Wednesday, 2 December 2015

St Francis, extremists, and 'good soil'

When I started the brainstorming for this blog post it was the 4th of October this year (believe it or not) and this is the feast day of my namesake St Francis of Assisi. He's quite famous, you may know that the current Pope also chose his name with the 12-13th century Italian reformer in mind, or that he wore a brown thing, maybe you know that he liked nature, or that he supposedly tamed a wolf by talking to it and making a favourable arrangement. I will write part of this blog* post around his life and trail off from there though in a series of major digressions. I don't seek to rewrite my own version of events because there's already plenty of information out there. The Wikipedia  page regarding St Francis' life story is an excellent and not overly wordy overview of his life for the curious, and includes many of the stories about his life which form a the bulk of our historical knowledge concerning St Francis. There is a good article: here, which like me tries to infer something of St Francis' character. One may also access many of his own writings which are wonderfully concise, and make for good reading. I will include some extracts here.

When looking at anecdotal evidence such as we have of St Francis one way historians consider it's validity is to check whether any information we can glean from it is consistent, for instance if the most reliable of sources indicate that Julius Ceaser was a brilliant military general (for the most part) we would treat any story that indicates he was a blunderer with suspicion. In general I think the more verifiable stories of St Francis' life along with many of the far-fetched sounding ones have a common thread in St Francis' character at least in his later years following his turn from hedonism. For instance both the story of the Nativity scene and his devotion to the communion (Eucharist) indicate he sought a close sensate connection with Jesus so too does the tale of the appearance of the visible stigmata. His writings indicate he wasn't overly scholarly or verbose, and so does his apparent disdain for book learning according to some sources. What I find most intriguing though is his apparent literal-mindedness - and his absolute, extreme dedication to the principals he founded his life on. His 'Regula non bullata' and 'Regula bullata' allegedly come from a reading of Matthew 10 in the Chapel of St Mary of the Angels outside of Assisi that he immediately took literally by removing everything he owned (including his sandals and staff) bar his 'habit' (the tatty brown cloak he is always depicted in), his dogged pursuit of missions to preach the Gospel to 'the Saracen' including a visit to the Sultan al Kamil a descendant of Saladin, and so on, are all examples of this. Whether you think he was possibly quite mad or the most dedicated radical Christian since the early church (or both) it is fair to say I think, that St Francis was an 'extremist' or a 'fanatic', but also a good one - and conclusive proof this is possible and admirable.

So perhaps in the vein of my attempts to 'reclaim' the word 'faith' or remind people of it's real meaning in context, I think I can do the same for 'extremist'. It simply means someone that takes extreme beliefs or rules seriously and usually acts accordingly. It is often the case that 'extremism' is negative, granted, but I see this as an inevitable result of inconsistency in those beliefs. For instance if your literal reading of Genesis 1 is more important to you than living out your life with love for those around you (c.f. inherit the wind), or if your Bible related homophobia is more important than humility and respect then you are likely to run into inconsistency trouble as the latter values are also scriptural and trump the former.

As an aside the example of St Francis lends itself to a positive retort to this really one-sided web-comic. On the other hand I agree with part of the sentiment of the oatmeal - I have heard some of my friends of a similar mind to the 'atheists extremists' in the comic labelled as 'militant atheists' or people like Richard Dawkins labelled as 'extremists' when I'm not sure they are, sure they aren't maybe agnostic atheists since they may believe 'there is very probably no God' (not the same as 'there is no proof there is a God'), but I find this belief relatively tame in the scheme of things. If we were to find actual recent examples of Atheistic extremism in action it would probably be closer to the persecution of Christians during the Soviet regime of the continued suppression of Falun Gong in China... " 'lets go make our state aim the elimination of Religions and those who uphold them' ; 'ok then' ". This is another obvious contradiction of values in a kind of extremism; in short anti-religious Marxism by seeking to elevate the condition of the working class through removing the opiate that is religion oppresses the religious working class. But in the end there's no reason why there cannot be morally good atheistic extremists also. But I digress - if this interests you or you wish to haggle some point comment below.

Speaking of Extremism a number of 'Christian' websites can be to be found purporting to be exposing the heresy of Authors C.S Lewis and Tolkein, even though they were openly Christian (oh and there's a couple at least for Mother Teresa, and some atheist websites who think she belonged in their camp) and in many families 'The Lord of the Rings' series along with the 'Harry Potter' series are considered at least 'dangerous for children to read', because of its references to wizardry and witchcraft. Perhaps these same people would have a problem with the 'pagan' tone in St Francis' 'Canticle of the Creatures' - his prayer which I will include because it is really cool:

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.

Oddly enough there is another really nice prayer the so called 'Prayer of St Francis' which is not by St Francis even though it is given this heading in many Churches today. In fact he may well be among the most misquoted of people; since he also didn't say 'preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary'. The prayer actually first appeared as 'a beautiful prayer to say during Mass' in 1912 in 'La Clochette' a small French prayer bulletin, but it's also very nice. This prayer does probably represent the actively charitable nature of St Francis' spirit. This is one English translation:

Lord, make me an instrument of thy 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;
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;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

This reminds me of the parable of the sower Matt 13:1-24 where the sown seed is the word of God, and the rich soil is what is needed to grow a good crop and yield - for the word to be properly understood and applied. Combining these two was perhaps never intended, but the conclusion is interesting. What if perhaps the 'good soil' (conducive to spiritual growth) is in fact 'hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness and sadness'? Analogously manure and things we humans would think of as gross make plants grow, and good soil for plants is usually dark, crumbly and smells a bit. Wouldn't it be counter-intuitive and very much like St Francis to seek to live amongst the reality of poverty and death to properly understand Jesus' word and imitate his actions in Jesus' own way? If that was his goal, wasn't he rather successful?

*My spell checker in Blogger also thinks 'blog' and 'blogger' are spelling mistakes I appreciate the irony, though I am aware it's short for 'weblog' which it says is not in error.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Francis,
    It would be hard to pick a better man to be named after, unless of course it was Jesus, as many Hispanics share. Your argument is a good one, but I wonder if extremist or fanatic carry too much baggage to be helpful in the conversation. I wonder about 'radical' which has something of going to the roots and acting upon it. But even that word gets a bit of a bad press. In the days of Islamist youth in the forefront of the media, 'extremist' certainly has negative overtones. As for atheists, are they not firstly human beings? So your positive take on them I heartily agree with. However, perhaps like Hindus, or Muslims they lack a unified voice. Richard Dawkins presents a view that is somewhat passe (I don't know how to make an acute mark in this format) and he delves into areas, like the exegetical studies of the Scriptures, beyond his expertise and it shows. Even if Christians are divided, a leader like Francis, bishop of Rome, as he likes to be known, can speak for those who consider themselves disciples of Christ whatever their tradition or denomination. Alain de Bouton has a book worth the read: "Religion for Athiests: a non-believer's guide to the uses of religion". He notes with a veritable lack of bias, some advantages that religion brings to humankind and its various cultural and social expressions
    It makes me wonder why 'religion' gets such a negative review when the word in its origin is all about connections and reconnecting, ultimately with Something, or some Higher Power, something much greater than our tiny selves. What people are probably really dismissive about is not religion per se, but its institutionalization, where the will to power and greed get hold of the message for their own ends.
    In all then, I think your blog is a worthwhile contribution not only to your stance on life, but to the conversation about meaning and ultimate values which must in the end, as the poor man of Assisi intuits, include the Transcendent.