As the Oct. 4 feast of St. Francis nears and people around the world commemorate the patron saint of the Order, the executive director of university ministries at St. Bonaventure reminds us that Jesus is looking for us to be complete, not perfect.
Catalogues lie! Have you ever purchased something through a catalogue or online and then become extremely disappointed when it arrives in your mailbox? To make matters worse, once you’ve dipped into the world of cyber-shopping, the endless stream of monthly catalogues fills your mailbox, electronic or otherwise. But what really gets me is the excitement, followed by disappointment.
Photos in garden catalogues show glorious flowers in vivid images and details. Your hopes are raised as you picture that blossom in the “perfect” spot in your garden. You know the sunlight is right, the height of the plant will give that certain dimension needed and the colors are coordinated with the other plants. You know this newest addition will bring your garden to the next cover of Better Homes and Gardens.
When the shipment arrives in the mail, there is an excitement similar to Christmas mornings of days gone by. Then you open the box and find a dried-up root with a simple piece of paper banded around it, showing the name of what you purchased long ago. Seemingly, the name is the only thing in common with what you saw in the catalogue. You begin to think, “This is going to produce that world-class flower and put my garden on the front page? I don’t think so!”
Well, I confess. I have succumbed to catalogue disillusionment, but St. Francis has helped me come to a different perspective.
Living with Hope
After getting over my disappointment, I would plant the root or bulb or tuber and wait to see what would happen. Inevitably, the plant breaks through the ground and begins to fill that spot I so carefully reserved. As the season continues, I begin to realize that the plant is doing the best it can and when it’s ready, it will produce the flowers that it can. The flowers may not be what were hoped for, from all the hype and unrealistic expectations, but the plant does the best it can.
As any gardener knows, we live in hope. Hope that the bulbs planted in the fall will survive the winter. Hope that the right amount of sun, water and nutrients will allow the bulbs to flourish, and the hope they won’t get any diseases along the way.
The truth of the matter is catalogues lie, because they teach us to expect perfection right out of the box, but gardeners know better.
Looking to be Complete
I have told more than one student here at St. Bonaventure University that the scripture verse I hate the most is the one attributed to Jesus saying, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [MT 5:48] Our American interpretation of perfection has skewed our understanding of what Jesus was trying to teach us. If we read the previous verses from Matthew, we hear Jesus ask us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Not necessarily the common understanding of perfection, but it is for Jesus.
Jesus isn’t looking for us to be “perfect” in our American understanding, but to be complete, whole, and integrated, so we can not only love our friends, but also love our enemies. We love not only the good within us, but also the brokenness that we possess, because it is there that we truly learn how to love as Christ loved.
Whether it was Francis’ compassion toward his brother who could not observe the discipline of the fast or his freedom to embrace the leper, Francis knew that he wasn’t perfect. Neither were his brothers, his sisters, the Church or the world. Yet he did not give up on hope. Francis knew what he was before the Lord and nothing else, and that allowed him to stop seeing as the world sees and begin to see as God sees. [1 Samuel 16:7] Having accepted the mercy of God, in his own humility, he was only then able to offer mercy to everyone else.
It’s not uncommon for people to buy a plant in the store, enjoy the blossoms and then throw it away once the flower is gone. The plant served a purpose and now that’s done. A true gardener would never do that. Perhaps with some extra care and some extra fertilizer, the life and beauty once so obvious could be brought back again. St. Francis, who taught us that no one is disposable, even accepted his own death believing, that even then, through God’s mercy, he would know a newness of life like it has never been experienced before.
Gardeners know that life happens, beauty happens and that death happens, but as long as there is some green left in the leaves, there is always hope for transformation.
— Fr. Francis is executive director of campus ministries at St. Bonaventure University, Allegany, N.Y., and guardian of the friary.
Editor’s note: Friars interested in submitting a reflection about a holiday, feast or other seasonal topic are asked to contact the Communications Office at Jthomas@hnp.org.