The Path of Descent — Center for Action and Contemplation

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The Path of Descent

Franciscan Spirituality: Week 3

The Path of Descent
Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Jesus himself taught and exemplified the path of descent, which Christians have often called “the way of the cross.” The path downward is much more trustworthy than any path upward, which tends to feed the ego. Like few other Christians, it was Francis of Assisi who profoundly understood that.

Authentic spirituality is always on some level or in some way about letting go. Jesus said, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Once we see truly what traps us and keeps us from freedom we should see the need to let it go. But in a consumer society most of us have had no training in that direction. Rather, more is usually considered better.

True liberation is letting go of our small self, letting go of our cultural biases, and letting go of our fear of loss and death. Freedom is letting go of wanting more and better things, and it is letting go of our need to control and manipulate God and others. It is even letting go of our need to know and our need to be right—which we only discover with maturity. We become free as we let go of our three primary energy centers: our need for power and control, our need for safety and security, and our need for affection and esteem. [1]

Francis sought freedom in all three parts of life. My good friend Fr. John Dear puts it very well:

Francis embodies the Gospel journey from violence to non-violence, wealth to poverty, power to powerlessness, selfishness to selfless service, pride to humility, indifference to love, cruelty to compassion, vengeance to forgiveness, revenge to reconciliation, war to peace, killing enemies to loving enemies. More than any other Christian, he epitomizes discipleship to Jesus. . . .

Francis’ logic points the way toward personal, social, and global justice and peace. If each one of us practiced Gospel simplicity, voluntary poverty, and downward mobility, like Francis, we would share the world’s resources with one another, have nothing to fear from others, and live in peace with everyone. [2]

We always knew that following Jesus was “a narrow gate,” as he himself put it (Matthew 7:13-14). But for some reason we thought the narrow path had to do with private asceticism (usually in regard to the body), instead of simple living, altruism, non-violence, and peacemaking. These virtues would have created a very different society and civilization, but to this day many Christians feel much more guilt and shame about their private sexual body than about our social body. This seems to me a massive misplacement of attention. When you pay too much attention to one issue, you invariably pay no attention to another. Francis was only “moralistic” about neglected and under-emphasized issues. He learned that directly from Jesus.

Gateway to Silence:
I am that which I am seeking.

[1] This simple tri-part distinction has been affirmed by many psychologists in many different ways and is also used by Fr. Thomas Keating in his understanding of the entrapment of the human person.
[2] John Dear, You Will Be My Witnesses: Saints, Prophets and Martyrs (Orbis Books: 2006), 38, 45-46.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis (Sounds True: 2010), CD.

Image credit: La Franceschina (detail), c. 1474, Biblioteca Augusta, Perugia, Italy. artist unknown.
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