Eugene Peterson in The Message paraphrases vs. 28 to 30 in Matthew 11 like this: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me-watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I think it is the sort of thing St. Francis was trying to teach his followers and the Church of his time.
Here is a brief description of St. Francis from the book Churches written by Judith Dupre: “The romance of St. Francis (1182-1226), the gentle, impetuous, beloved lover intoxicated with life, has survived the cynicism of the past one thousand years unscarred. Francis embraced the disenfranchised, the leper, the wolf, and-just before his sight was extinguished with a hot firebrand-[he embraced] the flame. His life is the stuff of legend-fish refused to die in his hands; sparrows rode his body like a tree; he conversed with flowers; he maintained unconditional joy in the face of malaria, malnutrition, tuberculosis, and rheumatism-from the moment he first renounced his wealthy father in Assisi’s central piazza, handed over his clothes and money, and walked naked to his destiny.
His destiny was no less than being the light that brought Christianity out of the dark Middle Ages toward a new understanding of Christianity based on humanistic ideals. The Franciscan brotherhood and the sisterhood of the Poor Clares took as their starting point a profound awareness of sharing in God’s goodness and beauty as manifested in all creation.” Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.
Our pets, most of them, live in a state of grace. If we can see how they not only rely on us but know that we will take care of them day to day and year after year, perhaps we can have just a glimpse of the unforced rhythms of grace-the grace that we live in. We have this One being who watches over us as we take care of our pets. This One-this God-created all that we are and all that we have and through Christ we can learn the unforced rhythms of grace. “Come to me…and you’ll recover your life.”
When we can live in nature and see the bounty and beauty of creation, we can have some small understanding of how much God loves us. If you watched the PBS series on our National Parks this past week-you saw how a connection with creation can feed and inspire people. Francis had a deep connection to creation that caused him to love all people and all animals and all plants like brothers.
Anyone who has held a blossom and looked deep into the heart of it, marvel at its delicacy and its sturdiness. Marvel at the outcome of a small, brown seed that knows to produce all these parts with the leaves seamlessly rising out of the stem and the petals rising seamlessly out of the base of the pistil and the anthers waving over it, all entirely unaware of their uniqueness and beauty-entirely unaware that they are part of a complete flower. Anyone who has observed this could not but wonder how she was formed from a microscopic single cell in only nine months. That is the wonder. From nature and our pets we can learn the unforced rhythms of grace.
Riding a horse through a beautiful place, feeling the rhythm of the horse’s movement and feeling one with the horse knowing that with a small movement of my own that the horse will go where I want to go at the pace I want to travel-that is a glimpse into the rhythm of grace. The horse knows he will be fed and watered and brushed and loved and I have a companion to enjoy the outdoors. We have a relationship that is beyond explaining.
Speaking of horses, I was thinking of the gorilla, Koko, who was taught to communicate through sign language. Koko expressed a desire to have a kitten and was given one-she loved her kitten and enjoyed the companionship. Her trainers did not have a full understanding of the depth of Koko’s compassion until she was shown a picture book. In the book was a picture of a horse in harness-I think the horse was set up to pull a wagon or carriage of some kind. Koko saw the bit in the horse’s mouth and pointed to it and signed, “Ouch!” How many humans looking at the same picture would even consider that the bit might cause the horse pain or irritation? It is something to think about. In what way was Koko in tune with the unforced rhythms of grace?
We can learn much from the animals we encounter-in our homes and in nature. We can observe how they live life in cycle with the seasons rather than against the seasons. We can see how our companion animals look to us for food and water, for shelter, for amusement and exercise. And, how they seem to tune into our moods. How many times in this world has a human being curled up with a pet and cried copious tears into his fur? Our pets sustain us, they help us to get through the hard times, they give us something to love and care for when otherwise we would be alone or would be inclined to do nothing. They grieve with us when we lose a loved one, they rejoice with us when we want to run and dance, they sleep with us, they watch TV with us, and they absolutely love to share our meals. And they know in their heart of hearts that we were created just to care for them-especially the cats.
Back to Judith Dupre on a visit to Assisi to see the basilica of St. Francis: “The most challenging aspects of seeing the pink and white shrine at Assisi are the impossibility of avoiding the thousands of visitors milling about on any given day, and the inevitability of judging them in a way that one ashamedly admits Francis would not have. … His image is everywhere…a merchandising gold mine based on the life of history’s poorest saint. One hopes to find Francis’s spirit in Assisi’s quiet hidden streets where the tourist groups do not fit and cars cannot park, by the stone walls, and in well-kept gardens heavy with scent. Even that dream evaporates, with delicious Franciscan irony, when a cacophony of a thousand chirping birds perched on every conceivable tree branch fills the air. No doubt they are pilgrims too.”
These are the unforced rhythms of grace that our companion animals provide for us: a retriever diving time and again into the stream to catch that ball; the cat circling, kneading and settling into that sunny spot singing as she settles in for a nap with one ear alert for movement or the sound of the can opener; the hamster energetically running, running, running inside that ball until he hits the chair leg and has to redirect so he can roll over the heating vent again-I think he does it ‘cause he likes the noise; and the horse who velvet-nosed nudges your pocket hoping there is a treat there. These animals may get tired or worn out but they never get burned out because their rhythms are unforced. They may mistrust a stranger but like Jesus and like Francis, they see most everyone the same. It doesn’t matter if someone is rich or poor, healthy or sick, ugly or beautiful; the unforced rhythms of grace are the same for animals. No one is unworthy of being loved.