In the end we are faced with the awesome paradox of Christian faith that defies human definitions of power. In Jesus’s apparent absolute powerlessness on the cross, indeed the complete self-abnegation of Jesus on the cross, God has radically overturned all human notions of power. Out of weakness comes strength; out of powerlessness comes power; out of death comes resurrection, life. This is part of the radical witness that Jesus, Paul, and Francis place before us: God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness stronger than human strength.
The new way to live our lives is found in the embodiment of the position of minority rooted in a commitment to lifelong conversion. When capital gain and power over others are the measures of success, voluntarily embracing minority is indeed a novel way to live. [St.] Francis demonstrates that authentic Christian living is rooted in becoming subject to our brothers and sisters and, by doing so, avoiding the pitfalls of power and unjust authority. Merton teaches us that it is God who models the greatest example of humility through the Incarnation, and it is through contemplation that we come to see this more clearly. The lives of Francis and Merton show us that this is not an overnight process. Rather, we must remain committed to the process of lifelong conversion that draws us nearer to God and each other.
In Franciscan Spirituality, the poverty and humility of God form the foundation of our entire theology. God’s desire to love us and to be physically with us is manifested in Jesus, the Word of the Father. Our God is not a God of vindication but a God of reckless abandon, giving everything (kenosis) in order to complete His desire to love each one of us.
This is what fed the insatiable desire of Francis to conform himself to Jesus, imitating Him as completely as possible. Francis sees Jesus in the same light as the Father, poor and humble, but the beloved (totally loved) Son of the Father. Francis too wants to become a beloved son of the Father and pursues a life imitating his (as he remarks) elder brother Jesus, who alone can lead him to the Father.
For this reason, Francis for himself sets out on a path of poverty and humility in imitation of the life Jesus lived. This is the only way he sees where it is possible to move beyond personal needs and wants, beyond ourselves, and to reach the place of transformation and surrender.
[St.] Francis was enough of a realist to know that this view from the bottom would never become fashionable. Yet his commitment to littleness led him to name his brothers “minors” so that they would never fall back again in to the worldview of the “majors” (the great, the nobility). He knew that there was power in being a somebody, but that there was truth in being a nobody. He always opted for the truth, and from the example of Jesus crucified knew that the Lord would create power out of that.
In an age that recognizes no authority above the Self that can be invoked or appealed to, personal witness becomes of paramount importance. For this reason, we must not merely speak to others of human flourishing; we must show them the garden in bloom. That is, a life more joyful, deeper, richer and fulfilling than any existence imaginable under the slate grey skies of the Cult of the Self. Because, as Karl Rahner, S.J. has observed, a faithful Christian life is not “a duty to be painfully observed,” but rather a “glorious liberation … from the enslavement of mortal fear and frustrating egoism.”
The material things we surround ourselves with can be powerful signs of an unclean, disorder soul, and of misdirected desire. In a world awash in the cheap consumerism of the Cult of the Self, our possessions and the value we attach to them speak volumes. So, amidst the decadence and waste of modernity, we must live modestly. The cars we drive, the houses we live in, the clothes we wear — all should reflect the humility of spirit that distinguishes those living lives of radical discipleship to Christ. By so doing, we demonstrate our rejection of the mores and lifestyles of the Selfies, and become signs of contradiction that can be emulated by others.
There is probably no culture in which people are so unabashedly encouraged to seek power as ours. From the moment we set out on our climb to the top we make ourselves believe that striving for power and wanting to be of service are, for all practical purposes, the same thing. This fallacy is so deeply ingrained in our whole way of living that we do not hesitate to strive for influential positions in the conviction that we do so for the good of the Reign of God …. But the mystery of our ministry is that we are called to serve not with our power but with our powerlessness. lt is through powerlessness that we can enter into solidarity with our fellow human beings, form a community with the weak, and thus reveal the healing, guiding, and sustaining mercy of God.
Minority calls to be and feel oneself little before God, entrusting oneself totally to his infinite mercy. The prospect of mercy is incomprehensible for all those who do not recognize themselves as “minors,” that is, little ones, needy and sinful before God. The more aware we are of this, the closer we are to salvation; the more we are convinced that we are sinners, the more we are disposed to be saved. It happens thus in the Gospel: The persons who recognize themselves poor before Jesus are saved; instead one who thinks he has no need does not receive salvation, not because it is not offered to him, but because he has not received it. Minority also means to come out of oneself, of one’s schemes and personal views; it means to go beyond the structures — which are also useful if used wisely –, to go beyond habits and securities, to witness concrete closeness to the poor, to the needy, to the marginalized in a genuine attitude of sharing and service.
In a very real sense not one of us is qualified, but it seems that God continually chooses the most unqualified to do God’s work, to bear God’s glory. If we are qualified, we tend to think that we have done the job ourselves. If we are forced to accept our evident lack of qualification, then there’s no danger that we will confuse God’s work with our own, or God’s glory with our own.