What caught your eye when you first saw the title of this article? Did you spot the word “appointment” first or did you see the word “disappointment” in its entirety? Disappointment may be an apt way to describe 2020 – a year that has been unpredictable, tumultuous and even precarious for some. Speaking to some people, many have voiced their disappointments at having their plans disrupted, derailed or even destroyed. Some worked hard for these plans and had looked forward to their fruition, but alas, the plans were nipped in the bud.
For myself as well, there were so many surprises and even emergencies that I had to deal with, especially with regard to cancellations, restrictions and quarantines. Though confined to one place because of strict restrictions, were our hearts anchored in peace? Or were our hearts restless and constantly troubled? A restless heart is hard to tame, as it has an energy of its own in search of things which elude it. We seem propelled by sheer circumstances, unable to chart any direction for ourselves, much less to enjoy the ensuing journey!
St Francis of Assisi, our brother and companion on this journey called Life, had his own restlessness to tame, be it at the beginning of his life as a youth dreaming of knighthood, or as a middle-aged man dreaming of martyrdom. Through it all, Francis was inspired to follow in the footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ, to be authentic in listening to God’s will for him and to be courageous in carrying it out.
This inspiration, however, was not always shared by all the friars, who thought that Francis’ ideals were too difficult to live out. And thus began Francis’ interior struggle and pain of being rejected by his own brothers and how he experienced increasing disappointment in the way that the very Order he founded was not sharing his original aspirations.
This pain within his heart led him to seek out places of isolation and prayer even more, and one of the most significant places was Mt Alvernia where in 1224, two years before his death, he received a vision of the Crucified One as a Seraph and after which, the marks of Christ’s crucifixion appeared on his body, the Stigmata. Indeed, Francis now experienced an external pain caused by these wounds of the Stigmata, but interiorly there was a consolation in conforming himself in this mysterious way to the Cross of Christ. The pain and suffering of the Cross, accompanied by the joy and love which made Christ embrace it were in fact, the two graces Francis prayed for as he began this 40-day retreat on Mt Alvernia.
After this episode on Mt Alvernia, with his body freshly marked by the Stigmata, Francis continued to battle his interior and exterior pain. Later that same year, as he recuperated at San Damiano (the church which was restored by his very own hands) Francis was moved with self-pity as he was being plagued by rats running all over him one evening. As he fretted, a voice told him: “Then brother, be glad and rejoice in your illnesses and troubles, because as of now, you are as secure as if you were already in my kingdom”.
The voice of the Lord came at a time when Francis was focused on his own sufferings and pains. Nonetheless, it consoled him so much so that he was able to redirect his thoughts to God. As the sun rose, its ray penetrated the sensitive eyes of the nearly-blind Francis, causing him much discomfort and pain. However, the first words that came out of the Saint’s mouth was “Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun” and thus the Canticle of Brother Sun was composed. A song from a heart totally freed by God.
Francis invited all creatures to praise God together with him, including those that gave him pain (like Brother Sun’s rays by day and Brother Fire’s light by night) : to direct our attention, focus and love to
God, and not to be self-focused, self-centred or self- promoting. This is the depth and power of Francis’ spirituality, that in the midst of personal pain, his soul was constantly directed to God in faith, hope and love. This can be seen when he added a new verse to the Canticle a few months later, urging the feuding Bishop and Mayor of Assisi to reconcile: “Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love, and bear infirmity and tribulation. Blessed are those who endure in peace for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.”
In this verse which captures the reality of human brokenness plagued by conflicts, sickness and trials, Francis urges us on: endure in peace and we will be crowned. Take up these crosses and carry them with the Lord, for in this way, we will have inner peace. If we die with Christ, we shall reign with Christ. We shall reign in the Kingdom of God; we shall be crowned in the Kingdom of Love.
From disappointment in the brotherhood, Francis was given the appointment by God to be the universal brother to all creatures, and to be the poor and humble friar who would always proclaim “Peace and All Good!”