Caught up in life and its vicissitudes, we can begin to believe the great myth of human ego that this earthly life lasts forever and then, when Sister Death draws near to us, we are lost in panic, lost in pain. We are simply lost, and we hold out against her, not knowing that her gentle purpose is to bring us home. We have forgotten how to die.
St Francis remembered how to die. He knew that when we face the embrace of our sister when it comes, we must do so with love. We must yield to her, and allow ourselves to be ushered by her into the Divine Presence, and for this to happen in such a gentle way, we must practice dying.
We must die, every day, just a little. We must die to our self, die to our false self, die to every part of us that is the accretion of property and wealth for their own sake. We must die to the use of others, die to holding on to power so as to dominate, and even and especially die to the belief that we are at the centre of all things.
Francis himself died to each of these.
He died to the rich home and sumptuous clothes of his youth and to the joy a young man takes in his own vigour and power. He died to the rich young man, who was the toast of Assisi and the centre of attention, known as “Master of the Revels”. He died to his family’s longing to see him raise their profile and their fortune. He died to the noble knight whose armour was forged from the ambition of his father and the myths that filled the head of a young boy who believed war was noble.
He died to the pride that saw only the sores of the lepers and not their souls. He died to the embarrassment of the poor man who begs for his living from door to door. He died to the rejection of some and the adulation of many. He died to the opinion of bishops and princes, popes and kings.
He died to the fear that the brotherhood would not listen … and would not follow. He died to the desire to be a martyr. He died to the fear of suffering and pain. He died to his own flesh, to the world, to the devil. He died to his own will. He died upon the Cross with Christ.
And in so doing, he remembered how to die, teaching us how to die so that one might truly live.
St Paul almost seems to be taunting death with these two questions in his first letter to the Corinthians. And I am wondering how many of us have the audacity to do that.
The culture of death seems to be around us where the voiceless have no right to life and the pain-filled have the right to end life. Diseases and disasters, pride and profit become tentacles of death – an end from which no living person can escape. Majestic royalty or meagre rogue, all fall within the clutches of death. Doesn’t death appear to win eventually?
No, and never with Christ. St Paul follows his questions with a confident affirmation, “so let us thank God for giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”. Victory does not belong to death. Instead, death has been destroyed by God. How? By the willingness of Jesus Christ to enter into his Passion where he embraced death (death which cannot contain life itself ), and then, burst forth from the tomb having been raised to new life in the resurrection. That is what we celebrate at the Triduum, particularly in Easter! Death gives way to Life!
I say that Jesus embraced death because it was a sacred and free act of his. Consummatum est, we read in John 19:30; it is consummated or accomplished or finished, depending on the English translation. What is accomplished? The saving act of Christ which culminated on the cross, where the cross of shame becomes the throne of glory. In obedience to God, Jesus countered the disobedience of Satan. In the utter humility of dying naked on the cross, Jesus shamed the pride of the evil one.
We continue to read in John 19 that Jesus gave up the spirit. Jesus is in control. He is not a passive victim of an unjust trial, but a director in bringing forth justice and salvation for all. And perhaps, even psychologically, the example of Jesus can help us face death and face the process of dying: to “take charge” of our own life and death, and how we die.
I sometimes see people who, having been diagnosed with cancer, live as if they have already lost the fight, but I have also seen others battle on and live fully until the very last minute. I would like to mention Venerable Antonietta Meo, an Italian girl who died from aggressive bone cancer just before she turned seven. Despite her young age, she serenely embraced her illness and united her tremendous sufferings with that of Jesus’ Passion. Today, her remains are held in the Church of the Holy Cross in Rome, very near the relics of the true cross, and the process towards her sainthood is underway because she could see her suffering in the light of Christ’s.
Similarly for St Francis; as he neared his end, he called out to Sister Death and welcomed her. He even composed a stanza on Sister Death within the Canticle of Brother Sun.
We are told that St Francis could embrace Sister Death so readily because he was already assured by the Lord of his salvation. This was the message Francis received when moved to self-pity one day: “Then brother, be glad and rejoice in your illnesses and troubles, because as of now, you are as secure as if you were already in my kingdom.”
It is really easy for those of us who are healthy to talk about sickness and suffering, and have lofty spiritual ideas about it. But I think we need to already begin to confront our own mortality and creatureliness. Sickness and death are part of human living, and it is pertinent to begin confronting these conditions when our health is still holding up and our faith is still unshaken. In fact, it would be wise for us to keep deepening and strengthening our faith in the Lord and in his providence, so that when anything untoward besets us, we have a firm foundation that will not crumble.
I find it beautiful that All Souls Day follows All Saints Day, where our celebration of the latter gives hope to the celebration of the former. Hope that carries us on our journey of faith whilst on earth; hope that breathes light and refreshment in our darkness and tiredness; hope that the ultimate victory is God’s and we just need to claim and participate in this gift.
In particular, I notice that Clare lives and suggests discernment as a path of purification: purification of the gaze, of the heart, and of the will.
Purification of the gaze
The starting point is the reality in which we find ourselves; the reality that “we are”, that each of us “is” by nature and by grace. Preconceptions and prejudices can distort our reading of what is going on within us, in our community, in the Church, or in society. Is this not a factor in many misunderstandings, misconceptions and conflicts?
Purify the gaze to see how God sees us, without distorting filters. Clare reminds us that by being like Jesus, making his gaze our own, we can see reality in truth, beyond the changes produced by sin: “He is the radiance of eternal glory, is the brightness of eternal light and the mirror without blemish. Gaze upon that mirror each day, O Queen and Spouse of Jesus Christ, and continually study your face in it,” (4LAg14-15); for surely “in your light we see light” (Ps36:10).
Purification of the heart
If a pure gaze reads reality in the truth of God, it is the heart that judges it, evaluates it, and interprets it. Discernment as judgment is the next step in which reality is confronted with the values that support and guide our journey of life.
Conversion, like breathing, is the essential measure for Christians to continue living. Through experience, Clare knows how easily the heart hardens, gets distracted, gets confused; that is why she rejoices in seeing Agnes of Prague:
Pride and vanity prevent a correct judgment of reality because they close one in on oneself, rather than opening to God or to others. Genuine discernment requires a refining of the taste for the things of God, being able to recognise the scent and taste of the Gospel in the events of life and in the people we meet.
Purification of the will
The process of discernment is directed towards feeling challenged by the word of God in order to live in obedience to Him. It is aimed at dwelling within history in an evangelical way, following the footsteps of Jesus so that the kingdom of God may grow in the world.
It is good to choose whatever keeps us united to the Lord, and to reject whatever separates us from Him. Clare is able to turn down the offer of Pope Gregory IX – to be released from the bond of highest poverty and to accept the possessions that he offered – and declare with simplicity and truth: “Holy Father, I never wish to be freed from following Christ” (LegsC14). And she exhorts Agnes of Prague, in a similar situation, to embrace the poor Crucified One (Cf.2LAg17-18).
The process of discernment is directed by the word of God in order to live in obedience to Him; it is aimed at dwelling within history in an evangelical way, following the footsteps of Jesus so that the kingdom of God may grow in the world. Our projects are good if they are not ‘only ours’, if they blossom, like a root, from our willingness to collaborate with all our hearts in the work that God is already doing.”
This was a reflection of Friar Michael Perry, our Minister General, in his letter to the Order and to the sisters of the Second Order for the Solemn Feast of Clare of Assisi in 2019. Although it is based on what transpired at the Plenary Council of the Order of Friars Minor in Nairobi earlier this year, this reflection is apt as we consider the challenges facing the Custody of St Anthony Malaysia- Singapore-Brunei, and in light of the coming Chapter that will determine the Custody’s direction for the next three years.
St Clare of Assisi was a close companion of St Francis of Assisi. Gender discrimination did not allow her to follow St Francis as the brothers did. Instead, she and the women who followed her were put into a monastic structure. Prevented from adopting St Francis’ mendicant way of life, St Clare nonetheless opened herself to the Spirit of the Lord and his holy manner of working both in prayer and in action.
She held true to the Franciscan/Gospel project stated in the Rule of 1221 that calls for living an evangelical life (poverty, chastity, and obedience) of conversion and penance in minority, simplicity, joy, and mutuality of care (fraternity) and service (mission) in following in the footsteps of Christ Crucified as Francis did.
In St Clare’s process of discernment was, like in St Francis’, an optimistic and joyous trust in God and the goodness that the world can offer. She was unlike other abbesses of her time. She regularly washed the feet of the sisters returning to her monastery. She tended to the sick sisters and even washed their bedding. She sent the extern sisters out. She encouraged mutuality of care and love among the sisters even in the administration of the monastery and Order.
St Clare transformed and offered an alternate reality of women monasticism of passivity and removal from the world to one of activism and engagement of the world. She and her sisters became mendicants-in- monastery and fraternity-in-mission.
St Clare’s daring, her commitment to the Franciscan/Gospel project of St Francis, her trust in the Spirit of the Lord, and her courage in the face of adversity can be reminders to us as we live our own Christian faith and life. For us brothers of the Custody, St Clare is both a reminder and a challenge as we look back on the past three years to understand the past and present to plan for the future now and in the coming months.
If we are true to our Franciscan project and open to the Spirit “following the footsteps of Jesus so that the kingdom of God may grow in the world”, we can move forward as a fraternity-in-mission and in our own personal conversion, from good to better.
May we hold on to God and our Gospel project as St Clare did. In words of St Clare to St Agnes of Prague (2nd Letter): “What you hold, may you hold, what you do, may you do and not stop. But with swift pace, light step, unswerving feet, so that even your steps stir up no dust, may you go forward securely, joyfully, and swiftly, on the path of prudent happiness, believing nothing, agreeing with nothing that would dissuade you from this commitment or would place a stumbling block for you on the way, so that nothing prevents you from offering your vows to the Most High in the perfection to which the Spirit of the Lord has called you.”
Francis life is that of his meeting with Sultan al- Malik al-Kāmil in 1219. It was the time of the Fifth Crusade, and since Francis opposed all killing, he sought the blessing of the Cardinal, who was chaplain to the Crusader forces, to go and preach the Gospel to the Sultan. The Cardinal told him that the Muslims only understood weapons, and that the one useful thing a Christian could do was kill them. However, Francis persisted and at last, the Cardinal agreed he could go, although he was certain that Francis and Illuminato, the brother travelling with him, would die as martyrs. The two left the Crusader encampment singing the psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd …”
They were captured and brought before the Sultan, who asked if they wished to become Muslim. Francis replied that they had come to seek his conversion, and if they failed, then let them be beheaded. According to legend, Francis offered to enter a furnace to demonstrate the truth of Christ’s Gospel.
The Sultan was deeply impressed by Francis’ courage and sincerity, and invited him to stay. For a month, Francis and the Sultan met daily. Although neither converted the other, the Sultan had such fondness for his guests that he spared their lives and allowed them to visit Christian holy places under Muslim control. He also presented Francis with a beautifully carved ivory horn that is today among the relics kept in the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi. It is recorded that Francis and Malik al-Kāmil parted as brothers.
How different history would be if the crusades had not happened. During the First Crusade, no one was spared when the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099. Men, women and children were hacked to pieces until, the chronicle says, the Crusaders’ horses waded in blood.
During the Fifth Crusade, as Christianity in the West preached the holiness of war, Francis was a voice crying in the wilderness. In a sense, Francis became the soldier he had dreamt of becoming as a boy; he was as willing as the bravest soldier to lay down his life in defence of others. However, there was a crucial difference. Francis wanted not the conquest but the conversion of his adversary.
Francis’ actions – equivalent to leaping into a furnace – were possible because nothing was more important to him than Christ and His Kingdom. As Francis wrote in his Admonitions, “They are truly peacemakers who are able to preserve their peace of mind and heart for love of our Lord Jesus Christ, despite all that they suffer in this world.”