Monthly Archives: March 2015

St. Francis: Before and After

While the life of St. Francis as we know it is a pastiche of a few facts and a lot of myths, everyone agrees that he went through a series of profound and wrenching experiences that lead to a radical change of his values and his way of life.  There are two sculptures here in Assisi that capture his process of conversion in ways that I find graphic and moving.  In front of the main Basilica we see this:

image

and at the lovely church/hermitage of San Damiano we see this:

image

The broken man on the horse represents Francis returning to Assisi in shame after renouncing his glorious dreams of military adventure.  Two years earlier, he had been on the losing side of a bloody battle between the cities of Assisi and Perugia, and after seeing many of his friends hacked to pieces, he was imprisoned in a dungeon for a year before his father managed to raise his ransom.  Some modern authors assert that Francis suffered from a form of PTSD that sent him into a dark night of questioning his very identity. He was 22 years old.

After a period of intense soul searching, he attempted to recapture his sense of who he was by enlisting in another military campaign heading to the South of Italy. He got only as far as Spoleto, a town just a few miles away from Assisi.  Here he had a deep realization that the world in which he was living was topsy-turvy.  Most people who called themselves Christian had little use for the teachings of Jesus that encouraged peace and poverty of spirit.  Love of enemies and living a simple life with trust in the Divine seemed to be values honored in words but mocked in daily life.

Thus he turned his back on his upper middle class life, and decided that one was either a Christian or not.  Cherry picking the Gospels seemed a betrayal that was rampant in the 13th century–from the top down.  There were many movements of religious awakening in those days, such as the Cathars and the Waldensians, but for reasons I will pursue in another essay, they were ultimately condemned by the institutional church and many of their adherents were burned at the stake.  Francis himself escaped this fate although some of his most faithful followers were executed after his death.  But that is another story.

For now, let us simply remember that he managed to remain a faithful Catholic and went about his Father’s business of love and healing.  Much is made of his extreme asceticism and life of poverty, but this could be an exaggeration intended to idealize his sainthood by his early biographers.  He was certainly more ascetic than I would wish to be, but I think his most characteristic and charismatic feature was his unwavering love for God and human beings and nature.  Given the context of the 13th century, I think it is this Love that set him apart, and called over 5000 followers to his community in a very few years.  It is this love and peace that I see in the sculpture at San Damiano.  His journey to that beautiful place–both in Assisi and in his own heart–was not an easy one. But look again at the picture.  Is there anywhere else you would rather be?

A New Friend

image

Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-1968) is a new discovery for me, but he is one of Italy’s most famous poets.  His most popular poem is especially significant today as we witness a solar eclipse here in Europe.  It is also a poignant evocation for me of the passing of life in a wondrous blink of the eye:

Ognuno sta solo sul cuor del terra

trafitto da un raggio di sole

ed e subito sera

Everyone is alone on the heart of the earth

pierced by a ray of sun

and suddenly it is evening

Pilgrimage to Assisi

francis

Today Carolyn and I leave for Rome and then Assisi.  We will continue to study Italian, and I will be sharing some insights into the religious and political milieu of the 13th century with a lovely group of pilgrims.  My intention is simply to keep my mind as alert as possible, and my heart as open as possible.  I want to remember an insight of Dawna Markova: “What you love reveals its loveliness.”

St. Francis was clearly a remarkable human being.  Remarkable in his absolute commitment to live his beliefs, his wholehearted embrace of suffering humanity, and in his unstinting love of Nature.  He was a human being in that his path was not one of unremitting sweetness and light. His relationship with his father was turbulent, his experience in war was traumatic, he felt the burden of leadership as onerous, and finally a vast number of his followers could not be faithful to his vision.    Karen Armstrong says that the magnificent basilica that houses his body in Assisi was actually the final and perhaps greatest betrayal of his life.  Even the famous Peace Prayer attributed to him was not written until the 19th century by an anonymous author.

I plan to write a series of essays while in Italy to unpack these varying eddies in the the life of Francis, and to reflect on their relevance to life in the 21st century.  I am sure Francis would echo the sentiment expressed in “his” famous prayer:  May we all be instruments of Divine Peace.

a presto

A Lived Life

Lotus

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”   This is perhaps the most famous statement Socrates ever made.  One day many years ago, as I was teaching this section of Plato’s dialogues, it occurred to me in a flash that the opposite was also true: The unlived life is not worth examining.  I went on to share this thought with my students: so many people spend their time on earth worrying about life after death and adjusting their beliefs and behaviors to accommodate this worry.  But the far more important and relevant question, it seems to me, is “is there life before death?”

For our morning reading this month, Carolyn and I are enjoying a lovely book by Dawna Markova entitled “I will not die an unlived life.”  This woman expresses her hard won wisdom with a beauty that flows deeply into the soul.  She shares an inspiring vision of living an undivided life with love and passion and grace.

In our reading this morning, Dawna told a story I found fascinating.  She and her husband had been invited to India to visit with the Dalai Lama.  Upon arriving, she was told to ignore the beggars and this she did, closing her heart as she made her way to Dharamsala.  As she entered her guest house, she realized her body had become tight and protected and her heart felt small.  She was then told that the Dalai Lama was ill and could not see her, and that she would have to settle with an audience with a Rinpoche.  Disappointed and depressed, she walked out into a grey world,  and immediately met a small beggar girl who had clearly suffered from leprosy.  Dawna’s heart melted as she scooped the girl into her arms and sang to her a song of love.  Dawna continues:

“This little brown child, whose name I will never know, broke my heart so wide open that it could have contained the whole world.  From her I learned that passion is a river. … It creates the desire to reach, to pass on to the world what you love.  And through that opening, the world passes into you.”  That little girl became one of Dawna’s inner advisors: “and each reminds me that even in the moments when I feel the most helpless to ’do’ or fix or help, I can still, always, love in simple and ultimate ways.  I can let in, let be, or be with, opening and experiencing what life brings to me.”

Her words alone shine a light on what it means to live life.  A further thought occurs to me, however.  Dawna had traveled halfway around the world to meet with a justly famous spiritual teacher who became unavailable. Then on a dusty road she met a small brown angel who became one of her  greatest teachers.  We never know where, or in what form, grace is waiting for us.  I want to remember to pay attention, and to trust that every door that closes is moving me toward another unexpected blessing-in-disguise.