Faith and Mercy

April 12, 2021

This is a reflection on the meaning and message of Divine Mercy as conveyed through His apostle, St. Faustina Kowalska. It delves into the nature of the relationship between faith, trust, and mercy and is meant to exhort and encourage readers to enter into a (deeper) relationship of trust in Jesus Christ, particularly in salvific power of Christ’s passion and death.

On the Second Sunday of Easter we now celebrate and seek for ourselves the great gift of Divine Mercy. Each member of the Church would do well to remember the reasons, catalysts, and stories behind the institution of this solemn feast, since there was a sense of urgency among the saints involved in sharing the message of Divine Mercy from the humble St. Faustina to St. John Paul the Great. Let us not forget that this is a relatively new solemnity in the life of the Church as it was only established in the latter part of the 20th century. The present generation of Christians is the intended beneficiary of this special message. Given these facts some important questions arise: Why did Christ desire this feast to be established? What is Christ preparing us for or protecting us from? What is to be our response to His message?

As the author of St. Faustina’s authorized biography states, God sends prophets, apostles, and visionaries–holy men and women–to His people to prepare and secure them for a turbulent time ahead given the social, political, and spiritual maladies contemporarily coursing through the veins of the world (see The Life of Faustina Kowalska: The Authorized Biography, by Sister Sophia Michaelenko, C.M.G.T. Servant Books: Cincinnati, OH, p. 11). Throughout the earlier parts of the 20th century Jesus and Mary appeared to numerous visionaries with urgent messages of repentance, prayer, and exhortations to faith. History will show that century to be the bloodiest and most disturbing century to date. Two world wars, the holocaust, the rise of atheist humanism, moral relativism, the sexual revolution, the acceptance of abortion, disordered relationship to material goods, the dilapidation of the family institution, and the list goes on. The wounds humanity suffered last century will continue to shape the world for decades into the next century. One of the reasons Jesus comes directly to St. Faustina is that we need the message of Divine Mercy for our healing and salvation.

Jesus wants trust in His mercy. It was a simple message and universal in its application. However, the problem was complicated by the world and its sin. So much had happened and so much was going to happen that humanity, in a false sense of humility and a limited imagination of the depths of God’s love, doubted that God could still love this fallen world which He still calls to Himself. Having come to a level of consciousness and understanding of the depths of the evil of which we are capable, mankind has concocted new doubts that are concomitantly about himself and God. We lack the imagination and faith to know that even as wretched as we collectively and individually are, God still loves us unconditionally. Those who say that God cannot possibly love us in the face of all the horrendous inhumanity we’ve committed has crafted an idol, a false image of God, in their own image. As this consciousness of sin blurs and distorts our definitions and real concrete understanding of love and goodness, and thereby of the nature of God Himself, we’ve become convinced that it is logically impossible for God to love such a wretched creature. However, we must quickly admit we are wrong. The depths of God’s love is unfathomable as we say in the opening prayer of the Divine Mercy chaplet. There is nothing we could do to get God to stop loving us or to forget us. It is a false humility to think that we ever could do something to that effect. And it is an egregious doubt to say that a God, who is love (cf. I John 4:8), is unable to love even the most vile of His creatures. It certainly doesn’t seem to make sense and it certainly is not just.

This extreme manifestation of sinfulness also cultivates a deeper doubt: How could a creature made in God’s image do such ungodly things? “Perhaps, we are not made in God’s image. Perhaps, there is not even a god in whose image we are to be made. Humanity is not worthy of any love.” These doubts are at the root of many of the philosophies and political agendas that threaten humanity, a culture coined by John Paul II as the culture of death. These existential philosophies narrowly define the human being by its animalistic desires and its enacted realizations in an even narrower window of history. It is as if modern thought seeks to free itself of morality and obligations to God by disproving His existence, disproving the realities of good or evil to “free” mankind of morality altogether, or, at the very least, to disprove God’s goodness through demonstrating the evil that lay in man’s heart. However, God is as loving as this line of reasoning is fallacious.

Jesus spoke to the heart of St. Faustina, commissioning her as His secretary and apostle of Divine Mercy in order to exhort the world to a keystone element of faith in Him–trust. Jesus calls the world to trust Him–to trust His mercy, His power to save, His love, His providence and His goodness. Jaded and confused by sin, mankind had largely grown distrustful of anything and anyone. Christ Himself says to Faustina that he wants the image of Divine Mercy to be signed with the words “Jesus, I trust in you” because “Distrust on the part of souls is tearing at My insides. The distrust of a chosen soul causes Me even greater pain; despite my inexhaustible love for them they do not trust Me. Even my death is not enough for them” (paragraph 50 of the Diary, Divine Mercy in My Soul). It is not difficult to sympathize with trust issues given the experience of living through and growing up in broken homes, broken communities, and experiencing our own brokenness. This brokenness was increasingly rampant as a result of the downward cyclical spiral of humanity as it seemed to somehow try to disprove God through how evil mankind can be. This is not a justification for the distrust in God, but as a fellow sinner, I can see how a soul might arrive at such distrust. Jesus counteracts and disrupts the spiral by calling all souls to a simple trust in His mercy.

Trust as mentioned above is a keystone element of faith but does not entirely comprise faith. Trust in God rests upon the dual foundation of knowledge of God together with the willingness to live in accord with that knowledge. In articulating the nature of faith, the Church has often turned to a language of personal relationship. And just as human relationships of trust are built upon experiential knowledge of the other, the same is true in our relationship with God. Prayer nurtures faith because through it we come to experientially know the God who already well knows us and our heart. It is not merely a conceptual or theoretical knowledge of God as if knowledge of God were like mathematics. But it is a lived relationship that bears real marks of cause and effect in our life, that we can articulate as a part of our personal history. As the faithful bears the fruits of the Spirit, that is the lived relationship with God in their lives, not only are they coming to know God, but the faithful themselves become more like God. In so doing, they come to know God “from the inside” in a sense. This growing intimacy breeds a trusting relationship because the faithful comes to know the real and concrete providence, goodness, and power of God– which is what makes God supremely worthy of all our trust, and in contraposition, the faithful grows in trustworthiness themselves and God is able to do more in and through the faithful. Knowledge of God and living out and making decisions based upon that knowledge are brought together in trust which inverts the cyclical spiral upward toward God. This whole structure is faith.

Christ’s message is, again, simply to trust Him. “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord,” the psalm says. Christ is asking humanity to take the leap and come to know Him a little better. With that little taste we will be quick to see that He is an “other” from us, markedly different, in one very key way. Yes, Jesus was incarnate which means He became really human like all of us in every way, in all ways except sin which is the key to being worthy of our trust. Christ and those already sanctified by His blood are the only ones worthy of trust. This reveals to humanity that even though everyone suffers the world of fallenness, sin is not really a part of our true nature as human beings. Sin is self-destructive and human nature goes on, not because of it, but in spite of it. And this is the real mark of humanity that Christ reveals to us. That which makes us capable of great evil is precisely the faculty that is capable of great goodness and holiness. It is the freedom of the human will. We can decide to enter the downward spiral of sin, distrust, and evil–death; or we can enter the upward spiral of faith, trust, prayer, and goodness–life.

This brings us to our own self-judgments and the doubts we have not just of our worthiness of love but subsequently about the very essence of our being. Our evil behavior proves neither that we are unworthy of God’s love, neither that God cares not about what we do to ourselves, nor that we are not God-like creatures. It only shows the true freedom and spirituality with which God made the human being. These doubts are a false humility because they ultimately doubt God’s mercy which is precisely what He sought to prove by sending His Son to be a propitiatory sacrifice. It was a mercy that He sent His Son so that we have something to offer back to God. This entire blog post so far has been about the utter wretchedness of mankind. As such, there is nothing mankind can offer to God on his own. Christ was truly given (in the full sense of the word) to us so that we can have something to give and satisfy our “accounts” with God. To not trust in Christ’s sacrifice is an implicit failure to to see the value of Christ and the paschal mystery. To pronounce a judgment against onself and say, “I am beyond even God’s power to save, much less love” is a kind of self-hating pride. It is a judgment of God’s merciful love to suffer the worst of man’s self-hatred and still say, “Father, forgive them…” (Luke 23:34). God in His freedom and love has decided to see us as His beloved and by that fact alone, we are worthy of love.

The difficulty of remaining in the upward spiral of faith is that our inclinations to sin (because it is easier, requires no effort, and seems reasonable to our fallen nature) makes the walk of faith a continual and continuous act of will. It demands every ounce of energy from our heart, mind, soul and strength to at every moment, say “Jesus, I trust in you.” But it is this “walk” of faith that turns our aimless exile into a sure pilgrimage. Jesus, aware of the complexities of sin, makes a simple plea “Come to me all who labor and are burdened… my yoke is easy and my burden light” (Matthew 11:28-30). As one who is likewise burdened by the fears and anxieties of life, but has found some measure of the relief that Christ presents to the world through His broken but nevertheless love-inflamed heart, I urge you to not trust in sinful mankind, but give that deeper trust in Christ a try. And for those who already profess faith in Christ, do not presume to already trust enough. There is always more to give.

“We imitate Christ’s death by being buried with him in baptism. If we ask what this kind of burial means and what benefit we may hope to derive from it, it means first of all making a complete break with our former way of life…we have to begin a new life, and we cannot do so until our previous life has been brought to an end.”

St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 15.

In Christ’s audience with a couple of Greek believers, Jesus tells them, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains but a single grain. But if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24). Given the circumstances of their encounter, the immediate meaning of John in this story is that, as things are, the covenant of God with Israel is only for the house of Israel. Though the two believed, they were Gentile and, therefore, could only spectate as opposed to participate. However, Jesus is alluding to God’s plan of universal salvation, that “all nations learn [God’s] saving help” (Psalm 67). To fulfill the old covenant and broker a new one which will embrace all nations and peoples, a “grain” must first cease to be what it is so that it can become a source for more. Jesus who will take upon Himself the sins of God’s people will die to fulfill that covenant but establish the new covenant in his rising from the dead. And this new covenant will be eternal. Since, Christ died once already [for all], He will not die again. This was Jesus’ cryptic way of telling the Greek believers to look forward to what God is doing through Him and that the way will open very soon.

While this was the immediate meaning of the analogy of the grain of wheat, every word of God spoken through Jesus are themselves like grains of wheat pregnant with deeper meanings; that buried in the soil of our imagination and thinking, can spring forth a multitude of meanings for us. Christ Himself in is humanity is being referred to here in that as a grain of wheat buried in the tomb rises to a glorified existence, a body “spiritualized” so that his humanity is no longer bound by the physical laws of nature, space, or time. In raising Jesus up, Christ brings humanity’s nature up with Him. And so not only Christ, but if we have buried ourselves in Christ through baptism, our “old humanity” has died and now we live a new human existence. Our old humanity lives for the earthly paradise that no longer exists. In the old way of life, our existence is frustrated by having no goal, no end, no telos. There was literally nothing for us to live for before Christ. However, having been made for Eden, our old humanity continues to chase the shadows of the earthly paradise. We seek various forms of comfort, pleasure, security, dominion, and satisfaction because, once upon a time we had those things in Eden. These are the motivating factors behind our fallen nature. Since this earthly paradise no longer exists but our desire for it remains, sinfulness abounds. Our economy as it is currently is a prime example. We long not only for all the material necessities but also the myriad comforts and luxuries (more than we need) that this world offers. The problem with things on this side of heaven, with earthly things, is that they are finite. It is the case that either there is not enough for everyone, or there is an unwillingness to share and shortchange the god of profit margins and investment returns.

It has been the cry of the faithful beginning with Jesus, and so articulated by St. Basil above, that humanity has been renewed and remade in the forge of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, therefore we should strive to to live as heavenly creatures even now while still traversing the earth. We enter into this new way of living through baptism, but, in order to embrace it and for it to take effect in our lives, we have to “[make] a complete break with our former way of life…” When we live for heaven, we begin to do things that appear foolish to those who live for the things of this world. Like St. Francis in imitating Christ, voluntarily gave up his inheritance and place of social standing. His family was rich and among the nobility; yet Francis decided that, as a citizen of the heavenly city, his wealth lay in his likeness to Christ. When he was turned away he rejoiced because it was another mark of similarity to his beloved Lord. St. Francis of Assisi loved creation, not for what he received from it but because all creation pointed him to God and praised God along with him. This is the treasury of heavenly beatitude, the new point and goal of the new humanity reborn in Christ. We no longer live for our individual survival and physical comforts as the primary end of our life. We live for God’s Word who reveals love as giving-ness. Whereas it is the natural tendency of our humanity to cling to and grasp at anything we can get our earthly hands at, Christ shows us that in heaven there is no such need. He loosens the grip of humanity that has taken hold of the railings on a sinking ship.

How do we, as the baptized, make manifest this new humanity? It is through a lifetime of little but repeated choices, opting for heaven’s offerings as opposed to what the world offers. Deciding, for example, to be content with enough instead of striving for more is not “settling” it is a heavenly wisdom that begins to consider others as myself. About this time last year there was a toilet paper shortage because of the panic caused by orders to stay home. People stocked up when usually a person would normally buy at least two weeks worth of toilet paper during a usual day of shopping. For reasons I still do not quite understand, that was something at which people were grasping and clinging in a time of uncertainty. Motivated by self-preservation and comfort shelves were quickly emptied of toilet paper by those “stronger” and “quicker.” This wound up hurting the elderly who live on fixed incomes and limited energy levels who don’t have the strength to “compete” for a simple amenity like toilet paper. This is a micro-example, but think of how the stock market, the economy operates and how we ourselves treat money. We’ll see just how this “competition” was not really supposed to be there. The consequence of seeing life as a competition for things that ultimately cannot save us from the futility of life without grace is ultimately we will have winners and we will have losers. To the earthly minded, it is obvious to want to be a winner. But Christ, who calls us to divine love here and now, calls us follow Him in losing now to become a “loser” who is poor, mourns, lowly, persecuted, peaceful, and innocent so as to win heaven. It is Christ who lost everything and surrendered every bit of comfort such that it even hurt to breathe or rest his head on the cross because of the thorns–it is this Christ that Christians call Lord and Master. In losing in the eyes of the world in a most stupendous way, He wins for all of us as well as Himself the crown of heaven and it is because He let it all go, not clinging to anything or keeping anything for Himself. This is the new humanity. “As I have loved you, so you should love one another” (John 13:34).

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the 266th pope, he chose to bear the name, Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi. To many Catholics and, surprisingly, non-Catholics who take an interest in the news of the Church, it was a point of rejoicing. Francis of Assisi is one of the most universally celebrated figures in history. Many looked to him as one of the most Christlike saints in history. Others see certain aspects of his way of life as particularly important whether it was his view of creation, his embrace of poverty, his willingness (or, rather, willingness to overcome his unwillingness) to serve the leper, his fervent devotion to serving and praising God, or the ways in which he caused reform in the Church. I have a special tie to Francis of Assisi in that he is my confirmation saint. Before learning about the number of ways the faith can be lived out–how the “rubber meets the road”–in the forms a spirituality may take, I first learned St. Francis’ way.

As is still proper to the confirmation program, I learned about my saint by writing the famous (perhaps infamous) saint paper. In preparation for confirmation, the rite asks each candidate to choose a Christian name which will be used to refer to the confirmand by the minister (ordinarily a bishop) during conferral. The candidate is encouraged to choose a saint that they can personally look up to. The saint in turn will act, in a sense, as their heavenly “Godparent,” and so the preparation guidelines often entail some form of research on said saint. I chose St. Francis initially simply because his feast day is my birthday. I encountered someone who was simple and yet deeply enigmatic even to those closest to him.

Being that I knew very little of the cultural Catholicism that surrounded St. Francis of Assisi and the kind of veneration that he enjoys, I learned of a man who grew up in a war torn Italy in the midst of a Church whose people struggled to maintain their identity. In a world where people strove to get a leg up over everyone else, a world that still very much exists today, Francis decided voluntarily that he would strive to be the last and least, in accord with his reading of the Gospel and teachings of Jesus. He would become poor, beg, and become the “least” of his brethren. Hence the name, Ordo Fratrum Minorum–literally “The Order of Lesser Brothers.” Their mission was not to seek prestige but rather to seek the lowest place of society. While he saw the benefit this could be to those preceding them in this place, namely, they pushed up and benefited in some way, this was not the primary intention. The saint’s main intention was simply imitation of Christ and fulfilling the commands of the Lord to the fullest extent. It was in this way that he hoped to fulfill his famous mystical word from Christ, to “Rebuild my church.” This little poor man from Assisi would indeed go on to impact the world and he would do so through his penance, austerity of worship, the simple profundity of his preaching, and his obedience to even the smallest details of the Gospel.

It was not until after my confirmation that I gradually learned of the current manner in which popular devotion and veneration of the saint was carried out. I did not realize that people liked to bring in their pets to be blessed on his feast day, that he is the patron saint of ecology and ecologists, and that he is well-known for his philosophy of action before words (“Preach the gospel at all times, use words when necessary” is famously attributed to him) and that this usually signaled to the faithful, as was commonly understood about the saint, to serve the poor, like a prototypical Mother Theresa. These discrepancies between the cult around St. Francis and my understanding of him caused me to look more critically at my research. After all, it is reasonable to assume the minority position is more likely to be mistaken.

Over the years I went to read a few other biographies of St. Francis, his own writings, commentaries on his writings, and the multiple orders and spiritualities that sprung up taking St. Francis as their patron and model. While I came to see where certain devotions came from like St. Francis,’Canticle of the Sun’ as the reason for his patron-hood over ecology and the signs of holiness of how Francis was treated by wild animals (i.e. the legend of the wolf or birds listening and drawing near to him as he preached), I did not see these to be central to what St. Francis was trying to make known by his life. I kept coming back to not so much a devotion to stewardship of creation as much as a praise of God because of it, not so much as an active service to the poor as much as seeking to become poor, that the material instruments such as our sacred books and places of our worship need to be treated with greater dignity, and, above all, there was the absence of Francis’ embrace of and emphasis on penance.

In the first few months of his papacy, I was particularly enthused about Pope Francis’ executive program. The new pope bore the name well. It was so much so that a lot of people had trouble understanding Pope Francis’ moves. From the beginning, the pontiff expressed that he desired a “poor church,” that ecology was a major concern of his, and that the people of the church would need to rebuild its relationship to the world and to itself. And he led the way with his actions. He gave up the papal residence, opted for simpler arrangements in contrast to previous papacies, and limits the amount of explanation he gives in his hope that his actions speak for him and that those who understand will help explain. He has received a lot of mixed “reviews” from the Church. Conservative Catholics have simply called him a bad pope. Looking at Church history not every pope is enrolled in the canon as a saint, and they look at our current Pope and say this is one of the those popes. Self-proclaimed radical traditionalists (radtrads) have gone as far as to call him an anti-Christ, a heretic, or an anti-pope. Some among these will even say they are Sedevacantist (from Latin sede vacante which translates to “empty chair” meaning the chair of Peter currently does not have a pope sitting in it). Others, sometimes termed the progressive stream of the Church as well as much of the media and world outside of the Church looking in finally find in Pope Francis the champion of change in the various structures of the Church. And while certain political and administrative structures certainly need reform, such see in the pontiff the motions in him that are simply not there to change what cannot be changed. Here I speak of the desire for women’s ordination, same-sex marriage, and in general a greater departure from tradition.

With the polarization and politicization of even ecclesial discourse, I often wondered what a papacy of someone who tried to stay above the “sides” of this ongoing argument would look like. I think we are seeing it now. The pope who took office and decided to forgo the trappings of the highest office of the Church and to express a desire, not just to serve the poor but for the Church herself to become poor. Especially in the light that exposed the roots of the sexual abuse scandals, I think Pope Francis is sending a very apropos Franciscan message to the entire church, demonstrating two of the three important principles of the saint’s spirituality that stood out to me. First, Francis of Assisi was a reformer, who received from Christ Himself the directive, “Rebuild my Church, which, as you see, lay in ruin.” Francis of Assisi himself was praying in a rundown little chapel, with part of the walls and roof caved in. This was symbolic of the whole Church at the time, which was filled with what we call practical atheism today. We profess our faith but live as though God does not exist. Pope Francis mentioned that prior to his being elected pope he had read a book on the history of the papacy, and that the history surrounding Peter’s chair is horrendous filled with scandal, corruption, and sin. It was a good preparation for him because he also sees that the Church is in the middle of a crisis. As the bishop of Rome, but like his namesake, he is trying to rebuild the Church one living stone at a time.

Secondly, and not unrelated to the first, St. Francis is the “patron saint” of the charism of voluntary poverty. He is famous for being rich and then giving it all away to become a poor beggar, like the many strewn through Italy at the time. He founded the order of friars called the Ordo Fratrum Minorum (OFM) which in English means the Order of Lesser Brethren. The principle expressed here was that those in this brotherhood would seek to become “last,” “least,” and poor (cf. Matthew 20:16, Matthew 25:40, and 2 Corinthians 8:9 respectively) patterned after Christ Himself. Instead of seeking higher offices and honors within the Church, the saint directed his brothers to resist worldly recognition. In order to follow this rule himself, especially when the knowledge of his holiness spread throughout the Church, the saint asked a brother to continually walk with him and remind him of his sins to keep him humble. Another current trend that Pope Francis has repeatedly spoke against is the careerism rife in our culture and in the ranks of the earthly Church. There is a tendency to “sell out” in our personal relationship with God in order to earn money and enjoy the world’s renown. St. Francis rejoiced when he was treated poorly and mistaken for the common beggar (which happened every so often because his reputation often preceded him). He saw it as a mark of Christ-likeness whom “we held in no esteem” (cf. Isaiah 53:3). Like Francis of Assisi, our pursuit of Christianity should embrace even the “bitter” tastes of the Gospel. But what of the third major principle of his spirituality?

Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P., relatively recently published a book entitled, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography. In it, Fr. Augustine writes that the foundational fruit of Francis of Assisi’s deeper conversion was the desire to be a penitent and live a life of penance. He went on to say that Francis even went to the Vatican to get his rule approved for a penitential community but, in a slight misunderstanding of St. Francis’ intentions, the community was instead approved by the pope to be preachers of penance. Francis took this to be a nudge of the Holy Spirit and adjust his vision to spread the message of penance in addition to living a life of it. This, I fear, is a message of St. Francis that has been neglected even today.

In all of the apparitions of Our Lady in the modern period there has been an exhortation to penance, some more emphatic as if to say that was the primary point of her visit. The third secret of Fatima for example, entailed a vision of a holy angel ready to strike the world with the fiery sword of God’s justice. As Mary stops the angel, the angel, “With a great voice shouts, ‘Penance, penance, penance!'” The people of God are not encouraged only to uphold the basic precepts of the Church, which are meant to indicate the bare minimum of living a Christian life. If the church waited for the season of Lent only to abstain from meat and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we are not truly heeding the call to penance. And even then, a great number of people in the church waver and fail to do even this minimum because “hearts are far” from God. Whereas Jesus commands us to “Seek first the kingdom” (Matthew 6:33), that is, to make faith and the salvation of our souls a top priority, practically many of us treat prayer and practice of faith as an afterthought, the last to go on our schedule and planners.

This is precisely at the heart of St. Francis’ efforts at reform. It was to remind and exhort the Church to “sell everything” for that pearl of great price (cf. Matthew 13:45-46), the kingdom of God which is the holiness and redemption of souls. It was of this that St. Francis of Assisi became an example in his own time and culture. This was the manner in which Francis would rebuild the Church, a task that is in many ways still ongoing. Dr. Larry Chapp, retired Theology professor, wrote an exceedingly incisive blog post about the state of the Church today and the crisis of practical heathenism and atheism in the Church. In their efforts to evangelize the world, large swaths of people throughout the levels of the Church have mistakenly become too much like the world. In the hearts of many Church leaders and members, it is “seek first the financial and social security.” How an archbishop in the Church was able to secure for himself a multi-million dollar beachfront home in order to carry out an unspeakable lifestyle for anyone much less a cleric of the Church is beyond my comprehension and, frankly, shameful. I do not think I ever quaked with so much rage as I did upon learning just some of the details of the McCarrick report. As Pope Francis said at the beginning of his papacy, we need to be a Church of the poor once again.

Penance will be a crucial piece of the reconstruction of the Church’s heart. In order for penance to be authentic, the first step is to allow our hearts to be broken by seeing the truth of the Church’s situation. “Rend you hearts, not your garments” (Joel 2:13). The people of God, the Church, the one assembly that is meant to be the royal priesthood after God’s own heart, does not even know how to be this people. This is sad. There is no cause for celebration here. With Lent a few days away, this is the perfect opportunity to have this vision of the Church and mourn our sinfulness. This mourning is the foundational spiritual disposition for the true practice of penance–why abstinence from meat and drink, fasting, and giving “until it hurts” begin to make sense. Eating, drinking, and general revelry are for times of celebration, times of peace and times of flourishing. The Church is not in one of those times. This may sound like gloom and doom, but the paradox is this is the path to true beatitude.

The general fear is that those who embrace mourning, grief, weeping, and sadness are in effect giving in to despair (which is hopelessness) and depression. NO! This could not be further from the truth. Christ, in delivering the sermon on the mount’s beatitudes, says, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4, cf. Isaiah 61:2 and Luke 6:21). God sent His Son to bring comfort to those who mourn and this is our hope (and not a hope in the common sense where we want it to happen but there is some degree of uncertainty or improbability. A theological hope is one of waiting and expecting God to fulfill His promises). The beatitudes are promises. God will comfort the mourning. At this time God should find us mourning. Just as the “rich [will be] sent away empty” (Luke 1:53), God should find us poor and hungry for righteousness. This is akin to the Eastern spiritual principle of not being able to fill a cup that is already full, the Christian tradition has already spoken a great deal on this particular fault. It is called the sin of presumption. Just as Christ “emptied” himself on the cross, Christ commands us also to take up our crosses, thereby “empty” ourselves, and follow Christ onward to the resurrection and surpassing joy of Easter. This was the ultimate joy to which St. Francis is pointing.

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