I've written before about The Wisdom of the Poor One of Assisi, by Eloi Leclerc, but this great book deserves even more praise! Here is a passage that will surely be at the heart of my Lent this year:
[Francis and Brother Leo are walking through the woods, on their way to visit a family, which Francis had already visited once. The baby of the family was very sick, and the first time that Francis visited, he found the mother was crushed with pain and sorrow over her child's illness. The two are returning to offer comfort to the family...]
Soon [Francis and Leo] were running down the slopes of a ravine toward a torrent which roared at the bottom. The place was remote with a savage and pristine beauty. The water, flung against the rocks, bounded back all white and exultant with brief bursts of azure. Its spray brought great freshness which penetrated the adjacent underbrush. A few junipers which had grown up here and there between the rocks were overhanging the bubbling water.
"Our sister water!" exclaimed Francis as he drew near the raging current. "Your purity sings of the innocence of God."
Leaping from one rock to another, Leo soon crossed the torrent. Francis followed but more slowly. Leo waited for him, standing on the far bank and watching the limpid water run rapidly over the golden sand between the gray masses of rock. When Francis caught up with him, Leo stood there in a contemplative mood. He seemed unable to detach himself from this scene and as Francis studied him he saw something of sadness in his expression.
"You are pensive," Francis commented simply.
"Of, if we only had some of this purity," responded Leo, "Then we, too, would know the mad, overflowing joy of our sister water and her irresistible enthusiasm."
Leo instilled into these words a deep melancholy. His wistful gaze was fixed on the swiftly moving stream which continued to flow in all its elusive purity.
"Come," Francis said to him, taking him by the arm.
And the two resumed their walk. After a moment of silence, Francis asked Leo, "Brother, do you know what purity of heart is?"
"It is to have no fault with which to reproach oneself," answered Leo without hesitation.
"Then I understand your sadness," said Francis, "because one always has something to regret."
"Yes," said Leo, "and that is precisely why I despair of ever achieving purity of heart."
"Oh, Brother Leo, believe me, you should not be so preoccupied with the purity of your soul," Francis replied. "Turn your gaze toward God. Marvel over God. Rejoice that God, at least, is all holy. Be grateful to God because of the Lord. That, little Brother, is the meaning of a pure heart.
"When you are thus focused on God, do not glance back at yourself. Do not ask yourself where you stand with God. Can't you see that the sadness of not being perfect and of discovering yourself a sinner is still a human sentiment -- much too human?
"You must lift your gaze higher, ever so much higher. There is God, the immensity of God and the Lord's unutterable splendor. The pure heart never ceases to adore the true and living God. It take a profound interest in the existence of God and, even in the midst of misery, is able to vibrate to the eternal innocence and joy of God. Such a heart is, at the same time, naked and gratified. For such a heart it is enough that God is God and in that it finds all its peace, all its pleasure. The Lord God becomes its holiness."
"However, God demands our effort and our faithfulness," observed Leo.
"Yes, without doubt," answered Francis, "but sanctity is not developing oneself to the utmost, nor is it an achievement of one's own doing. It is at first a void which one discovers in oneself and accepts and which God then comes to fill in proportion to how much one makes oneself receptive to God's bounty.
"Our nothingness, you see, if it is accepted, becomes a free space where God can create again. The Lord does not permit God's glory to be snatched by anyone. God is the Lord, the Only One, the Holy One. God takes the poor by the hand, pulling them from the mud, making them sit among the royalty of God's people so that at last they may see God's glory. God then becomes the azure atmosphere of the soul of the poor.
"To contemplate the glory of God, Brother Leo, is to discover that God is God, eternally God beyond all we are or could ever be, to rejoice fully in what God is, to become ecstatic before God's eternal youth and to render God thanks because of God's being, because of God's inexhaustible mercy -- that, Brother Leo, is the deepest obligation of this love which the spirit of God never ceases to infuse into our hearts. That is what it means to have a pure heart.
"This purity is not achieved by brute force or by becoming tense about it."
"Then how is it achieved?" demanded Leo.
"We must simply lose ourselves completely, sweep away everything, even the sharp perception of our distress. We must make room for God. We must accept poverty. We must renounce all that weighs us down, even the weight of our own faults. We must see nothing but the glory of God and bask in it. God is. That suffices. The heart then becomes buoyant. it no longer feels its own weight, but is like the lark, inebriated by space and sky. Then a person has abandoned all care, all worry. One's desire for perfection has changed into a simple and pure will for God."