I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.
I have in this blog occasionally alluded to Saint Francis' story of "perfect joy." There are several versions of the story among the legends. In some stories he suggested what might be perfect joy; in others, he and Brother Leo actually suffered it. In any case it goes like this:
Francis and Leo approached a house where their friars were known to live late one cold, miserable night in the dead of winter. As they neared the house, Francis asked Leo, "Do you know what perfect joy is, Brother Leo?"
The humble amanuensis admitted he did not, but he had his own ideas.
"Perfect joy," Francis said, "is not wealth and comfort!"
"So what is it?"
"If all the world were to acclaim me as a holy man; if they were eager to hear every word I said; if they welcomed me with honors and awards: that would not be perfect joy."
"That sounds wonderful to me." said Leo.
"If our friars were welcomed in every part of the world; if their reputation was spotless and their behavior admirable. If they were deeply versed in the Bible and the Saints, and their preaching won thousand to the Lord, that would not be perfect joy!"
"I can imagine nothing more wonderful!" said Leo, all the more befuddled.
Finally they arrived at the friary and knocked on the door, "Let us in. It's cold and wet out here." cried Leo.
A voice from within replied, "Get lost!"
Leo pounded on the door again, "This is our Father Francis, and I am Brother Leo! Let us in!"
"Go away. You're a couple of homeless bums!"
A third time, Leo pleaded, "For the Love of God we're freezing to death. Let us in!"
Finally the door opened and a burly friar with a staff came out and threw the haggard men into a nearby muddy ditch, then beat them with his staff. Finally, he relented, went back inside and locked the door against Francis and Leo.
"This, Brother Leo," cried Francis, "is Perfect Joy!"
I can't say I know anyone with that much piety but it's a good story.
Saint Francis, born to wealth, security, comfort and universal esteem, aspired to live as Jesus lived: homeless, misunderstood, despised, betrayed and crucified by popular demand. Francis was never that badly treated except in the earliest days of his religious career. His family angrily reacted to his conversion, Assisian townsmen laughed at him, children mocked him and his friends avoided him. But the City eventually boasted of their homegrown saint.
Francis, however, always kept his eyes on the prize, especially on the crucifixion of Jesus. He, more than any other saint, taught the Church the Glory of the Cross.
We do well to consider Perfect Joy as we discuss our priorities and make our decisions. This has to be a daily discussion since we daily create and practice the habits that form our life. Which do I prefer, wealth or friendship? Security or freedom? Esteem or integrity? Pleasure or discipline? When, inevitably, hardships arrive do I ask, "Why me?" or "Why not me?"
Can I welcome disappointment as a sharing in the suffering of Christ -- without playing the victim-card? It takes courage to maintain a cheerful disposition and generous attitude in the face of pain.
When we ponder the Life of Christ we realize he is Present to us in our suffering because he surrendered to the Cross. He did not disappear in his pain but kept his arms outstretched to us. Even as he died he could say, "Father, forgive them...; This day you will be with me...; and Behold your mother!" Twenty centuries later he is just as near to us as he was to his disciples because he welcomed the cross. To be near him in his agony; to find he is near us in our moments of sorrow: is Perfect Joy