We had an Excuse for
than we should Be
... except for Saint Francis
had an excuse ... except for Saint Francis ... and Saint
And now we are without one.
am only a man ... only a woman. What can you expect of me?”
Catholics, all Christians really, are not wanting in belief ... only
in courage: the courage required to relinquish our own practical designs,
our deep-seated pragmatism that orders means to ends. But because our
ends are many, and not one – God – they are essentially
outside of God, and this a rather unsatisfactory state of affairs ...
one which does not portend well.
Despite our most earnest profession of faith, we still believe – or
at least act as if we believe – that it is we, and
not God, who know what is best for us, and how best to achieve it –
I mean, in matters really practical like acquiring money, substance,
shelter, building barns against the anticipated year of famine. We all
do it in one way or another. Well, at least most of us.
Matters of a material sort, after all, are the province of
man, yes? – and who is most competent to judge of such matters
if not man? We render to God what is God's — things spiritual and the
like that we presume can be indefinitely deferred before being brought
to account – and to man what is man's, things material, quotidian to
be sure, but terribly pragmatic no less, and very likely due today.
Now, this appears entirely satisfactory, well proportioned and wise,
and we are quite comfortable with it ... in fact, if we are really
adept, we can even attenuate that nagging sense of disproportion between
what we are in fact doing and what we really know we should
be doing – that is to say, what God would have us do.
In any event, we achieve the ends we have set before us, and if there
is any residual guilt arising out of this nagging sense of disproportion,
we are nevertheless confident that time will eradicate its remembrance,
and we shall then have both – the end we desired, and freedom from the
sting of conscience that initially accompanied it.
In effect, we are saying that we will start anew – once we
have achieved our end. And, of course, we never do: we acknowledge that
our behavior has its consequences in eternity, but we still are not
persuaded to do, or in retrospect, to have done, otherwise.
The reason for this, I think, is quite simple: we presume much. Of time,
mortality, life, death – but mostly we presume upon God; upon His understanding
our frailty (which, for our part, we do little to rehabilitate) and,
of course, upon His mercy, given His understanding of our irremediable
and largely incorrigible condition.
The Problem ...
There is a terribly
vexing problem, however, and it is this: Saint Francis.
And Saint Clare.
Alas ... Saints Francis and Clare! Except for them, we had
an excuse ...
Let us be unsparing in articulating the problem, which is a very real
one. For the moment let us look at the one, Francis, for the one is
really the other: two peas in a pod that is really a thistle.
Unlike Christ, Who was like us in every way except sin, Saint Francis,
who was like Christ — more like Christ than any man who has
ever lived — was like us in every way.
With Christ we are inclined to say, "Ah, yes, but He was God also!
We have no such excuse before the example of Saint Francis.
But Saint Francis, we protest, was clearly the beneficiary of extraordinary
grace, and we are not.
I do not think that such an assessment does Saint Francis justice –certainly
it does God no justice.
Sin and the “Canticle
of the Sun”
Most people are familiar with Saint Francis's Canticle of the
Sun — it is popular in our New Age spirituality
because Saint Francis lauds creation which itself praises God; it is
especially dear to “naturalists”
to whom Saint Francis is little more than a
Indeed it is often quoted. But just as often, one admonition
by Saint Francis within that poem is seldom printed or spoken,
or is simply glossed over:
to those who die in mortal sin.”
It occurs toward the close and summation of the poem. Saint Francis
knew his priorities and never demurred from them.
We are scandalized by Saint Francis, mortified by Saint Clare. Why?
Deprived of excuses
Because they deprive us of our excuses.
Saint Francis did the unthinkable, the inexcusable: he took Christ at
His word. Literally. No equivocating, no scholarly hermeneutics, no
convenient interpolation, nothing of casuistry, no middle way — in fact,
no accommodating Christ to the world whatever — on the other hand, he
possessed a passionate desire to bring the world to Christ.
Saint Francis had, in short, the courage to act with conviction upon
the words, the promises, of Christ – the courage to relinquish the pragmatic
promptings of his own will in deference to a wisdom he believed far
greater than his own. In a word, Saint Francis submitted himself to
As we said earlier, we are not lacking in faith — but faith, in our
terribly practical affairs, somehow does not suffice and fails to motivate
us in and of itself. We may believe something completely, absolutely,
without reservation – and still fail to have the courage to act
We may, for example, and with good warrant, believe that the tensile
strength of a steel cable one quarter inch in diameter is capable of
suspending 10,000 pounds with a safety ratio of 3:1. What is more, it
has been scientifically tested, quality assured, and certified as such.
We may in fact, have repeatedly observed such a cable holding 10.000
pounds. Even 30,000 pounds.
And yet, despite the evidence (which, of course, faith does not possess),
few of us would have the courage to allow ourselves to be suspended
by so narrow a cable 1000 feet above the ground. Our safety would be
virtually certain, but it would no less be insufficient.
In other words, generally speaking, there is little commensurability
between faith, understood as belief, and the courage to act upon it.
If faith is to be motivated, something greater than faith itself is
required, something less epistemic, less connected with the head and
more connected with the heart.
We find it in Francis not because Francis found it, but because he lived
it. Because Clare lived it.
We can live it, too. Their lives show us this. It is great wisdom to
be a great fool for Christ.
In the end, I think that we will find that if we are lacking courage
— it is because we are lacking love. And perhaps this, after all, is
what the Evangelist Saint John means when he says that
love drives out all fear.”
Only perfect love, then, engenders perfect courage.
Do not be discouraged, children. Be inspired. You have
more than they did ... for they have gone before you.
Boston Catholic Journal