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Conversations with St. Francis
By James C. Howell
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2008 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
THE WILL OF GOD
If you are the kind of person who reads a book like this, if you wonder about God and the meaning and purpose of your life, if you are at all like me, then you really want to know: what is the will of God? And specifically, what is God's will for me? The intensity of the question rises and falls, depending on the vagaries of life.
But how do you know? I have taken many stabs at divining God's will, although a few times I have felt like a cowboy out on the parched prairie meandering about with a forked stick, desperately thirsty under cloudless skies, yearning for some slight tug that would set me to shoveling for underground water.
The first time I was in Assisi, as powerful as my sense of Francis's presence was, somehow I missed his answer to this most crucial question. What is God's will? Perhaps I wasn't ready to know or even to ask. Maybe I was (and still am?) the kind of person who is too easily distracted, or maybe I'm just plain slow.
But in preparation for my second visit, I read the story of another slow learner's junket to Assisi. Gerard Thomas Straub was a producer of soap operas (like General Hospital), an atheist in Hollywood, who through a serpentine twist of circumstances wound up in Assisi—on a chance remark from a priest from whom he was really seeking a restaurant recommendation. The visit changed his life and his career, and I clutched the coattails of his transformation as I read his memoir, The Sun and Moon Over Assisi.
Francis would love Straub: a cynic, a worldly guy, all about fashion, style, connections with people who are cool—just like Francis during his early years when he finally began to ask, What is God's will? Gulping down his story in huge chunks, I stumbled on what I had missed years earlier, right there on page 467: a prayer, the very words Francis prayed. With my pen I began to underline, then I drew a big circle around it, then with a rush of urgency I sketched a sizable arrow pointing to it. I decided: I will pray this when I get to Assisi—and maybe even right now.
enlighten the darkness of my heart
and give me, Lord,
wisdom and perception,
that I may do
what is truly your most holy will.
What is God's will? How would Francis answer? "Kneel with me, and pray these words. And not just once, but over and over, today, and later today, and tomorrow, and the next day." The persistence of Francis's quest for God's will is striking. Like the visitor Jesus told us about, banging on the door at midnight, so relentless he would not stop until the friend inside got up to give him some bread (Luke 11:8), Francis prayed this prayer during an extended period when he wrestled with God, when he struggled to discern God's will for him.
Notice the words extended period. Francis prayed this prayer many times, every day, for weeks and then months, for nearly two years—and probably habitually throughout his life. Kneeling beside me, Francis reminds me that God's will isn't something you can just dial up and hear right now; you can't Google it. Nothing worth knowing is so swift, so easy, so cheap. To know the unspeakably rich treasure, you have to look, look again, ask,inquire again, dig, stumble, grow weary, find your legs again, press energetically, fail and fail again, but you continue to strive, restlessly seeking. You knock late into the night and all the next day too. When Francis walked, he would always stop to say his prayers; if he was riding on horseback, he would halt and get down to say his prayers.
The delight is in the quest. The joy is the relationship won by saying to God, "You matter enough, this is important enough, I will not be denied." How lovely were the words Thomas of Celano used to describe this gallant period of Francis's life, and the consistent virtue of all of his existence: "He prayed with all his heart that the eternal and true God guide his way and teach him to do His will. He endured great suffering in his soul, and he was not able to rest until he accomplished in action what he had conceived in his heart."
WHERE DOES PRAYER HAPPEN?
If Francis can teach us about the will of God, we might consider where he prayed what he prayed: not just anywhere, but in a church, the small stone chapel called San Damiano, crumbling, unimpressive, but yet a sacred space. Francis took time to get himself bodily to such a place, to invest time in the precincts where the Lord's Supper was blessed and served, where the Word was read and proclaimed, where baptisms and penance and even last rites were performed. What is God's will? Francis says, Kneel with me, but kneel in a church. "The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him" (Habakkuk 2:20 RSV).
And what was the focal point in this church? A large wooden cross, Romanesque in style, painted a few decades before Francis was born, adorned with complex iconography, featuring small figures of Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, soldiers, onlookers, angels, and even saints like St. Michael, John the Baptist, St. Paul. Hovering above them all is the hand of God the Father, protruding downward out of heaven, in a gesture of blessing.
But dominating the cross, at the heart of it all, is Jesus. We see his body pierced with nails, his head crowned with thorns, the soldier's lance in his side, little streams of blood seeming to squirt from his body. Yet this Jesus seems strong, placid, almost luminescent, his eyes angled so very slightly upward, not fierce but shedding love.
Centuries ago church authorities moved this cross to a more trafficked location in the heart of the city, the beautiful church called Santa Chiara, only about a five-minute walk from my hotel. I decided that a visit to this church, and praying before the cross Francis prayed before, would be a good way to start my day—and might not be a bad way to start any day.
After breakfast, I gathered my things to walk straight to Santa Chiara. Should I carry the Straub book with me so I can pray the prayer on page 467? More than six hundred pages in length, it's heavy ... I'll just write it down—which I did, although unnecessarily. How had I missed this on my previous visit? Right outside my hotel, in every shop window, and at the entrance to every church in Assisi, there were little cards with Francis's prayer printed on them. I bought a few, planning to stick them in letters to friends, and to have a handful back home I could give to people who were trying to divine where the water might be.
Then I went in the church. The cross is not visible in the nave, but hangs in a small chapel to the right, the Oratorio del Crocifisso. This crucifix isn't a photo opportunity. The sanctity of the room tugs you down onto your knees. I knelt. Was Francis there? I bowed my head, then gazed up at the face of Jesus, took it all in for a long time, then retrieved the prayer I'd copied, and began to speak to Jesus, silently at first, then in a murmured whisper, and finally, when I noticed no one else was in the room but me, right out loud.
enlighten the darkness of my heart
and give me, Lord,
wisdom and perception,
that I may do
what is truly your most holy will.
I was—moved? An understatement. I felt the way I imagined that paralyzed man felt when his four friends lowered him through the roof and he found himself face-to-face with Jesus.
I remembered that, after praying this prayer over and over in front of this Jesus, Francis heard Jesus say something from the cross. I found myself wishing Jesus would speak, half believing he might at any moment. I worried that perhaps he just did, but I was too thick in the soul to grasp it. Since that visit, I have kept the little cards with this prayer in my top desk drawer at the office, in my sock drawer at home, and in the little junk compartment that sits under my right elbow when I drive. Has Jesus talked back? Maybe. But my interest in God's will has matured a little, and now and then I find myself thinking—and acting—differently.
I wonder what Francis would say if we gave him a blackboard and chalk and asked him to unpack the prayer. What did his mind gravitate toward when he uttered each phrase, each word?
MOST HIGH, GLORIOUS GOD
Prayer begins with God, not me. Francis knew the height, the grandeur, the sheer massiveness of God, even though his scientific grasp of the universe was paltry. He climbed steep paths to get up higher to pray. He slept out under the stars, and did so when there was virtually no ambient light, no artificial halogens. So as he lay on his back, drifting off, he could see what we can no longer see: a dense array of pinpoints of light, a flurry of meteors streaking, the deep darkness that is not dark to God at all. He would have known the psalm by heart:
O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth! Thou whose glory above the heavens is chanted.... When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor. (Psalm 8:1-8 RSV)
Later we will explore the exuberant delight Francis took in the works of God's fingers.
But when Francis asked, "What is man ... and the son of man?" he would have thought, not of himself, so small against the canopy of space and the openness of the fields, but of Jesus. What Francis understood about Jesus is that the Most High, Glorious God was not content to hover so high, to remain aloof. That Most High, Glorious God exhibited his glory by coming down, in the humble form of a man, Jesus—and so the height of God is measured by the smallness of Christ come down in the infant Jesus. The prayer for God's will is, like some zoom lens, focused down on something small, tender, alive. God came down from his Most Highness because God loved, God loves—and so God's will is always about love, bending down, humble, serving.
Yet sometimes we pitch God too low, and forget God is Most High. We whittle God down to a size we prefer, a God who exists only to serve me. When Francis prayed this prayer, he was chronically ill. When we are ill, we think it must be God's will for us to feel better—and so we pray, not asking God for how God wants to use me now, or what God is teaching me now, or what God's larger project might be, but merely to be cured ... understandably! But Francis believed his extended illness broke his stubbornness, humbled him, and opened him up to God in a way he had resisted when he was healthy and virile, with youthful invincibility. When we are agile and energetic, we do not always seek God's will, or we reduce God to a force that should give us a boost along our way. But God is higher than a little boost to my independent life, although I may never glimpse the height of God until I am lying on my back.
God is high. God is more mind-boggling than the scope of stars in the Milky Way. And that God became small and bends down to listen when we begin our prayer with "Most high, glorious God." Out in the dark, the one who looks up into the darkness really wants just one thing.
ENLIGHTEN THE DARKNESS OF MY HEART
There is darkness out there and in me. Even the most holy, even those intimate with God, have to admit that "we see through a glass, darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12 KJV). My heart is divided, muddled, and compromised. I have let ugly blockages accumulate; they cast long shadows across my soul. I cannot see where to go or even how to go. I need light.
We may think we are fairly bright, and that we know many things. But only when I look closely and realize my heart is dark, that I cannot see where to go, or how to go, do I open myself to the light of God's will. My brokenness is where I begin. "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in" (Leonard Cohen).
How much light am I seeking? How much do I really need? When I seek God's will, sometimes I foolishly want a brightly illuminated map, with lots of flashing lights, a brilliant clarity, the entire way charted without the slightest uncertainty. But the light God gives is what Francis would have used walking around in the dark of Umbria, when there were no streetlights: a candle, maybe a small torch. How far can you see with a candle? Not far at all.
But perhaps just far enough. Even a flickering candle banishes the darkness, or banishes just enough of the darkness that I can take a step or two, and then I can see a bit farther and take another step or two. I avoid crashing into trees and rocks, I see just far enough, I keep going, I keep looking. God's will is like that. O God, enlighten the darkness of my heart. I am not asking for the gleaming brilliance of noon. Just give me sufficient light to take a step or two, then show me what you want to show me next.
AND GIVE ME CORRECT FAITH
What is faith? And what did Francis mean by "correct" faith? Can there be a false faith? When I was in college, without the foggiest interest in God or any kind of spirituality, I took a philosophy course on existentialism. The professor assigned me a paper topic: Paul Tillich. I'd never heard of him, but I started researching and discovered him to be a German theologian who came to the United States and taught in Chicago.
The first Tillich book I found in the library was The Dynamics of Faith. I'd always thought faith was something you either had or you didn't, and having it might be a good thing and lacking it might be bad, at least to people more interested in religion than I was. But Tillich suggested that we all have faith in something. Faith is what we trust, what we invest ourselves in: faith is my "ultimate concern." And that ultimate concern can be directed to what is false, to what cannot deliver, to what will only delude me and leave me desolate.
Give me a correct faith. Having faith might be dangerous if that faith isn't true, if it isn't passionately committed to what really is God. And is this faith something I conjure up inside myself? No, faith—if Francis is right—is a gift. Give me correct faith. On my own I may have no faith, or I may get duped into fawning after all kinds of bogus idols. Again, remember where Francis is praying: in a church, and in front of Jesus. Faith can drift into confusion without the loving correction of the Church, its Scriptures, and its Lord. I will discover God's will only when I ask for it as a gift, and when I expect God's will as a by-product of a correct faith, as I have cultivated a relationship with the true God and his Son, Jesus, in the place God has willed for him to be known and for God's will to be revealed.
But we are not alone pursuing God's will via a correct faith with Jesus in the Church. The painted cross with which Francis was obsessed depicted disciples, angels, saints, and a holy company of others who also wanted to know God's will. We learn God's will when we let ourselves be swept up in the tide of their prayers, their living out of God's will.
God wills that we relish and benefit from the communion of the saints, God's friends who have asked after God, heard God, failed God, kept seeking God, served God, and now have been ushered into God's presence. They want to help us. They can help us. We rely on God's friends, our brothers and sisters who are veterans of the faith, to inspire and teach us. We cannot see them, but Francis knew that a correct faith always involves hope, "the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1 KJV).
Hope is the most stellar of the virtues, and the most distinctively Christian virtue. Hope isn't a sunny optimism that everything will be better tomorrow—although Francis seems to have been born with a sunny, optimistic personality. Hope is a long-term belief in God's ultimate future, which can weather the storm if things get worse tomorrow. Francis endured the worst, and even sought suffering in pursuit of God's will, in unbounded certainty of God's good future.
Hope doesn't depend on you and me getting our act together—although Francis and his friends labored hard to do better each day. Hope depends not on us, but on God, and Francis was buoyed by an unsinkable hope in God, unshakably confident that God would do good, that God would bring everything to its good end, that the future rests securely in God's hands.
Excerpted from Conversations with St. Francis by James C. Howell. Copyright © 2008 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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