On being rooted in the Kingdom of Heaven
Often what I end up reading for spiritual enrichment are the few books that come across my desk from Catholic publishers that just happen to be excellent spiritual reading for me. This was the case, for example, with the brilliant, deep and rich work on the liturgy by David Fagerberg, which I reviewed and from which I even posted a chapter (with permission) on CatholicCulture.org. But Fagerberg is not only a wordsmith and a wit but a scholar, and his book on the liturgy is not going to be the best thing for all readers.
One of the drawbacks of ending up using review copies of books for spiritual reading is that it often dramatically slows the rate at which I can skim through books to decide whether I think they are worth mentioning. Short of the Bible, there is no book to which we all have a spiritual obligation to pay close attention. But closer to the mark of universal appeal is a little book my wife and I are now reading slowly to each other, which in itself is a significant recommendation. I am talking about Blessed Are You, by Mother Mary Francis, PCC, published by Sophia Institute Press.
We had separately read another book by Mother Mary Francis many years ago, A Right to Be Merry. This book was written before she was famous, when she was a young Poor Clare participating in the foundation and establishment of a new monastery in Roswell, New Mexico. It was written on the order of her abbess in order to enter a contest for a financial prize. When Sister Mary Francis asked what the book should be about, Mother Immaculata answered: “I don’t care, just win the prize. The roof needs to be fixed.”
The result, again, was A Right to Be Merry, the story of the Roswell foundation. But the manuscript was never entered in the contest because Frank Sheed got wind of it and had it published by Sheed & Ward, the most prominent Catholic publisher in the United States in the 1950s. It became a best-seller in 1956 (and is now available in a new edition from Ignatius Press). Vocations to the Roswell community grew; new foundations followed in Virginia, California, Illinois, and even The Netherlands.
Blessed Are You is something different: Mother Mary Francis’ reflections on the Beatitudes, published originally in 1976. Its flavor may be gotten from the first chapter, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. The author points out that this beatitude is one of just two that refer to a present blessing rather than a future reward (the other speaks of those who suffer for Christ’s name). Most beatitudes speak of being blessed because a reward will come. This one says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs IS the kingdom of Heaven.” Why?
“The poor in spirit have their foundations only in God,” writes Mother Mary Francis. “They bend. They move. They are flexible. They are free and full of song because they have already the kingdom of Heaven for their earthly dwelling place. And then,” she continues, “there is vulnerability. To be poor in spirit and possess the kingdom of Heaven, one must agree to be vulnerable.”
She goes on to recall how much Christ in his earthly ministry wanted to be loved, wanted helpers, wanted friends—and how often he was refused: “When He gave gifts, when He cured ten and was thanked by only one, He revealed to us His suffering human heart: ‘Where are the nine?’” And yet, she explains, “We do not find Jesus saying the equivalent of, ‘Well, that is that! That is the last time I shall ever do anything for lepers. What is the use? Why scatter gifts to people who do not even thank me for them?’”
Mother Mary Francis continues:
Our Savior did not ever strive to arm Himself with invulnerability when He was wounded…. He went on working with the sorry little lot of humanity in which we find ourselves and which made up the chorus of his earthly life…. For Him, it was not a matter of concluding, as it might well be for us: “Well, this is the end! I cannot have even twelve men without one of them betraying me. What is the use?” He went on, the poor and suffering Servant. And in the end, He managed to make eleven into the Church because He was willing to be vulnerable to men’s assaults on His love, to men’s betrayals, to men’s denials, to men’s persevering failures. His love survived all these, triumphed over them, was willing to be wounded again and again, never descended to inaction when rejected, never came to a halt when His best efforts seemed to come to nothing, not even when they were flung back in His divine Face. The flexible, the poor in spirit, likewise bend under the blows and adversities of the spirit. They are willing to remain vulnerable. [pp. 12-13]
And that, Mother Mary Francis explains, is why the Kingdom of Heaven is already theirs.
Blessed Are You is both a pleasure and a challenge. It is an inspiration simply through its true littleness—by being so personally, so humanly, faithful to Our Lord, as He bends to touch us where we are.
Mother Mary Francis, PCC, Blessed Are You: Reflections on the Beatitudes (Sophia Institute Press 2021): 142pp, Paper $16.95, eBook $9.99.
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