Tag Archives: The Mission

Required Reading

17 Jul


They may have only those books
which are necessary for their religious exercises.
~ The Rule of St. Francis (1221)

I’m just beginning the earliest stages of formation in the Secular Franciscan Order (OFS), and I had an orientation meeting with Sr. Agnes Marie recently. She walked me and Ray, a fellow newbie, through the process – the different stages of formation, from Inquiry to Candidacy to Profession – and gave us some books. A pile of books, really: A formation manual, a volume of prayers and rituals, and a book entitled, To Live as Francis Lived: A Guide for Secular Franciscans. I’d also dusted off my old Breviary and brought it along – the OFS community prays the Divine Office together when they meet – and had tracked down my copy of the Franciscan Omnibus of Sources as well.

A whole shelf-full of tomes – to follow the poor man of Assisi? Don’t get me wrong: As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as too many books – which you’d see right away if you visited our home. Still, it seemed ironic that I’d so much stuff would be required to walk in the way of one who required so little.

It reminds me of a scene in The Mission (1986) – do you know that film? Directed by Roland Joffé, it’s a moving tale of courage and conversion that takes place in the jungles of 18th-century Paraguay. There, the Jesuits have established elaborate mission centers (“Reductions”) where the indigenous Guaraní have the opportunity to learn about Christ and become acclimated to European cultural ways.

To our modern ears, that sounds uncomfortably like Western paternalism and imperial conquest, but there’s more to the story – and it’s based on historical events. The real Jesuit Reductions were certainly oriented to evangelization, but they were also a hedge against oppression. At the time, there was no consensus in Europe regarding slavery, and that extended to the colonies. Thus, the Guaraní and other tribal groups were at risk of enslavement depending on where they dwelled: The Portuguese permitted the practice in their territories, but it was forbidden in Spanish colonies – which is where the Jesuits located their Reductions.

At one point, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), a reformed mercenary and slave trader, seeks reconciliation with the Guaraní he’d been persecuting as well as with God. After a profound redemption, Mendoza asks Fr. Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) how he can demonstrate his gratitude. Mind you, Fr. Gabriel is a Jesuit priest, someone well familiar with libraries and intense study, so you’d expect at least a couple books in response – maybe a treatise on forgiveness and then a copy of The Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius.

But, no. The Jesuit pushes a small Bible across the table to Mendoza, and says, “Read this.” As the scene progresses, you hear a voiceover of De Niro reading St. Paul’s “Love” passage in I Corinthians 13 (from a modified King James Version):

Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.

São_Miguel_das_Missões_(Brazil)At the same time, on the screen, De Niro’s character interacts with the Guaraní – conversing with them, laughing and smiling with them. It’s stirring depiction of redemptive love in action.

There’s lots more to be said about this film (by all means, see it if you haven’t!), but the message of this particular scene is clear: The essence of the Faith is found in Sacred Scripture – it’s the one indispensable book. “Ignorance of the Scriptures,” wrote St. Jerome, “is ignorance of Christ” (DV #25), and there’s no doubt that St. Francis would’ve concurred – his own revolutionary conversion was precipitated by hearing the Gospel proclaimed to him afresh.

What’s true for Francis is true for his followers. In a 1956 address, Pope Pius XII called the Secular Franciscans a “school of Christian perfection,” which makes so much sense. We want to become saints ourselves, and the Secular Franciscan Order is like an ongoing seminar in which we study and imitate the way of sanctification that Francis himself followed. And, like any school, this one has required reading – actually, a single text. Here’s how the authors of To Live as Francis Lived put it:

The textbook of that school is the Gospel, the inspired faith-vision written down by the Church in the New Testament. This is primary. Any additions such as the Rule and Constitution are merely attempts to make some practical suggestions about carrying out the gospel in the circumstances of the twenty-first century.

There’s a stark parallel to this in The Imitation of Christ with regards to those who prefer pilgrimages to prayer. Thomas à Kempis editorializes that those who constantly flit around shrines and holy places might be missing out on what will truly benefit their souls:

Often in looking at those memorials men are moved by curiosity and novelty, and very little fruit of amendment is borne away, especially when there is so much careless trifling and so little true contrition. But here in the Sacrament of the Altar, Thou art present altogether, My God, the Man Christ Jesus; where also abundant fruit of eternal life is given to every one soever that receiveth Thee worthily and devoutly.

Why exhaust ourselves making pilgrimages if we’re not already attending to the Real Presence awaiting us in the churches right where we live? Similarly, there’s no point in reading erudite studies on Christology and thick books of theological reflection if we’re not first putting in our time with meeting Him in the written Word itself.

There’s no question that Sr. Agnes knows this – and lives it! Giving us baby Franciscans a pile of books wasn’t meant to frame the formation process as a course of study – by no means! The history and theology, bylaws and ceremony are important, but only supplemental. What is truly needful is an openness to the Holy Spirit and an eagerness for Christ – whom we encounter in Word and Sacrament. St. Francis himself pointed the way, and that Way is laid out for us in Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels. They’re our essential reference, and they’re entitled to a reserved spot on the top of our “to-read” stacks.

Of Practice, Perseverance, and Carnegie Hall

14 Jun


The Church has called for a “New Evangelization” to meet the situation in which many who would describe themselves as Catholics have moved away from the practice of their faith.
~ Dr. Petroc Willey

“Could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”

It’s a venerable vaudeville favorite that’s been around at least since the 1950s. In Bennett Cerf’s version, the speaker is a lost pedestrian who has stopped none other than master violinist Jascha Heifetz to ask directions. Cerf recorded this response:

“Yes,” said Heifetz. “Practice!”

The irony, of course, is that, even with practice, few will achieve the skill and artistry that would lead to performing on Carnegie’s stage. A further irony is that the pedestrian was undoubtedly not a performer anyway, and was more likely interested in a ticket and a seat. Yet, the joke relies on a couple assumptions about artistic achievement that are important to musician and pedestrian alike: First, Carnegie Hall-worthy performance is desirable even when it isn’t achieved, and, second, that level of artistic accomplishment takes a lot of work.

Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh referenced similar assumptions when commenting on Elizabeth Bennet’s piano technique in Pride and Prejudice. “I often tell young ladies that no excellence in music is to be acquired withopride-and-prejudice-and-pianos1ut constant practice,” her ladyship declares at one point. “I have told Miss Bennet several times, that she will never play really well unless she practises more.” To this, Miss Elizabeth readily agrees:

“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising.”

It’s in this sense that we often apply the word “practice” to faith, and there really is a parallel between taking up an instrument and taking on Jesus. At the very least, there is a similar differentiation between theory and practice: On the one hand, there’s the lofty idea of playing the violin along with the ethereal ideas of Christianity; on the other hand, there’s the effort involved in moving toward violin proficiency as well as conformity to Christ  – a distinction even the Catechism (quoting Vatican II) acknowledges:

So, in maintaining, practicing and professing the faith that has been handed on, there should be a remarkable harmony between the bishops and the faithful.

Note the word “should” there. Harmony and adherence are the goals; perseverance, in terms of maintaining and practicing, are the means. This perseverance is also central to the Act of Contrition we say during Confession:

I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.

We don’t promise, but rather resolve to carry on and avoid sin in the future. And let’s face it: Perseverance is required, for Christianity is a tough business, as any plain reading of the Gospels can attest. “Blessed are The-Lords-Supperthe meek, the mourning, the persecuted, and the insulted,” goes the Sermon on the Mount. “Offer no resistance to one who is evil, love your enemies, pray for your persecutors.”

“Alright, Jesus” we shrug and sigh, internally calculating our weaknesses and potential for success. “We’ll give all of that a decent shot.”

Then comes the punchline at the Sermon’s end: “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

That’s when we scrunch up our internal faces and mutter, “C’mon, are you serious?” The thing is, he’s totally serious, and we can’t really be Christians unless we take him at his word: He wants to make us like himself! It’s seems ludicrous, particularly when we consider our own situations – when we really look at ourselves – we know it’s hopeless. How can we be made perfect? We’re so weak, so rotten, our motives so selfish and banal, even when, on those seemingly infrequent occasions, we attempt to do good or deepen our prayer.

Ah, but it’s not what we see that counts, nor even what we accomplish. “Success and failure [are] to be judged in God’s terms,” writes Hubert van Zeller, “not ours.” A Baptist church kiosk around the corner from my house captures the same idea: “HerDSCN0350e’s to the crazy ones,” it reads, “the misfits, the rebels…God loves you!” You see, it really doesn’t matter where we start, or how little progress we’ve made – in prayer, in virtue, in holiness – up to this point. It really doesn’t matter if we’re losers, bumblers, small-minded, or besmirched. What does matter is our desire for God himself, and that we don’t give up – that we start each day saying, “OK, Father, I’m ready to give it another shot,” and then we launch! In comments on prayer that can be applied to the whole Christian enterprise, van Zeller puts it this way:

God knows the limitations which He has imposed upon man, and makes allowances. There is only one test: Are we wanting God? Do we want Him so much that we are prepared to go on looking for Him…in spite of apparently never getting any nearer to Him?

Alright, back to that musical instrument metaphor. Can you hearken back to the days when you yourself took piano lessons? Probably there were some practice rules that your teacher drilled into you, and now you take those same rules for granted with your own kids starting lessons. The beauty of it is that those piano lesson principles are applicable to the practice of the faith, and pretty handy at that. Here’s a few to get you started – see if you don’t agree:

  1. Practice daily. Think of physical exercise here: You can’t get into shape in a week just before hitting the beach. Similarly, you can’t cram all your practice into one afternoon before your next lesson – or next major life event. It has to be a steady, daily routine of scales and review and repetition – or, in the case of faith, prayer and devotions and sacraments – over and over and over again. Like the drip, drip, drip in a cave that creates huge and lasting formations, regular practice of the faith makes permanent change that positively impact every aspect of our lives.
  2. Learn from your mistakes. The old saying doesn’t hold true here: Practice does not make perfect, but it does make for progress. Perfection remains the goal, but our practice, regardless of how intense it is, will never be sufficient. God’s grace is the main ingredient in any case, and we can’t get discouraged when our fallen human natures muck up our progress on a regular basis. Take it in stride – God does. Accepting our frailty and shortcomings involves a long view akin to the Creator’s.
  3. You can always begin again. That’s as true for our childhood instruments as it is for riding bikes. A month or so ago, I got the bikes down from the top of the garage. My nine-year-old, Kathy, had just learned to ride without training wheels late last summer, and she was a bit anxious that she might’ve forgotten how to balance over the winter. But as soon as her bike was down from the garage hook, she was out riding again, no problem. She hadn’t forgotten after all! This is good news for the New Evangelization. When we find those Catholics who haven’t practiced their faith for a long time, we can tell them honestly, “No worries! It’s just riding a bike or playing the flute. If you practiced when you were younger, you’ll be able to pick up pretty much where you left off!”
  4. Don’t overdo it. That is, avoid scrupulosity. In this regard, a different familiar saying actually does apply: Practice what you preach, and what we preach as Catholics is that God brings us all along in different ways and at different rates. He meets us on our margins, and he doesn’t expect us to turn into saints overnight.

On that last point, Jascha Heifetz, the master violinist from the Carnegie Hall joke, offers some excellent advice:

There is a happy medium. I suppose that when I play in public it looks easy, but before I ever came on the concert stage I worked very hard. And when a certain point of effort is reached in practice, as in everything else, there must be relaxation.

Our goal is holiness and conformity to Christ, so great effort is to be expected. “And inevitably God is the reward of such a striving,” writes van Zeller. “‘You wouldn’t be looking for Me,’ as He reassured Pascal, ‘if you hadn’t already found Me.’”

If that’s true, then effort can be balanced with effervescence. Kick back from time to time along the way. Allow yourself room to pause and laugh and breathe. If you’re practicing the faith as best you can, then you can be confident that God is pleased and will continue bringing you along in his own good time.


A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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