Last May, FMM (Franciscan Missionaries of Mary) Provincial Sr. Judith Yuen shared some gracious moments of her spiritual journey with Christ in the O Clarim Chinese edition. When we met again at the Franciscan retreat in August of this year, I was impelled to interview her again, knowing that much more Franciscan spirituality could be shared with the readers.
That Saturday morning, I arrived at Vila São José, preparing myself for the first talk from Sr. Judith. There was a strong presence of God amongst us. I listened intently, feeling a deep joy inside, signaling me to interview her more on the life and teaching of St. Francis of Assisi in relation to us.
First, Sr. Judith brought out the point of the profound conversion of Francis as a young man. She told us the story in her own words: “Francis was so bored with life after leaving his fellow soldiers. Just as his physical and spiritual vulnerability might mean a sign of failure to others, it became a significant moment of encountering Christ. In an account of his life, it is said that a confused and despondent Francis was sitting under a tree. He then stood upside down and discovered that things could be seen in the opposite way. He had been coveting personal riches and glory, yet, with another angle, or in the eyes of Christ, these material riches did not have a hold on him.”
Another encounter with Christ happened when St. Francis met a leper on the road. Sr. Judith continued, “He met a leper for whom he had a strong disgust. Yet something in him drove him to approach the leper, embrace him and then kiss his lips. He was filled with indescribable joy. In that instant, he knew he had embraced Christ in the poor and the rejected. From then on, he ‘made his own the mind of Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 2:5) and followed Christ.”
Encountering Christ at a retreat is a grace. Sr. Judith recalled a retreatant thanking her, hands clasped, tears rolling down the cheeks, because of the compassionate touch of God. “God spoke to us in every way at the retreat as long as we allowed Him to. Whosoever encounters Christ, their life will be radically changed.”
God’s love is always abundant and accessible, yet not all are ready to believe. During the days of receiving Franciscan spirituality training in Canterbury, Sr. Judith was assigned to meet with a sister traumatized by the loss of her father. She came to the retreat practically every year. However, she showed no signs of progress, primarily due to the experiences of her childhood years. Another Franciscan friar assigned to Sr. Judith for spiritual direction was not comfortable with a God of unconditional love. He felt safer to set a boundary with God. It took him quite some time to get to a place of understanding God’s boundless love.
Franciscan spirituality training has opened up the horizons for Sr. Judith in terms of experiencing God’s infinite love. God loves each one of us in a particular way. Because of the freedom God grants to human beings, we can choose to receive or reject it. She elaborated, “In my experiences, some think they can do everything on their own. They have a good life, so they don’t need God. Others see themselves way below the mark, so they do not dare to tap into spirituality. Some obstinate ones are unwilling to change. There are those who yearn for God, like the prodigal son, once they experience trials in life.”
The Franciscan spirituality is not limited to a few but is extended to the whole world. St. Francis’ poverty and simplicity still speak to our wounded world. Sr. Judith said, “During Francis’ time, the Church leaders were living an extravagant life. Francis was called by God to rebuild the Church by leading a simple and poor life according to the gospel. In our epoch of an extremely materialistic world, Francis urges us to live a life of simplicity as a way to love God and to share what we have with our brothers and sisters in need. God has provided enough for everyone. Because of greed and personal interests, we see a world with a sharp gap between the rich and the poor. Francis challenges us to return to the way of living that God first willed, to have even distribution of wealth so that everyone has enough from God’s bounty.”
Another hallmark of St. Francis’ teaching is forgiveness. At that time the vast majority of the Western Church voted for “holy wars.” In September 1219, St. Francis left his own culture to meet with Sultan Malik al-Kamil in Egypt, considered a public enemy of Francis’ world and religion. The Church did not listen to Francis, yet his humility and respect earned him a rare and true friendship with the Sultan.
Sr. Judith explained, “Forgiveness and peace are two brothers. Peace is the root. Why does rivalry happen? The only way to avoid it is to forgive. Jesus Christ has always asked us to forgive as He himself did. He embraces us with open arms as long as we are willing to return to Him. Our God is a tender, loving God who always touches our hearts. If we experience deep love from God, we can show more forgiveness in life.”