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Mercy Moments: Season Two, Episode Two

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There’s a great story of St. Francis of Assisi – a story that I remember from childhood – that involves the saint speaking with a wolf; a wolf that had terrorized the small town where Francis lived.  All of the townspeople feared for their lives, until one day, Francis decided to confront the wolf.  In doing so, he blessed the animal calling him “Brother Wolf” and in speaking with him, he made a deal.  In return for the guaranteed peace and safety of the town, Francis and the townspeople pledged to feed and care for the wolf for the rest of his days and so they did. 

More than a decade ago, while on a pilgrimage based on the life and spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I found myself in Assisi, Italy, the birthplace of St. Francis.  Our tour guide, Fr. Larry, admitted there was no record of Ignatius having ever traveled to Assisi, but since we were in Rome, the city where Ignatius founded the Jesuit order of Catholic priests, Larry claimed “You can’t come this close to Assisi and just not see it!”  He was right!  It is breathtaking – easily my favorite stop on the journey.  Ignatius really missed out! 

Throughout the vibrant hillside town, we toured various locations that were significant in the conversion and faith journey of St. Francis.  The following day, I woke at sunrise to go running on my own.  Leaving the hostel without telling any of my fellow pilgrims, I set out on my run without any plans for where I was headed or for how long I would venture.

As the city is built on a hill, I quickly decided that my challenge for the run would be to reach the hillcrest.  I followed the roads leading upwards as I wove back and worth climbing my way through Assisi.  The further I ran, the narrower the roads became until all that remained was grass and finally a dirt path which curved around a wide-open fence. 

As I rounded the fence, I heard several angry dogs approaching from behind.  I stopped frozen with fear and turned around to see the dogs running towards me, barking ferociously.  I panicked knowing I could not outrun them. 

I imagined the news of my disappearance reaching home; like an episode of Law and Order. Yes, it’s dramatic, but I was terrified. 

And then, I kid you not, the next image that came to me was St. Francis talking to the wolf and so I almost instinctively shouted in the direction of the dogs “Francis!”

And here’s where I can’t explain what happened next.  Maybe the angry dogs didn’t just disappear into thin air, but suddenly they were gone.  They left me in peace and I continued my run. 

Did I make it to the top of the hill? Of course I did. 

Did I return via a different route? Absolutely. 

Was what happened with the dogs a St. Francis miracle?  I don’t know.  Maybe Invisible Fence has contracts in the hills of Assisi. Who’s to say?

But, I will say this, on that day, I was deeply grateful for the traditions with which I was raised and the stories which emphasized Francis’ love of all animals – even angry dogs.

The pilgrimage that brought me to the hills of Assisi also led me to the caves of Spain.  The week before my St. Francis “miracle”, we toured Spain and the many locations that inspired Ignatius’ conversion, education, and formation.

We visited Manresa, the town where Ignatius lived in a cave for almost a year praying and fasting and developing The Spiritual Exercises – a compilation of meditations, prayers, and contemplative practices still used today by spiritual directors to accompany people as they deepen their relationship with God.  A theme throughout Ignatian Spirituality is “finding God in all things”.  One day while standing along the banks of the Cardoner River which runs through Manresa, there was a single moment in which Ignatius had a realization that God could be found in all things. 

While in Manresa, we visited the cave in which Ignatius lived – now transformed into a quaint chapel and I too stood along the banks of the Cardoner River.  Having participated in various Ignatian Retreats based on his life and The Spiritual Exercises, I had often imagined this river to be powerful and inspiring.  Why else would Ignatius have had such a transformative experience there if not for the beauty of creation, the beauty of the river?   I was stunned – not by the majesty of the river.  Or was it a creek?  A stream perhaps?  Maybe I caught it on an off day, but this muddy rill was not inspiring anything within me.  But upon further reflection, that’s what I loved about the Cardoner River!  The fact that Ignatius had a profound revelation that God can be found in all things at that river, suggests that God really and truly can be found everywhere!  That God really and truly was working in and through Ignatius at that moment regardless of the location and that God is working in and through all of us daily as well. 

God is with us in the hills of Assisi, the rivers of Manresa, and the towns of Missouri.  But this understanding doesn’t always involve the high drama of angry dogs or divine visions.  Finding God in all things takes practice.  For many of us, our religious, cultural, or family traditions and rituals have provided experiences in which we have been invited to find God in both the sacred and the mundane.  For all of us, our daily choices and relationships, our work and even our hobbies have the potential to draw us deeper into the awareness that God is with us through it all.  This takes effort.  It’s certainly not always obvious and it’s far more of a challenge when we acknowledge that God, as Langston Hughes noted, can be found not only in the rainbows, but the dust too.  Yes, God can just as much be found in moments of fear and anger and in the muddied waters of our lives, as God can be found in the beauty of creation and the joy of friends and loved ones.

During this season of Lent, we at Catholic Charities are committing in a special way to finding God in all things — to intentionally practice finding God in our co-workers and clients, our work and ministries, and in our lives beyond the agency.  We invite you to join us in this commitment and we wish you many blessings on your Lenten journey.

Praying the Examen

Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish mystic and founder of the Jesuits, wrote his Spiritual Exercises 500 years ago.  Grateful that his insights into spirituality have withstood the test of time, I offer an adaptation of his most popular form of prayer, the Examen, which can provide people of all ages and backgrounds a tangible and personal experience of God.

The Examen:

*If praying with a partner, pause in a setting that cultivates conversation (maybe during a shared meal).  If praying on your own, pause in a setting that captivates freedom from distractions, freedom to be silent, and freedom to be yourself.  Whether with a partner or on your own, using a journal can be a helpful tool.

STEP #1: Say a prayer to invite the Holy Spirit into this sacred space and time.  In gratitude, acknowledge that God is with you.

STEP #2:  Discuss or journal about the following prompts:

  • What were the good things that happened today?
    • Identify the emotions that these good things evoked. Was God’s grace easy or difficult to feel in these moments?  Where was God present or not present today?
  • What were the challenging things that happened today?
    • Identify the emotions that these challenges evoked.  Was God’s grace easy or difficult to feel in these moments?  Where was God present or not present today?
  • What do you need for tomorrow or for what grace would you like to pray? (i.e. I pray for the grace of patience with my family, the grace of motivation in my work, and the grace of joy in challenging times.)

STEP #3:  Ask God to continue to be with you over the next 24 hours and to reveal in a special way God’s self to you through the love of your family, friends, and communities.  You may also choose to recite the Our Father or another familiar prayer to close this time of prayer and reflection.

STEP #4: Repeat daily or as often as you are able.