Sunday, July 12, 2015

Evangelism: A Sunday Rumination

     Aha! So you thought the Christian drivel was gone from here forever, did you? Not so fast, Gentle Reader. This is still my main site for evangelism – whether the subject is secular or sacred.

     Though it has been called apocryphal, Saint Francis of Assisi is reputed to have said:

     “At all times, preach the Gospel. When necessary, use words.”

     The notion of evangelism without verbal preachment comes as a surprise to many. To some it’s a disagreeable surprise. If every Christian is charged with some portion of the Great Commission, surely we’re expected to tell others what Jesus said. At least, that’s how the usual reasoning runs. After all, how can we pass along the Word of God if we’re not to use words?

     That’s not totally incorrect. However, it runs into a common problem – and by “common” I mean “near to universal.” For Christians differ from non-Christians only in our profession of faith and the commitment it implies. In other regards we are much like our non-Christian brethren. The most important of these is our fallibility.

     Fallible means capable of error. That’s been the case with every man who’s ever lived. (“Man” is inclusive of both sexes, ladies, so don’t give yourselves any airs.) Note the similarity to the word fallen, more commonly used in theological talk. To have fallen is to have erred, whether willfully, through ignorance, or by accident.

     We are all fallen. Only two exceptions exist, one of whom was born Immaculate and the other of whom was the Son of God. As for the rest of us, few go any significant interval without falling, whether to little or great effect. Jesus reminded us of this rather pointedly:

     Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull the mote out of thine eye, and behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast the beam out of thine own eye; and then thou shalt see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother’s eye. [Matthew 7:1-5]

     He could not have told us more clearly to look first to the health of our own souls. Inasmuch as no one this side of the veil of Time is ever absolutely sinless and perfectly resistant to temptation, His instruction pretty much precludes judging others. That makes verbal preachment something of a problem.

     However, being a good example is possible to all of us.

     Saint Francis of Assisi was known for his embrace of poverty and utter simplicity. His evangelism was largely by example. An illustrative story about his style of evangelism concerns a brother in a monastic order where Francis had taken lodging. One day the young monk begged Francis for permission to accompany him on a day’s preaching. The saint assented, and they went forth from the monastery at daybreak.

     First they came upon a group of men laboring in the field. Francis said “Let us work beside them,” which they did, in silence, for several hours before passing onward.

     Next they came upon a village where they found a group deep in prayer. Francis said “Let us pray with them,” which they did, in silence, for another hour before passing onward.

     Late in the day they entered a village where a wedding celebration was in progress. Francis said “Let us rejoice with them,” which they did. At last dusk was upon them and it was time to return to the monastery.

     When they had returned to the monastery, the young monk said to Francis, “Brother, was it not your intention to preach today? Yet we spoke not a word of preachment from departure to return.” Francis smiled. “Brother,” he replied, “this day we have done nothing but preach, from dawn till dusk.”

     Those are the very definition of “words to live by.”

     The great enemy of verbal preachment is, of course, hypocrisy. He who dwells in darkness can never draw others into the light with words. They will observe his behavior, note the contradiction to his words, and pass on unchanged.

     However, success breeds emulation. The Christian ethos -- faith in God and the rightness of His Commandments; hope of an afterlife of eternal bliss; respectful, appropriate charity toward others whom God places in one’s path – is the one most conducive to success in life. He who commits to that ethos and lives it sincerely will draw emulators and students as surely as the sunflower turns its face toward the Sun.

     This course does not free us from our susceptibility to temptation. Every day presents fresh opportunities to fall from grace, and rare to nonexistent is the man who resists without fail. But this is the reason humility is so vital to a Christian. The first, all-important step in accepting the divinity of Christ and committing oneself to the Christian ethos is accepting one’s own fallibility. That implies an obligation to recognize and admit one’s sins, to repent of them, and to strive not to repeat them.

     Saint Francis of Assisi knew temptation:

     Let us not imagine that saints are free from the vicissitudes common to human life, which includes moments of happiness and frustration, dangerous temptations and courageous stands. It was no different with Saint Francis, portrayed as «the always happy brother», courteous, who lived a mystical union with all creatures, whom he considered his brothers and sisters. But at the same time, he was a person of great passions and profound rage when he saw his ideals betrayed by his brothers. His foremost biographer, Friar Tommaso da Celano, described with cruel realism that Francis suffered temptations of violent lust, that he knew how to symbolically sublimate.

     There is, however, a fact that pious Franciscan historiography hides, but that is well documented by historical critique, and that is known as the great temptation. The last five years of Francis’ life (he died in 1226) were marked by deep anguish, almost desperation, and the grave illnesses that afflicted him, such as malaria and blindness. The problem was objective: his ideal of life was to live in extreme poverty and radical simplicity, divested of all power, and sustained only by the Gospel read to him without the interpretation that often shroud its revolutionary meaning.

     As it happened, in a few years his lifestyle captivated thousands of followers, more than five thousand. How to shelter them? How to feed them? Many were priests and theologians, such as Saint Anthony. His movement had neither structure nor legality. It was purely a dream taken seriously. Francis understood himself as a novellus pazzus, a new madman that God wanted for the very wealthy Church, led by Pope Innocence III, the most powerful of all popes throughout history.

     Beginning in the Summer of 1220, he wrote several versions of a rule that were all rejected by the gatherings of the fraternity. They were too utopic. Frustrated and feeling useless, he decided to renounce leadership of the movement. Filled with anguish and without knowing what else to do, he found refuge in the woods for two years, visited only by his intimate friend friar Leo. He waited for a divine illumination that would not come. Meanwhile, a rule was drafted that was marked by the influence of the Roman Curia and the Pope, turning the movement into a religious order: the Order of Friars Minor, with defined structure and purposes. Francis, with pain, humbly accepted it. But he clearly stated that he would no longer discuss it, but would continue giving examples of the primitive dream. Law triumphed over life, power confined charisma. But the spirit of Francis remained: the spirit of poverty, of simplicity, of universal brotherhood that inspires us to this day. Francis died amidst great personal frustration, but without losing his happiness. He died singing Provencal songs of love and the psalms.

     No, it’s not commanded of us to live in Assisian poverty. Few indeed are capable of such a life, or called to it. But whatever course we choose, if we are humble and sincere, we must be prepared to admit those occasions when we fail to uphold its strictures and norms, and to repent of them. Nothing else can make our example, as guided by the Christian ethos, attractive to others.

     May God bless and keep you all.


Dr.D said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Francis W. Porretto said...

I'll allow that it's a problem, Dr. D. The current pontiff makes it particularly plain. Unfortunately, one who decides to accept the Catholic Church must take the bad with the with many other such allegiances.

KG said...

This article is not "drivel", at least as far as this reader is concerned.
The Ruminations have given me much food for thought, as well guidance and solace.
And I'm not even a Catholic.