Use words if you have to

Feb 18, 2013

In the early 13th century as Francis of Assisi began to gather followers around him and then, having establishing his order with the pope, Francis sent out his monks with these words, “Preach the gospel everywhere, and when necessary use words.” 800 years later we can only imagine what was in his mind, but this quote evokes in me this train of thought: Jesus’ healings were not the only way he had of drawing crowds. I think his presence must have been so powerful that people wanted just to be close to him. They just wanted to touch his cloak, to be close enough to be healed. The love he radiated drew the crowds as much as the need to be healed. To me, Saint Frances was saying to the monks, “Be like Jesus. Be in the presence of God, the God of love. Then words don’t matter, because your presence will communicate everything. Love is the vehicle, not what you say or do.

We could say that if you have to preach about something, then you don’t have ”it.” If you have “it,” then preaching isn’t necessary. Having “it” as applied to Jesus means you’re full of love, joy and compassion. No words are needed. Jesus certainly told the crowds a lot of stories and truths that still ring true today, but he never said, “I have the truth and you don’t!” He did not talk down to others. He talked in parables so that the people would have to come to their own understanding of the story, to their own relationship with God.  He left us a record of what it means to love God and to live fully, not by the culture’s measure, but by resting in God’s own being. And he radiated love, compassion, mercy to all who came to see him, even those totally rejected by others.

St. Francis’ instruction to his monks was about being, not about doing or saying anything. It’s as if he said, “Love God and all will be provided.” The monks took vows of poverty, wore rough clothes, did not carry a walking stick or even wear shoes. Like Jesus who sent out his disciples with similar of instructions, he trusted the connectedness with the Spirit to overcome all obstacles. St. Francis himself returned his rich clothes to his father, so that he could totally follow Jesus, so that he owed no person anything.


What does all this have to do with our own spiritual journey? If the end goal is to love as much like God does as possible, as fully and completely as possible, then our journeys are about increasing our capacity to love, and loving as we go. The critical line for us to reach is where we are able to love in all circumstances, with all people. Occasionally that might mean preaching at or chastising someone, but mostly it means expending God’s love for the task and the people before us, not necessarily saying and doing anything. There is a simplicity to following Jesus, a quality of being enough just as we are, a dependence on the Spirit of God to provide all our needs, and, I suppose, an ability to draw people because we are so clearly resting in God. This is what Francis of Assisi understood.

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