By Cliff Garvey
According to tradition, Saint Francis of Assisi once said: “Above all the graces and gifts that Christ gives to his beloved is that of overcoming self.” Saint Francis believes that the greatest blessing in life is the ability to sacrifice self-interest for love of God and love of neighbor. Saint Francis believes that we are called, by God and for God’s sake, to love him and to love others more than we love ourselves.
For most of us, answering this call to love is hard work, especially in a culture that emphasizes self-interest and self-satisfaction above all else. And yet, this call to love is the ultimate challenge of Christian discipleship. If we wish to be faithful disciples, live the Gospel, and fulfill our vocation to love, then we must learn to sacrifice ourselves for God and for the common good. We must learn what we want, what we need, what we have to give, and what we are called to give up. And we must ask ourselves this difficult question: Who am I?
In his book, Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith, Father Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), one of the most important spiritual writers of our time, explains that in a busy, stressful, and complicated world, we sometimes lose sight of our most basic spiritual identity. We can be overwhelmed by the petty tyrannies of life: ambition, finances, gossip, health, traffic, work, making ends meet, and the competing demands of our families and friends. When we are distracted by these things, we can forget that each one of us is a beloved child of God. And in this state of spiritual amnesia, we often seek solace in the sinful temptations of the world. Father Nouwen assures us that this does not have to happen. He reminds us that our deepest value and our truest identity is affirmed by the simple, but profound truth that God loves us.
Reflecting on the Baptism of the Lord, Father Nouwen explains that like Jesus, we, too, are the beloved of God. He writes: “As a Christian, I am firmly convinced that the decisive moment in Jesus’s public life was his baptism, when he heard the divine affirmation, ‘You are my Beloved on whom my favor rests.’ In this core experience, Jesus is reminded in a deep, deep way of who he really is.” According to Father Nouwen, within each person is an “inner voice of love” that seeks to remind us that we are the beloved of God, that we should listen to this heavenly voice, and that we should reject the passing comforts of pleasure and vice.
All too often, alas, we listen instead to the world. The noise of the world can easily overwhelm the soft voice of God that speaks to us in the silence of our hearts. We can be deaf to the gentle voice of God that speaks with a love that is boundless and a mercy that is beyond measure. The only cure for this kind of spiritual deafness is the “discipline of prayer.” Father Nouwen writes: “I have come to define prayer as listening to that voice, to the one that calls me beloved…The discipline of prayer is to constantly go back to the truth of who we are and claim it for ourselves. My life is rooted in my spiritual identity. We must go back to our first love, back regularly to that place of core identity.” In this way, prayer becomes the essential practice of listening for God’s tender voice, a voice that speaks to us with love and places that divine love at the core of our human identity.
In the Gospel for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we hear how God speaks from heaven: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased (Matthew 3:17).” Of course, we know that Jesus is the Son of god and we are but broken human beings. Each of us suffers from the primal wound. Each of us fails to accept the love that is God’s gift. Each of us fails to embrace our belovedness in God’s sight. Each of us fails at being the person we are called to be. And each of us falls short of doing what we are called to do with this one life that we are blessed to live.
Despite these shortcomings, we are invited to return again and again to the practice of prayer that leads us back to God, back to God’s great love for us, back to the belovedness at the core of our human identity. Sometimes our prayer will console us. Sometimes it will challenge us. Sometimes it will inspire joy. Sometimes it will ask for penance and reconciliation. Whenever we pray, we return to the central truth of God’s endless and eternal love for each one of us — no matter what. Whenever we accept God’s love, we are better able to live the Gospel, share God’s love without counting the costs, and rebuild the Church one person at a time, one soul at a time.
So we turn again to Saint Francis, who said: “Above all the graces and gifts that Christ gives to his beloved is that of overcoming self.” Let us, then, resume the journey. Let us love God and love others more than we love ourselves. Let us preach the Gospel of Christ with every thought, word, and deed. Let us preach the Gospel with our whole lives.
Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. Saint Francis of Assisi, pray for us! Saint Clare of Assisi, pray for us! Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR & PRESENTER
Cliff Garvey is a co-founder of the Assisi Project. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine, Saint John Seminary College, and the Catholic University of America. Cliff is a writer, retreat leader, spiritual director, and university lecturer. He also serves as Associate Minister of the Catholic Community of Gloucester & Rockport in Massachusetts where his ministry focuses on adult faith formation. Thank you for listening to the Assisi Project Podcast. These audio recordings are produced by the Assisi Project, Inc. For more information about the Assisi Project and our programs and ministries for adults of all ages and backgrounds, please contact Cliff Garvey at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2023. All rights reserved. May the Lord give you peace!
Art Credit: Photo 67836164 © Eziutka | Dreamstime.com
Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit with friends and followers around the world. We are dedicated to helping Christian believers of all ages more faithfully live the Gospel of Christ in the spirit of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi. The Assisi Project is a non-profit, tax exempt charitable organization. All are welcome to support our ministry via PayPal; or by mailing a tax-deductible donation to the Assisi Project, Post Office Box 3158, Gloucester, Massachusetts 01931-3158. For more information about the Assisi Project, please contact Cliff Garvey at email@example.com. May the Lord give you peace!
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In Memory of Father Henri Nouwen