From Italy, I’m writing this Frate Venerdì—Friar Friday. Since Sept. 24, I’ve been a “nomad,” wandering a bit around Italy, taking some days of vacation before beginning a weeklong pilgrimage with students from Ohio and Indiana. Today they arrived, and with them, I am now a pilgrim.
It’s a good time to begin a pilgrimage. Franciscans all over the world celebrated the Feast of St. Francis this past week, remembering his death (The “Transitus”) on Oct. 3, and his birth into heaven the next day.
I was fortunate enough to join the friars of St. Isidore’s College in Rome. Founded centuries ago by a famous Franciscan scholar, it has served as a center for learning for Franciscans from around the world. The community there celebrated a beautiful service commemorating Francis’ death—by candlelight in their ancient chapel. The next day, we marked the Feast of St. Francis with a morning Mass, and two celebratory meals (two, because we are friars, after all!)
The reflection for the feast day was given by Friar Bill Short OFM, a Franciscan scholar from California, now residing in Rome. Bill called our attention to two images—mosaics—which grace a courtyard at St. Isidore’s, just off the chapel. One is of the San Damiano Cross, the other is of Francis receiving the Stigmata.
I’d like to share with you my understanding of what Bill said, although he spoke in Italian, and I was translating for myself, and may have missed a lot of his nuances! Basically, though, he invited us to imagine ourselves standing between these two images.
One, the San Damiano Cross, recalls Christ’s instruction the young Francis of Assisi: “Rebuild my house, which as you see is falling into ruins.” Francis sprang into action after hearing this message. He sold cloth and a horse belonging to his father and used the money to begin rebuilding the little church of San Damiano, which was crumbling around him. Later, Francis would see a different understanding of “rebuild,” applying it to the Church—at least as he interpreted a mission to preach the Gospel.
The other image, the Stigmata, is how we picture Francis at the center of a deep interior life, so open to God that Francis receives, bodily, the wounds of Jesus crucified in his hands, feet, and side. Bill spoke of “suffering” as a way of seeing this image—but for me, it also depicts how Francis was enabled by God to let go of nearly everything, and allow God to fill him with love. Such a love encompasses suffering, as it did in the great gift of Jesus on the cross.
Bill suggested that we friars live in between two poles—a life of activity, of mission, and an interior life, which embraces suffering, and love. (I’m paraphrasing and interpreting here, for sure—I know he said a lot more!) These two poles are for me part of my lifelong journey as a friar. Sometimes, I’m more focused on action, my ministry, the mission of the Order, or of a parish, or my local friar-community. At other times, I am drawn to the interior life. It is frequently a tension, occasionally a conflict (usually from my point of view, not God’s!) and at its best, a balance.
Could you also experience these two poles in your life as a Franciscan, a Christian, a believer? Action and contemplation, mission and mysticism, doing and being—people of all beliefs seem to move between one and the other. And I think that’s a healthy rhythm. The holy people whom I admire—of various religions, belief systems and simply life-choices—seem to get it right. The rest of us struggle from time to time.
As we Franciscans conclude this week of feasting, and as I begin my pilgrim’s walk to Assisi, I wish you peace in your mission in life, and patience on the interior journey of suffering and of love!