Franciscan Views of Resilience & Peace
In this time of social isolation Br Chris Dyczek offers us the early Franciscan Friars response to fear and despondency:
Solitude can be a lovely peaceful state of mind. But social isolation feels like an imposed restriction on our movements. One might be a chance to connect with gifts from God and experience the energy they bring. The other might look like the only practical path whereby we can avoid stirring up fears in a number of fellow human beings. Are these two states of mind entirely separate ones on every occasion? Obviously not, we might say. But appreciation of the interplay between them requires some thoughtful self-awareness. This thoughtful, prayerful and even poetic self-awareness is something we can discover in St. Francis of Assisi. Guidance from him is worth recognising and taking on board.
He had spent forty days in solitude, freely chosen, on an island in Lake Trasimene, as a period of prayer. He also, at a different time, felt himself plunged into the experience of social isolation, when a leper embraced him. This was like receiving a kiss from the suffering and scourged Messiah, Jesus Christ. He realised that God had sent his greatly loved Son into the midst of a world of outcasts, of harshly ignored human beings to whom a supposedly Christian society had demonstrated none of its mission of love. Some of the Franciscan fraternity members who joined the early groups in parts of Umbrian Italy will have sensed the depths of St. Francis' concern and rapport with damaged individuals. But others needed to discover for themselves, at their own pace, how the touch of God can heal. Francis recognised this, so he provided retiros, alternative short-term communities in which his followers, new and old, could experience the Spirit of Christ. They would relate closely to the Spirit of Christ, learning that he was renewing their hearts and minds, building up a shared dynamism. These hermitages were intended for smaller groups, just three or four persons interacting with patience and empathy.
This little preacher, their founder and guide, sat down and wrote them letters. He wrote out also a short account of how they should view and respect those places of quiet recollection. Two Friars (either priests or brothers) might consider themselves as both close in outlook to Mary of Bethany, keen to be open to a solitude that was being refreshed by the loving voice of Christ. A different pair of Friars, at the same location, might see themselves as 'following the life of Martha' (Luke 1:38-42; John 11: 1-6; 17-46). The pattern of prayer for all four was partly being arranged for them to be 'eager to seek silence', as Francis wrote. It was also partly shaped so 'that they may be free from silence' and may speak to the other companions their, who act as 'mothers'. In either case, Francis writes, 'let them seek first of all the kingdom of God and his justice.' This indicates the inner being of each, with their resilience. They are to take this in turns, alternating the two roles. Those who are mainly active, and cooking, will protect those in need of creative silence, and will keep them out of reach of chattering neighbours.
Franciscans today generally try to understand how to let the gifts of the Spirit flow in varied ways, at different times, in various people. What the gifts are bringing to life in one person will have chances to be reciprocal, to become mutually enhancing or re-inforcing, with regard to the Spirit's activities in another person. The most prayerful characters obviously have plenty to gain through the collaboration with others who are ready and able to cook, sew or clean. But also those who accept an active role for a week or so can receive affirmation, through words of gratitude, appreciation and encouragement, or even a warm smile from those most involved in prayer. The recognition that Christ's loving presence was closely radiating in both of them was what made this a gospel-minded community. Then, and now, it would have qualities such as St. Paul wanted to see in Corinth. 'God has so composed the body… that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together' (1 Cor. 12:24-6). Paul had asked, 'Do all work miracles?' Obviously, not. But a spirit of kind resilience is a sort of miracle. Therefore, he adds: 'if I have not love, I am nothing.'
'Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes… hopes… endures' (1 Cor. 13:4-7). Thus the interplay between those who 'achieve' a helpful way of surviving, for instance, and those who mostly 'endure' in a constant love of God is all a matter of finding pleasure in the gift of love, which fills them both. Those two women, gospel followers of Christ, Mary and Martha, are also witnesses to the resurrection. Taking them as our trustworthy guides for lives of faith means we can tackle isolation too. Whatever fears or despondency appear when a virus hits our normal living, we can still be open to a new reality transcending fears, the sharing of a risen life. As we turn together to God, our eyes may be opened as were those of Jesus' followers at Emmaus. Various early companions of St. Francis, like brothers Leo, Giles and Anthony, will have spent some time in larger communities, helping parishioners to learn some community values from them. But they also sometimes went away to this or that hermitage, to deepen their inner lives.
There were, in those days, famines, droughts and illness to be faced in certain phases of their lives. Thus to develop a greater feeling for the possibilities of celebration, and the strength they could communicate with one another, was a valuable step to take. It made those early companions confident that the call of God for following Christ was a genuine benefit to offer to others who might meanwhile be stuck in a confused condition. This has often been what has enabled people to find a purpose in their lives. This can begin to unfold meaningful experience for them in a number of changing relationships. It could also provide a small pathway out of hardship, distress, fears and mourning. It can create a heart capable at last of delighting in the gospel and nurturing joy. When we look for traces of the risen Christ passing through our lives and friendships, what we find can bring about vitality for us. This can reveal to us how our membership of the Body of Christ has marvellous realities for us today. There are many accounts of how the early Franciscan community spirit flourished and attracted newcomers. Pick one up and try out the graces it might bring into your own lives. Look for some parallels with the New Testament, with Acts of the Apostles, for the spread of a loving Christian newness.
Chris Dyczek, OFM.