Some weeks ago, one of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr George (whose mother house is in Alton, Illinois, within the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois) assigned here in Rome, asked if I would be willing to give a conference for her and her two fellow Sisters here in the Eternal City. I was, of course, happy to accept her invitation and told her I would put something together taken from Saint Bonaventure, whom I do not think is read enough today.I decided to give my conference the title, "To Gaze on Mercy, Remember Christ's Passion," and reflected on the Jubilee of Mercy, Lent, and a portion of Saint Bonaventure's On the Perfection of Life. You will find the text of the conference below.
To Gaze on Mercy, Remember Christ’s Passion:
A Lenten Conference with the
Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George
To Gaze on Mercy
Throughout this Jubilee of Mercy, His Holiness Pope Francis has invited us “to gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives.” At first, we might wonder if it is possible to gaze on mercy at all. Mercy, after all, is not a tangible thing, something we can pick up and examine. We can see people being merciful and we can see the effects of mercy, but can see mercy itself? To gaze upon mercy seems something like gazing upon justice; we know it when we see it, but we cannot pick it up and show it to someone.
A second look, however, reveals something curious, something that can be seen in the text of Psalm 85 in which the psalmist seeks God’s favor. The New American Bible translates verse 11 as follows: “Love and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss.” The Revised Standard Version, however, translates the same verse, though numbered as verse 10, saying, “Mercy and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” If we compare the two translations, we see that love is interchanged with mercy; truth with faithfulness; and justice with righteousness.
The next verse, though, is equally interesting, which the New American Bible translates as, “Truth will spring from the earth; justice will look down from heaven.” The Revised Standard Version translates it thus, “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from heaven.” Here, again, we see truth interchanged with faithfulness, and justice with righteousness. The poetry of these verses is beautiful, but what is the psalmist saying in it?
Reflecting on these two verses, Pope Saint John Paul II said they describe “a new world in which God’s love and his faithfulness embrace each other as if they were persons.” He went on to say that, “all the virtues, at first expelled from the earth by sin, now re-enter history and meet, drawing the map of the world. Mercy, truth, justice, and peace become the four cardinal points of this geography of the spirit.”
It is this new world, this geography of the Spirit, of which Isaiah prophesied when the Lord God spoke through him to Cyrus, saying, as the Revised Standard Version translates it, “Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may sprout forth, and let it cause righteousness to spring up also” (Isaiah 45:8). The New American Bible translates it similarly: “Let justice descend, you heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the clouds drop it down. Let the earth open and salvation bud forth; let righteousness spring up with them!” Here, too, we see justice interchanged with righteousness. If we compare the words of Isaiah with those of Psalm 85, we see that truth and faithfulness might are also interchangeable.
With these comparisons, I do not intend to conduct a philological study, but only to point out a relationship between these words that may not be as precise as we might want it to be. The interrelation between justice and righteousness is clear enough to us, but the interrelation between truth and faithfulness, or between love and mercy, might not be so obvious.
Even so, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons recognized a connection in these words and saw in the second verse of Psalm 85 a prophecy of both the Incarnation and of the Resurrection:
Since, therefore, the tradition from the apostles does thus exist in the Church, and is permanent among us, let us revert to the Scriptural proof furnished by those apostles who did also write the Gospel, in which they recorded the doctrine regarding God, pointing out that our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth [cf. John 14:6], and that no lie is in Him. As also David says, prophesying His birth from a virgin, and the resurrection from the dead, “Truth has sprung out of the earth” [cf. Psalm 85:11(12)].
Here, then, we see the meaning of these two verses of Psalm 85. If truth-justice-faithfulness has sprung out of the earth, then love-mercy must also have sprung out of the earth, as well. Hence, truth-faithfulness-righteousness-justice-love-mercy is Jesus Christ. This is why Saint Paul says,
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace and kindness in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:4-7).
Thankfully, the Revised Standard Version and the New American Bible both use love and mercy in the same places and translate the rest of these verses similarly!
If, then, Jesus is love and faithfulness and justice and righteousness and peace, then he must also be mercy. It is indeed possible, then, “to gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives,” as Pope Francis urges us to do. But where do we turn to gaze upon his mercy, to look upon his love?
Love – and Mercy – Made Visible
The Holy Father reminds us in his bull of indication for this Jubilee of Mercy that “this love has now been made visible and tangible in Jesus’ entire life. His person is nothing but love, a love given gratuitously… Everything in him speaks of mercy. Nothing in him is devoid of compassion.”
Yes, the Father has manifested his love, mercy, for us in the Incarnation, in the Passion, in the Death, and in the Resurrection of his only begotten Son. God, as Pope Francis goes on to say, “does not limit himself merely to affirming his love, but makes it visible and tangible. Love, after all, can never be just an abstraction.”
We, of course, see God’s merciful love made visible and tangible – and, yes, affirmed – in our displays at Christmas time, first begun by the Seraphic Father and continued by us so that we might continually unpack the mystery of the Incarnation. It seems to me, however, that we see the love of God even more visibly and tangibly when we look upon a crucifix, when we look upon the image of Crucified Love, in which we also see God’s mercy. After all, Saint Paul says, “we preach Christ crucified,” which, of course, is not possible apart from the Incarnation (I Corinthians 1:23). Still, important and necessary as is the Virgin Birth, Paul focused his preaching on the Crucifixion; today, we will focus our thoughts on it, as well.
On the Perfection of Life
In 1255, Isabella, sister to King Saint Louis IX of France, founded a monastery for the Poor Clares at Longchamps. Whether Isabella herself professed vows as a Poor Clare is, apparently, a matter of some debate. Regardless, in 1259, just four years after the founding of the convent, the abbess wrote to Saint Bonaventure asking him to write something “for the sake of devotion” for her and her sisters. While apologizing for its brevity and with his customary acknowledgments of his own deficiencies, the Seraphic Doctor wrote his De perfectione vitae ad sorores. Totaling about 60 pages in modern book form, Saint Bonaventure begins by reflecting on the true knowledge of self and progressively moves from there to true humility, perfect poverty, silence and taciturnity, prayer, remembering the passion, the perfect love of God, and, lastly, final perseverance. Short though this work is, its chief hope is of great importance, namely, this prayer of Saint Bonaventure for the sisters: “May the love of God grow within you here, that you may there possess fully his joy.”
On Remembering Christ’s Passion
If we are to follow Pope Francis’ encouragement to gaze more attentively on mercy, we would do well to turn our eyes to the crucifix. This is why Saint Bonaventure says to us: “Turn, O soul, Christ on the cross with head bowed waits to kiss you, his arms are extended to embrace you, his hands open with gifts for you, his body extended to cover you, his feet affixed to stay with you, his side open to let you enter.” It is in the crucifix, then, that we see what God - in his merciful love - has done for us in the past, and how he longs to extend his merciful love to us today, here and now. So it is that we will explore the sixth part of Saint Bonaventure’s On the Perfection of Life, that section on remembering the passion of Christ.
As we entered into this sacred season of Lent a few weeks ago, we united ourselves to the prayer of the Church as we asked the Father “that, through works of penance and charity, we may turn away from harmful pleasures and, cleansed from our sins, may become worthy to celebrate devoutly the Passion of your Son.” Can there be a better of way more devoutly celebrating – that is, of making much of – the Passion of Christ than by looking upon the representation of his Passion?
So it is that Saint Bonaventure begins his reflections on the importance of remembering the Lord’s Passion with this introduction:
Since the fervor of devotion is nourished and preserved in a person by the frequent remembering of Christ’s passion, hence it is necessary that frequently, or rather that always, she should want the eyes of her heart to be fixed with unending devotion on Christ dying on the cross.
It is not enough that the eyes of our hearts are fixed frequently on the Lord’s passion; rather, they must be constantly fixed upon the death of Christ. Only in this way we will be able to become more effective signs of the Father’s action in our lives.
In all honesty, it is impossible for us to keep our physical eyes constantly fixed upon the crucifix. For even if our devotion were great enough to overcome the weakness of the flesh (cf. Matthew 26:41), Christian charity itself requires us to fulfill the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The love of neighbor, to which the love of God is intrinsically linked (cf. Luke 10:27), necessarily draws us physically away from the crucifix to turn our eyes toward Christ present in the least of his brethren (cf. Matthew 25:40).
Even so, is our devotion to the Lord Jesus so strong that we want the eyes of our hearts always fixed on his dying on the cross? When we see the least of his brethren, how quickly do we turn away? How soon do we forget them? When we see a particularly striking image of the crucifixion, whether because of its artistic beauty or because of its gruesome detail, how long do we contemplate it in our minds before turning our thoughts, before turning and the eyes of our hearts, towards something more delightful?
Turning to the Book of Leviticus, Saint Bonaventure tells the Poor Clares how they can deepen their desire to keep the dying of Christ always before the eyes of their hearts. In that sacred book of laws, we find this verse, “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it, it shall not go out; the priest shall burn wood on it every morning” (Leviticus 6:12). The altar, Saint Bonaventure says, is the heart, on which “the ‘fire’ of fervent devotion must never go out, because you must feed it every day with the wood of the cross of Christ and the remembrance of his passion.” How, then, do we keep our devotion alight?
After Saint Francis of Assisi recreated at Greccio the sights, smells, and sounds of the Birth of the Savior, “the hay from the crib was kept by the people.” They kept that hay, it is true, because of its healing properties, but I think some of the people also kept the hay as a momento of the joy and solemnity of that wondrous night. Saint Francis desired “to arouse devotion” in the hearts of the people of Greccio. This is he did. We may not have any hay to take home from the crucifix, or even any splinters of wood, but is there not something we can take away with us from the crucifix to continually awaken our devotion? Saint Bonaventure paraphrases the prophet Isaiah and says, “With joy you will draw water from the fountains of the Savior, [cf. Isaiah 12:3], as if to say: whoever desires from God the waters of grace, the waters of devotion, the waters of weeping, let her draw them from the fountains of the Savior, that is from the five wounds of Jesus Christ.” Paradoxically, then, we keep the fire of fervent devotion burning on the altars of our hearts through water.
The Exposed Heart of Jesus
The Evangelist Saint John tells us in his Gospel that “one of the soldiers pierced [Jesus’] side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34). In that very moment the words of the prophet Hosea were fulfilled: “My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender” (Hosea 11:8). Here, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said, “The pierced Heart of the crucified Son is the literal fulfillment of the prophecy of the Heart of God, which overthrows its righteousness by mercy and by that very action remains righteous.”
The Sacred Heart of Jesus remains open to us, if only we can muster up the courage, as Saint Marianne Cope says, to creep down into it. We sometimes prefer simply to look at the exposed heart of Jesus, to admire it from a reverent – and safe – distance. We know that “the task of the heart is self-preservation, holding together what is its own,” and we are sometimes afraid to approach the Sacred Heart out of fear that our own hearts might be wounded. Still,
All of us are Thomas, unbelieving; but, like him, all of us can touch the exposed Heart of Jesus and thus touch and behold the Logos himself. So, with our hands and eyes fixed upon this Heart, we can attain to the confession of faith: “My Lord and my God [John 20:28]!”
If we listen to his gentle voice, we will hear Jesus whisper to each of us, “I thirst” (John 19:28). Yes, Jesus thirsts for our love, as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta reminds us. Even as we thirst for his love, even as draw near his wounds to steal a drink to quench our thirst, Jesus longs to drink from our wounds because as Cardinal Ratzinger taught,
This Heart is not concerned with self-preservation but with self-surrender. It saves the world by opening itself… The Heart saves, indeed, but it saves by giving itself away. Thus, in the Heart of Jesus, the center of Christianity is set before us. It expresses everything, all that is genuinely new and revolutionary in the New Covenant. This Heart calls to our heart. It invites us to step forth out of the futile attempt of self-preservation and, by joining in the task of love, by handing ourselves over to him and with him, to discover the fullness of love which alone is eternity and which alone sustains the world.
Some of the saints were able to run right into this heart. We need only think of how quickly, how willingly, and how completely Saints Francis and Clare gave themselves over to God and let go of self-preservation. Most of us, though, seeking to hold on to what is ours, make our way toward and into the Sacred Heart only with fits and starts, with forward momentary bursts and with backtrackings. We enter into his pierced heart only with difficulty because we know that the waters of grace that give way to the waters of devotion also give way to the waters of weeping, and one only weeps in sorrow. Too often do we forget the words of Isaiah: “With joy will draw water.”
But having himself remembered these words, Saint Bonaventure urges us forward, saying, as we said before, “Turn, O soul, Christ on the cross with head bowed waits to kiss you, his arms are extended to embrace you, his hands open with gifts for you, his body extended to cover you, his feet affixed to stay with you, his side open to let you enter.”
Seeing Wounds and Being Wounded
In On the Perfection of Life, the Seraphic Doctor leads the Poor Clares, and us, through an exploration of the saving sacred wounds from which we can drink of the waters of mercy.
Approach, O friend, with the feet of your affections to your wounded Jesus, to Jesus crowned with thorns, to Jesus affixed to the tree of the cross, and with blessed Thomas the apostle not only gaze at the wounds in his hands made by the nails, not only put your finger into the wound in his side, but totally through the opening in his side enter the very heart of Jesus where, transformed into Christ by your most ardent love for the crucified, pierced with the nail of the fear of God, transfixed by the lance of cordial love, thrust through by the sword of intimate compassion, you may seek nothing else, desire nothing else, or be consoled by nothing else except that you may die on the cross with Christ. Then you will be able to exclaim with the apostle Paul and say: “I have been nailed to the cross with Christ. It is now no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me [cf. Galatians 2:19-20].”
What are we to make of these curious weapons, the nail of the fear of God, the lance of cordial love, and the sword of intimate compassion?
The Nail of the Fear of God
The nail of the fear of God is closely connected to the waters of weeping, which are also the waters of grace and of devotion. As we look upon the Crucified Lord, the grace of these waters leads us to an awareness of the gravity of our sins. The devotion of these waters leads us to contemplate the mystery of love before the eyes of our hearts. Lastly, these waters lead us to weep as we consider our sinfulness, our many failures to love in both large and small ways, in relation to God’s holiness and “the great love with which he loved us, [who] even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5). This comparison, this awareness, this weeping only comes if we have been pierced with the nail of the fear of God. The fear of God teaches us what he, in his justice, should have done to us, which then leads to a deepening devotion because of his mercy. First we weep out of sorrow for our sins, but this weeping becomes the tears of life and gratitude. In this way, pierced by the nail of the fear of God, we grow to seek nothing else than union with Christ.
The Lance of Cordial Love
Saint Bonaventure next tells us to be transfixed by the lance of cordial love, that is, by the lance of heartfelt love. The word transfix has three meanings, each of which here carry a profound and slightly different sense. First, to be transfixed is to be held motionless with amazement or awe. Because the lance pierced the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we are to be transfixed upon it, held motionless in wonder by the love that pours forth from it so freely. Second, to be transfixed is to be pierced through with a pointed weapon. We, too, must allow our hearts to be pierced through by the love of the heart of God so that our hearts might also pour out his love for the world. We must learn to lower our defenses, to abandon our desire for self-preservation, and imitate the self-surrender because of which he was pierced through for us.
Is this not why Saint Francis asked for only graces before he died and for which reason the Lord give him the stigmata? The Poverello asked:
My Lord Jesus Christ, I pray you to grant me two graces before I die: the first is that during my life I may feel in my soul and in my body, as much as possible, that pain which You, dear Jesus, sustained in the hour of Your most bitter passion. The second is that I may feel in my heart, as much as possible, that excessive love with which You, O Son of God, were inflamed in willingly enduring such suffering for us sinners.
If we make these two prayers our own, or at least strive to make them our own, then we, too, will be transfixed by the lance of cordial love, according to the third meaning of the word: we will be held fast by the piercing love of God. The love of the heart of God will remain in us and we will remain in it. Being so transfixed by the love of God, we will desire nothing else than union with the Crucified Christ.
The Sword of Compassion
But what of the sword of intimate compassion? Saint Bonaventure says that we are to be thrust through with this sword, that we are to be wounded by it. The love of God poured forth from Christ when his hands and feet were pierced with the nails, when his head was pierced with the thorns, and when his heart was punctured by the lance. In much the same way, the love of God will only flow out of us after we have been thrust through, as it were, by the sword of compassion, by suffering with him and for him, and not merely near him. Here, too, in our self-surrender, we must unite all of our sufferings to his cross and find our only consolation in being united with him.
Naturally, we cannot do any of this this on our own; we cannot be pierced by the nail of the fear of God, transfixed by the lance of cordial love, or thrust through with the sword of compassion by our own willing. To do so, we must drink from the waters of grace, from the waters of devotion, and from the waters of weeping that flow from his sacred wounds. This is why Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that if we seek to open our hearts so that the love of God may be poured out from us, we “must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34)”.
Joy and Sorrow Intermingled
Embracing the Cross in this way, as indeed we are commanded to do, can be daunting and even frightening. It means that we must be vulnerable not only to God, but to each other, and even to strangers. The risk of love always entails the possibility of suffering and enduring the pain of rejection. The Lord Jesus knows this well, as do you and I. Still, we cannot let the sorrow of pain keep us from the joy of love.
I do not know if any of you are fans of the writings of the devoted Catholic, J.R.R. Tolkien. For my part, I am a fan and often find much inspiration in the eloquence of his words. Toward the end of The Lord of the Rings, he includes a scene where many of those involved in this great tale, all of whom have suffered many and great losses and known much pain, are remembering all they endured, together with their unexpected victory even against all hope.
Tolkien relates that a minstrel of Gondor steps forward and says, “I will sing to you of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom,” after which we read these lines:
And when Sam heard that he laughed aloud for sheer delight, and he stood up and cried, “O great glory and splendour! And all my wishes have come true!” And he wept.
And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.
When I first read those words many years ago, I knew I stumbled on something of great profundity. “…their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”
For years I treasured these words, though without quite understanding what Tolkien meant by them. I knew they were true, even if I did not know why, until, that is, I read Thomas of Celano’s first life of Saint Francis. As he relates the Seraphic Father’s experience on Mount La Verna to us, Thomas says that Francis
…was inflamed with joy by the loving sweetness of the Seraph’s glance, which was immeasurably beautiful, yet he was terrified by the consideration of that cross to which he was nailed and the bitterness of his passion. He got up feeling sad yet happy at the same time, if this is what we can call it, and joy and sorrow were intermingled in him.
The very first time I read that in Francis “joy and sorrow were intermingled,” I thought instantly back to that marvelous phrase of Tolkien, “and their joy was like swords.” Is this not the experience of everyone who embraces the cross, however imperfectly? The pain of sorrow pierces us even as the joy of God’s merciful love floods our wounds.
Yes, in everyone who fully embraces the cross of Christ in self-surrender – and does not simply gingerly or begrudgingly take it up with a concern to self-preservation – joy and sorrow are intermingled and they pass in thought to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness. This why the saints are both attractive and off-putting, because they seem to hover, if you will, between this life and the one to come.
Everything Sad Becomes Joyful
We know this and we know that the Lord calls each of us to that same union with him enjoyed by the saints. Still we move at times toward the cross because of the joy it gives, but at other times we shy away from it because of the pain that simultaneously comes with it. When we find ourselves inching – or even running – away from the Cross, Saint Bonaventure gives us a prayer to make as our own:
Tell me, I pray, my beloved Lord, tell me, since once one drop of your most sacred blood would have sufficed to redeem the whole world, why did you suffer so much blood to flow from your body? I know, Lord, I really know: you did this for no other reason than to show me how much you love me.
Once this recognition is kept securely in our hearts, then joy and sorrow will also be mingled in us, and our joy, too, will be like swords, piercing us and piercing others. Only then will our desire for self-preservation given way to self-surrender and our lives become signs of the Father’s action in our lives.
When the sorrow of the Lord’s Passion and the joy of his Resurrection are mingled within us, then we will begin to do good. The source of our good works, the source of desire to fulfill the corporal and the spiritual works of mercy, always comes from the Cross and it always lead us back to the Cross, to drink anew from the waters of his love and to rest within in his Sacred Heart. Then our joy will be like swords and will pierce the hearts of others, so that they, too, might know the merciful love of God.
But what we are to do if we find ourselves growing tired of doing good? What if we fail to heed the wisdom of Saint Paul when he says, “let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart” (Galatians 6:9). Saint Bonaventure here directs us back once again to the crucifix, saying:
Then when you have done all good things, begin anew as if you had done nothing. If at times something sad happens, something bad, something tedious, something bitter, and certainly if sometimes a good thing happens by chance, then you should immediately look to the crucified Jesus hanging on the cross. Look there at the crown of thorns, the iron nails, the lance in the side; gaze at the wounds in his feet and hands, the wounds in his head, his side, and his whole body, and recall that this is what he suffered for you, what he bore for you, so that you may know how much he loved you. Believe me: after gazing in such a way [at the crucifix], you will find that everything sad becomes joyful, everything heavy becomes light, everything boring lovable, everything harsh sweet and soothing.
Dear Sisters, as you gaze more attentively on mercy each day, may the love of God grow within you here in this life, so that you may possess his joy fully in heaven. Amen.
 Pope Francis, Misericordiae vultis, 3.
 Pope Saint John Paul II, General Audience Address, 4, 25 September 2002.
 Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, III.5.1.
 Pope Francis, Misericordiae vultis, 3.
 Pope Francis, Misericordiae vultis, 8.
 Saint Bonaventure, On the Perfection of Life, Prologue, 2.
 Ibid., VIII.8.
 Ibid., Soliloquium, I.39.
 Prayer Over the Offerings from Ash Wednesday.
 Saint Bonaventure, On the Perfection of Life, VI.1.
 Saint Bonaventure, The Life of Perfection, VI.1.
 Ibid., The Life of St. Francis, X.7.
 Ibid., X.7.
 Ibid., On the Perfection of Life, VI.1.
 Joseph Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One: An Approach to a Spiritual Christology. Graham Harrison, trans. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 64.
 Ibid., 69.
 Ibid., 54.
 Ibid., 69.
 Saint Bonaventure, Soliloquium, I.39.
 Ibid., On the Perfection of Life, VI.2.
 The Little Flowers of St. Francis, 190-191.
 Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 7.
 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 6.4.
 Thomas of Celano, The First Life, III.94.
 Saint Bonaventure, On the Perfection of Life, VI.6.
 Ibid., VI.11.