Looking back to Lent 2020, in my parishes here in Torquay we embarked on “The Way Through the Wilderness” as our course for the season. The aim was to look at how people encounter God in the desert places and seasons of life. Then the first COVID lockdown occurred, and we were brought into the reality of a wilderness experience. This has continued, with some brief oases of respite when restrictions were lifted or relaxed, and has since extended to include the recent storms, rough weather, and flooding, added to which we now have the situation unfolding in the Ukraine. The way through this wilderness has far exceeded the original intention of the 6 weeks of Lent 2020!
It’s amazing the things that can prompt inspiration. I was thinking about our current circumstances, about rebuilding and restoration beyond the ‘wilderness’, whilst one evening watching “The Repair Shop” on TV. Watching the people bringing their precious heirlooms, and objects loaded with sentimental value and attachment, to be restored and renewed by the experts. I was struck that it wasn’t so much about the restoration of the objects as the effect that it had on their owners. Then I was reminded of an incident from the life of St Francis.
It was of how Francis found a small chapel that was derelict. Its walls and its roof were largely fallen in and the only thing that remained fully intact was the crucifix, the image of Christ on the Cross, which hung over the Altar. As Francis stood looking at this scene of devastation he heard a voice which seemed to come from Christ on the Cross. It said, “Rebuild my church”. Francis took this to be an instruction from Christ himself, and he began to set about restoring the broken-down building. However, in the course of his work, as he began to lift stone and restore the walls, Francis came to fully realise and understand what the instruction had been; not simply to restore the chapel building, but to restore the ‘living stones’ of the church – the people of God. What God was saying was ‘restore the people’. Bring back together, and build up together, so that each individual stone may be renewed and find its unique place, together with all the other restored stones, within the building that is God’s house.
The restoration project that Francis embarked upon was not one that involved raising and spending huge sums of money – in fact Francis radically renounced the pursuit of wealth – his energy was directed towards people and their needs. Not about raising up buildings or restoring things, but instead the raising up of people by spending time and effort in prayer and practical service to show compassion for all, and by meeting people where he found them. Through this Francis played his part in revealing the great restoration project which is God’s love and mercy for all people.
It struck me that the example of St Francis had much to commend to us in our times and current situation. Francis lived in a time when disease, war and famine laid waste to Europe. A time of upheaval that disrupted the established patterns of society; changed perceptions and priorities; altered ways of thinking, believing and living; destroyed lives and livelihoods; scattered people and dispersed communities. Amongst all of this God revealed to Francis that it is people who matter to Him, and Francis responded by living his life as a response to this revelation and making other peoples’ well-being his priority, and in so doing showed forth the hope and joy of the Gospel.
We journey on through this season of Lent into Holy Week and Easter, in times that continue to be troubled and disrupted. It is a time when so many of the ‘living stones’ of church and community have been scattered and broken, and many yearn for restoration, the example of Francis may well be a fruitful one for us to follow. So, I share this Franciscan litany, which Pope Francis has shared, to give a bearing for our journey through the wilderness. May it be a source of prayerful contemplation, and practical daily living for us all.
We fast from judging others,
but feast on patience.
We fast from apparent differences,
and feast on unity of all life.
We fast from words that pollute,
but feast on words that affirm.
We fast from complaining,
but we feast on appreciation.
We fast from bitterness and anger,
but we feast on forgiveness and mercy.
We fast from discouragement,
but we feast on hope.
We fast on suspicion,
but we feast on trust.
We fast from idle gossip,
but we feast on purposeful silence.
We fast from problems that overwhelm,
but we feast on prayer that strengthens.
With my prayers for a blessed and fruitful season of fasting and feasting which will renew and restore,
Fr Peter March SSC, Bishop of Ebbsfleet’s representative in the Diocese of Exeter
“The Lord says this: If you do away with the yoke, the clenched fist, the wicked word, if you give your bread to the hungry, and relief to the oppressed,
your light will rise in the darkness, and your shadows become like noon.” Isaiah 58: 9-11