Saint Francis of Assisi was famous for his incredible asceticism. He pursued poverty and penance with an almost frightening intensity, wearing only one worn out robe, sleeping outside or in a simple shelter made from sticks, throwing himself into thorn bushes or snow when experiencing temptation. He lived in a way so radically outside of the norm that people would often tell him “you are very holy, Francis, much holier than we are.” The story is told that once, Francis responded to this compliment by saying “this is simply what it takes for me to remain with the Lord. If anyone else received the graces I have, or lived as I live, they would be ten times holier.”
We might be tempted to see this sort of behavior as irrational and strange. Why would someone give up their whole livelihood just so that they don’t forget God from time to time? Didn’t Francis know that none of us is perfect, and that God forgives? Yet, how many of us radically change our lives for the sake of our physical health when it is in danger? How often do we inconvenience ourselves, or even give up what we enjoy, simply because it would cause us discomfort or physical harm? What would we say if someone kept eating a food that would send them into anaphylaxis, saying, “It’s so difficult to resist. I have an epipen anyways?” And yet when something threatens our soul, we sometimes say “well, no one is perfect. I can always go to confession to get healed.”
In this weekend’s Gospel, Christ exhorts us, saying, and “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna.” While He is certainly using a form of hyperbole in His preaching here, Christ really does call us to take our lives with Him seriously enough to guard them carefully, and remove whatever threatens our friendship with God. It was this seriousness of mind and honesty of self-knowledge that led St. Francis to live in such a radical way as he did. He knew, and humbly admitted to himself, that in his weakness, he could not enjoy the possessions and pleasures of this world without losing himself in them and forgetting God. Thus, he began a life of poverty. With the actions of his life, he chose God over all else.
Christ calls each of us, just like St. Francis to take our spiritual life as seriously as we take our physical life. We must be willing to bear with difficulty, self-denial, and inconvenience for the sake of our souls just as we would for the sake of our bodies, and in fact, more, since the soul will outlive the body. We might not need to live the radical self-denial of Francis in order to remain healthy, just as most of us do not need extreme measures to maintain physical health, but we must honestly do whatever is necessary for us as we are. It is true, God is merciful, and yes, He freely forgives as often as we need forgiveness in the confessional, but let’s strive to care for the gift of eternal life He gives us, seeking healing as we need, rather than planning to become ill because the doctor is a miracle worker.
Christ’s great desire for each of us is our perfect health and joy. If we trust Him and work together with Him for the health of our souls, then we will know that joy both here on earth, and forever in the kingdom of heaven.