Dialogue: A Characteristic of God, A Virtue for every human being
May the Lord give you peace!
As the years follow on from each other, the Solemnity of St. Clare of Assisi, our sister and mother, brings with it an opportunity to continue a dialogue that can become ever deeper and more wide-ranging. I would like this letter to be an expression of a fraternal dialogue in which I see you as active participants. I welcome any reflections, proposals, or initiatives that you can share; they are precious to me and to all of you dear sisters, because they help us to be centred and to focus on the essentials of God’s call within the Church.
Given that this is the year in which the Franciscan Order commemorates the meeting between St. Francis and al-Malik al Kamil, I would like to speak to you about dialogue. All over the world, initiatives are springing up that promote dialogue among those who believe in God — and in particular with Muslims. The kingdom of God is manifest wherever a welcoming space is created for those who are different to us.
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You are dialogue
Dialogue has to do with who God is, because God is communion. In the Profession of Faith, we profess “I believe in God the Father.”God is Father who has generated a Son; therefore, there is a relationship between them. This relationship is absolute and complete, and is itself a Person — I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.
At the beginning of 2019, I addressed a letter to the Franciscan Family and to our Muslim brothers and sisters, in which I wrote about the Praises of God that Francis composed at La Verna after receiving the stigmata. In particular, I reflected on two of the praises; ‘You are humility’ and ‘You are patience’— now I would also add ‘You are dialogue’. Yes, because from the beginning of eternity the three divine Persons constitute life that is constantly communicated from the Self to the Other, a life that both generates and welcomes life. Loveis the name for a way of being that is fertile and generates fruitfulness, because those who love seek the other, and give themselves so that the other can fully live.
By choosing us as adopted children to the praise of His glory (cf. Eph 1:3-14), God wanted to involve us too in his mystery of love, of life, and of communion. What a grace this is! As from the beginning the Son is turned towards the Father, so the Father through the Son addresses the Word to the whole of creation (cf. Jn1:1-3): “He spoke, and they were created” (Ps 148:5). In the dialogue between God and humanity, the initiative always comes from God; the divine Word comes to meet us (cf. Jer 15:16).
Because of the image in which they have been formed, and the likeness with which they are called to cooperate with God (cf. Adm V,1), human beings — created male and female — are also turned towards the other; the Other who is Creator, and the other who is woman and man respectively (cf. Gen 1:27). The story of Genesis 2 well expresses this truth — the man recognizes the meaning of his existence only when he communicates with the ‘thou’ that is similar to him, that stands before him, that constitutes the human person in the completeness of the image of God. Therefore, the man and the woman are not isolated monads, closed in on themselves; they are persons-in-dialogue.
The Word becomes flesh
We know well — which of us hasn’t engaged in it, and who doesn’t experience it? — that it is here that sin is situated. Sin blocks the flow of vital communication and locks everyone into a false and suffocating world. By narrating the reactions of Adam and Eve after the act of disobedience, the Biblical author makes this clear: there is no longer any fruitful dialogue, only the mutual recriminations of mortals. Communion between human persons, which is an image of the communion between the Divine Persons, now exists side by side with the potential to also be enemies!
In the fullness of time, God’s own Word becomes flesh in this wounded and divided world (cf. Jn1:14) and remains there as a love that never ceases to give itself in the sacrament of His Body. We nourish ourselves with this Word in order to once more learn to speak the language of God, which is communion.
Today, we are global people who experience the tragedy of conflict and isolation, of contacts that multiply along with the difficulty of truly communicating. Can we say that we really know the alphabet that spells authentic dialogue?
This is precisely the favourable time to give strength to our ‘dialogical’ vocation, just as the author of John’s first letter writes: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”(1 Jn 1:1-3).
I would like to dwell on some of the substance of this text.
Communion with the Word of life
The first movement towards dialogue is to welcome it as a gift, because I do not go to meet the other simply bringing myself but bringing what I in turn have received (cf. 1 Cor 11:23). What I have received comes from that gaze that revealed to me the vision of true life, that word that gave direction to my journey (cf. Ps 118,105). Francis won Clare for that same Lord for whom he himself was first won. Clare urges her sisters to love “in the love of Christ” through which they recognize themselves to be loved.
Therefore, both the attribute and the ability to dialogue are to be sought in the truth of our relationship with the Lord. In Clare’s writings there is a very striking scene, “Contemplate, in the depth of this same mirror, the ineffable charity that He chose to suffer on the tree of the Cross and to die there the most shameful kind of death. Therefore, that Mirror, suspended on the wood of the Cross, warned those passing by that here are things to be considered, saying: “All you who pass by the way, look and see if there is any suffering like my suffering!” “Let us respond to Him”, It says, “crying out and lamenting, in one voice, in one spirit:” ‘Remembering this over and over leaves my soul sinking within me!’”(IV letter 23-26).
When dialogue is founded on the rock of the living relationship with the Lord Jesus, contemplated in the moment of his total self-giving, then it can resist the winds of misunderstanding, disappointment, and even the feeling that ‘it is not worth it’ — because being open to dialogue can be crucifying.
I am struck by the fact that Clare, while writing to Agnes in person, responds to the invitation of the Crucifix with the plural form “let us respond”, and exhorts that this should be done “in one voice, in one spirit.” I like to see this as an expression of the communitarian-communion character of your life as Poor Sisters — the paschal dynamic of daily life in which diversity becomes harmony, and the range of feelings, will, and activity can reach an accord.
When your gaze is fixed on the Crucifix, contemplating the love that reaches each one of you individually, then your inner ear becomes more attentive to the sound of his voice calling you — and you discover yourselves being collectively called to grow in compassion. I see this as one of the fruits of the Spirit, as a mature expression of dialogue, both with the Lord and amongst youselves, which needs to be faithfully pursued through and beyond any temptations, beyond the inclination to be closed to the other or to be intrusive in regard to the other. In dialogue we come face to face.
“We proclaim this also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us.”
Those who dialogue seek out the other so as to together participate in the beauty and richness of life, aiming to reduce distance in order to celebrate an ever-changing encounter. When we dialogue, we do not stay the same; places within us come to light, areas that had until then remained in the shadows, ignored by ourselves. Even before getting to know the other, those who dialogue first grow in self-knowledge, welcoming their own uniqueness and then offering it without pretension. Nothing could be more contrary to dialogue than a spirit of domination or revenge. Nothing could be more favourable to it than the littleness that is non-threatening, the straightforwardness that does not deceive, the transparency that is free from any suspicion of ambiguity or subterfuge. In dialogue the other is not exploited.
Clare and the sisters navigate the logjams of discord and division, envy and murmuring in their daily lives; they open up spaces of welcome and communion through forgiveness, reconciliation, and intercession (cf. Regola Santa Clare X, 6; IX, 7-11).
The letters written to Agnes of Prague witness to the extent that Clare was willing and ready to enter into dialogue with the other, and how convinced she was that in the interchange between sisters, one can better understand what pleases God and adhere to it. Clare listens to Agnese’s questions and answers her (cf. III letter 29-41). She invites her distant sister in her turn to seek out dialogue with those who will be able to enlighten her regarding the truth of the vocation she has received (cf. II letter 15-18), in order to walk more securely in the way of the commands of the Lord (cf. II letter 15).
Clare also knows how to translate her ‘abiding’ in the communion of the Trinity into the language of gestures that express dialogue: giving an egg to the sister who was tempted to suffocate herself; kissing the foot which had struck her in the face; putting covers on the sleeping sisters in the cold of night and tracing the sign of the cross on their aching bodies. The way of dialogue leads to the embrace of the other.
Dialogue and our history
Two memorable dialogues mark the beginnings of the history of our Franciscan Family and its charism. That which took place one night at Spoleto between the Lord and Francis (cf. 1Celano 6) and then continued in a cave near Assisi (cf. 1Celano 6), and the dialogue in the church of San Damiano between Francis and the Crucifix (cf. 2Celano 10). The recurring dialogues between Francis and the young Clare (Legend of St. Clare 3) undoubtedly are also decisive turning points in this story.
And how could we not recall that all of us are ‘born again’ at the Portiuncula, at St. Mary of the Angels? On the Feast of the Pardon, we once again listen to the dialogue between Mary and the Angel, the dialogue that initiated the time when the Lord “gave himself to save us” (Assisi Compilation, 14).
All of this leads me, together with the friars, to renew our desire and our commitment to make our lives into placesof encounter with the Word of God and also with the words spoken by human beings.
And, my Ladies, I pray that you continue to be women of dialogue, in the Lord’s name.
Rome, July 25th, 2019
Feast of St. James
Fr. Michael A. Perry, OFM
Minister General and Servant
Cover: Saint Clare. Attributed to the school of Parmigianino, Monastero Sant’Agnese, Florence.