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Saint Francis and Suffering

Posted by Richard Rohr, OFM on 7/7/20 7:00 AM

A 10-year-old girl stands outside her grandmother's dwelling in a cluster of migrant homes near Beijing Oct. 1. Pope Francis will celebrate a special Mass with the poor and people who assist them Nov. 19, the first World Day of the Poor. (CNS photo/Thomas Peter, Reuters)
Might the authority of those who suffer bring the diverse cultural and social worlds together?
—Johann Baptist Metz

I believe this profound question about suffering from a modern German theologian succinctly and precisely expresses the religious breakthrough that Christ has offered humanity.

It is also foundational to understanding the unique Franciscan view of the world. True gospel authority, the authority to heal and renew things and people, is not finally found in a hierarchical office, a theological argument, a perfect law, or a rational explanation. What the crucified has revealed to the world is that the real authority that “authors” people and changes the world is an inner authority that comes from people who have lost, let go, and are refound on a new level. Twelve-step programs have come to much the same conclusion in our time.


A Happy Run Downward

I believe both Francis and Clare had this kind of inner authority, and it is still part of their essential message for the world. They lost and let go of all fear of suffering; all need for power, prestige, and possessions; and all need for their small self to be important, and they came out the other side knowing something essential—who they really were in God and thus who they really were. Their house was then built on “bedrock,” as Jesus says (Matthew 7:24).

Such an ability to really change and heal people is often the fruit of suffering, and various forms of poverty, since the false self does not surrender without a fight to its death. If suffering is “whenever we are not in control” (which is my definition), then you see why some form of suffering is absolutely necessary to teach us how to live beyond the illusion of control and to give that control back to God. Then we become usable instruments, because we can share our power with God’s power (Romans 8:28).

Such a totally counterintuitive insight surely explains why these two medieval dropouts tried to invite us all into their happy run downward, to that place of “poverty” where all humanity finally dwells anyway. They voluntarily leapt into the very fire from which most of us are trying to escape, with total trust that Jesus’s way of the cross could not, and would not, be wrong. They trusted that his way was the way of solidarity and communion with the larger world which is indeed passing away and dying—but always with great resistance. They turned such resistance into a proactive welcoming prayer instead. By God’s grace, they could trust the eventual passing of all things, and where it was passing to. They did not wait for liberation later—after death—but grasped it here and now.

When we try to live in solidarity with the pain of the world—and do not spend our lives running from necessary suffering—we will encounter various forms of “crucifixion.” Many say pain is physical discomfort, but suffering comes from our resistance, denial, and sense of injustice or wrongness about that pain. I know that is very true for me. This is the core meaning of suffering on one level or another, and we all learn it the hard way. Pain is the rent we pay for being human, it seems, but suffering is usually optional. The cross was Jesus’ voluntary acceptance of undeserved suffering as an act of total solidarity with all of the pain of the world. Reflection on this mystery of love can change your whole life.

It seems there is an inherent negative energy or resistance from all of us, whenever we are invited to a more generous response. Yet it is the necessary dying that the soul must walk through to go higher, further, deeper, or longer. The saints called these dyings “nights,” darkness, or seasons of unknowing and doubt. Our secular world has almost no spiritual skills to deal with this now, so we resort to pills, addictions, and other distractions to get us through. This does not bode well for the future of humanity.

Only truly inspired souls like Francis and Clare voluntarily choose to fully jump on board this ship of life and death. They fully rode the resistance to which the rest of us surrender. Our lives can take this same ride—whenever we try to hold any negativity or self-doubt with integrity, and when we “suffer” the full truth of any situation instead of just taking what we think is the one righteous side. Integrity is often a willingness to hold the dark side of things instead of reacting against them, denying them, or projecting our anxiety elsewhere. Frankly, it is just another name for faith. Without the inner discipline of faith, most lives end in negativity, blaming, or deep cynicism—without even knowing it.

Jesus hung in the crucified middle and paid the price for all such reconciliation with reality in its wounded state (Ephesians 2:13–18); then he invited us to do the same. And Francis did so wholeheartedly! Saint Bernadine of Siena attributed this prayer to Francis: “You who have deigned to die for love of my love, let me know the sweet violence of that love; and let me die for love of Your love.”

Solidarity with the Larger Pain of the World

I think the acceptance of that invitation to solidarity with the larger pain of the world is what it means to be “a Christian.” It takes great inner freedom to be a follower of Jesus. His life is an option, a choice, a call, a vocation, and we are totally free to say yes or no or maybe. You do not have to do this to make God love you. That is already taken care of. You do it to love God back and to love what God loves and how God loves! You either are baptized “into his death” and “resurrection” (Romans 6:3; Philippians 3:10–12), or Christianity is largely a mere belonging system, not a transformational system that will change the world.

The cruciform shape of reality became the very shape of Francis’ body in the last two years of his life after he received the stigmata, or the marks of the five wounds of Christ in his body. The baffling and shocking mystery of a person carrying the physical wounds of Jesus— that took psychosomatic shape in Francis’ very body—had never been seen before in human history. Bonaventure portrays the stigmatized (“marked”) Francis coming down the mountain “bearing the representation of Christ crucified reproduced in his own body.” He soon became the most painted saint in Christian art. Bonaventure saw him as a new Moses, who instead of bringing tablets of stone down the mountain brought an astounding message of total solidarity with divine and human suffering. With these marks, Francis joined Jesus as “the man of sorrows,” and he joyfully lived suffering itself in a way that was redemptive and transformative for the world and for others.

The “crucified God” as personified in Jesus revealed that God is always on the side of suffering wherever it is found, including the wounded and dying troops on both sides in every kind of war, and both the victims and the predators of this world, which frankly pleases very few people. (Identification with suffering might just be non-dual thinking in its most active and proactive form and why nonviolence demands such a high level of transformation.) Our resistance to suffering is an entire industry now, perhaps symbolized by the total power of the gun lobby and the permanent war economy in America, the fear of any profit sharing with the poor, or the need to be constantly entertained. Maybe that is why some have said that the foundational virtue underlying all others is courage (“cor-agere” = an action of the heart). It takes immense courage to walk in solidarity with the suffering of others, and even our own.

Francis seems to have fully embraced the cruciform shape of reality, and maybe that was his great act of courage. As one Dutch Franciscan put it, Francis of Assisi became a living and dying “Covenant with God’s poor” and with the universal suffering of humanity, just as Jesus had done. The shocked response to Pope Francis’ choice of this name shows how much the world intuitively understands this symbolism. And it was understood even more when, soon after his election, he said, “I want us to be a church that is poor and for the poor.”

I have come to believe that Jesus’ solidarity with suffering on the cross is actually an acceptance of a certain meaninglessness in the universe, its nonsensical tragic nature, a black hole that seems constantly to show itself to sensitive souls. To accept some degree of meaninglessness is our final and full act of faith that God is still good and still in control. How hard that is to do sometimes. The final and full gift of meaning is ironically the incorporation of “no meaning” and not knowing. This is the same mystical mind of faith that emerges in all of the world’s religions at the more mature levels, but a “crucified god” places this issue absolutely front and center, so we cannot miss the point and to save us from our common despair.

Wisdom Pattern

Topics: Richard Rohr, Suffering, saint francis of assisi, Saint Clare of Assisi