While preparing to guide the prayerful community meditation of the Stations of the Cross I turned to the Googleable archives on the Internet to find a text I could follow. Not just any text, ideally I wanted a text that had bible quotes, described the scene we would meditate and then offered a contemporary reflection with more questions than predigested wisdom. I searched and searched and searched over the period of 2 or 3 days. I remembered how painfully difficult it had been last year – of course, last year I made a mental note that I should create a booklet with the versions I find that suit the community and the context. So there I was searching again.
In my searches I came across this text that I could best describe as excessively verbose flowery language that romanticized the way of the cross to a point that I found it offensively naive. In my ignorance I attributed the text to some well intentioned soul attempting to put into sacramental language the last moments of his beloved Jesus. Then I saw the same text surface in another search. I attributed the coincidence to the common practice of quoting extensively and without permission between internet sites, which in matters of spirituality can be assumed to be content provided to the public domain free to use though it is simply immoral not cite. Then I came across the same corny depiction yet again:
When our divine Savior beheld the cross, He most willingly stretched out His bleeding arms, lovingly embraced it, and tenderly kissed it, and placing it on His bruised shoulders, He, although almost exhausted, joyfully carried it.
I searched for “joyfully carried it” and came to find that the words that I had mocked and scorned were from St. Francis of Assisi. Could it be? Of all the saints I could pick on, I had not expected to find me arguing against or rejecting the form of St. Francis’ spirituality, and yet here I was.
I was in the midst of writing to a priest to coordinate a Lenten Meditation for the parish when it occurred to me that if he needed a topic, maybe he could help me breach a gap in understanding. I wrote:
If you have a Lenten Season theme already developed that you wish to share with our faith community that would be fine. If you would rather be provided a topic… I have a humble request: As I gathered materials for celebrating Friday evening meditations on the Stations of the Cross, I was surprised by my discomfort or dislike (both terms seem a tad strong but words fail me) of the wording in the St. Francis of Assisi version of the Ways of the Cross.
One of the more challenging notions for me was to think that Jesus embraced his cross gladly, joyously. I can understand the gift of peace and I can envision peaceful resignation, but the freedom to be joyous in suffering is a foreign concept. I am not sure if this is a Jesus human vs Jesus divine quandary or a matter cross-cultural miscommunication or the need for translation services to properly convey his message. As it stands in reading the text I am left wondering “Is my path, his way of the cross if I am not joyful in my sorrow?” Where did this text that is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi come from and how can it enrich our mundane way of the cross?
Alas, the visiting Jesuit theologian did not get my request but already had a topic of his own, so I was left to continue to wrestle with my unexpected criticism of dear St. Francis. I had no problem receiving the cross, nor bearing it. It is the “joy,” the “kissing” and romantic overtones of the loveliness of the cross that I am failing to grasp:
O dearly beloved cross! I embrace thee, I kiss thee, I joyfully accept thee from the hands of my God. Far be it from me to glory in anything, save in the cross of my Lord and Redeemer. By it the world shall be crucified to me and I to the world, that I may be Thine forever.
How can I reject St. Francis? This question was at the forefront of my thoughts, I began to hear and serendipitously receive bits and pieces that would help pave the way to making peace with my dislike of St. Francis’ words. A Truth, I am convinced, must be lost in translation. Somewhere between the middle ages and today, a Truth was lost.
That Sunday the sermon addressed the transfiguration. Fr. Vega spoke Viktor Frankl’s concentration camp reflections and the human need to have a purpose. When we have a purpose and we have hope anything and everything is possible. In our Christian path it is through love and service that we find our purpose. Vega also invited us to revisit what being in the presence of someone one loves is like, being and knowing we filled satiated and have a purpose. The cost we would be willing to pay in order not to loose sight of that moment in time where we have love and purpose. This is how Fr. Vega helped us understand the witnessing of the Transfiguration and the confusion that ensued as Jesus anticipated the inevitable end and separation. Who would want to loose that connection with the Divine, that moment? What would you do to keep it?
Because St. Francis was never far from my thoughts, my mind suddenly saw the flowery, romanticized language in the light of a jilted lover unwilling to let go, to take anything to keep love’s comfort present. Was I to see St. Francis as a poet? I can only see joy in a cross if the heart is so naive as to be in a state drugged by love into a aching dependence free of all other early cares.
After mass, a fellow parishioner shared with me a catholic magazine he had saved for me. It was a product of Franciscan Media. It was an opportunity to get to know the voice of St. Francis. In it I found stories of St. Francis passed on as insights to who this medieval saint was. They portrayed him as a troubadour, singing int he forests of his time. He is the saint it seems for rich people who have yet to realize there is no joy, no satisfaction in accumulation of wealth, there is only an abyss, an emptiness that lavish, hectic lives cannot erase. The idea picture of St. Francis of Assisi that then emerged was that of a man that converted from having all to having nothing, being a young bachelor with enviable parties to embrace being ridiculed and outcast. He had found the peace, joy and purpose he knew he could never find otherwise and was willing to pay any cost, not to let that satisfaction of communion with Christ out of his experience.
So through my reflection on the transfiguration, on the heavenly moments of being bathed in love and clear of purpose, I came to find St. Francis who having such clarity of conviction and such a complete conversion he saw joy no matter the cost in being able to share the hardship of service and love with Him.
Feeling like I was again understanding St. Francis, I returned to his reread his words and then am confronted, not with St. Francis love of Jesus and desire to be with Him, but rather, I suddenly see the face of Jesus who loved us so dearly, who understood and loved us so deeply that he did not want to separated from us. He gave his life to make His salvation ours. He burst open the gates of heaven that we may know and love and be one with Him and the Father in eternal glory.