Francis of Assisi and Fatherly Blessing

There is a famous moment in the life of Francis of Assisi, in which he dramatically renounces his earthly father and claims God as his heavenly Father. Francis gives back to his father not only the money he was demanding, but the very clothes off his back.

His furious father, the wealthy cloth merchant Pietro di Bernardone, had pressured the local bishop to call Francis to trial. Pietro demanded that his son pay back what he owed.

Francis had encountered the voice of Jesus calling to him from the cross in the hillside church of San Damiano. Jesus had beckoned: Rebuild my Church, which as you see is falling into ruin. Francis began the rebuilding effort quite literally, gathering or begging for stones to repair the dilapidated building. He also helped himself to a large bolt of his father’s expensive silk, selling it and attempting to give the proceeds to the stunned priest of San Damiano for help in the repair efforts. The priest prudently refused, not wanting to become one of Pietro’s enemies.

Pietro was a greedy man, but his rage had little to do with wealth. It sprang up from the shame and embarrassment that he felt as Francis rejected the rigid role assigned to him.

The famous friar of Assisi was actually named “John” at baptism – a name given by his mother Pica during the long months of Pietro’s absence in France. Upon returning, Pietro met his son and renamed him “Francis” (basically, “Frenchy”) in honor of the affluent country he loved visiting. In what he saw as great benevolence, Pietro planned to pass on his significant wealth to his son Francis, who would make him proud in carrying on the lucrative family business.

Instead, Francis went about begging, mingling with lepers, and sharing his father’s wealth with the poor. Disgusted and embarrassed, Pietro had him beaten and locked in the cellar, hoping he would fall in line. He didn’t. The next time Pietro was away, Francis’ mother released him, and Francis was right back to rebuilding the church of San Damiano – only now he hid himself in a cave to avoid the revenge of his father. That is when his father went to the bishop demanding justice.

The trial was public. Many witnesses heard Francis declare, “From now on I will say freely: ‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ and not ‘My father Pietro di Bernardone.’ Look, not only do I return his money; I give him back all my clothes. I will go to the Lord naked!”

He stripped himself there and then of his father’s robes, revealing the penitential hairshirt he had been wearing underneath.

And here is where I want to pause the story of Francis’ conversion.

Too often, the Saints are seen as these superhuman beings who quickly and easily rise to heights that are too lofty for the rest of us. The more steps I take on the road of conversion, the more I realize that the Saints were very normal and sinful human beings like you and me who walked a long and often painful path of conversion.

Most of the people who write the lives of Saints are themselves less than fully converted – so they tend to glamorize or oversimplify the journey of conversion. Sure, we would all love it if our conversion could be one simple and dramatic moment of decision and then living happily ever after. But that is rarely if ever how conversion works! Rather, there are many moments of weakness, faltering, stumbling, and struggling. There are many moments of new discovery and new growth. Consider the life of Peter in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. From early on he loves the Lord and has faith in Him. But he continues to struggle before, during, and after the dying and rising of Jesus. His maturing in the love of Jesus is gradual, but significant.

Let’s just suppose that Francis was still – at this moment in his conversion – rather immature and in need of much more conversion. That is actually what the evidence suggests! First, there is Francis’ behavior. He is fearfully hiding in a cave. Plus, his father makes a fair point – it was not okay for Francis to presume that he could just start selling his father’s possessions without permission. There is still no small amount of the entitled party boy in him.

But there is another wonderful detail. For some time, Pietro has been lashing out at Francis with curses. Francis’ solution is to call upon “a lowly, rather simple man” to help him by taking the place of his father. Whenever Pietro would curse Francis, the poor man would speak words of blessing over Francis.

Underlying these details are the fear and shame and insecurity that Francis still felt. Like all human beings, he needed fatherly blessing, and ached for it. He needed to become secure in his identity, to know who he was. That is the greatest gift that fathers in the flesh can give to their children. They can lead them to be secure in the identity that God the Father confers on them – our heavenly Father who alone can fully bless us in the way our hearts desire.

Francis’ greatest example here is not so much his outward poverty as his inward poverty of heart, including his willingness to beg for help. Rather than shaming himself for being emotionally “needy,” he humbly reaches out for words of blessing from a fellow outcast. Through the repeated reminders of another flesh-and-blood human being, Francis’ words to the bishop and the crowd begin taking on flesh.

It sounds nice to say that God is my heavenly Father and that he meets all my needs. But it can be little comfort when my old wounds of shame and insecurity whisper in the shadows that I am not enough, that I am all alone, or that nobody really loves me.

There is a reason why Francis and his followers lived in community as brothers. There is a reason why Jesus taught us to pray to God as Our Father. We cannot connect with the Father without simultaneously connecting with each other as fellow members of the Body of Christ. Only God the Father can fill the void we feel deep in our hearts. But only within healthy community, vulnerably stating needs and receiving care, can we be opened up to receive the Fatherly blessing we need and ache for.

As we become blessed by the Father, then the slow and steady change can begin to happen. Secure in the Father’s love, we can mature in Christ.

Francis’ biographer (Thomas of Celano) delights in the scene of Francis’ nakedness before the bishop and the people: Oh how free is the heart of a man for whom Christ is already enough! True enough, as long as we also remember that Francis was still in the process of claiming that truth and internalizing it – and never without help from others.

Each of us, one way or another, gets pushed into roles. Each of us struggles to discover our true identity, and to be secure in love. In our insecurity we stay stuck in our sins. We need fellow pilgrims on the journey – those who don’t shame us or fix us, but declare us to be beloved children of God. We absolutely need that repeated reminder so that we can stay secure in the Father’s love and keep walking the difficult road of conversion. Maturity will keep coming – usually quite slowly. Like little children who are growing, we need others to notice our growth, to name it, to celebrate it, and to cheer us on. The Saints in heaven certainly do so, but hopefully also some of our fellow Saints-in-the-making.

Who are the “lowly, rather simple” people in your life who remind you of your identity as a beloved child of God?

When Worlds Collide

How do you react when your worlds collide?

For those not familiar with the phrase, it’s that moment when two previously compartmentalized “worlds” in your day-to-day existence suddenly meet each other. Your church friends unexpectedly chat with your college roommate. Your business partners walk in on you while you are jamming out to your favorite song. Your 5-year-old daughter overhears a conversation with your golfing buddies. You get the idea.

The expression goes back to a 1995 episode of Seinfeld. Every episode follows the self-absorbed escapades of Jerry, Kramer, Elaine, and George. This time Jerry decides it will be a great idea to introduce Elaine to George’s girlfriend. Kramer immediately declares, “That’s gonna be trouble.” When Jerry expresses bewilderment, Kramer explains, “Jerry, don’t you see? This world here, this is George’s sanctuary. If Susan comes into contact with this world, his worlds collide. You know what happens then?” For dramatic effect, Kramer brings his hands together and then “explodes” his food all over the floor.

Sure enough, the moment George discovers this new development, he is terrified and enraged. He screams at Jerry, “Anybody knows – ya gotta keep your worlds APART!!”

Scene by scene, George comes unglued as his carefully compartmentalized worlds collide or collapse.  More than once he cries out, “You’re killing independent George!!”  At one point he rattles off all the different versions of himself: independent George, movie George, coffee shop George, relationship George, liar George, bawdy George.  His conclusion? A George divided against itself cannot stand!!

Thankfully, most of us are not so narcissistic as the Seinfeld characters. But we do tend to compartmentalize our lives, don’t we?

I often experience discomfort or outright dread when people get curious and start to know intimate details about me. Even though I desire to be known and understood, it feels safer carefully curating what this or that group of people know about me. It’s more instinctive than intentional. It just happens.

There are actually reasons why it happens!

On the one hand, there is the reality that not everyone can be our intimate companion. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wisely declared that “he who has many friends has no friends.” Authentic intimacy takes much time, effort, and mutual work. It is both practical and fitting that only very few people in our life truly know all of us.

Moreover, there is the reality that some people do not deserve our trust. They will use us or manipulate us; or they will bail on us when things get hard. In the words of Jesus, it is wise not to cast our pearls before swine. It would be masochism to share vulnerably with those who will trample on us afterward. Choosing companions carefully is prudence and wisdom! But some of us are so careful that we never actually choose!

Is there anyone who knows all of us? Many of us hide parts of ourselves even from those closest to us! Why?

As human beings, we are true sons and daughters of Adam and Eve – in all their beauty and all their brokenness.  We continue to harm each other – especially in our own families. Each one of us has suffered far more harm than we care to admit!

The greater the harm, the more we become like George Costanza. Shattered by the ways that others have used us, abandoned us, or taken out their contempt on us, we brilliantly create “worlds” for ourselves. We learn how to manage and control each one, creating the illusion of safety and connection. It really seems to work – until our worlds collide or collapse. Over time, what once helped us survive begins to ruin us.

George spoke more prophetically than he knew: A George divided against itself cannot stand! Juggling dozens of separate worlds becomes exhausting – not to mention lonely. We are created for communion – to know and be known, to love and be loved. If no one truly knows and loves all of us, we will be as empty as the characters on that show!

The New Testament speaks of our Christian existence as one of koinonia. It can be translated as communion, community, sharing, participation, or fellowship – and includes all of them. By his dying and rising, Jesus reconciles us to the Father, to each other, and to ourselves. Authentic communion and community become possible. But it is hard to find – especially in our churches!

I’ve enjoyed reading the works of Curt Thompson: The Soul of Shame and The Soul of Desire. He names four characteristics of healthy Christian community, what he calls “the four S’s.” When we truly belong in healthy community, we will feel Seen, Soothed, Safe, and Secure. Do we not all ache for those four things?

George Costanza looked at his group of friends as his safe space, his sanctuary. To a certain extent, they were. None of them expected the others to be perfect or to be someone else. But they all still felt the need to compartmentalize; they all ultimately lived selfish and empty lives. None of them truly felt safe or secure; there was no authentic vulnerability or intimacy.

As most of you know, I spent my three-month sabbatical doing intensive trainings to help provide more resources for those harmed by trauma or struggling with unwanted behaviors. I have noticed a glaring lack in our churches today – authentic Christian community is exceedingly hard to find!

In our struggle with sin, with addictions, or with emotional and spiritual sickness, we will not get well without authentic community. There have to be at least a few people who know and love ALL of us; there has to be a place in which we can truthfully say I belong here. Here I do not have to pretend or compartmentalize. I don’t have to hold things together or keep worlds apart. I just get to be. I will be seen; I will be cared for; I will feel safe and secure. These companions will neither condemn me nor excuse me. They won’t see me as a problem to fix; they won’t abandon me; they won’t reject me. They will speak the truth about what they see and it will feel great because it is deep and full truth. Like Jesus, they will see me in my wholeness; they will desire all the pieces of me; they will care about ALL my “worlds.”

Again, let us listen to the “prophetic” words of George Costanza: You’re killing Independent George!!

When our worlds collide, it feels like a death threat. In our brilliant survival amidst human harm, we get seduced into the illusion of “independence.” We think we can control and manage all these self-created worlds and not need anyone else in the process. It’s so much safer that way – or so we think.

But it goes against our true nature. We are created to depend totally upon God our Father and to become interdependent, existing together as one Body and one Spirit in Christ. We long for that communion, even as (like George) we feel threatened by it! In fact, he’s right – there is a real dying that precedes our becoming truly alive! We are terrified of losing what we have so carefully crafted. Even when we are ready, we still want to know what will remain on the other side. Will anything of me be left?

God understands those fears – yet it is the only way. When we are ready to stop compartmentalizing, Jesus is ready to lead us to authentic connection and communion. It will be the end of our worlds as we know them, and the beginning of the new heavens and new earth.

“Purity Culture” – Lie #1

Ours is not an age of flourishing relationships, joyful marriages, or healthy sexuality. For decades, Christians have been concerned about the toxic environment of the surrounding culture. So we have fought culture wars, trying to get the world to be more like us.

But what about us? What about our own marriages, our own families, and our own churches? Are we really as “pure” as all that?

Many Christian families and churches have created a “purity culture” in the hope of sheltering our children and keeping them pure. It seems like a valiant fight. But has it really been helpful?

All the latest research shows that church-going Christians struggle every bit as much with abuse, neglect, pornography, addictions, codependency, marital infidelity, and domestic violence – just to name a few. Isn’t it strange to “fight” to make the world just like us when our own house lies in ruins?

Jesus has a word for that: “You hypocrites!” In the Sermon on the Mount, he reminds us to remove the wooden beam from our own eye before we attempt removing the splinter from our brother’s eye (Matthew 7:5).

On my sabbatical this past fall, I engaged in multiple trainings, all of which focused on providing care in the area of trauma, unwanted behaviors, and addictions. Each training operated with this bedrock principle: take the beam out of your own eye first! You cannot be of support to your brothers or sisters (or sons or daughters) if you have not first truthfully faced your own story and your own behaviors.

Two generations of hard fighting from the “purity culture” have yielded struggling parents and struggling grandparents. Far from sheltering and preserving our children, the rigidity has actually plunged many Christians (or former Christians) into toxic shame, dysfunctional relationships, and unwanted behaviors.

That is because the purity culture is more rooted in fear than in love. In the fog of fear, our heart is easily hijacked by lies, or by distortions of sound doctrine. In the weeks ahead, I hope to unmask some of those lies and consider what Scripture and Christian Tradition actually teach about human love and sexuality.

Lie #1: Purity as a Prize to be Lost. Far too often, our Christian churches and families have upheld a standard of “purity” as a prize to be lost. In this view, purity is black or white, on or off. Don’t be impure like those people. Be pure like these people. It’s a damaging and deceptive dichotomy, rooted in self-righteousness, presumption, and pride.

In Catholic life, the false dichotomy of “pure” versus “impure” shows up in a distorted understanding of what Church teaching means by “mortal sin” versus “state of grace.”  Many Catholics struggling with unwanted sexual behaviors feel tormented by fear and shame. They view themselves as spending most of their waking and sleeping hours in a state of sin (cut off / lost / cast out / impure). Then they go to Confession and feel great, thinking themselves “pure” again, holy again, worthy again. Notice the presumption and self-righteousness, and the lack of confidence in God’s unchanging covenantal love.

Yes, Catholic teaching and the Bible (1 John 5:17) talk about mortal sin. But the Catechism of the Catholic Church clarifies that a sin is only mortal if there is full knowledge and deliberate consent (n. 1857). Deliberate consent is not so clear when you consider the impact of trauma, addictions, or compulsive behaviors. If someone is experiencing “unwanted” sexual behaviors, repeatedly, there is likely more going on! Rather than a black or white judgment of “pure” versus “impure,” the Catechism urges us to consider the embodied human beings in front of us: “To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability” (n. 2352).  In other words, labeling another person (or yourself) as “impure” or “in mortal sin” is a rash judgment, and often missing the mark about what is really going on.

More importantly, the teachings of Jesus focus on organic growth into maturity in him. We abide in him as branches on the vine. We grow and bear fruit in him. We are members of his body, truly holy because he is holy in us. It is much more accurate to look at sin as a disease that needs tender and loving care, rather than an ON/OFF switch. Jesus presents himself as the divine physician, here to heal all of us. He repeatedly, sometimes angrily challenges the scribes and Pharisees for seeing themselves as “pure” and others as “impure.” Pride and self-sufficiency are far more damaging than lust! We are all sick sinners in need of the divine physician – each and every day of our lives. We are all beautiful and beloved children of God, each and every day of our lives.

Even if I have just gone to Confession and received absolution, I still have a lifelong journey of conversion ahead of me. God will keep purifying me, like gold in the furnace (which is none other than the fire of his love). Meanwhile, sinner though I am, God will relentlessly pursue me in love, even if I keep going back to the same sins. Purity is not something I gain or lose. Purity is the flowering that slowly emerges as I learn to receive and give love. It is the fruit of maturity in Christ.

Apart from Jesus we can do nothing. God alone is an eternal communion of pure love, and he deeply desires us to share in his eternal love. That sharing is an “already but not yet,” a gradual growth in discipleship, a lifelong journey. We are already members of Christ’s body. He has truly given us a share in his life and his love. We can grow in maturity throughout our life. One day, we will definitively be pure as God is pure – when we see him face to face and become totally like him (1 John 1:1-3).

Yes, purity is a battle to be fought. But the battleground is not primarily in senate chambers or school boards or courtrooms. The battleground is in the desert and on Mount Calvary. The Victor is Jesus Christ, the new Adam. And we already know who wins!

Lifelong growth in purity happens when we learn to have an unshakable confidence in the victory of Jesus. We bring that victory into our own daily battles – not just with sexual seductions, but with all areas of our life. We consecrate all of it to him, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. We welcome his shed blood and the new and eternal covenant that alone can save us. We let ourselves be loved and let him teach us how to love. Perfect love will cast out all fear!

To be Continued…