Seemingly a day does not pass by when there is not a new quote or an act of humility from Pope Francis. Recently he advises all that “we know God by having an open mind.” “Each of us,” he says, “must look into our hearts.” Then a few days later it is announced Pope Francis is going to wash the feet of handicapped people during Easter
week. I think a Pope rarely leaves the Vatican during the Holy Days of Easter, no less washes the feet of the least fortunate amongst us. Truly Pope Francis is bringing alive the spirit and life of St. Francis of Assisi.
St. Francis, the medieval saint from the 12th century is being remembered for his love of nature and his humility and concern for everyone–no matter what is their walk in life, particularly the very poor. If we look deeper, we will also see Pope Francis practicing the inner path which brought St. Francis of Assisi to so much joy. Pope Francis can illuminate these practices as well as clear up misunderstandings. There has been too much self-denial and sacrifice embedded in religion for too long and for too many.
Those who have been fortunate to live in Italy and follow the footsteps of St. Francis realize he is the saint for nature, the poor and a lot more. Most people don’t know that St. Francis spent a good part of his short life living simply on mountain tops all over central Italy. His many days and long nights were spent in the big silence,
contemplating all elements of life. Nature in all its beauty, the sky in its wonder, and his own nakedness stood out nearly every moment. This time alone in silence guided him to a profound peace within himself. He would spend days and weeks alone on many mountaintops instructing his dear brother Leo to keep all humans away. His time alone in the perfect stillness was sacred. This time was about simply being and much more. It was time without distraction. St. Francis would venture deep into the great vastness of his heart. Loneliness and everything human was present, but time and time again, it all fell aside to something greater. St. Francis found a great vastness of God. A perfect peace was found inside the midst of the peace and quiet of the mountaintop.
Today Pope Francis, the Dali Lama and spiritual leaders of many faiths are practicing a similar path of spending much time sitting in profound stillness, the deep quiet of the heart. They begin each morning, taking time to be and listen to the depths of the inner stillness. This is the source of their openness, humility, wisdom, humor and compassion.
St. Francis battled his ill body, his desires and his feelings on his journey into the vastness of God. Pope Francis, the Dali Lama, and spiritual leaders today have learned the battle is not necessary. The middle road of taking time to listen and receive the silence of the heart is a true path. There is no need to punish ourselves. At the end of his life, St. Francis asked brother body to forgive him for being so hard and unforgiving towards what is also a gift from God, his body and all his humanness.
Since those medieval times, serving others and self-sacrifice have been confused in the Church and in many traditions. Many think helping others includes denying ourselves. This is where Pope Francis and today’s Church must speak openly about leaving behind medieval thinking and join the modern era. How can being unloving to ourselves lead us to be more loving with others? How can we think battling with ourselves can lead to peace? If God is love how can we love one another if we are uncaring and supportive towards our own feelings and needs? After saying “no” to parts of ourselves, how can we suddenly expect to find a big “yes”? Denying our feelings, trying to turn off our sexuality has led to the problems that have existed for centuries in all traditions, but are now very public. When are we going to realize
the excess in fasting, controlling, berating, judging ourselves and others has nothing to do with God?
Denying the self to free the self does not work. We free the mind by discovering and receiving God inside our heart and in life all around us. The great love, all that is good is abundantly present when we are heartfully present, available, and sharing it with others. There is a big difference between self-denial and sacrifice and humility and compassion. One is hurting to the heart. The other is fulfilling the heart.
Humility and compassion cannot be forced. They grow slowly, naturally as we discover the abundance of our inner garden.
A true spiritual life is neither self-sacrifice or being selfish. It is neither self-denial or self-importance. Battling parts of ourselves does not lead to peace but inner conflict, hidden lives, and destruction. Being poor and suffering is not a path to holiness, but about being poor and suffering. Similarly being successful and healthy can be a distraction if we are busy acquiring possessions and forgetting about our heart and the hearts of others.
The path is not really about having possessions or no possessions, having desires or trying to have none. St. Francis and Pope Francis point to a spiritual practice in silence with no distractions. Today, we call it unplugging or disconnecting. When the mind is not so occupied and busy, awareness of the heart naturally begins. Inside each of us there is a vastness of presence, God overflows our normal limits of self and personality. We find ourselves more forgiving and offering the gifts of life to others. From the well of silence in our heart comes generosity, gentleness,
innocence, and joy. Today with all the humility and beauty being demonstrated by Pope Francis, let’s speak clearly about the end of putting ourselves down in order to lift someone else up. It makes no sense and never has. Time to lift ourselves and everyone with a sincere and meaningful spiritual life like St. Francis long ago and Pope Francis today.
Bruce Davis Ph.D. is the author of The Love Letters: Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi Meet Pope Francis, a charming, soaring fictional and spiritual dialogue with a deeper purpose: a discourse on whether Pope Francis can truly return the church to the saints’ ideal-a humble, compassionate, uplifting embrace of the world’s poor and the heart in everyone. This tender tome–that bespeaks the deep love of God, Man and Nature from every page–purports to be letters between the two saints as they discover to their delight that a new Bishop of Rome has arrived carrying forth their ideals. Can he succeed, truly bringing about the radical change that’s necessary and end two millenniums of pomp and circumstance, returning the church to its spiritual essence of simplicity and compassion? For more information, go