Thousands of years after God said to Abraham, “Leave your country, your family and your father’s house,” Francis Bernardone, the eldest son of a prosperous cloth merchant in Assisi, rode away from home to fulfill his life dream of becoming a knight. On the way he fell ill and had a vision; he realized that his heart’s desire was not to be a knight, but to serve God. Francis returned home a changed man and began to act in ways that were very different from his former life, serving God in the poor and sick. He sold some expensive cloth from his father’s store and gave the money to rebuild a church.
Francis’ father considered his new behavior as insubordinate, even crazy. He moved to crush Francis’ disobedience and bring him back into line with the family. Francis could not obey his father and also follow God’s call to him. The final moment of confrontation came in the public square of Assisi, where, before his family, his bishop, and his village, Francis of Assisi stripped himself naked and announced that from then on only God would be his father. The adoption was symbolically accomplished when the bishop covered Francis with the bishop’s own cloak.
From that moment, Francis embarked upon a spiritual journey which took him very far from the upper-middle class life he had had among his kin to a life in radical imitation of Christ. God rewarded Francis’ obedience in a manner similar to the way He rewarded Abraham’s: God made Francis’ name great, even in his lifetime, and made of Francis a virtual nation composed of thousands of followers, both religious and lay persons. Countless people have found a blessing in Francis.
God’s command that Abraham, at the age of 75, leave the land of his family and his father’s house to go to an unknown place, based upon a vague promise of blessings and a seemingly-impossible promise of descendants, seems harsh. Yet Paul’s letter to Timothy states that God expects us to bear our share of hardship for the sake of the Gospel. Isn’t life is hard enough? Why does God ask us to bear further hardship? Paul explains: because God has saved us and called us to a holy life, not in the afterlife, but here and now.
To witness the miracle of the Transfiguration, Jesus selects three of his disciples: Peter, James, and John, to accompany him to the mountaintop, a place of high spiritual significance for the Hebrew people, where God showed Abraham his mighty power to save, spoke to Moses, and made a covenant with the Hebrew people. Isaiah describes the mountaintop as the place where God will create the heavenly banquet at the end of time. Jesus, Peter, James and John carry these hopes as they begin to climb.
On top of the mountain Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes became brilliant as light. Moses and Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah, appeared and conversed with Jesus. As Peter declared, “Lord, how good it is for us to be here!” they heard a voice out of a bright cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” The disciples fell on their faces, terrified; with a touch, Jesus reassured them, “Get up. Do not be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one but Jesus.
A life of holiness has consequences both beautiful and hard to bear. Jesus came that we might have life to the full (John 10:10 Jerusalem Bible). To be fully alive in Christ is the gift of God’s saving grace to us. When we are fully alive we experience life more acutely than when we are deadened or numbed to life. Being more real with, more loving toward, and more committed to people can also bring us into more conflict with them, and can bring us face to face with hard choices. Full life can mean more intimacy, which can be both wonderful and frightening.
If, like Abraham and Francis, we heed God’s call, we may also, like Abraham and Francis, experience some confusion. How do we know how to live a holy life? Francis has some characteristically simple advice. In his book, Wisdom of the Poverello (Franciscan Press, 1989) author Eloi Leclerc quotes Francis as saying to a married couple, “It is enough for you to observe the Holy Gospel in the state to which the Lord has called you.” To the question of how to put that into practice, Francis answers with this example from the Gospel:
Let the greatest among you become as the least and the head as the one who serves . . . . [T]his counsel applies to every community including the family. Thus, the head of the family who must be obeyed and who is considered the greatest, ought to behave like the least, and make himself the servant of all the others. He should take care of them with as much kindness as he would like to see shown if he were in their place.
Additional illumination on the holy life comes from author and theologian Wendy Wright, who has struggled with how to follow God’s call in the midst of marriage and raising children. In her book, The Vigil: Keeping Watch in the Season of Christ’s Coming (The Upper Room, Nashville, TN, 1992), she writes:
There is no such thing as generic holiness, no such abstract reality as the Christian life. There is only a concrete life that has intersected with the power of the Word and the transformative action of grace. The real mystery of our incarnated faith is that the divine comes to live in our particularity, to change us, yes, but always within the confines of our specificity—our own stories, our own limitations, our own needs, our own desires. (39-40)
That there is no formula for holiness is both a relief—“God accepts me as I am!”—and also a challenge: ”How do I know what my life in Christ can be?” God has given us many examples of holiness in Jesus and the saints, but their lives can be hard to relate to. We could decide that holiness is for saints and not for ordinary people like us. Yet deep inside remains a desire to be our best self, to accept Jesus’ call to be fully alive.
Once, when Francis was walking with Brother Leo, a friar to whom Francis was very close, Brother Leo confided his struggle with holiness. He felt he could never achieve purity of heart because he always had something with which to reproach himself. Leclerc describes their conversation:
“Oh, Brother Leo, believe me, you should not be so preoccupied with the purity of your soul. . . . Turn your gaze toward God. Marvel over Him. Rejoice that He, at least, is All Holy. Be grateful to Him because of Himself. That, little brother, is the meaning of a pure heart.”
“However, God demands our effort and our faithfulness,” observed Leo.
“Yes, without doubt,” answered Francis, “but sanctity is not developing oneself to the utmost, nor is it an achievement of one’s own doing. It is at first a void which one discovers in oneself and accepts and which God then comes to fill in proportion to how much one makes oneself receptive to God’s bounty.”
Francis reminds us that holiness is not our achievement, but God’s. Nevertheless, God needs our conscious cooperation in accepting God’s gifts. Like the disciples on the mountaintop, Jesus tells us to, “Get up. Do not be afraid.”
There is no recipe for holiness, but God has given us some clues: God asks us to go to a place that he will show us. We must be willing to bear our share of the hardships which come with holiness, and we must remember to keep our eyes always on the glory of the risen Christ. Peter, James and John were not afraid as long as they gazed on the transfigured Christ; their fear came when God spoke. We, too, may feel fear when prayer reveals glimpses of the life God wishes for us. We may choose not to follow God’s call; God gives us that freedom. But if we have just a little bit of willingness, God will lead us through the hardships and give us the strength to bear them, so that, together with God, we may accomplish God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Where is the place that God asks us to go to? One place we meet God is in prayer. Another is at Eucharist. When we come to the table, we are at the heavenly banquet on the mountaintop, the place of unity among all peoples and with God across time and space. Here, we both taste and help to bring about the time when all God’s people will be holy, when God will be all in all.