If your only goal is to love, there is no such thing as failure. Francis succeeded in living in this single-hearted way and thus turned all failure on its head, and even made failure into success. . . That eagerness to love is the core and foundation of his spiritual genius. . . He willingly fell into the “bright abyss,” as poet and faith writer Christian Wiman calls it, where all weighing and counting are unnecessary and even burdensome. After his conversion, he lived the rest of his life in an entirely different economy—the nonsensical economy of grace, where two plus two equals a hundred and deficits are somehow an advantage.(Quote from EAGER TO LOVE: THE ALTERNATIVE WAY OF FRANCIS OF ASSISI by Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr)
When I first read these magnificent words of wisdom I thought of Antione de Saint-Exupery’s beautiful book The Little Prince. Through the simple words of the little prince, Saint-Exupery shows how stupid and damaging a life of counting and calculating can become. All religions reveal the dangers of materialistic and shallow living which results in missing out on the whole purpose and grand potential of life. And all religions know how such a twisted approach to life benefits the “principalities and powers” which seek wealth, power, and status. Luke begins his account of Jesus’ nativity with the words, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Rome was all into counting, calculating and controlling. Such was necessary to collect the taxes the empire needed to continue its ruthless conquests and maintain its oppressive control of the Mediterranean world. Caesar was not the only monarch who sought to count his people. David in the Hebrew Scriptures is condemned for taking a census. Kings are obsessed with how much wealth they can accumulate and how many people they can dominate. They are like addicted misers who spend their days forever counting their coins. Even preachers can be addicted to numbers. I once knew a pastor who spent every Monday morning calling all his ministerial friends and asking them how many members were in their churches, how many new members their churches gained, and how much offering was collected the previous day. His soul was thrilled when he could report more members, converts, and money than his competitors. And his soul deflated if any of his colleagues were more successful in the rat race of how many and how much.
Over the years I’ve held the hand of many a dying man—more than I want to remember. I have never had a single one of these men tell me they wished they had worked harder, made more money, or become more successful in their businesses. What they did tell me was how they regretted spending so little time with their spouses, their children, and themselves (too many men die a stranger even to themselves). And almost all of these men, as they faced their mortality, mourned their neglect of cultivating their own spiritual lives. We all know that love is what matters, but for some reason, we fail to allow that knowledge to shape our lives and our investments of time. Like Wan Lung, the protagonist in Pearl Buck’s book The Good Earth, we may learn too late this all-important lesson. And once we realize how much time we’ve spent on that which is trivial and perhaps even damaging to ourselves and others, we often see our children falling into the same trap. And just like Wan Lung, we realize that our children are already committed to some of the same stupidity and drive that we now regret. Just think of the powerful message in Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle”. To our horror our children often grow up to be “just like” us.
Now, my hope is that each person reading the previous paragraph can honestly say, “Zorn’s not talking about me.” If you have learned that the only way to “win” in this life is to love, then I commend you. I think I can say that I’ve tried most of the time to live by love and not by the addictive and destructive goals of how much and how many. Only God knows how “successful” I have been in living what I know to be the only authentic and worthy path to follow. But I am also aware that I have at times fallen into the clutches of a society which measures everything by money, success, and winning. At seventy-one years of age I don’t have much more time to get it right. But as I age, I am beginning to see more clearly what matters and what doesn’t—what is real “gold” and what is “pure” garbage.
St Francis, like Jesus, refused to play by the greedy and ruthless rules of his day. After he embraced that leper, stripped in front of his parents, the bishop, and the citizens of Assisi leaving everything behind which he saw was marring his father’s soul, and decided to give himself body and soul to Jesus, Francis became the “troubadour of the Great King.” He found joy, freedom, belonging, and peace. The world simply does not know what to do with people who refuse to play its games. Francis had no desire to win anything or anyone. In the place of competition, he practiced compassion. In the place of mindless drudgery, he embraced the beauty of creation and the depths of his relationship with God. He surrounded himself with a universal family—Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Sister Water, Sister Mother Earth (he called the earth both his mother and his sister—there is an insight there I want to pursue in a future blog article), and even Sister Death as he approached his passing in his beloved Portiuncula, one of the churches he “repaired” at the beginning of his ministry. The “little fool” would run through the fields with two sticks in his hands and pretend he was playing a violin as he joined the birds serenading God. He found the secret of life—and it was not in winning, calculating, competing, and controlling. He could not “lose” in life because he knew that love always wins. He trusted the Great King that not one gesture of love would ever be wasted. God would use it all—if not in Francis’ life, then after the troubadour was gone. And if not then, then in that realm which transcends time, space, and matter. Little did he know (he was too humble even to imagine such a thing) that many centuries after he breathed his last, millions of people would see in him the greatest example of discipleship the world has ever witnessed. And from his example, they would be transformed into instruments of peace and love.
I could go into all the ways our world, and especially our culture in the U. S. have become seduced by materialism, greed, and narcissism. But I think we all know that something is rotten—and it’s not in Denmark! Somehow we’ve lost our way–we’ve forgotten the plot. We’ve ignored the warning of Jesus that if we gained the whole world and lost our souls (our very identities as children of God), such an acquisition wouldn’t be worth it. But too many in our society trade their souls for the accumulation of trinkets which can never bring them joy or peace. There is only one way out of the mess we’ve created in our culture. And that way begins by abandoning the foolish and destructive ways of counting, calculating, and controlling and by embracing the recognition that in the final analysis only love wins. Francis learned that lesson early in his life. He experienced grace piled upon grace (and grace is something a competitive and calculating world will never understand because grace means we don’t get what we deserve). And because he knew that love always wins, if he were in our midst he would assure each and every one of us that it’s not too late to free ourselves from a rat race that is destroying us body and soul—because he knew that even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat! Being a free and joyful child of God is a much more attractive option.
(Richard Rohr’s book Eager to Love is an exposition of all that Rohr has learned from St Francis and the Franciscan legacy that continued after St Francis. It is one of the wisest and most compelling books I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it, especially if you want to understand the genius of St Francis and how that might transform your life. Antione de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince may at first seem to be a book for children. But don’t be deceived. The messages in the book are profound. I try to read it at least once a year. It’s not that long and is easy to understand. The little prince has a lot to teach us earthlings about the dangers of calculating and counting as well as the blessings of being aware of all the opportunities we have of communing with each other and creation. I see the message of The Little Prince as similar to Martin Buber’s I and Thou—but believe me, it’s much easier to understand.)