The Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Amos 7:12-15 + Ephesians 1:3-14 + Mark 6:7-13
July 12, 2009
Francis was born into a wealthy family in the prosperous Italian town of Assisi. As a teenager, he was a playboy, who used his generous allowance to pay the bills of his rowdy friends.
Then, in the year 1202, armed conflict broke out between his hometown of Assisi and the city of Perugia. Francis was twenty years old when he joined the military of Assisi, and went off to fight. He was taken prisoner during the conflict, and spent the next twelve months of his life in chains, in a rotting dungeon in Perugia.
After his release, it took Francis another twelve months to regain his health. But the ordeal he faced as a prisoner-of-war, as well as his long recuperation, changed his life forever. Throughout the course of these one hundred four weeks, a profound change took place in his moral life.
When he was ready to rejoin society at the end of these 24 months, the family servant laid out expensive clothes for him. But Francis put them aside, and put on the rough burlap clothing of a poor workman. With a piece of chalk, Francis drew a big white cross on the back of his clothing.
Francis then left home, and left the walled town of Assisi, which sits at the top of a small mountain. Francis decided to take up the life of a hermit. He chose to dwell alone in a broken-down chapel at the base of the mountain, below Assisi. He spent day after day in “la capella di San Damiano” (the chapel of Saint Damian).
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Although Francis had grown greatly in his spiritual life during the two years of his imprisonment and recuperation, the spiritual growth he experience as a hermit was growth by leaps and bounds, in comparison.
I’m sure that most of us, when we think of Saint Francis of Assisi, think of the mendicant who wandered through the hillsides and towns of Italy. We don’t usually think of Saint Francis of a hermit. In fact, there’s something about St. Francis’ out-going nature that seems almost opposed to the idea that he could have been a hermit. Yet, it’s an historical fact that Francis spent this time as a hermit, and that this experience of what we can call “holy solitude” was the foundation for everything he experienced and accomplished throughout the rest of his life. So if we admire Francis as a preacher, as a mendicant, as someone in love with all of creation, and even more in love with the divine Creator… we have to stop… and consider what Francis’s life as a hermit tells us.
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Through his prayer in this holy solitude, Francis grew in three ways. His life teaches that each of us has to grow in these three ways if we are serious about walking the path to sainthood. First, Francis grew to believe that he himself was so loved by God, that God would sustain him through every experience of his life, even if painful. Even if alone, Francis grew to understand that God’s presence within him meant that he never was alone. And knowing this—knowing that he was created, and lived, in God’s Image and Likeness—meant all the difference in his life. It meant that Francis was able to stand strong in the midst of anything.
Second, Francis grew to understand this, by meditating upon the crucifix that hung—crookedly—in the decrepit chapel of Saint Damian. Francis looked intently at the crucifix, for hours on end in this “holy solitude”, to understand Jesus better: to understand how Jesus lived His life, and why He gave up His life, on the Cross, in order to give others eternal life.
Through this constant meditation on the crucifix—by growing to see others as Jesus saw them from the Cross—Francis began to see that every human being is created in the Image and Likeness of God. This is how deep God’s love is: that He could love every person infinitely, and give His only Son to live and die for each of them.
Third, through this meditation on the crucifix, a desire grew inside of Francis. He wanted to be another Jesus in the world. He wanted to give His life, so that the Image of God in Him would grow and grow. He expressed this desire in the first words of the prayer that welled up from his heart: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
The Christian who is willing to fully offer himself to God—the Christian who is ready to let God make her… or him… an instrument of His peace—this Christian allows these three forms of love to grow together: love for God, love for the other, and love for myself as someone who has the freedom to bring those other two loves together, through what I choose to do.
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This is where we have to really understand what Christian freedom means. If God had not created you with absolute freedom—a freedom that reflects God’s freedom—you could not be an instrument of His peace. Conversely, if you want to become more and more effectively an instrument of God’s peace, you have to be mindful of these truths.
We are talking about the freedom that was given fully to Adam and Eve. Because of their Original Sin, none of the rest of us human beings—with the exceptions of Jesus and Mary—began life with the complete freedom that Adam and Eve enjoyed in the beginning.
Still… even though we begin life—at conception—with a soul that only has weakened freedom, we nonetheless have two opposite directions in which to move throughout our life: to grow in freedom, or to weaken our freedom even further.
As I mentioned before, sometimes we get stuck in a rut… of thinking that freedom means nothing more than being separated from others—being independent—and that our freedom grows more, the fewer people we’re dependent on. This is not the sort of freedom that leads to peace in this world… or eternal life in the world to come.
If we make independence—separation from others—into a little god of its own, instead of being a means to a greater end, then it turns our ultimate freedom… inside out. This is one form of evil: an abuse of freedom, and leads to the “slavery of sin”. What we convince ourselves will make us more free, in fact makes us slaves.
This is a paradox, of course, just as the Cross itself is a paradox. As the Sacrifice of the Eucharist is offered, ask Christ to open your heart fully to all the graces He has in store for you, to help you grow in the freedom that comes only from His Image. Ask Christ to help you live out those words first spoken by our parish patron:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
And where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not so much seek…
to be consoled, as to console.
to be understood, as to understand.
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving, that we receive.
It is in pardoning, that we are pardoned.
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.