Rob Stucky, Retreat Leader
Imagine living in a town where rival parties intermittently break out in local gang wars and include neighboring cities. The private armies of various kings and nobles sweep through town periodically, taking freely from the local populace as compensation for fighting the nobles’ battles. Consider too that the Church is an active participant in this jockeying for power and control. There is an ongoing competition for dominance between Church and State. And yet the arts thrive, and cities vie with each other not just their military and economic conquests, but also for their cultural achievements. Welcome to the dynamic of Assisi and the Italian Península in the XII and XIII centuries!
Fast forward eight hundred years, and in some ways the pattern seems the same. The gangs have changed to syndicates, the armies are corporate, and the politicians have replaced the nobles, yet each considers “doing our thing”, to be sanctioned by the rightness of their particular preferences. And most people either get totally caught up in the turmoil of it all, or try to run away from reality, living in denial, and run themselves ragged either way! Just living in a world of such tensions can put our minds into hyper-drive, and stress becomes our greatest health risk.
But we don’t have to be victimized by such behaviors. We always have a choice. Sooner or later, we get fed up with this self-defeating and self-perpetuating pattern, and feel driven to seek a healthier, more satisfying alternative.
Beginning that search is the axial point
on which the transformation of our experience depends.
This is precisely what Saint Francis did by committing himself to a life of radical simplicity, of profoundly compassionate humanity, and of fundamental internal receptivity to a higher purpose and will. His example of ultimate connectedness, through ego transcendence, cut through the illusions of both the religious and secular worlds in which he lived. His life and teaching revealed the joyful alternative of the ego’s surrender to Divine Providence, rather than to the conditional and unreliable providence of either Church or State.
The lesson remains true even today. The key to Francis’ inner freedom, and his legacy to humanity was to learn to listen, to learn to not be so reactive, to get out of his head and into his heart, In this way he was guided by a higher will than his own.
There is a wonderful story that Francis and his most devoted companion, Brother Leo, were walking down the road one day and came to a crossroads. Leo was filled with evangelical zeal to preach the Gospel to people in need, so it seemed imperative to pick the right road to reach those most deserving of the message. He asked Francis, “Which fork should we take?” Francis, who was nearly blind himself, told Leo to stand in the middle of the crossroads, close his eyes, and spin around until he told him to stop. Leo was surprised, but obeyed. When Francis finally said “Stop!” they followed the road Leo ended up facing! The road to fulfillment lies ahead. Learning to be guided to it by surrendering the ego’s attachments is what is called spiritual practice.