Sr. Marla Lang introduces guest speaker Sr. Ramona Miller at the Franciscan mysticism talk in Woodruff. Sr. Ramona is the leader of her Franciscan community in Rochester, Minnesota. (Photo courtesy Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

God’s intervention in our lives is a grace. Franciscan mysticism teaches that such encounters – which cannot be anticipated or made to happen – occur in ordinary lives and in ordinary times.

The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration hosted a presentation on Franciscan mysticism the afternoon of Saturday, July 10, at Holy Family, Woodruff.

FSPA Sr. Marla Lang introduced keynote speaker Sr. Ramona Miller, a Sister of St. Francis of Assisi from Rochester, Minnesota, who started out as an elementary school teacher before working pastorally in parishes, leading retreats and pilgrimages and serving as a spirituality director at a theology school in California. She is currently the leader of her congregation.

Sr. Ramona began by encouraging listeners to take a moment of silence and leave behind the worries of the day. She compared difficulties in St. Francis of Assisi’s life with the challenges of our time.

“How is Francis a mystic that we can identify with?” she pondered.

Sr. Ramona talked about difficult times in the past year – COVID restrictions and quarantines, violent protests across the country, a bitterly contested presidential election, physical distancing from loved ones. For the sister, being unable to hold proper funerals for the members of her congregation was one of her greatest personal trials.

“What is it that I can learn from Francis of Assisi about living the mystical life in times of hardship and suffering?” she asked.

“Francis, in the 13th century, did not have an easy life,” she said. He was from the merchant class, of lower status than the landed upper class; the feudal system was breaking down, and there were violent protests and social unrest. Over a series of years, he converted from a competitive, warlike mentality to putting aside all competitiveness.

The plague of his time was leprosy, and lepers were ostracized and sent to colonies. St. Francis’ response to God’s nudging was to minister to people with leprosy. In reflecting on his actions, Sr. Ramona called for listeners to give support and respect to essential workers who cared for others during the pandemic.

“The Catholic Church at the time of Francis was not exactly an epitome of holiness. There was tremendous corruption at the highest level,” she continued. Francis saw the vying for power among bishops, cardinals and the pope, yet he didn’t leave the church. Similarly, we’ve been embarrassed by the actions of leaders of the church, she acknowledged, and we can follow the saint’s lead in being part of the body of Christ without condemning or taking on the political stress of the church hierarchy.

How did he rise from that context to becoming a symbol of joy and serenity? It’s not a normal response for a young Italian man to do so after coming from a culture of war, she observed.

She provided three examples of Francis’ encounters with God, and how they changed his life.

In the first instance, he was repairing the old church at San Damiano, and Jesus spoke to him from an icon, telling him to “Go, repair my house.” He took it as a mandate from God to turn his attention to the living body of Christ.

In the second example, writing near the end of his life about his conversion, Francis told how he was repulsed by his own response to lepers, but the Lord led him among them. Something changed in his heart, and what had been bitter was turned into “sweetness of soul and body.”

“Afterward, I … left the world,” Francis wrote, and that phrase signified his change of consciousness, from leaving the realm of worldly concerns to living in intimacy with Jesus.

Sr. Ramona defined a “mystic” as one who “lives with certainty of God’s love because of an encounter with God.”

St. Francis’ third encounter with God happened after coming home from war when he was young. He had dinner and drinks with friends, and they were carousing on the street when he withdrew from the group – first mentally, and then bodily – and began singing to God in his heart. “‘So much divine sweetness poured over him, as he later recounted, that he was struck dumb and could not move,’” Sr. Ramona quoted from a biography of the saint. “A burst of spiritual energy rushed through him,” and he began to lose interest in earthly concerns.

Francis’ life was ordinary, she said. Mystical moments are not anticipated, and we cannot make them happen. They can happen anywhere; mysticism in the Franciscan tradition gives us courage to live an ordinary life in ordinary times.

“God meets us there, wherever we are,” she added.

The Franciscan tradition comes from scholars’ theological study of Francis’ life. Some people approach mysticism from an intellectual point of view – thinking that “pure thought” is the key to mysticism – but that is not the Franciscan tradition, she explained.

Franciscan spirituality emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, the experience of his life on earth, the fact that God took on human form. Francis’ interpretation of the fact was that the world is good, in its humblest, simplest form.

In Jesus, God was given a face and a heart, something we could love. “The truth is, we can’t fall in love with the abstract,” she said.

The “primacy of Christ,” in the Franciscan tradition, is the belief that God always intended to send his son into the world – Jesus didn’t come here as a means of offsetting original sin – and all of creation was created to prepare for Jesus to be physically among us.

Francis grew so strong in his love for the human dimension of God that he wanted to share it with others. One means of sharing it was to recreate the Nativity scene with people and animals, then preach to all the people who showed up for Mass – a precursor to the modern Christmas play.

Francis’ success was in creating a mysticism of a historical event, to convert it from knowledge in the mind to a lived experience; such profound experiences linger in the memory. Sr. Ramona shared her calling to the sisterhood – she was kneeling in prayer at adoration, just an ordinary moment in time – and she felt God asking her.

“Really, you want me to be a sister?” she responded, with some reluctance.

Mystical moments need not be dramatic – a moment of forgiveness, an event in the family, she commented. Sr. Ramona then gave listeners time to reflect on their own experiences and to discuss them in small groups.

Storytelling, in the Franciscan tradition, is a way of understanding the mystery of God. “Narrative theology,” she calls it, and through stories of Francis and Clare, for example, listeners learn more about God. Francis’ life has long been studied; more books about Clare are now available, she said, so there is better access to her story.

“There’s a longing in our hearts for God,” she said. “We all want to be loved.” To help listeners appreciate the mysticism in the Franciscan tradition, she told Clare’s story.

St. Clare of Assisi was born into a noble family about 10 years after Francis. Because of her social class, she would have been well-educated compared to Francis. The two never would have met socially.

After Clare died around age 60, her reputation for holiness was so widespread, the pope sent a bishop to interview those who knew her. The details of her life, collected through the canonization process, are now widely available.

Clare never had a conversion experience – she was known for holiness from childhood on – and rejected her family’s attempt to arrange a marriage for her. Francis came to meet her, and she acquiesced to his preaching and renounced the world, Sr. Ramona said. He’d gone looking for a holy woman because he’d had a prophetic vision while repairing the San Damiano Church that a group of women would live there, despite that it was beyond the protection of the city walls.

Living the humanity of Jesus – the poverty – was Clare’s emphasis, and she had conflicts with the pope stemming from her refusal to own property, which would have provided protection and stability to the women of her community.

Translating that vow of poverty to a modern, Third Order Franciscan mindset, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration own property, Sr. Ramona pointed out – Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center in Arbor Vitae is one example – but those facilities are used for serving others.

Clare’s writings, four letters addressed to St. Agnes of Prague, a princess who left royal life to enter a cloister, offered insight into her heart. In the first, she celebrates “holy poverty” and “God-centered poverty.” In the second, she writes of contemplation and consideration of God.

Telling of her own experience of being somewhat unwillingly called to go to graduate school and take on a steady stream of additional roles and responsibilities, despite that she had been deeply content beforehand, Sr. Ramona emphasized the certainty of God’s love does not us preclude us from having to face challenges, trials and suffering.

Mysticism in the Franciscan tradition – God’s intervention in our lives – is so ordinary that we miss it. “We often don’t see what is right in front of us,” Sr. Ramona said. She invited listeners to discuss best practices for being quiet enough for mysticism to happen in their lives.

Following a question-and-answer period and lunch, Sr. Ramona returned to talk about the pain St. Francis suffered near the end of his life – the eye disease trachoma and bearing Christ’s wounds, the stigmata – as well as his death due to tuberculosis and malnutrition.

Sr. Ramona shared the story of “The Canticle of the Creatures,” which St. Francis wrote after an encounter with God. Feeling the misery of blindness and sleeping in rodent-infested quarters, he called on God for help. God, in turn, told Francis he should be joyful, for his place in heaven was assured, and Francis was inspired to dictate his canticle to his brothers the next morning.

Sr. Ramona referenced “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical that alludes to St. Francis’ canticle, and encouraged listeners to think about nature and ecology. She concluded by sending them outside to spend a half-hour in silence, experiencing with their five senses the many gifts of God.