2021 Day of Penitence, St. Francis College, Milton, 13th March “Transformation within the desert” in this time of the pandemic.
Talk 3 – Learning from the desert by Ray Clifton tssf
When I was in Formation at St. Francis College, I would have a personal retreat in the summer break at the Old Friary at Brookfield. On one occasion I joined Midday prayers in the Chapel. During Prayers, I was surprised when I saw Brother Noel Thomas pray the Cross Prayer with arms outstretched. That day, I learnt something about trusting God and the need to let go of my false humility. Even though I had heard a call to be a Tertiary, I thought I wasn’t good enough to follow Jesus in the company of Francis. I saw in this action, the vocation to desire to be shaped by the cross and Divine Compassion, not for my sake but for a call to live the Gospel and embody it (however imperfectly).
What are we noticing as we emerge from Pandemic? In this talk, I would like to reflect on our shared experience over the last year and the call to witness to a life of Penitence and shaped by Divine Compassion.
During the Pandemic we saw rapid the uptake of technology to fill the void for relationships, communities, education, and business. Churches challenged by closures and finding ways to provide support and worship, adapted to technology where possible. This adaption brought forward the long forestalled virtual, connection to a wider group of people for worship groups, communication, and support.
In May last year, while working from home, I was pulled up short by the change to sounds in our garden. Because of border closures and restrictions on travel there was little noise from traffic and no roar from jets overhead or in the distance from the airport. For the first time it was possible to hear more birds in the garden than the usual crow, magpie, kookaburra, or noisy minor bird.
The Environment benefited with cleaner air and lack of noise pollution. Last year, Earth Overshoot day was later than 2019 because of less emissions. It was held on August 22 three weeks later than 2019 because of decreases calculated in CO2 emissions. Many were hopeful that these things would open an opportunity for change and point to a different future.
The Pandemic has shone a light on the precarious nature too of employment, under-employment, and unemployment; especially as the numbers of people with little or no work swelled through the pandemic. Concern has emerged too over proposed Industrial Relations Law changes and their flow on to vulnerable workers. The imminent withdrawal of financial support for business and workers has been highlighted as an opportunity to reassess support for the vulnerable as well as fairness in the workplace.
The Younger Son – What does this change
. 17But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’”
The younger son stranded in a foreign place, after spending his share of inheritance is destitute and isolated. Forced to accept degradation as a swine herder he is humiliated and willing to shamefully accept his status of being culturally and legally dead to his father because of his insult. The son is prepared to be treated as a slave and not a son. He is prepared to do the work of a slave on his father’s property just to have shelter, purposeful work, culturally appropriate food, and fair treatment. Perhaps even be near his father.
The younger son’s desert brings him to himself and a longing for the familiar even if on different terms. The son’s realisation, while filled with shame, begins to turn him to desire change. He realises that there is no right to any claim on his father. However, he hopes for mercy and nothing more. The son’s road to new hope starts with confession of the pain and insult caused to his father and trusting in mercy.
The wisdom of the insulted father
But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
We are told the father runs to greet his son when he is still far off. In the joy of this time, with the memory of the pain he bore, the father’s action is vindicated. The extravagance of his love shown in the trust and freedom offered to the son finds its fulfilment.
The father shows the depth of longing and love which greet his son when he says, ‘24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
The father brings from his desert experience of aching for his son, wisdom. The wisdom of risking trust on a son turned in on himself and his desires. The wisdom of allowing the son to make his own mistakes and respond to the consequences.
The father’s words reveal the presence of grace and unconditional love in response to the humbled son. It’s worth asking though of the son, what next? What are you going to do now that you know what you know and are sorry for the things you did?
Learning from this desert time leaves us with the same question. Now we know what we know from this experience, what will we do to show we are penitent and have a desire to live the Gospel in a new way?
Francis and Penitence
St. Francis would often pray with arm’s outstretched and as Brother Bernard discovered, would pray, ‘My Lord and my God.’ The Divine compassion was so important to Francis. It’s as if he embodied the cross to remind himself of God’s extravagant love.
Francis’ response to Divine Compassion in the cross is not just recognition of need for God’s grace but also the ways in which our lives obscure God’s image in us. God’s Love calling us to repentance, calls us to live lives of abundant love in newness of life.
For Francis, to live fully was to live the Gospel in ways which reveal that God is present and active in the world. Francis sought to cooperate with God’s action and to be more and more moulded into the image of God in him. He knew that there was a need to acknowledge those things which obscure or distort that image.
The way to living the Gospel wholly, was through a life of prayer and penitence. Not penitence in the sense of self-punishment or self-loathing but turning to God in humility and trusting in love and mercy.
Penitence then is an active thing. For Francis, living a penitent life included humility and joyful thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness. The Fruit of which is a life overflowing Love.
This Love, the Divine compassion, Francis met and responded to in his relationships with the Creation and in solidarity and care of the poor and vulnerable. Whether singing the praises of God, preaching to the birds, speaking to the wolf of Gubbio or sitting and begging with the poor, Francis embodied God’s Love and responded to it around him.
Penitence was not passive for Francis. Penitence was visible in renewed living as a disciple of Christ. Living humbly from what he learnt from the Gospel and his own mistakes.
This Pandemic time has shocked us. Settling into the challenges of the Pandemic has pared back our lives. We have learnt from the characters of the story of the Prodigal Son about love and mercy meeting us in that vulnerable space.
Francis gives us the pattern to live penitent lives, humbly and generously. Being conformed to the cross and shaped by Divine compassion we are called to serve God and in solidarity with others.
* Where is God inviting you to know the welcome of mercy and love?
* Where are you called to be open to the cross and Divine Compassion and be shaped or deepened in your response to others and witness to God’s love?