St. Francis was allowed to visit a 21st century university, which housed a chapel bearing his name. He was both honored and confused by the opportunity. Walking about the campus, he was amazed at the number and variety of students rushing to and fro; they were not looking at the grounds or the sidewalks or at each other– they were focused on their devices. It was a noisy campus, full of the sounds of buses and other traffic, music and podcasts playing, people arguing… Finally, St. Francis arrived at “his” chapel. It was a beautiful building, quiet and simple in its design. It was empty, except for a single student, saying her prayers. At the entrance, there was a plaque with a well-known prayer:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Francis took a seat, absorbing the peaceful stillness, yet wondering at his assignment. Why had he been sent here? Why this moment in time? Taking his cue from the student, he also spent some time in prayer. Then he walked back outside.
He was struck again by the students– they were everywhere, but they were isolated. No one noticed him or stopped to speak. He tried to talk to someone–anyone–but they were all busy and not inclined to pause or interact. He noticed a coffee house across the street. Carefully avoiding speeding buses and weaving bikes, he crossed and entered the shop. It was a little quieter than the commons, but most of the customers were sipping their drinks and staring at screens–personal devices or the huge screen above the counter, streaming the latest news. War, scandal, protests, mud-slinging politicians, all made their appearance, only to be replaced by a commercial break and the next headline. No one stopped in horror at the litany of injustice, death, greed, or duplicity. They simply sipped their lattes and went back to scrolling through their Instagram accounts.
The door opened to admit the student he had seen earlier in the chapel. She glanced up at the big screen, shook her head, and ordered a coffee. She found a table, and sat down. The coffee house was busy; it was the last empty table. She smiled as another student came in. She invited the other student to sit with her. She started a conversation. At first, the other student was jumpy and disinclined to talk. But soon, the two students were chatting. The sound of it attracted attention. Some customers were bothered by the new noise; others were intrigued by the sound of real conversation– even laughter! Two other students brought their chairs and drinks over and joined the conversation. They spoke of missing their families, of struggling with certain classes, and enjoying others. They spoke of future plans, and the obstacles that stood in the way. They spoke of fears for the future, as well. Francis noticed that one student listened from a distance, but did not join the others. He seemed weary and despondent. Francis walked over and asked if he could just sit at his table for awhile. The young man was startled, but said, “Suit yourself.”
Francis sat in silence, his head bowed. Finally, the young man spoke quietly. “I saw you watching that girl. Just a word of warning– she’s a nut job. She comes in here about once a week, talking nonsense. She’s not even a student here.”
“And yet, I saw you were also watching her. She intrigues you.”
“I don’t know how she does it. She comes in here, talking about love and joy and faith, and people listen to her. They eat that stuff up. Don’t they know it’s all garbage? Look at the news! But she comes in, all smiling and happy– she’s crazy.”
“But she still intrigues you. Could it be that she is at peace, and you are not?”
“Peace?! Peace is nothing but an illusion. Power is what counts. Action. Look at her– she’s not doing anything to make the world better, and yet she acts like she’s got all the answers. It’s sickening!”
“Why do you keep watching her?”
“I don’t even know. She’s so stupid. She’s all wrong, and she acts like everything is fine.”
“Have you spoken to her? How do you know what she thinks and feels?”
“I’ve told you. She’s crazy. I don’t want to talk to someone like that.”
“Are you afraid?”
“Afraid of what?”
“That she’s not as crazy as you think. That she might laugh at your thoughts, the way you laugh at hers. That she won’t talk to you, like she talks to the others… Maybe you’re afraid of what you would say.”
“What do you mean?”
“What would you say to her if she spoke to you? Would you listen, or would you argue? Would you wipe the smile off her face and take away her joy and faith? Would you make the world a better place by winning your argument with her?”
The young man was at a loss for words. He suddenly noticed that other conversation had stopped. People were looking at him– even the young woman he had been talking about. His face turned red, and he jumped out of his seat and dashed out of the coffee house. The group dispersed, and Francis was left alone with the young woman.
“He may be right, you know,” she said with a wry smile. I don’t think I do enough to make the world a better place. I just sit and talk with people, and listen, and pray. It’s not much. Not enough to make a real difference.”
Francis put a hand on her shoulder and shook his head. “It is enough in God’s economy to be available. To be humble and willing and faithful. Keep up the good work. And may God bless you.”