Conversion has two elements for its completion. First, we need to rid ourselves of the things that hinder gospel living. That includes not only “stuff” but also habits, attitudes, mindsets, lifestyles etc. that hinder hearing and living the Gospel. Secondly, conversion calls us to commit our lives to Jesus and his gospel call. It calls for practicing charity, having hope, learning how to love all people. If we only clean out our lives, we create a vacuum into which all sorts of things can enter (cf. Luke 11:24-26). Our inner housecleaning ordinarily should open a path for the Holy Spirit to work in our lives.
The term Penance in Franciscanism is equivalent to the biblical meaning of metanoia, understood as an intimate conversion of the heart to God, as a vital altitude, a continuous state of being. It is not a question of doing penance but of being penitent.
We know that St. Francis read and meditated upon the Word of God until it was integrated into his very being. In body and soul, St. Francis was altered by the Gospel. His identity changed as he became conformed to the likeness of Christ. St. Francis went beyond imitation. He became one with the beloved. Francis proved that the Gospel could be lived. It was a process for him. It continues to be a process for us. It is what our Rule calls ongoing conversion. If we wish to be changed in the process, we must become one with the Lord.
Living the spirit spelled out in the Rule and Constitutions is the criterion that proves the legitimacy of our calling. Our vocation expects us to give flesh, in daily life, to the words of our Franciscan profession. Love of people, conversion, reconciliation, forgiveness, contemplation, love for all of creation, prayerfulness, etc. become normal for us.
The local fraternity is the basic living organism of the whole SFO. It is the center for spiritual growth, apostolic outreach and loving union among members. Fraternity should be a place where we are offered an opportunity for conversion, for spiritual growth. There are two facets of Fraternity Life. One is internal calling, and the other is external calling; internal spiritual growth and external apostolic works. Both are important for the life of SFO. The Rule of SFO calls Secular Franciscans to go from Gospel (conversion) to life (apostolate).
In calling to mind the figure of Saint Francis of Assisi, we come to realize that a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion, which entails the recognition of our errors, sins, faults and failures, and leads to heartfelt repentance and desire to change. The Australian bishops spoke of the importance of such conversion for achieving reconciliation with creation: “To achieve such reconciliation, we must examine our lives and acknowledge the ways in which we have harmed God’s creation through our actions and our failure to act. We need to experience a conversion, or change of heart”.
The real way to be biblical and to respect biblical authority is to do what biblical people did, and in the way that they did it. It is not to quote biblical sources or uncover the deep and secret meanings of biblical texts. The authority of words, even inspired words, must somehow be based in the de facto authority of accomplished deeds, redeemed peoples, and living bodies. In other words, it has to have worked somewhere, sometime, with someone, or it is an idealized abstraction. I find that a great many people who put themselves under the cope of religion are, in fact, people who enjoy ideology and abstraction as an escape from real commitment and real conversion.
What does it mean for Secular Franciscans “to observe the gospel”? Above all it means to know God as Father, to have Jesus Christ as the inspiration, model, and criterion of our every action, and to allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit of the Lord. It also means to realize in our apostolates the love of others in a spirit of service; to work in a context proper to our secular state, witnessing a life of penance as continual conversion to the gospel; to realize a universal fraternity in Christ; to dedicate ourselves to the works of mercy, to the promotion of justice and peace, and to the safeguarding of creation.
Contemplation in the Franciscan tradition can be a lot like the experience of conversion that takes place when we enter into a new relationship. When we enter into a new relationship, make a new friend, date a new partner, give birth to a new child, or form some other significant bond with another person, rarely are our lives changed in discrete, particular, and compartmentalized ways. Instead, something about us shifts. Something about the way we see the world is now informed by that relationship, and we can no longer go back to seeing things exactly the same way again. Maybe we are drawn to a new hobby or interest. Perhaps we look at art with a new eye or hear music with a new ear. Such is also the case with God. The more deeply we enter into relationship with the Creator, the more our outlook on the world changes.
“This day is yours, Lord,” I say each day upon rising. Yet, before I even finish my first cup of coffee, the day has become mine. Hidden in the humor of that statement is the reason why daily conversion is so hard and so important: it is easy to forget God. It is easy to turn to God only when our backs are to the wall or we are facing grave danger. Sadly, God is often the last option. But God wants more than being our first option: God desires to be our only option. Only when God becomes our sole source of life is true human peace and joy possible.