Monday, September 28, 2015

The Solemnity of St. Francis: 2015

I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes.

I certainly have not read every book that has been written about St. Francis; I doubt that anyone has. But I think the best book about him remains  G.K. Chesterton’s. Not that the book is easy going, at least for me. Paradox upon paradox upon paradox. Reading Chesterton gives me a headache.  But Chesterton himself is a paradox. It takes one to know one. The strange thing about his book on St. Francis, like the one on St. Thomas Aquinas, is that despite the fact that there are plenty of other books about St. Francis that will provide you with many more historical details, Chesterton seems to have penetrated to the essential and indispensable truth about Francis: "It is the highest and holiest of the paradoxes that the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be forever paying it."

The fact that St. Francis has often been misunderstood is nothing but testimony to his determination as he said in the First Rule of the Friars Minor ‘to follow the doctrine and footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Everyone has their own Jesus so everyone will have their own Francis. But it is that ‘holiest and highest paradox’ which leads us to the  real Francis: ‘the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be forever paying it’.

I suppose the first thing that most people like about St. Francis is his love of animals and then maybe they imagine that he was a kind of 12th Century version of Green Peace. He in fact did not love animals; what he loved was creatures. Along with furry, winged, creeping things  he loved Brother Sun and Sister Moon and most extraordinary of all Sister Death. Why? Because all these created things pointed him to the Creator of all things.

St. Francis has been deemed the patron saint of Ecology but he also was once considered  the patron saint of Italian Fascism. It is probably better not to think of Francis in terms of  a patron saint. In any case  he knew as well, if not better, than any 12th century scholastic philosopher that nothing created is permanent: it comes into being and goes out of being. Strictly speaking only God is:  unchanging, without beginning or end, unmoved all motion’s source.   Which is precisely why he could embrace Lady Poverty. Created things are to be loved as what they are: breadcrumbs leading us back to their Creator. They are gifts from God but don’t try to stand on them because they won’t hold the weight and before you know it the wind will blow them away. His fellow friars observed that the constant prayer of Francis, what he always seemed to be muttering to himself,  was Deus meus et omnia – ‘My God and My All’.

Another really strange idea that modern folks have about St. Francis is that he was constantly at odds with the Church. But the Church was also a gift.  Another gift, another debt. In fact the century in which St. Francis lived was a century of ecclesiastical reform headed not by someone nailing an ultimatum on a Church door but by Pope Innocent III himself. What the Pope effected through reform of canon law St. Francis effected through his life. St. Francis did nothing without papal approval. The Office and Mass that he insisted his friars use was that of the Roman Curia. It surprises me that they even allow Anglican churches to be named after him. Francis had what one is bound to say is an embarrassing reverence for priests, not because he refused to recognize clerical misbehavior but because he believed what the Church believed about priests: He said to priests: ‘Look at your dignity, you brothers who are priests, and be holy since He is holy. And ‘God gave me such  faith and continues to give me such faith that even if priests were to persecute me I would have recourse to them.’ ‘If it should happen that I would meet at the same time some saint from heaven and any poor priest, I would first show honor to the priest and quickly go to kiss his hands’.  One more gift and more mounting debt.

In line with this was St. Francis’ love of the Blessed Sacrament and his promotion of Eucharistic devotion: In a letter he writes to the friars throughout the world: “Let the whole world tremble; let heaven exult when Christ, the Son of the Living God, is on the altar in the hands of the priest. O admirable height and stupendous condescension! O humble sublimity! that the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under a morsel of bread.”

But, finally  what most discredits the imaginary Francis is his love of the Cross.  Francis, when asked what is the greatest joy, replied to be rejected by your brothers, for them to say "we don't know you, go away". This sounds like madness until we remember that this is exactly what happened to Jesus. Jesus said in the same breath "I must go to Jerusalem' and "So must you." 

The reason I think that Jesus granted to Francis the stigmata, the marks of the Lord’s passion on his hands and feet and side, is that he knew that this saint would run the danger of being to folks just a warm and cuddly kind of guy. Maybe not so much with oozing wounds. But for St. Francis like St. Paul, who also says that in his body he bears the marks of Jesus Christ: the greatest debt that we owe God is the death of his Son. ‘Far be from me to glory except in the Cross of Lord Jesus Christ’. That is the debt that we cannot pay but must be forever paying.

So how do we do that -- paying forever the debt that cannot be paid. Just like St. Francis did, as he said on his deathbed : "Let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord God, for up until now we have done little or nothing.” Always be ready to begin again.

I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes.

1 comment:

LSP said...

I think the first Franciscans to arrive in England were arrested as tramps, curiously.

A little Chesterton goes a long way.