One of the risks of the spiritual life is falling into one of two extremes. One ways is to foreswear the created
world to such an extent as to become morose toward this life: sullen, joyless and, frankly, miserable. Is that
truly what God demands of us? Will that attract others to Christ? On the other hand, a person may so err on
the side of optimism as to become naïve to the reality of evil: the so-called “goody two shoes” mentality.
Neither of these approaches is consistent with Christian faith. Ultimately, Catholics are realistic about the
goodness and beauty of God’s creation, as well as the fact that such great goodness can be twisted or
misused. One’s mission is to be a vehicle of his grace—an “instrument,” if you will—so as to heal what
was wounded, to illuminate what lay in shadows, and to understand what is misunderstood.
This week the Church honors St. Francis of Assisi, the Troubadour of the Great King, who found sublime
joy in the world precisely because he renounced all attachment to it. Embracing Lady Poverty, he was able
to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of the spiritual life mentioned above. In his time, the Albigensian
heresy denied the goodness of creation, claiming that people had to escape the “imprisonment” of their
souls by practicing harsh penances. St. Francis, by contrast, followed a simple life—so as not to be
dominated by the lure of possessions—while affirming the goodness of the created world that comes from
the hand of God.
But, you might respond, he was St. Francis; everybody loves him. He made friends, from the sun and stars,
to the birds and the wolves, to popes and sultans. But one of the less known bequests of this great saint is
his description of “perfect joy.” Traveling to the Portiuncula with his companion, Brother Leo, he explains
the many miracles that his spiritual sons might work for the advance of the Kingdom of God: making the
lame walk, the deaf hear, the mute speak, the dead live, speaking all languages, possessing all knowledge
rational and spiritual, and converting all souls to Christ; it would not be the cause of spiritual joy. The
exasperated Brother Leo, who has had to endure these long descriptions, begs Francis finally to describe
perfect joy. Francis then launches into a disturbing vision, in which the two friars battle the cruel elements
to reach the Portiuncula (their home) only to be refused entry by their own brothers, to be accused falsely of
all sorts of crimes, and to endure their undeserved antagonism. He then says:
If we bear these injuries with patience without complaining; and if we think
upon the sufferings of our Blessed Crucified Lord, then, most beloved
Brother Leo, please write down and note carefully that this, finally, is perfect
We know from the life of St. Francis that he was no “goody two shoes.” He comes as close as any follower
of Christ to plumbing the depths of human suffering and facing the worst of human depravity. Still, these
only served to make him cling even more closely to Our Lord. May all things—good and evil—be the
cause of our rock-like confidence in the Triune God.