We are in Assisi, Italy, now, teaching and enjoying time with our wonderful Ananda family here. Located in the gentle, rolling hills of Umbria, Assisi is the birthplace of St. Francis, one of the most beloved saints of all times.
Paramhansa Yogananda too loved St. Francis, calling him his “patron saint.” Master visited Assisi in 1935, on his way to India from America and found great inspiration here. Later he described his experience: “I felt Christ’s presence everywhere in Assisi, but on the little forest paths of L’Eremo [a remote area dotted with caves where St. Francis and his monks would seclude], I saw Christ walking by my side.”
Master’s beautiful poem, “God! God! God!,” was also written after he had received a vision of St. Francis, some time later. With this deep spiritual connection between our Guru and this great saint, it is entirely fitting that Ananda Europa is based near Assisi, doubly blessed and filled with God’s presence.
During a class at the retreat center here, one of the teachers told a story about Swami Kriyananda that I hadn’t heard before. Someone asked him a dramatic question: “If I were in a concentration camp, and a guard started beating the person next to me, what should I do? Is it right to do nothing? Or should I intervene, even if it costs me my life?”
Swamiji’s answer was wonderful: “What you are really asking is how to know God’s will. Maybe you could get the guard to stop. But maybe if you intervene, the guard will retaliate against all the prisoners and many people will be hurt or killed. You can’t figure it out logically. You need intuition.
“If you want to know God’s will in a moment of crisis, you have to practice when it is easier. You have to develop in all circumstances of your life the habit of listening for God’s will. Then, even in extreme conditions, you will know what to do.”
This counsel applies universally. In order to develop any virtue — altruism, let us say, or selflessness, or strength in the face of opposition — begin living it when the challenges are small.
What qualities would you like to strengthen in your own life? Greater devotion to God? More dedication to meditation? Greater kindness or forgiveness towards others? Decide for yourself what you would like to develop, and begin practicing these things now when you’re not forced to apply them under duress.
Master said, “The minutes are more important than the days, and the days are more important than the years.” Make each day count in your spiritual progress, and don’t think that later you’ll work on some quality you’re lacking. That “later” may never come. Steady steps in the right direction will produce inner changes in your consciousness that will come to the fore when you need them.
St. Francis lived his life with all-consuming love for God, and in service to Him. From his youth, when filled with exuberant vitality and energy, he gave Him his all. At the end, when he lay in a little hut blinded by eye disease and weakened by illness, he did not have to summon up devotion to the Lord in the face of his suffering. It poured forth from him in glorious expression, and from his deathbed he composed and sang the beautiful “Canticle of the Creatures.”
In it Francis sang praises of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” of “Brother Fire” and “Sister Water.” He sang of his love for all creatures and his vision of the unity of all creation. The song ends with these words: “Praise My Lord, thank Him, and serve Him with great humility.” (You can listen here to the beautiful melody to which Swami Kriyananda set St. Francis’s words in old Italian.)
The great saints walk before us not to show us their suffering, but to demonstrate how to live a life of daily self-offering that ultimately transcends suffering.
May we all follow in their footsteps.