The Fool for Christ
For this great feast, one of my favorite writers on one of my favorite saints. From Thomas Merton's No Man Is an
These thoughts on vocation are evidently incomplete. But there is one gap that needs to be filled in order to avoid confusion. We have spoken of the active and contemplative lives without, so far, referring to the vocation which
rates higher than any other: the apostolic life in which the fruits of contemplation are shared with others. St. Thomas
Instead of speaking of this vocation in theory, let us look rather at its perfect embodiment in one of its greatest saints: Francis of Assisi. The stigmatization of St. Francis was a divine sign of the fact that he was, of all saints, the most Christ-like. He had succeeded better than any other in the work of reproducing in his life the simplicity and poverty and the love of God and of men which marked the life of Jesus. More than that, he was an Apostle who incarnated the whole spirit and message of the Gospels most perfectly. Merely to know St. Francis is to understand the Gospel, and to follow him in his true, integral spirit, is to live the Gospel in all its fullness. The genius of his sanctity made him able to communicate to the world the teachings of Christ not in this or that aspect, not in fragments expanded by thought and analysis, but in all the wholeness of its existential simplicity. St. Francis was, as all saints must try to be, simply "another Christ."
His life did not merely reproduce this or that mystery of the life of Christ. He did not merely live the humble virtues of the divine infancy and of the hidden life at
. He was not merely tempted with Christ in the desert or weary with Him in the travels of His apostolate. He did not only work miracles like Jesus. He was not only crucified with Him. All these mysteries are united in the life of Francis, and we find them all in him, now singly and now together. The risen Christ lived again perfectly in this saint who was completely possessed and transformed by the Spirit of divine charity. Nazareth
St. Thomas's phrase contemplata aliis tradere (to share with others the fruits of contemplation) is not properly understood unless we have in mind the image of a St. Francis walking the roads of medieval Italy, overflowing with the joy of a message that could only be communicated to him directly by the Spirit of God. The wisdom and salvation preached by Francis were not only the overflow of the highest kind of contemplative life, but they were quite simply the expression of the fullness of the Christian Spirit--that is to say of the Holy Spirit of God.
No man can be an apostle of Christ unless he is filled with the Holy Ghost. And no man can be filled with the Holy Ghost unless he does what is normally expected of a man who follows Christ to the limit. He must leave all things, in order to recover them all in Him.
The remarkable thing about St. Francis is that in his sacrifice of everything he also sacrificed all the "vocations" in a limited sense of the word. After having been edified for centuries by all the various branches of the Franciscan religious family, we are surprised to think that St. Francis started out on the roads of
without the slightest idea that he had a "Franciscan vocation." And in fact he did not. He had thrown all vocations to the winds together with his clothes and other possessions. He did not think of himself as an apostle, but as a tramp. He certainly did not look upon himself as a monk: if he had wanted to be a monk, he would have found plenty of monasteries to enter. He evidently did not go around conscious of the fact that he was a "contemplative." Nor was he worried by comparisons between the active and contemplative lives. Yet he led both at the same time, and with the highest perfection. No good work was alien to him--no work of mercy, whether corporate or spiritual, that did not have a place in his beautiful life! His freedom embraced everything. Umbria
Francis could have been ordained priest. He refused out of humility (for that too would have been a "vocation" and he was beyond vocations). Yet he had in fact the perfection and quintessence of the apostolic spirit of sacrifice and charity which are necessary in the life of every priest. It takes a moment of reflection to reconcile oneself to the thought that St. Francis never said Mass--a fact which is hardly believable to one who is penetrated with his spirit.
If there was any recognized vocation in his time that Francis night have associated with his own life, it was the vocation of the hermit. The hermits were the only members of any set of religious persons that he consistently imitated. He frequently went off into the mountains to pray and live alone. But he never thought that he had a "vocation" to do anything but that. He stayed alone as long as the Spirit held him in solitude, and then let himself be led back into the towns and villages by the same Spirit.
If he had a thought about it, he might have recognized that his vocation was essentially "prophetic." He was like another Elias or Eliseus, taught by the Spirit in solitude, but brought by God to the cities of men with a message to tell them.
All the many facets of the vocation of a St. Francis show us that we are beyond the level of ordinary "states of life." But it is for that very reason that, whenever we speak of the "mixed life" or the "Apostolic vocation" we would do well to think of it in terms of a Francis or of an Elias. The "mixed life" is too easily reduced to its lowest common denominator, and at that level it is nothing more than a form of the active life. As such, it suffers by comparison with the contemplative life. Why? Because the dignity of the apostolic life, in the teaching of
, flows not from the element of action that is in it but from the element of contemplation. A life of preaching without contemplation is nothing but an "active life," and though it may be very holy and meritorious, it cannot lay claim to the dignity ascribed by St. Thomas to the life which "shares with others the fruits of contemplation." St. Thomas
But in proportion as the mendicant friar approaches the ideal of his founder, in proportion as he lives the poverty and charity of Francis or Dominic, and plunges into the loving knowledge of God which is granted only to little ones, in proportion as he abandons himself to the Holy Spirit, he will far outstrip the contemplative perfection of those whose contemplation is given them for themselves alone.