When I was in my mid-twenties, I was hired to work in the Downtown Eastside.
I was a very naïve country girl at the time, and had little experience of homelessness, or mental illness, or addictions, or the complex issues that can contribute to a person ending up ‘on the skids’. My understanding of what I would be encountering came from the popular movies and television programs of the fifties and early sixties. It was really easy to know who the “good guys” were – they all wore white hats, or were attractive and manly, and whatever their actions, you just knew they were righteous and on the side of the law. Whatever befell the other guys, you knew they deserved it because they were “bad”.
I remember lying awake the night before my first day at the job, fearful of what I might encounter, and worrying that I might get stabbed.
What I actually found the next day, was a community that felt more like the village in which I had grown up, and I knew I had come home.
I often say that working in the Downtown Eastside was one of the most important periods in my life. In the six years that I was there, I learned many valuable lessons, which helped me to ‘grow up’ – and contributed a great deal to my formation as a deacon.
As I have been reading over the past few weeks, Following Francis, Susan Pritchard’s book about St. Francis of Assisi, I have been reminded of two of these lessons, which I believe were the gift of God’s grace and of the people I met there, and grew to love.
The first was to learn to see Christ in others – even those who are different, and those who are considered outcasts and sinners by the rest of us. I must confess I am still working on this one. How quickly I can forget to seek Christ in the other, when every day I am faced with the annoyance of those who personally challenge my comfort zone, or sense of what is right!
I am sure that for Francis, learning to see Christ in the other, was equally difficult at first, as he learned to let go of his worldly point of view. But he was a man who was deeply and passionately in love with Christ – a relationship that grew in part, out of his commitment to prayer.
Prayer for Francis was not a few polite words recited once or twice a day, or a long list of demands left in God’s hands with the expectation that he would deliver. Prayer for Francis meant being continuously aware of the presence of God in every moment: in the mundane tasks of everyday life, in times of worship and praise, and especially in times of silent devotion. All of life was an opportunity for prayer. Every prayer helped him focus more deeply on the object of his passion.
Susan Pritchard writes: “Francis’ spiritual ‘style’ was deeply contemplative, but for him contemplation never implied withdrawal from the world, or from active service. Because he so profoundly integrated the active and contemplative dimensions, the Franciscan way has been described as “contemplative action,” in which the fruit of ceaseless prayer is ceaselessly offered to the world. Stare at any bright light long enough, and you’ll continue to see that light everywhere you look. It was this that enabled Frances to embrace the lepers he’d once turned from in disgust: he simply went on seeing Christ when he looked at them. “
One of the results for anyone who engages in this intense life of prayer, is that as we are gazing at the face of Christ in the other, we become aware that Christ is looking at us. This might be a bit unsettling to contemplate at first, until we come to understand that the love and devotion with which we contemplate Christ is magnified and reflected back to us through his gaze. Not only did Francis see the face of Christ in the leper – in the leper he saw Christ looking back at him.
Francis’ prayer life was characterized by deep humility, love and joy.
That humility began with a deep sense of his own inner poverty, which enabled Francis to acknowledge his complete dependence on the generosity of a loving God: “My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
Because of his passionate love for Christ, he was drawn more deeply to the light of Christ as inevitably as a moth might be drawn to a flame.
And he experienced the joy that comes from living in the tension between the enjoyment of the fullness of the life God gives us, and the call of the cross to sacrifice for the sake of that love.
We may never be able to attain the same intense prayer life that Francis lived. But prayer is as essential to our lives and our relationship with God as it was for Francis. Lent is a good time to think about the quality of our prayer experience, and how we might incorporate more prayer time, and more forms of prayer into our every day life.
One of the gifts that we have as Anglicans is the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, which were first given to us in the Book of Common Prayer by Thomas Cranmer, so that daily prayer became the privilege and obligation of all people, not just the territory of the clergy as mediators between us and God.
The Offices are a distillation of the Hours – the prayers offered at intervals throughout the day and night in monastic communities.
Within the structure of each office are opportunities to reflect on scripture and engage in all the various forms of prayer: confession, petition, intercession, praise, thanksgiving and oblation.
Those of us who see Sunday as our main “feast” of prayer, and find it difficult to find the time for a regular practice of prayer on the other days of the week, are depriving ourselves of one avenue for God’s life-giving love to pour over us. It is as though we were eating only our Sunday dinner and fasting the rest of the week. Sacrificing even a few moments of the time we would give to another activity during our busy day, will inevitably lead to a deeper sense of God’s presence and God’s love in our lives.
In the viewpoint of Franciscan spirituality, commitment to God requires an element of sacrifice – if we are not giving up something, we are not that committed to God.
Another lesson I learned during my time in the Downtown Eastside, was to see my own wounds in the people I encountered everyday. The more able I was to see in them the person of Christ, the more I began to see in them my own self. We were kindred spirits. People who shared the same issues and problems. The only difference between us was that their wounds were magnified and in plain view, while I kept mine well-covered.
Last Sunday when I was driving home from church I was listening to a song by a Canadian artist named Danny Michel. The chorus goes like this:
“Go on and let someone love you
Go on and open your heart
Rise to the sunrise with wide open bright eyes
Love em ‘til it breaks your heart”
The challenging fact for all of us is that to love another makes us vulnerable. It opens the door to heartbreak and pain. Most of us want to cover up those places that hurt and protect ourselves from suffering more damage. We want to build walls around our hearts so no one can get to us. But until we are able to show our own wounds, we cannot begin to comprehend the wounds Christ bears for love of us. Nor can we begin the healing process of reconciliation – that state of being where we no long feel separated from God, nor ourselves, nor others.
For Francis, Holy Communion held a special significance in his ‘love affair’ with Christ.
Susan Pritchard likens Communion to an intimate physical relationship between a married couple. They become one in the flesh, so that even when they are apart, they are defined by that physical intimacy and ‘one-ness’. Their fidelity is for the other. And within the loving bond they share is the possibility of new life – not just the possibility of children, but the new life that always comes when we make a space for love.
Likewise, in the Eucharist, when we take in the body and blood of Christ we are becoming one with Him. And even when we are not at the altar receiving those elements, we are defined by that relationship. We belong to Him and He to us. We experience His wounds just as He experiences ours. And in that place of being broken open we share in the pain and suffering of all of humanity.
It is also in this place of greatest suffering that our healing begins. In the body and blood of Christ, God gathers up all of humanity and makes us whole.
In those wounds that pierced the body of Christ, God planted the seeds of our new life.
Though Francis’ desire was to participate in communion as often as possible, he did not approach it lightly. Francis recognized the need to acknowledge his own shortcomings in order to fully appreciate the gift of God’s love he received in communion with Christ.
Anglican liturgy provides us with a similar opportunity for self-examination prior to communion. In the prayer of confession, and in elements of the Eucharistic prayer, we are invited to consider our own sin – those things over which we stumble and fall every day: those sins of commission and omission that hurt us and others. Only when we are able to confess our human failings in the context of God’s gracious gift of love to us in Jesus Christ, will we have the courage and strength to rip off the bandages that cover the wounds we are trying to hide, and God is able to plant the seeds of healing and new life in our own flesh.
In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus tells the parable of the fig tree, in which the gardener breaks open the soil around the roots of the tree so that new life can happen and there will be abundant fruit. And so it is in our lives. When we allow God to break open our hearts of stone to reveal hearts of vulnerable flesh, we can find reconciliation and healing, and our lives will bear the fruit of faithful living.
Francis was able to embody the first Great Commandment: “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” But he also knew and lived the second Great Commandment: “to love your neighbour as yourself”. In Franciscan spirituality, social justice is implied by devotion to God, because “our Lord likes to come to us disguised as our neighbour.”
Like the banquet described by the Prophet Isaiah, God’s desire for all people is abundant life. Francis embodies for us a Christ-like hospitality, which includes all of creation.
May we be a people who embody this same inclusive ‘welcome’ in every aspect of our lives.