After a particularly heady reflection on the Trinity in the spirituality of St. Bonaventure, I thought that I’d bring it back down to earth with St. Francis in this post. In contrast to Bonaventure’s inward journey, that of the soul and intellect being moved by the great mysteries of the transcendent God, Francis’ journey was of a poor traveller:
He wanted the attitude of traveller and stranger to characterize the friars minor. He envisioned them as pilgrims on the way to the heavenly kingdom. The historic Christ, after all, came to this world as a pilgrim. His starting point was heaven. Then He tarried, like the very poor, long enough to carry out the will of His heavenly Father, and, having atoned for sin and merited the grace of the Holy Spirit, He returned to His Father by an ascension. Francis knew that the whole meaning of the kerygma was to participate in this humiliation and exaltation of Christ.
(Sergius Wroblewski, OFM, Bonaventure: Theology of Prayer)
As a poor traveller, the object of one’s contemplation is less of the transcendent forms of heaven and more of the immanent, mundane realities of the world. As followers in the way of St. Francis, we Franciscans find great meaning in the dirty, the chaotic, and the less-than-ideal because that is the road traveled by Jesus. Basilicas are wonderful, but so are bus stops.
In this way, you will find with the Franciscans almost no attempt to present a false air of perfection, to hide our flaws (although it might be nice if some friars did sometimes!) There is a recognition in our spirituality that the only thing potentially “holier” about us than lay people is that we embrace the fact that we are not complete, recognize that we are in need of God, and seek to journey in the way of Christ. Despite what some may think about the “holy brothers in the monastery,” we do not spend every waking moment in pious practices or talking about Jesus; we watch television, talk about sports, and even fight. But that’s the beauty of it: even in, or should I say especially in, the mundane conversations, petty conflicts, dirty situations, and dry moments, we attempt to identify ourselves with the humble struggle of Jesus’ life.
I was reminded of this recently in the two areas of greatest conflict in friar communities: kitchens and bathrooms. (I’ve said before, no fights are had over theology, but there is a weekly conflict over dishes.) Needing a fork, I opened the drawer only to find that all of the silverware had been indiscriminately thrown every which way. Utter chaos. Infuriating laziness. “Really people??” There are only so many messes you can clean in one day, I told myself. I’ll give them the opportunity to fix it. If it’s not fixed by the time I’m done eating, I’ll fix it, but I’m not dealing with this now. Closing the drawer, another friar looks at me and says, “If you’re not a part of the solution you’re a part of the problem.” I nearly smacked him in the face. Why is it my responsibility to clean up everyone else’s mess, especially given the fact that I do so in almost every other case.
Fast forward a few weeks, and low and behold, we have a bathroom issue. Issue is not strong enough. We have a toilet atrocity. Let’s leave it at that. Nope. Not dealing with this (insert pun). Whoever did this can come back and clean it up later, I’ll find another bathroom. A few hours later, the mess was cleaned and nothing further was ever mentioned.
Do you know what my spiritual director had the audacity to say about these two events, particularly the toilet? “You really missed an opportunity to love.” Come again? His point was that, very simply, I was too focused on how I had been wronged to notice how a brother may have needed me.
I could have helped a brother that was likely sick (confirmed later that he was); I could have provided a clean bathroom for the next person so that they wouldn’t have to deal with the frustration of a dirty bathroom too; I could have experienced humility in swallowing my pride and doing something that “I shouldn’t have to do”. Instead, I chose to leave the mess, use the other bathroom, and leave a statement to whoever did this that I’m not your maid; doing things for people that can easily do them themselves but refuse to do so is not love, it’s enabling rude and inconsiderate behavior.
I wonder, though, if that’s the only message being sent. I wonder if my sick brother that day got that message, or if, after returning to the bathroom in his weakened state a few hours later he got a different one: “We’re all in this alone so don’t expect any help from me.” Ouch.
Obviously, I do not advocate a community based on submission or abuse of those willing to care for the others. If a problem was recurring and it was clear that the person was less needy than lazy, direct confrontation would probably have been the best way to love. That being said, we can never forget that we are in this together. I know that my brothers unjustly deal with the burdens I unknowingly place on them. Couldn’t I put up with their’s as well, doing what “I shouldn’t have to do” simply because I’m taking a burden away from them?
Ultimately, how can we say that we walk the journey with Christ if we are unwilling to participate in the burdens he faced? If we love only those who treat us well and do only what is ours to do, we miss a real opportunity to experience Christ in the way of St. Francis. God is found in basilicas, for sure, but don’t miss the opportunity to see him in the mundane situations all around us.