Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you.” He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” (Mark 1:31-38)
“For this purpose I have come…” And for what purpose have we come? For what purpose are we called to a life of penance? Is it penance for the sake of penance or is it something more?
Each of us is called to the penitential lifestyle for a unique reason. Jesus spent time in prayer, penitentially in the middle of the night, in order to be strengthened for mission. That he lived in poverty and simplicity was not accidental, but essential. He knew that if he did not die to self every day, he would be unable to die at the appointed time. If our Lord practiced these mortifications, and so many more that we do not know about, how much more does the mission of sinners require that we live a life of penance.
Through trials, fasting, and prayer, we are strengthened for the work God is calling us to do. Our Rule is our anchor, and Father Francis our navigator. What a blessing to have an anchor in the rough seas of this age! Yet, our Lord is not calling us to ride out the storm in a harbor. He is calling us to cast out into the deep. How intimidating this can be! We feel unworthy and very, very small. St. Basil offers us words of comfort:
“First, let me say that we have already received from God the ability to fulfill all his commands. We have then no reason to resent them, as if something beyond our capacity were being asked of us. We have no reason either to be angry, as if we had to pay back more than we had received. When we use this ability in a right and fitting way, we lead a life of virtue and holiness. But if we misuse it, we fall into sin.” (St. Basil the Great)
I once heard someone say: “The church has a mission; the mission has a church.” We each have a mission within the church for which we have been fully equipped. Like threads in a beautiful tapestry, we all have a part to play in the plan of God. He paints us and weaves us, leading us in and out, around and through. “Follow me,” He says. It only remains for us to say “Fiat!” And for that, we must love God more than we love our own life. But how? How do weak and sinful creatures learn to love God more than they love themselves? By dying to self every day. One very good and holy way to do that is to live the Rule of St. Francis of 1221.
“Whoever is in love with himself is unable to love God. The man who loves God is the one who abandons his self-love for the sake of the immeasurable blessings of divine love. Such a man never seeks his own glory but only the glory of God.” (Diadochus of Photiké)
This death to self ignites the flame of divine love, leads the soul to contemplation, moving always towards the interior castle (as St. Theresa of Avila named it), to intimate union with the living God of love.
“Such a man lives in this life and at the same time does not live in it, for although he still inhabits his body, he is constantly leaving it in spirit because of the love that draws him toward God. Once the love of God has released him from self-love, the flame of divine love never ceases to burn in his heart and he remains united to God by an irresistible longing. As St Paul says: If we are taken out of ourselves it is for the love of God; if we are brought back to our senses it is for your sake.” (Ibid.)
In the Scripture passage referred to, St. Paul teaches about love and mission, love of God and love of neighbor, for that is what mission is. What we give up in living the life of penance is paltry, minuscule, insignificant compared to the vast riches to be gained. Then what are we waiting for? Let us run joyfully down the path of penance. The Rule of 1221 is our pearl of great price, our means to imitate Christ on the way of the cross each day.
“Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.”