more an emphasis on prayer and contemplation of God in His works! May God make it so for each of us!
The Poverty of God
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8: 9)
The most high Father made known from heaven through His holy angel Gabriel this Word of the Father so worthy, so holy and glorious in the womb of the holy and glorious Virgin Mary, from whose womb He received the flesh of our humanity and frailty. Though He was rich, He, together with the most Blessed Virgin, His mother, willed to choose poverty in the world beyond all else. (St. Francis of Assisi, Later Admonition and Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance)
St. Francis of Assisi was very much awed by the knowledge that Christ, though he was rich, became poor for our sake so that we might become rich through H yes is poverty. Perhaps this truth made such an impression on St. Francis because he, too, had been born rich. And for the sake of his Lord Jesus Christ, Francis willingly made himself poor. He was a living example to the people of Assisi of what Christ has done on a much greater scale. For the people of Assisi knew St. Francis as the rich, indulged son of the wealthy merchant Pietro de Bernardone. When Francis experienced his conversion and his desire to embrace poverty as did his Lord Jesus, he could have gone anywhere and been the beggar that he became. However, he chose to return to Assisi, perhaps because here he was known, and here he would be humiliated because of his choice. But he may have returned to Assisi to show his own people a walking parable about what God had done in coming to earth and taking on our flesh while giving up the riches of heaven.
We can imagine that the people of Assisi were shocked at Francis’s choice to relinquish his riches for a life of poverty and dependence on God. But Francis felt that the surest way to heaven is by imitating Christ who declared that he was the Way. And Christ, though he was rich, became poor for our sake. How could Francis do anything less?
As the years progressed and Francis matured in his spirituality, he wanted to give the world a visual example of the poverty of Christ. So on Christmas Eve in the year 1223, St. Francis initiated the first Nativity scene in a cave near the hermitage of the Friars in Greccio, Umbria, Italy. This was a live Nativity with living people and animals representing the Holy Family in the stable at Bethlehem. Francis’ first biographer Brother Thomas of Celano gives a moving account of this first living crèche.
When we set out the Nativity set this Christmas, and place in it the figures of Jesus and Mary and Joseph, perhaps we can spend a minute thinking about how this scene would’ve looked had it been orchestrated by a human mind. A human mind would’ve had Jesus born in a palace, with Mary attended lovingly by servants. His birth would’ve been in a silk covered bed surrounded by curtains for privacy. Physicians would have hovered around to make sure that all went well. Mary and Joseph would be dressed in the robe of royalty, and the first witnesses to the birth would be those invited such as neighboring members of the nobility, other kings and queens, princes and princesses, governors and authorities. The new Little King would have been shown to them in his cradle of alabaster, resting on silken pillows and covered with embroidered and gold trimmed sheets. He would have received from his visitors expensive jewels, golden vessels, slaves, and property. As an infant who could not even lift his head, he would already be more powerful than most people in the world.
But the ways of God are not the ways of man. And this Francis knew. God, who could’ve come to earth displaying his power and wealth, chose to forgo all of that and come instead as a poor, human baby, born in a noisy, smelly stable that did not belong to him in the city that his family was passing through. What more could God have done to show us that he is approachable, that he is humble, that he is in the midst of us in our transience, our messy existence, and our poverty both spiritual, emotional, and physical.
The poverty of God, who emptied himself and became poor for our sake to make us rich, was continually an inspiration to St. Francis. Always he sought the lower place, the least, the most rejected. He wanted to bring the love of God for the marginalized, because those are the ones to whom Jesus came even at the beginning when the first to hear about the birth were the shepherds, a looked down upon group of people who did the necessary but thankless job of caring for smelly, ignorant sheep whose sole function was to be in clothe the people.
Christmas is the season to remind us that God became poor for our sake and to admonish us to become poor, that is little and humble, for the sake of others. The birth of Christ is not a nice parable but in actual truth. Meditating on it taught Francis a great deal about how power is made manifest in weakness.(2 Corinthians 12:9). Where does God make us weak so that we might become strong? The Advent and Christmas season is a good time to think about our own weakness and how God works through it to strengthen us. And so, for our weakness we can give thanks, as we thank God for his apparent weakness in coming as a helpless child lying in a manger.
May God be praised forever at this Christmas Season and always.
Let us pray for one another and for all doing penance worldwide.
Madeline Pecora Nugent