Be the Bridge


[The following is the text of a talk given by Kathleen Agosto, our regional JPIC Coordinator, at the SKD Region’s annual gathering on November 15, 2014]

Listen to the prayer of Francis on the CD The Geste of the Great King.

A plaintive prayer of a man in dire straits. Whereas initially, I was enamored of the Francis in Brother Sun, Sister Moon, with Donavon singing in the background as Francis romps through a field of flowers, later I came to love Mickey Rourke’s movie “Francesco” with multiple scenes of Francis cold and shivering in the rain, Francis hiding in a cave. The movie with the cave and Francis out in all the elements feels more accurate and seems to resonate with my own Secular Franciscan journey.

Two summers ago, I attended a Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Conference on your behalf and for our Region. The theme of that convocation was “Be the Bridge. Accept all people as a gift of God”. Today I want to link the two ideas of the cave and reconciliation and how that relates to us today as followers of Francis.

In the Journey and the Dream, Murray Bodo talks about those earliest days when Francis was unclear about what was happening to him and sought out the caves and isolated , empty places around Assisi.

Bodo says that Francis was trending in Assisi . His name was on the lips of people who know, or thought they knew, as rumor had it that he was a ne’er do well, a big disappointment to his family. It was even rumored that he was a coward after he returned unexpectedly from Spoleto. Some even suspected that two years before that, when he had been taken prisoner at Ponte San Giovani, he may have actually surrendered himself out of fear. Still others claimed that his long illness after his release from prison at Perugia was feigned because he felt such guilt and self loathing for what he has supposedly done. What he did or did not do is neither here nor there … but the point is people everywhere were talking and he just wanted to curl up somewhere and hide. Moreover, his father was crestfallen . While not believing that Francis was a coward, he was hard put to explain away his return. Nor was his mother able to assuage the pain that Francis felt. While Francis tried to explain, words failed him and people began to assume that it was his long illness and melancholy had descended on it , something akin maybe to a nervous breakdown.

Alone in the caves, he wept. He prayed. He sought direction.

Things worsened to the point of the total disconnect which occurred in the public square with his father and the Bishop of Assisi. You all know the rest of that story, of how the Lord then “gave him brothers” and that led to the establishment of our Order, First , Second and of us, the Third Order.

As a child, I would often accompany my Grandpop on excursions throughout Camden. We would go on Sunday and walk all of Broadway. The only bad part was that, back then, every store would be closed up tight, so I could not manipulate him into buying me any toys or candy. But then, he got me into the habit of visiting churches. All empty churches save for us and a few flickering candles. The quiet so deep but then my patent leather shoes would make a thunderous clicking noise which soon led me to tiptoe whenever I was in church because I found myself to be so loud. But in that quiet, cavelike atmosphere, my imagination grew along with my faith. Having seen the movie The Miracle of Marcellino , I always expected that Jesus would wake up and start talking to me . Any way, I always say that my grandpop was haunting churches, til the day he died, he would travel all around, visiting churches in Camden, in Trenton , in Philadelphia and he would bring us back the bulletins. Now as an adult, I surmise that this practice came about after his wife, my paternal grandmother, abandoned her two babies and emptied the house of all the furniture while he was driving the trolley car. The neighbors had called to him “Hey, O’Brien, you better get home. Your wife just took off with another man.”

But for me, I always sought out the quiet of our local church to escape my parents’ bickering. Later, after a heartache and after my own struggles with my family and disconnection, I too had this cave like experience of sitting and waiting for God or waiting for an answer or waiting for a sense of direction to emerge from the darkness.

When I became a Franciscan, I was nurtured by a whole group of Secular Franciscans. When I married a man my parents disapproved of, I was disowned by my family. At my wedding, no one came from my family , but Deacon Joe Becker , when the choir failed to show, took off his alb and sat down at the organ and played Here comes the Bride and the Ave Maria. Two TOR priests presided along with the pastor and the priest from the Spanish Apostolate. Several others came out to support me. But my relationship with our Formator, formerly called our Mistress of Novices, was the one who had her hands full with me. Impetuous, angry, headstrong, broken, discouraged, young and dumb, she walked with me and read me stories about St. Francis near the grapevines in her backyard.

One story of Francis I connect with her was the one about when Francis’ father cursed him. In the Legend of the Three Companions , it says Francis would run to a poor man who would bless him, and Bea Gazo was that one who blessed me when I was cursed and lost and did not know which end was up. For forty years, in fraternity, she taped me back up, fed me tea, soup and homemade cobblers and walked with me through her sometimes magical forest where we would find wild orchids, ladyslippers underfoot. When I was going to leave my marriage, she said gently “ You made a promise to him. You are a Franciscan. Keep your promise.”And I had to listen to Bea because I knew that she knew best and because I knew she loved me. And Bea kept telling me that I was deeply loved and that I would reconcile with my parents and I did.

I came to know her family. I ate at her table. I heard all the stories about the grandchildren and that her Steven had cancer and that her Janey was a Eucharistic Minister and that one child was in trouble and heard of the early difficult days of her marriage when she was inundated by visiting family every weekend for years and just wanted to run away and be a contemplative.

In fraternity life, the Lord gave me brothers … and He gives you brothers too. So many now who have passed but with whom I had a deep connection . We ate together, went on trips together, prayed together and some ,for some,I have led the fraternity to extend our arms over the one lying silent in the casket in the Franciscan wake service and sent off to God with that blessing. May the Lord bless you. May He let His face shine on you and show His countenance to you and give you peace. And at Bea’s funeral, her children said to me “Kathy, this is not the end. You are family . You are one of us.”

Sr. Claire Andre, a Poor Clare of Chesterfield also came into my life and, for the last 15 or so years, was a long distance spiritual force in my walk, encouraging, nurturing, calming me down, urging me to trust God. We buried Bea in October and Sr. Claire Andre last Friday.

The monastery was like a cave for me as were the woods and vineyards of Bea’s house in Egg Harbor.

Whereas Bea was helpful to me in reconciling with my parents, Sr. Claire Andre taught me to bear with my children. I hate tattoos. I forbade my children to get them . I jumped up and down when my daughter challenged me one day and came home and quietly announced that she had gotten a tattoo, I had a fit. Now she was daring to defy me. I fumed and fussed. Furiously I was thinking about what to do to show my displeasure and regain control. But she was 21. I was stuck. I couldn’t think of anything witty or mean or authoritative which would serve to help me regain control.

But I was silenced. Nicole had just been completely and totally wiped out after a boy she had loved for five years walked out on her, got another girl pregnant and married within a two or three week period. We had feared that Nicole was on the verge of a breakdown and we had been very supportive and gentle with her. But with her getting a tattoo and defying me, I had had it.

Timidly, she showed me the tattoo on the small of her back. It read in Spanish and in Italian “My family is everything to me.” I was humbled and I put my head down embarrassed.

Be the Bridge. Accept all people as gift. I was that confused, lost , impulsive, cocky, then insecure, emotional mess that was Francis, that is my kid, that maybe even was you when you were young and dumb and maybe that is many of the young people we are around today .

I was accepted by Claire Andre and Bea Gazo .
But could I be the Bridge myself ? And can you ?

First, let’s start with family life.

My relations with my family were always strained. Now that they are dead, I still struggle to reconcile with them . In the Fall, I always rake leaves and gently finger a fragile memory of one of the few days we loved each other totally and were at peace. My father had been laid off and, with no work for a draftsman to be found, he had to go and rake leaves for a homeowner in Whitman Square. That whole day, we worked together as one. Filling innumerable bags with leaves as even more leaves continued to fall. Yet there was a beauty and a synergy there. We then bought a basket of apples and made homemade applesauce and Jewish Apple cakes. As my sister descended into madness and my parents were defeated by cancer and deep depression, I again sought the caves.

There I found the solace of my God and answers or at least signs, appeared. I was never able to fix any thing in my family but I resolved to try to help other family lessen the likelihood that their experience of family would be so bleak. And in my own little family, I have tried hard to at least be kind.

The problems of my family of origin haunt me and they still preoccupy me. But this is something I find comfort in. Norman Mclean is the author of “A River Runs through It”. It is the story of a minister and his family and a son that got in with the wrong people and was murdered . He was a ne’er do well, a drinker, a rabble rouser but he was also the most beautiful and accomplished fly fisherman. Although he had had a wonderful, supportive, religious family and never had suffered from poverty and want, although he spent endless days fishing and talking and loving his family with them loving him back intensely, he got lost and lost his life. Their grief and feeling of utter futility engulfed them. At the funeral, the author of the piece muses on what had happened.

Mclean wrote this about families:
“Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question : We are willing to help Lord, but what, if anything is needed ? For it is true that we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give, or more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them- we can love them completely without complete understanding.”

One concrete thing that we can do as Secular Franciscans is to enrich family life and the gatherings we do have as families. One such time , of course , is during the meals at holidays. First, who is invited and who is never invited ? And maybe they have never been invited back for good reasons. But is it possible for people to change ? I hope so. All the people who come to see me for therapy are dying to change. Some have done some dastardly deeds , been on drugs, went to jail, hurt their kids, disgraced their families, became very sick and/or socially inappropriate. Do I hold the invitations to my home too close to my chest ?

Who will be alone ? Divorced parents who did not win the coin toss and get to have the kids on Christmas Day ? Single people who never married ? Annoying people ? (Gee, I hope that I never get to be annoying ) People who have special needs children ?

When your family arrives at the meal at your house , here is one very easy thing to do. It is a Polish custom which I can never pronounce right OPLATEK . There is a little description available on this little paper . I only know that, at your meal, you take it and say something to the person next to you like … if I have done anything to you that hurt you, please forgive me and you break the bread and pass it on.

Again, following Claire Andre, she had written a letter to the Community, family and friends to be read at her funeral mass. She wrote: Dear Ones, You have always been very good to me. I have known your love and goodness to me. I will always be grateful that you have been a part of my life. I will always be with you and hopefully , I will be able to do more for you in heaven . I will certainly remember your intentions before the Lord .

Please forgive any hurts I may have ever caused you. They were never intentional. Again, thank you for all you have meant to me. Love, Sr. Claire Andre.

And at that funeral, her brother Andy looked at the Poor Clares sitting there and also said “From now on, you are our family too. You all belong to us as members of the Gagliardi family. We love you all and we will stay close to you.”

So, there she is being a bridge between heaven and earth. We can be the bridge in our own families by not freaking out on our adult kids who are really annoying. We can also be the bridge to draw our Franciscans brothers and sisters closer to us, having them in our homes and at our table. Not limiting the time we spend with them to a few minutes at the monthly meeting. Also we can be the bridge to invite people who may not be like us to look at the vocation. Do we reach out and/or send our literature into Atlantic City, Roxborough, Chester , Trenton , Camden, the inner city ? Be the bridge. Accept all people as gift of God.

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