The Real Reason I Chopped Off All My Hair
When I first learned about St. Francis of Assisi famously stripping in the town square in front of the bishop and about his denouncement of his father, I heard St. Francis described as a “dramatic medieval Italian.” As an Italian myself, I couldn’t help but chuckle at this description of the Saint beginning a life of intense poverty, devotion, and service.
When St. Clare of Assisi sought a similarly intense spirituality, she ran away from home in the middle of the night. She left her aristocratic wealth and family ambitions behind, running directly to St. Francis. That very night, her hair was completely chopped off (as stories have it, by St. Francis himself) to reflect her commitment to a new life.
In honesty, I had summed these acts of Sts. Francis and Clare up as penitential Italian intensity. However, as I sat in the chapel at Casa San Salvador two weeks ago, the Lord suddenly stirred my heart to look up at the San Damiano Cross — the cross gazed at so often by Sts. Francis and Clare. I looked at Jesus Christ, so vulnerably and humiliatingly strewn upon the Cross. Hmm, not a subtle impact there, I thought.
I was in the chapel two weeks ago for a Formation session. We were asked to sit in prayer for one full hour, facing what we thought we could not face letting go of, and delve into what hurt us the most in regards to ultimately moving from home to mission for two years abroad.
I saw that I still deeply defined myself as a Michigander, as a Grand Rapidian, as part of my faith community there. I found meaning and worth through my relationships with family and friends there… All of these people and places would no longer be physically with me on mission. My breath caught in my chest. And yet, the Holy Spirit prompted me to dig even deeper.
I have been proudly and confidently proclaiming my plans for mission work for so long now, but yet I found myself asking: have I somewhere in my heart still held onto dreams of “normalcy?” In some small ways, I still desired to have a typical writing job, a nice apartment in Grand Rapids, to date, to go out with friends on the weekend, and be active in that faith community there. I was now holding my breath. “What is it time for you to let go of now?”
I realized I had been subconsciously holding onto this idea that, although I was making a monumental life-change by going on mission, somehow everything would still stay the same. Deep down, I had hoped my relationships, lifestyles, and desires would all stay static as I moved onto this next phase in life. The Lord began speaking to my heart: Things will not be the same. This is radical and bold. This is not a casual life-change.
Looking at the San Damiano Cross in the Chapel, I suddenly saw the authentic external expressions of the internal changes that occurred within Sts. Francis and Clare. A deeper understanding began dawning on me of the need for St. Francis to completely strip himself before the Lord and disown his past life; and, for St. Clare to run away in the middle of the night, and chop off the locks of her hair that tied her to her old life and old expectations.
Let go, the Holy Spirit whispered in my heart, Let go of yourself. Let go of who you think you are. Let go of what you think you want or what you need. Present yourself as a holy and living sacrifice before God.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1–2).
In the fervor of my prayer, I verbally offered myself, mind, body, and soul, completely to the Lord’s will. The Holy Spirit nudged me further: Are your worth and identity in God?
With my heart and soul, I verged on the answer of yes. St. Francis says: “Hold back nothing of yourselves, for yourselves, that He who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally.”
I was no longer feeling just a desire to go on mission, but an absolute need to fulfill this calling in my vocation. There was no going back, and I wouldn’t want to. I was ready to let go of my old expectations, old assumptions, and old self-identity.
When I exited the Chapel after one of the most intensive prayer hours I have ever spent, I sat with the other lay missioners, beaming from ear to ear, and tears brimming in my eyes. I was overwhelmed. “Tim,” I said, “Will you cut off my hair tonight?” He smiled, and without skipping a beat, agreed.
That very evening, I found myself in a chair with a gown around my neck. My long hair, once my pride and joy, rested on my back for the last time. My community members sat around me, and Tim, a hairdresser for over 30 years, began quietly snipping his scissors.
My hair fell to the floor and I imagined what St. Clare must have felt the night she ran away to begin her new life. As each strand of her hair fell to the ground, the possibilities of her returning to her old life fell with them. My eyes were moist with tears, and still I smiled. I prayed the words of St. Francis: “Lord, I am a stranger traveling in a brutal yet wondrous land — far from the promise of home, on a journey led by your hand to where the lion lies down with the lamb.”
Presenting myself naked before the Lord, open, ready, and willing … What will he clothe me in? I do not know, but I am ready to go, to be crafted and clothed into the daughter He has created me to be.