05 March 2014

Do penance since we will soon die

Each year, during the sober liturgy of Ash Wednesday, we receive ashes "on our heads in penitence" and pray the Lord God to give us the grace to "acknowledge we are but ashes and shall return to the dust." At the center of the Church's prayer at the beginning of the season of Lent is humility, both the humility of we sinners and the humility of God.

The one who is truly humble, said Saint Francis of Assisi, is the one "who esteems himself no better when he is praised and exalted by people than when he is considered worthless, simple, and despicable; for what a man is before God, that he is and nothing more" (The Admonitions, XIX.1-2).

At the heart of this humility - a word which comes from comes the Latin humus, meaning "earth" (as in dirt) - was the Poverello's recognition of the truth of man: "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19).

In our modern and enlightened day, we have forgotten - or, at best, we chose to ignore - this deep reality of man. I will die. You will die. "The living know that they will die" (Ecclesiastes 9:5). I become ever more convinced that so much of the unhappiness of the present day is due to the many ways we seek to ignore - and even prevent - death.

Francis of Assisi was fond of exhorting his brothers to "let them show that they are joyful in the Lord and cheerful and truly gracious" (The Earlier Rule, VII.16). But this is the same man who told Brother Leo of true and perfect joy:
I return from Perugia and arrive here in the dead of night; and it is winter time, muddy and so cold that icicles have formed on the edges of my habit and keep striking my legs, and blood flows from such wounds. And all covered with mud and cold, I come to the gate and after I have knocked and called for some time, a brother comes and asks: 'Who are you?' I answer: 'Brother Francis.' And he says: 'Go away; this is not the proper hour for going about; you may not come in.' And when I insist, he answers: 'Go away, you are a simple and a stupid person; we are so many and we have no need of you. You are certainly not coming to us at this hour!' And I stand again at the door and say: 'For the love of God, take me in tonight.' And he answers: 'I will not. Go to the Crosiers' place and ask there.' I tell you this: If I had patience and did not become upset, there would be true joy in this and true virtue and the salvation of the soul (True and Perfect Joy, 8-15).
In short, true and perfect joy lies in sharing in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, a sharing that is entered into through a humble life of penance. Though often forgotten, such a life of penance was the true aim of Francis' life and in his constant penance he found true and lasting joy.

In his desire to help his brothers understand this, he urged them to "do penance, performing worthy fruits of penance since we will soon die" (Saint Francis of Assisi, The Earlier Rule, XXI.3). He went on to encourage and to caution them, saying:
Blessed are they who did in penance, for they shall be in the kingdom of heaven. Woe to those who do not die in penance, for they shall be the children of the devil whose works they do, and they shall go into the eternal fire" (Saint Francis of Assisi, The Earlier Rule, XXI.7-8). 
Each of us will one day die and for this reason these days of penance should not be taken lightly. They are a time for us to "hold nothing back of yourselves for yourselves so that He Who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally" (A Letter to the Entire Order, 29). These days are given us to look into our souls and find out who we truly are: sinners loved by God and called to be reconciled to God.

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