A Personal Encounter with Jesus Christ
— Finding God with St. Francis of Assisi
“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
“My God and my all.” (St. Francis of Assisi)
“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (Deuteronomy 6: 4-6). In these two sentences, God enjoined his Commandments on the Israelite people through Moses as mediator. This first Commandment is the basic principle of the entirety of Mosaic law. Christ himself repeated these words when responding to the Pharisees who asked him which commandment is the greatest: “He said to them, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.’” (Matthew 22:37f).
This same Commandment is sometimes written: “YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD AND HIM ONLY SHALL YOU SERVE” (quote). Here God makes it clear that he is the only God and that there is no other god. The first of the commandments establishes the primacy of God. Our entire human existence originates from and in God. He is the source of all being and being itself. Our relationship with God begins when we acknowledge the sovereignty of God who deserves our full worship because of his love. The first Commandment – the source of religion – recognizes God as the source of our entire essence, love, and life. In this Commandment, God calls and demands that man accept him and worship him alone. With a firm understanding of who God is, we “Know and fix in [our] heart, that the Lord is God in the heavens above and on earth below, and that there is no other.”¹
Scripture sometimes refers to the obeisance owed God as “fear of the Lord.” “You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him. . . . You shall not go after other gods.” (5: find quote from Catechism). This “fear of the Lord” is a reverential fear and respect for God due to his sovereignty as Creator of the heavens and the Earth. This “fear and respect” is the bedrock of our faith. We put God first – before all else in our lives.
When Moses meets God and asks who he is, God replies “I am who I am.” This mysterious response tells us nothing, but it also tells us everything. God is nameless, but he is also everything. He is YAHWAH, the beginning and the end. The God we believe in is the one and true God who revealed his glory to Israel. It is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is the God who called Abraham to leave the land of his father in order to give him a new land where his offspring would multiply and he would be fertile. He is the God who led the Israelites out of the desert. He is the God Jesus referred to as “Our Father.”
We owe our entire lives and all of creation to God – the God who, in the beginning “created the heavens and the earth.”2 The God we worship is the God who made and ordered the universe. I remember some years ago visiting the Hayden planetarium of New York. I left it feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the immensity of the universe. I could not help but reflect on how our little home here on earth was so small, while the universe was so immense. Yet, the God of all creation still found time, care, and love to look after us, too.
With the primacy of God firmly established, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the purpose of the “Life of man is to know and love God.” When we submit ourselves in obedience to God with God as the central point in our lives, our lives are properly and correctly ordered. We become more human. We live the way we were created to be – to give honor and glory to God.
Yet, this is not how most of us live our lives. Even if we have the desire to live correctly and to honor and worship God, we fall short. Let us look to the experience of Adam and Even in the garden. According to Genesis, Adam and Eve were the first man and woman created by God. (cf. Genesis xyz.) They lived in blessed happiness in the garden paradise on earth created for them by God. Yet, through their disobedience, they fell away from that state leading to our present world of suffering and injustice.
Now the snake was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made. He asked the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden’?” The woman answered the snake: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, or else you will die.’” But the snake said to the woman: “You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.” The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Genesis 3:1-6)
Let’s look at this story a little more closely. Before their fall, Adam and Eve lived in freedom, joy, and bliss. When God made the earth, he told Adam that he could eat from any of the trees “except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die” (Gen 2:16-17). The serpent’s temptation was that by eating precisely of the one tree they were commanded not to, they would “become like gods who know good and evil” (Gen 3:5). Their temptation and sin was really no different than ours: whenever we disobey God by sinning, we are saying that we know better than God. At the root of their sin was a desire to be like God. The serpent convinced them that God was keeping something from them that was good for them, but was in fact, bad. By eating of the fruit, they sought to become like God, but became idolatrous.
The moment they disobeyed God, their eyes were immediately opened, they realized something was different, they felt shame, and they tried to hide from God. Then they both tried to excuse themselves by blaming someone else as the cause of their transgressions: Adam blamed Eve who, in turn, blamed the serpent.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. When they heard the sound of the LORD God walking about in the garden at the breezy time of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. The LORD God then called to the man and asked him: Where are you? He answered, “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.” Then God asked: Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat? The man replied, “The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it.” The LORD God then asked the woman: What is this you have done? The woman answered, “The snake tricked me, so I ate it.” (Genesis 3:7-13)
Whether we consider Adam and Eve as the first actual human beings who lived in history, or as symbolic of the condition of man and woman, the point is the same: we sin through our disobedience to God. And when we do so, we, too, feel a sense of shame. Often, we, too, seek to blame someone else for our actions or for the way we feel. Sometimes our shame is for something we have specifically done; other times, it is due to the nature of being human – our weaknesses, limitations, our humanity. The temptation of Adam and Eve was that “they would become like God.” At some level, in our sin and disobedience, we seek to become our own gods. When we sin, we become idolaters.
Some people, from childhood, are aware of the separation that exists between them and God due to their disobedience. They grow up with a keen awareness of the opposition between divine omnipotence and their own human weakness, and their attempt at reconciling that struggle comes in subtle ways. For others, the moment of the realization of their sinfulness is dramatic and great; they realize that they have been living as great sinners far from God and his will by having greatly offended him. They have a powerful awakening at a certain point in their lives that is dramatic and sudden. This is the experience of St. Francis of Assisi.
St. Francis became aware of his disobedience one night while he was on his way to war. As a young man, Francis had desired to become a knight. Inspired by tales of chivalry, he was enthusiastic to fight for a cause, a lord, and a lady, and to receive self-glory through war. Yet, God had other plans for him. While journeying to fight in southern Italy as a crusader, Francis heard God’s voice in a dream in Spoleto. God asked him whether it was better to serve the Lord or a servant: “Francis, who can do more for you, the Lord or his servant, a rich man or a beggar?” Francis responded that a lord or a rich man could do more. Then he was asked by the voice, “Then why are you serving the servant?” Francis asked, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” The voice responded, “Go back to your home and you will be shown what to do.” The next morning, Francis gave away his armor to a poor knight who was traveling with him, and headed back to Assisi on foot to listen to the voice of God and to discover what he was to do. His life would soon become radically different. St. Bonaventure said that this was the first moment in his life when Francis was able to discern and listen to God and he “began to God’s will at this point” – (quote.) This is when Francis began to become obedient to God.
Later in his life, St. Francis spoke and wrote often of obedience. In the 2nd Admonition, Francis wrote, “For that person eats of the tree of the knowledge of good who makes his will his own [appropriates his will to himself] (qui sibi suam voluntatem appropriat) and, in this way, exalts himself over the good things the Lord says and does in him.” He said that perfect obedience was …xyz (Admonitions III: perfect obedience) Here we see how St. Francis believed that self-will was at the root of evil. Thus, obedience to God is the root of all goodness.
What is obedience? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “To obey in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself” (CCC 144). We have models in Scripture: Abraham is the model of such obedience offered us by Sacred Scripture. The Virgin Mary is its most perfect embodiment. Of course, Christ himself obeys his Father all the way to the cross.
The word comes from the Latin ob-audire, which means, “to hear or listen to.” Scripture says, “Incline your ear, and hear my words, and let your mind attend to my teaching” (Prov 22:17). St. Benedict began the Prologue to his great rule with the words, “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” There is an image of St. Francis in a series of three frescoes in the lower basilica built in his honor designed to represent obedience – one of the three evangelical counsels. This is the panel that faces the choir where the friars gather to pray the Divine Office several times each day. St. Francis has his index finger over his lips indicating to his friars that in order to be obedient, they need to be quiet to listen. This when we wish to become obedient, we need to step back and listen.
We begin to become obedient to God when we decide to place our faith and trust in him. Even if we do not know him well, or if we know him but a little, when we seek him we are beginning to reconcile that chasm that exists between us and him. Scripture refers to this moment in our lives as the beginning of wisdom. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Prov. 9:10; Psalm 111:10).
Yet sometimes people today do not really know who God is. Sometimes they may be afraid to surrender themselves to him. Often people have an inaccurate image of God impressed on them perhaps from their childhood. They may believe that God is angry at them or is constantly scrutinizing their behavior – waiting for the right moment to strike as soon as they get out of line. We need to know and have faith that God loves us deeply, passionately, mercifully, and totally.
Scripture tells us that “God is love.” Our understanding of God culminates in Christ. In the person of Christ, we see the face of God. God is not just an almighty, Creator, aloof being up in Heaven somewhere; he is incarnate, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Christ himself refers to God as Father in the prayer he taught his disciples. This gentle image of God that Jesus seeks to portray our God who not only protects, provides for, and guides, but who also is tender, merciful, and loving. In other words, our God is one of love. When we trust that God truly cares for us, we can allow ourselves to enter into the mystery of the love of God. We can enter into relationship with him, and we allow him to give himself to us. Then our prayer is centered on a great and loving God. St. Francis of Assisi left us a beautiful prayer describing who God was for him:
You are holy, Lord, the only God, You do wonders.
You are strong, You are great, You are the most high,
You are the almighty King.
You, Holy Father, the King of heaven and earth.
You are Three and One, Lord God of gods;
You are good, all good, the highest good,
Lord, God, living and true.
You are love, charity.
You are wisdom; You are humility; You are patience;
You are beauty; You are meekness; You are security;
You are inner peace; You are joy; You are our hope and joy;
You are justice; You are moderation, You are all our riches
[You are enough for us.]
You are beauty, You are meekness;
You are our protector,
You are our guardian and defender;
You are strength; You are refreshment.
You are our hope, You are our faith, You are our charity,
You are all our sweetness,
You are our eternal life:
Great and wonderful Lord,
God almighty, Merciful Savior. 5
These are beautiful images of God. This is why St. Francis himself frequently prayed, “My God and my all.”6 God was all love for him.
God deserves our trust, as well as our obedience. And when we decide to obey and follow the voice of God, who leads us from the place we were, we are called to go forth. But we have no idea where he will take us. Our life becomes a journey, like a pilgrimage. We become like Abram, called by Yahweh to go forth from his pagan past and his father’s home in order to migrate to the land of God’s choice, where he would receive divine blessings (cf. Genesis 12: 1-4). Or we become like the Hebrew people, led by Moses out of the desert to the Promised Land. In short, we become disciples of Christ called to live as “strangers and aliens on earth” (Hebrews 11: 14) and to “conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning”7 Like the prophets and the disciples of old, the journey may involve a period of struggle, uncertainty, doubt, desert (literal or metaphorical), and difficulty in which we may feel lost. However, we will ultimately arrive at a better place. In fact, the state of exile is not the Christian’s ultimate goal – Heaven is.
In our Christian life, we will hear the call, leave, and wander; yet ultimately we will arrive in a purified place and state. Once we are obedient, we must leave. Something. Abraham was called to leave his father’s land and house. We, too, are called to leave that which is familiar to us. It may be our vices or sins; it may be our community; it may be our ways of doing things – what is familiar to us. But God will call us to something. Then we set out on the journey.
Our journey begins when we realize that something is not quite right. We are lost. The father of the Italian language, Dante (and also a Third Order lay Franciscan), wrote his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, between 1308 and his death in 1321. In the epic poem, Dante narrates his travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. At a deeper level, however, it is an allegorical journey of the soul towards God. It began with the following lines:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
At the midpoint of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark forest
because the straight path was lost.
Dante begins his poem like a pilgrim and stranger. He realizes he is lost. Yet, it concludes after his journey through trials and tribulations when he ultimately arrives in Heaven; like the prophets of old, he is called to pass through a “desert” only to arrive at a better place.
When we are obedient, we give God our will. We make a decision. We take the first step and become willing to walk our journey towards God. This is the beginning of freedom. When we seek to follow God, we begin where we are – enslaved to the world – and we walk towards God. There we will eventually find intimacy and union. Obedience will eventually restore us to the Kingdom of Heaven. Like St. Francis of Assisi, we ask God what he wants us to do. We seek to do God’s will.
Fundamentally, our obedience to God leads to the end of the shame we inherited from the sin of Adam and Eve. It restores our Garden of Eden of joy, peace, and bliss. This is the Kingdom of God. How do we get there? Through the cross. It is the cross that takes away our shame. As we move from Holy Week to Easter, we thank God for the cross.
The Christian pilgrimage journey involves a process of departure, wandering, and arrival. It requires a sense of rupture when the pilgrim leaves what is familiar and enters a new place where he becomes, in the words of Francis and Clare, a “pilgrim and stranger.” However, at some point on the journey, that feeling of being a stranger passes, and a sense of familiarity rekindles within. It may happen during the wandering, upon arrival, after returning home, or even in the next world to come. And in the process, the pilgrim becomes something he was not before, and he/she arrives (or returns home) transformed. He/she has gone through the same inner spiritual journey as the prophets and pilgrims of yesterday and is no longer the “old man”; the pilgrim is “renewed.”8 The pilgrim has moved through loneliness, exile, sin and wandering to grace, purpose, reassurance and wholeness in God.
Where/when have you personally experienced the spiritual process of departure, wandering, and arrival in your life? Some examples are being called to religious life, leaving home and getting married, taking on a new career, etc.
Bret Thoman, OFS
1 – Deuteronomy 4:39
2 – Genesis 1:1
3 – Ibid. 129.
4 – 1 John 4:8
5 – From the parchment given to Brother Leo at Mount Laverna after receiving the stigmata.
6 – Cf. “The Little Flowers of St. Francis” chap. 2
7 – 1 Peter 1: 17
8 – Romans 6:6; Ephesians 2:15; 4:22-24; and Colossians 3:9-11