St. Francis of Assisi
The feast of St. Francis is approaching (October 4th), so let us reflect a bit on this remarkable figure. Like Milarepa in the Tibetan tradition, Francis stands out from all other saints within Christianity. Certainly Francis is much more than an ecclesially approved figure within Catholicism. He has been embraced by many Protestants, honored by the Dalai Lama, loved by many non-believers. (Yes, he is considered a deluded heretic by some Eastern Orthodox, but that is another problem to be discussed at another time.) Our ability to truly appreciate him and learn from him is handicapped by the fact that his lifestory has suffered from so many pious and romanticized overlays, so many narrow ecclesial viewpoints, so many omissions or contrivances. Just an example: The Franciscan Order commissioned St. Bonaventure to write a Life of Francis that would glorify the Order. He produced a highly imaginative, pious work. After Bonaventure completed his biography of Francis, a command went forth from the Franciscans that everything previously written about Francis was to be destroyed–even the writings by the founder’s closest friends. Fortunately, these orders were not completely carried out. And a modern Franciscan scholar, Octavian Schmucki, has put it strongly: “We must be wary of Bonaventure’s general untrustworthiness in handling historical data.” The best current biography on Francis is by Donald Spoto, entitled Reluctant Saint–on which we will draw for our reflection.
A. The historical and social context of holiness.
Francis was born in Assisi in 1182. Assisi today is a religious tourist town with a quaint medieval feel to it–at least in its narrow streets and its old architecture. However, seldom does a visitor have any sense of how hard and harsh life was in Assisi around 1200. As Spoto puts it: “Assisi was frequently referred to as a new Babylon, a place of wild debauchery, where murder and street fights to the death were commonplace. Revenge was considered a right, vendetta almost a sacred duty.”
But even apart from this, life was physically hard. People were vulnerable to epidemics of pneumonia, typhoid, malaria, tuberculosis, smallpox, scarlet fever, leprosy, plague, anthrax, trachoma, and a bunch of other exotic ailments coming into Europe from Asia and the Middle East. Leprosy was especially bad. Spoto: “Quarantine was the most effective tool against contagion. With their rotting limbs and oozing sores,…they were forced to live in the wilderness, and they could enter villages for food or alms only by sounding a warning with a clapper or bell that sent almost everyone fleeing.”
Sexual activity was also rife–even though the Church preached a strict sexual ethic. Francis was born to a relatively well-to-do family, the son of a merchant. As a young man he was what today might be called a “party animal.” Spoto: “Lavish in spending, Francis squandered everything on parties, feasts and revels….” More than that, the early friar Thomas of Celano put it like this. Francis was raised, “indulgently and carelessly…(participated in) shameful and detestable things full of excess and lewdness….and was steeped in every kind of debauchery.”
This begins to show where Francis started from–it gives no indication of where he ends up. And it is important to emphasize that his conversion was a long process and his transformation into St. Francis was a matter of a lifetime and not one event. However, that moment when the poor, crucified one addresses him is a key moment, rescuing him from chaos, and as Spoto puts it: “Francis had not only been lifted from the depths of depression, he had been lifted out of the prison of self.”
B. Leaving the Self.
There is a Sufi saying from Bastami(a great Iranian Sufi) that is pertinent here: “I stood with the pious and I didn’t find any progress with them. I stood with the warriors, and I didn’t find a single step of progress with them. Then I said, ‘O God, what is the way to you?’ And God said, ‘Leave yourself and come.'”
It is under this rubric of “leaving the self” that you can begin to understand the journey that Francis was undergoing. Now what can this possibly mean? How can you leave the self? There are different degrees or depths of this “leaving the self,” and we shall examine three concrete instances.
1. Stripping off the clothes
Scene: Francis, the recent playboy of Assisi, is standing before the bishop, before his parents, and before a large gathering of the citizens of Assisi in a public square. His father had a grievance against him–he had been giving his father’s money and possessions to the poor and toward the repair of a church. The bishop would adjudicate. The bishop tried to reconcile the son to the father. But Francis surprised and shocked them all. He approached the bishop: “My lord, I will gladly give back to my father not only the money acquired from his things, but even all my clothes.” With that Francis disrobed and stood naked before the whole crowd holding all his clothes with a cash purse placed on top of them. Francis turned to the crowd, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand. Until now, I have called Peter Bernardone my father. But because I have proposed to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so upset, and also all the clothing which is his, and I want only to say from now on, ‘Our Father, Who are in heaven, and not ‘My father, Peter Bernardone.'”
This is dramatic and deeply symbolic. Francis is leaving the self that is rooted in a human family with all its limitations but also its social security, its social standing and clear identity. It is not so much that he is rejecting his human father, but he is opting for a more mysterious, more profound, more unlimited sense of self than human social life can ever give. When he turns to “Our Father,” for his whole sense of his identity, he becomes brother to all creatures, and absolutely NO ONE and nothing is outside his family now. (This might remind us of that scene in the Gospels where Jesus is told that his mother and his brothers are waiting to see him, and he responds, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers? And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, Here are my mother and my brothers.”) And we must not underestimate how scary and insecure that was because he was cutting himself off from all kinds of social support and comfort. A refrain of his that was on his lips his whole life from now on sums it up: “Who are you, My God, and who am I…..” The mystery of God and the mystery of self merge into one mystery.
But there is perhaps a simpler aspect to this, and here let us listen to Spoto again: “It was not Francis’s nudity that startled the crowd; people in the Middle Ages had little shame about the body and sexuality…. That morning in the piazza, what did shock the Assisians was Francis’s willingness to make a complete break with his family, its structure, its security and its support. Nakedness was thus a powerful symbol of what Francis desired: freedom, without the burden of wordly goods or privileges….. He had always kept the ties of attachment to his family’s influence and money but now he was throwing in his lot with all those who had nothing–and in 1206, to have nothing meant literally to have nothing, not simply less. From that day, he would take his place with the disenfranchised, with the poor and with the Christ whom he had seen on the crucifix at San Damiano.” And all this against the backdrop of a society that is very similar to ours today in one very important respect. Spoto again: “Precisely at this time, money was becoming more than simply a social convention, a medium of economic exchange. People were beginning to pursue money as a primary goal; and the amount of money that one acquired determined one’s status in the community. Society in the 21st Century, in fact, operates on the same tacit assumption that began in the 13th–namely that money can indeed buy happiness, or at least rent it…. Francis’s era was the first time in history, since the Roman Empire, that costly items were purchased for no other purpose than to publicize the surplus wealth of the owner–and these items were for the most part, clothes.”
Now in “leaving the self,” whether it be in the social sense or in the deeper identity sense, Francis is not left with a vacuum. In at first a dim way, he begins to realize St. Paul’s famous words: “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.” This is a sense of identity that is beyond words.
2. Kissing the leper
This moment of “leaving the self” follows closely upon the heels of the one above. Francis is still in the early stages of his conversion. Francis had already “given” food and stuff to lepers and others afflicted with horrible diseases who were prevalent on the medieval roads. Like other people with a decent heart, he had flung his benefaction toward the lepers. It is like today a well-off person sitting in his/her suburban home and writing a check to their favorite charity.
Now we have to appreciate what this next gesture means by using our imagination a bit. Think of the physical revulsion the lepers produced–people would flee when they approached. No one would come close. Imagine the hideous smell of the rotting flesh, the oozing sores, the horrible disfigurement. All your senses tell you to go the other way. Francis encounters such a leper on the road. This time he has no money, even no food–he has been reduced to begging like them. But he gives this man the one thing he still has: his humanity, his human compassion. He embraces him, he gives some sympathetic words, a bit of human comfort–something that no one else had given him. Spoto: “With this single act of charity, Francis was apparently transformed, for when he returned to Umbria he not only resumed his restoration of San Damiano but also began to nurse lepers, a task rarely undertaken by anyone.”
Make no mistake about this–Francis was a young man of refined sensibility and his senses would have been totally rebelling against being close to these people, but now he was drawing strength from a deeper sense of identity than anything his senses could provide. “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.”
3. Perfect Joy
Now we come to an account that is not historically verifiable, but one that, like the Desert Father stories, is perfectly consistent with what we know of the life of Francis and illustrative of something very important that Francis is teaching us. We now come to a new depth and a final stage of “leaving the self”–the last holdout of the ego self as it takes comfort in what other people say about one. In other words, the ego self’s reality and well-being is contingent upon the approval the ego self receives from others. We call this “happiness”–because we are approved, affirmed, seen as successful, fulfilled, accepted, yes, loved, etc.
We find Francis on the road with one of the men who has joined him in this new life very early on–Br. Leo. Francis, almost like a Zen Master, lays a trap for Leo within his own mind, within his own thinking processes and values–he presents Leo with the notion of perfect joy and then he turns Leo’s world upside down as Leo tries to understand that notion.
It is winter and the two of them are cold and walking and suddenly Francis says to Leo,”Brother, if it were to please God that the friars should give in all lands, a great example of holiness and edification, write down and note carefully, this would not be perfect joy.”
They walk on, and Francis added, “Br. Leo, if the friars were to make the lame to walk, if they should make straight the crooked, chase away demons, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, and, what is even a far greater work, if they should raise the dead after four days, write that this would not be perfect joy.”
Francis continues like this, pointing out a whole litany of places where perfect joy would not be found. The last one: “Br. Leo, even if a brother could preach in a way that converted all the infidels of the world, nonetheless, this would not be perfect joy.”
Now it is important to see this litany of situations where perfect joy CANNOT be found as being particularly pertinent to Br. Leo and his mindset and values. His ego would take refuge in the kinds of situations that Francis outlines and then pulls the rug out from under them. Each of us would have our own litany of situations that we think would give us perfect joy–and of course there would be certain commonalities between all our idealized situations, but there would be this unique particular quality to our own list where our ego would want to take refuge. And here Francis has become a Master Teacher of the spiritual life–he is uprooting the places in Leo’s heart where the ego would take refuge. Never mind that these situations considered in abstraction would be considered a “good.” What is important is what is going on in Leo’s heart, and Francis is inviting him to a “leaving of the self” that is tailored to the mindset of Leo.
So, finally, the exasperated Leo pleads with Francis, “Father, I beg you in God’s name, tell what perfect joy is.” He recognizes that his view of things is being challenged.
Francis responds, “If, when we shall arrive at our destination, all wet with rain and trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger, if, when we knock at the gate, the porter should come angrily and ask us who we are; if, after we have told him, ‘We are two of the brethren,’ he should answer angrily, ‘What you say is a lie. You are two imposters going about deceiving the world,…begone I say.’ If then he refuses to open to us, and leaves us outside, exposed to the snow and rain, suffering from cold and hunger until nightfall, then, if we accept such injustice, such cruelty and contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, believing with humility and charity that the porter really knows us, and that it is God who makes him to speak thus against us, write down, Brother Leo: This is perfect joy.”
Francis continues: “If we continue to knock and he comes back out in a rage and sends us away with curses and blows, screaming at us, ‘Get out of here, you bums, and go to the public hospice, for there is neither bread nor board for you here.’ And we take all that with patience, happiness, and pure love–Brother Leo, mark that down as perfect joy.”
This is a truncated version of the account, but you get the point. Now you must confess how you get the “warm fuzzies” when you are praised or affirmed; and how hurt or angry you feel when someone speaks ill of you or acts angrily toward you. This is a stimulus response mode of life–meaning that one simply responds to the latest stimulus that one’s sensibility receives, You cut me; I bleed–to put it simply and crudely. Or as one spiritual guide put it: Some people are as good as their last cup of coffee. Francis is trying to lead Leo to a liberation from a stimulus-response mode of life, even if it is wrapped in a whole bunch of religious values. He is inviting him to a “leaving of the self”–even if that self is decked out in religious self-images.The Dalai Lama has made this point: the absolutely most precious person in your life is the one who shows you hostility, who doesn’t like you, who gives you a hard time, etc. Why? Because it is this person who shows you the condition of your own heart and opens up the opportunity for “leaving the self.” The thing is, and every spiritual tradition attests to this, that adversity is a special gift and a special moment. And for a Christian, then, it is not only a liberation from the stranglehold of the ego self, but a new realization: “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.” Everything looks different then; every act and every moment take on unspeakable meaning.
At the end it is important to note how much Francis suffered both physically and in terms of disappointment. To be holy does not mean walking about with a state of bliss in one’s heart. Quite the contrary. As his life unfolded, day by day there was suffering of various kinds. First of all, his body was ravaged by various diseases. He suffered from a debilitating maleria his whole adult life. Then he developed trachoma in his eyes. Puss would ooze from his eyes in the later stages, and sunlight or fire light would hurt his eyes. Then modern medical analysis says that he probably was suffering from liver cancer the last two years of his life. He could hardly keep any food down during the final year of life. On top of all that he had contracted leprosy by being in close contact with lepers–he had oozing sores all over his body. And yet it was precisely near the very end when this crescendo of misery was upon him that he composed the famous Canticle where he calls upon all creation as “brother” and “sister” in a glorious praise of a God who is beyond all imagining but whose mysterious face we can behold in the Crucified One. Something to ponder.
Then there is this thing: Francis was basically a failure in bringing about his vision. For certain he saw himself that way–and it was an obvious burden on his psyche. The group that had formed around him grew and grew until it developed its own dynamism but its values were not essentially the values of Francis. He had envisioned a much more radical, innovative living out of the Gospel, but what came about was just a little different than what was already there. Present day Franciscans are only tangentially connected to St. Francis. And a very interesting comparison can be made with Gandhi and his relationship to India. Gandhi also envisioned a total transformation of life for the Indian people–basically, in his view, India should be a collection of a 100,000 or so communes or small villages where spirituality and crafts and farming would be predominant and people would live very simply. Well, India became a modern state; it has Walmarts; it has nukes, etc. And young Indians are hardly really interested in Gandhi’s way of life–they are more enamored with the West’s technical and financial wizardry. Gandhi also died seeing himself as a failure.
And obviously we have not touched on some classic themes in Francis’s life and some important incidents. The theme of poverty deserves an extensive reflection at a later date, but let us simply look at one example. It involved the group of women who formed their own community under the inspiration of the example of Francis. Spoto: “The women had been offered some property that Clare wanted to refuse but some of the nuns felt should be accepted, and she asked her old mentor to preach to them. Frail, sickly and in spiritual darkness over the future of his fraternity, Francis entered the convent and took a seat amid the nuns. Clare, who had rarely seen him in recent years, was stricken by his appearance: his color was waxen, his limbs, rail-thin, and his abdomen swollen. The malarial microbe had enlarged his liver and spleen, and now a day barely passed without severe abdominal pain and dyspepsia that made eating extremely difficult…. Francis had brought a bowl of ashes, which he sprinkled on his head and in a circle around him. Then without having uttered a word, he bowed to the nuns and departed. That was his sermon…. The following day not one sister voted to alter their life of radical poverty by accepting the gift of land.” Spoken like a Zen Master!!
Then there is that revolutionary gesture on Francis’s part in undertaking a peace mission to the Moslem forces in the Holy Land, while his contemporaries, the Christian Crusaders, were butchering people left and right. Francis not only stands out from them, but he also stands out from other saints of that era, like the famous St. Bernard, who is highly regarded as a mystic but who preached a crusade and urged Christians to slaughter the Moslems. We will have to reflect on this later.
And finally a word about Francis’s prayer. Here again we will let Spoto have the last word: “This is perhaps the deepest form of prayer: a silent turning of the self toward God in acknowledgment of one’s emptiness and impotence–the realization that one is helpless to effect one’s own enlightenment or salvation. This perhaps the deepest form of poverty: the conviction that one is completely contingent, dependent in the core of one’s being on God, Who acts only mercifully, only on our behalf.”