Monday, October 8, 2012

Gazing At the Holy Face: Key to "Perfect Joy"

[I’m indebted for the main ideas of this piece to an article by David Rensberger, “True and Perfect Joy” (Weavings, Vol. 27, No. 4, pp. 19-23). I delivered this as a homily for the patronal feast of St. Francis of Assisi at St. Francis in the Redwoods, Willits, CA on October 7, 2012]

When, in the past and in the present, I’ve thought about this community of St. Francis in the Redwoods, Willits, the word that springs to mind is “joy”. I’ve been drawn to the lively spirit of your liturgical celebrations. I’ve been inspired by the joyful way in which you’ve carried on Christ’s ministry here: in your cooperation and working together, in your compassion for the needs of others in the congregation and in your welcoming of newcomers and strangers to this place of refuge and peace. I suspect it was this evident joy which may have inspired the generous donation which enabled this very building to be possible.
We’ve just prayed together in the Collect that “following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy.” Countless human beings throughout history have asked the question: “What is true joy? What is it that can make me genuinely happy?” According to the collection of stories, known as The Little Flowers (Fioretti) of St. Francis, Francis and his companion, Brother Leo, conversed about this very matter one day on their journey from Perugia to the the friary of St. Mary of the Angels. Francis assured Leo that none of people’s presumed sources of “perfect joy” could ever provide that: not the example of great holiness; making the lame 
walk or healing the sick or driving out demons; enabling the blind to see or the deaf to hear or the mute to speak; or even raising the dead to life; not being the greatest scientist or the most knowledgable Scripture scholar or the wisest of prophets; not the ability to speak as an angel or the facility to explain all the natural workings of plants, animals, birds, fish, or of inanimate creation; not the charismatic persuasiveness to bring all unbelievers to acceptance of Christ.
 The story continues: “Now when this manner of discourse had lasted for the space of two miles, Brother Leo wondered much within himself; and, questioning the saint, he said: Father, I beg you in God’s name to tell me where perfect joy is.’”
And St. Francis replied: “When we come to St. Mary of the Angels, soaked by the rain and frozen by the cold, all soiled with mud and suffering from hunger, and we ring at the gate of the Place and the brother porter comes and says angrily: ‘Who are you?’ And we say: ‘We are two of your brothers.’ And he contradicts us, saying: ‘You are not telling the truth. Rather you are two rascals who go around deceiving people and stealing what they give to the poor. Go away!’ And he does not open for us, but makes us stand outside in the snow and rain, cold and hungry, until night falls – then if we endure all those insults and cruel rebuffs patiently, without being troubled and without complaining, and if we reflect humbly and charitably that the porter really knows us and that God makes him speak against us, oh Brother Leo, write that perfect joy is there!
And if we continue to knock, and the porter comes out in anger, and drives us away with curses and hard blows like bothersome scoundrels, saying: ‘Get away from here, you dirty thieves – go to the hospital! Who do you think you are? You certainly won’t eat or sleep here!’– and if we bear it patiently and take the insults with joy and love in our hearts, oh, Brother Leo, write that that is perfect joy!
“And if later, suffering intensely from hunger and the painful cold, with night falling, we still knock and call, and crying loudly beg them to open for us and let us come in for the love of God, and he grows still more angry and says: “Those fellows are bold and shameless ruffians. I’ll give them what they deserve!’ And he comes out with a knotty club, and grasping us by the cowl throws us onto the ground, rolling us in the mud and snow, and beats us with that club so much that he covers our bodies with wounds – if we endure all those evils and insults and blows with joy and patience, reflecting that we must accept and bear the sufferings of the Blessed Christ patiently for love of Him, oh, Brother Leo, write: that is perfect joy!
And now hear the conclusion, Brother Leo. Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ gives to His friends is that of conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations, and hardships for the love of Christ. For we cannot glory in all those other marvelous gifts of God, as they are not ours but God’s, as the Apostle says: ‘What have you that you have not received?’ But we can glory in the cross of tribulations and afflictions, because that is ours, and so the Apostle says: ‘I will not glory save in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ!’
That enthusiastic message of Francis is one which the society in which we live by and large wants absolutely nothing to do with! Take it when someone insults and hurts you? That’s insane! Accept being rejected, abused, and even come back for more? That’s just plain sick!
But that’s far from what Francis really meant. Notice that in the story Francis never once bad-mouths the brother porter or ceases being a brother to him. Though Francis never condones the brother’s actions nor enjoys being misunderstood, insulted, even physically assaulted, Francis looks beyond all this. He focusses immovably on something beyond, on Jesus the Christ, as he was called to do. Though he finds himself knee-deep in a situation of upheaval, Francis deliberately chooses to trust God’s presence and power. 
See, the point is that you and I don’t attain spiritual joy through always having things the way we want them to be. We’re invited to walk through the hard times, the pain, even betrayal, with hearts centered on the presence of Jesus the Christ and on the path which he blazed for us in his own life. That magnificent Collect for Monday in Holy Week always gives me real incentive for pursuing “perfect joy”: “Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace...
Francis bids us, in all our times of trial and suffering, to hold fast to our relationship with Jesus, to continue, even without apparent cause, to accept and love those whose actions hurt us, without, at the same time, excusing their abusiveness. Francis tells us that by acknowledging the pain in our lives, as well as God’s presence to us at all times, we come to possess “perfect joy”: not a “pretend” joy, but true satisfaction.
St. Francis’ spiritual daughter, Clare of Assisi, in her second letter to Agnes of Prague (1211-1282), a 13th century Bohemian princess who chose a life of charity and piety over a life of luxury and comfort, suggests how you and I might begin to do this. She writes: “...poor virgin, embrace the Poor Christ. Now that you have made yourself contemptible in this world for his sake, look upon and follow the one who made himself contemptible for your sake. Gaze upon, examine, contemplate,...desiring to follow your spouse, who...for your salvation became the vilest of men, despised, struck, and flogged repeatedly over his entire body, dying while suffering the excruciating torments of the cross. If you suffer with him, you will reign with him; grieving with him, you will rejoice with him; dying with him on the cross of tribulation, you will possess mansions in heaven with him among the splendors of the saints... 
Gaze upon, examine, contemplate...” St. Clare’s advice is reminiscent of the classical progression involved in praying: lectio divina or holy reading, meditation, prayer, and then contemplation. The first three steps constitute the “gazing” at the Holy Face; contemplation’s task is to lead us into imitation of the “perfect joy” we see reflected there. It teaches us not only to imitate but to be that joy, both for ourselves and for everyone else in our lives. It’s through this process of gazing upon the Holy Face and in making Christ’s life our own, in humble trust, patiently, and with perseverance, that you and I are able to proclaim with St. Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me...I who now live in the flesh live in faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me...” (Galatians 2:20) Ilia Delio, in her book Franciscan Prayer (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, p. 68) notes: “We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become.” 
Sometimes it helps to have visual reminders in our gazing. St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, whose feast we just celebrated on Wednesday, kept the image of Christ’s Holy Face ever before her, internally in her heart as well as externally through a picture of the Holy Face. When I was in Ohio in 2001 I visited a shrine and museum of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, who’d taught me in grade school. The shrine is located close to the seminary which I attended. On one of the walls was a painting of the Holy Face which instantly captivated me and remains one of my favorite representations of it. [I so wanted you to share it that I improvised a bit and made wallet-size copies which you can take with you.] The artist is unknown, and the Sisters found the painting many years ago in a cluttered old workroom. It’s a very simple object which a person, many years before, perhaps seeking, as Francis did, “perfect joy” found it to be a spiritual tool worth passing on to posterity. Sometime when you feel that you’re losing heart, try gazing upon it and see if it helps you in some way to connect with the reality in the presence and love depicted there.
In the first reading Jeremiah (22:13-16) hints that one place where we can gaze upon the face of Christ is in the faces of the “poor and needy”. “Is not this to know me? says the Lord.” Francis’ Canticle carries this a step further, to all of creation. The Letter to the Galatians (6:14-18) speaks of our boasting only in the cross of our Lord as the start of a “new creation”. Finally, in the Gospel we see the Holy Face reflected in the words of Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls...” And in that “rest” is “perfect joy”.

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