Sunday, October 03, 2004

Sermon: A Letter from St. Francis

Dear John:

I wanted to write to greet you and all your parishioners at St. Michael’s on the occasion of your blessing of the animals. The animals you bless symbolize all the creatures of God and the deep respect and care we must have for all life: yes, for the animals, but especially for each and every human being.

I did not always have this respect for life and the peace it brings. A change occurred in me after I was captured in war and was a prisoner in Perugia. I found a copy of the Gospel and read Jesus’ teaching: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be children of God; Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those cursing you, pray for those who abuse you; Take up your cross and follow me. I had heard the Gospel before, but never taken it in my heart. God’s grace helped me live no longer out of my fear, but, instead, embrace the Gift of Peace. I only had a mustard seed of faith, but that was powerful enough to move the mountains of my fears.

I had found myself in the same situation the prophet Habakkuk was, crying out: O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise . . . The law becomes slack and justice never prevails. Today you and your people are in the same situation as your country engages in wars on many fronts. I came to the conviction that all war is a failure. Even if you "win" there is tremendous destruction, tremendous cost and tremendous suffering. It’s failure of diplomacy. In a sense it is the failure of civilization. It’s the failure of civilized people to find a way of living with each other, to find a way of resolving our differences and conflicts that minimizes damage and maximizes the value of life.

War brought about my conversion and maybe it will do the same for your country. Only love can cast out the fear which causes us to strike back. The Great Soul Mahatma taught the futility of revenge and asked: Will you find the real courage to open your heart and offer love instead of fear whenever you "feel" attacked? Remember Alexander Solzhenitzyn who wrote from prison: If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

My dear John, there are two keys to becoming a person of peace and a promoter of world peace. Both keys are discovered only in the strength of true humility. The first key is the willingness. The willingness to be peaceful. As my prayer begins: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. I always repeated this a few times to myself at the first sign of turmoil within me or around me. I breathe into the words and realize Christ is within me and in the situation and even in my enemy. This last realization was always the hardest part for me. I could accept that Christ was trying to act through me, but it was much more difficult to see Christ in my attacker or the creator of the turmoil around me. I remember what the poet Longfellow wrote: If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility against us.

That is where the second key comes in: Seek not to be understood, but to understand. Seek to understand someone else’s viewpoint or reference. Try to understand their pain, their intent. Christ is present in them and their suffering even if they do not know it. Everyone is potentially a child of God and brother or sister of Jesus.

I’ll close for now, praying for all of you at St. Michael and All Angels. Remember the two keys that open the doors to lasting peace. Learn, as I did, that in order to create peace in our world we have to BE peace.

Your friend in Jesus,