According to tradition, Saint Peter the Apostle lived in Rome at the time of the Christian persecution by Emperor Nero in the 1st Century. To escape almost certain death, the Roman Christian community encouraged their friend and teacher, Peter, to flee the city.
As he was leaving Rome, along the city’s outskirts Peter saw the figure of Christ walking along the same path. However, Jesus seemed to be making his way in the opposite direction of Peter, that is, towards the city. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, where are you going?”
And Jesus said to him, “I go into Rome to be crucified.”
Surprised, Peter asked, “Lord, are you to be crucified again?”
Jesus replied, “Yes, Peter. I am being crucified again.”
And Peter, upon realizing he had seen his Lord, returned to Rome where, according to tradition, he was later arrested and crucified upside down.
Today, this legend lives in my mind primarily due to the depth of Peter’s question to the figure of Christ.
“Where are you going?”
This question cuts so deep today. It’s as if we all are asked, “In the midst of so many individuals and groups vying for relevancy and attention, in the midst of so much anxiety and stress, where is your headspace in all of this? Where are you going? In which direction is your life headed? Where will you be when your life catches up with you?
At the moment, I am reading Peta Dunstan’s This Poor Sort, a history of the Society of St Francis in Europe. In it, she describes how the brothers after WWII found their particular calling in England by identifying and working with communities where there was a pressing spiritual or material need. “For if a monk’s task is partly to be a beacon of stability in a changing and insecure world,” she writes, “a friar’s is to examine whatever is modern and identify what is good and useful to renew the life of the Church.”
We cannot go about the business of “renew[ing] the life of the Church (i.e. all those baptized in Christ) unless we first listen and examine that which our fellow believers (and nonbelievers) actually need.
Providing a sick man medicine he doesn’t need or medicine that is no longer useful is arguably worse than providing any medicine at all.
So? What is it then? What is it people are searching for in our world today?
We must not presume to know what people need unless we first open ourselves to ask the question, “Where are you going, friend?” And, as a Franciscan, we might also add the question, “And how can I help you get there?”
How can I help identify what is good and useful for building up another’s search for meaning in this chaotic world of ours?
How can I help others become a more whole, integrated human being?
How can I help others explore their own spirituality?
How can I help another dig deep into the infinite well of the Divine?
How can I help others nurture a healthier relationship with one’s friends, spouse, family, or one’s own self?
How can I help another realize their purpose and meaning in life?
There is perhaps no other group of religious more well suited to bringing diverse groups of people to wholeness and healing than the Franciscans. Just as we are not confined to any monastery’s walls, our particular spirituality as Anglican Franciscans is equally as expansive. We are simultaneously products of the Reformation yet retainers of Catholic tradition and practices. We can simultaneously bring the lost sheep back home to church and, at the same time, listen to an atheist or Buddhist discuss how life for them means having no church at all. Who am I to tell someone they have no right to pursue their relationship with God or the Divine when I myself worship in a parish whose churchmanship and congregation would be regarded as “sinful” in the eyes of many fellow Christians? To quote Pope Francis, “Who am I to judge?”
Photo above: St Francis and the Sultan
I am not talking about forgetting the promises I made at my Baptism.
I am not talking about abandoning the work of bringing more souls to repentance and to a love of God in Jesus Christ.
I am not talking about ditching our Anglican heritage and watering down our faith to the lowest common denominator.
Instead, I am talking about something much more personal. I am talking about sitting down with my fellow human being and asking them one-to-one, “Where are you going? And how can I help you get there?”
This is what it can mean to be a friar minor--a little brother. By serving my fellow man to the best of my ability, I become their John the Baptist. I help make way for the image of God to come alive in them. I must decrease and they must increase.
I cannot force them to take one particular path over another. I cannot ask them to bear a cross they are not able to carry. Instead, like Peter on the road from Rome, I can simply ask “Quo vadis? Where are you going?”
Brother James Nathaniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org