Living into a new way of being: spending time with St Francis

Naming God: who we are before God

This is the second of three talks given for a St Francis Day retreat this year at the Church of the Resurrection, Mount Macedon.

Praises of God

1. you are holy, the only God who does wonder

2. you are strong

3. you are great

4. you are the most high

5. are all-powerful

6. you holy father, king of heaven and earth

7. you are three and one, Lord God of gods

8. you are the good, all good, supreme good, Lord God living and true

9. you are love

10. you are wisdom

11. you are humility

12. you are patience

13. you are beauty

14. you are meekness

15. you are security

16. you are quietude

17. you are joy and gladness

18. you are our hope

19. you are justice

20. you are temperance

21. you are all our riches at sufficiency

22. you are beauty

23. you are meekness

24. you are the protector

25. you are the guardian and the defender

26. you are our strength

27. you are our refuge

28. you are our hope

29. you are our faith

30. you are our charity

31. you are our sweetness

32. you are our eternal life

33. Great and wondrous Lord God almighty merciful saviour

The Praises of God, or chartula as Br Leo (a close Brother of St Francis) called it, was written on a piece of goat skin parchment about 10cm wide by 13.5cm high. This poem is in halting Latin with dark brown ink and laid out over sixteen lines. On the other side again in Caroline minuscule script is the rendering of a blessing from the Book of Numbers:

May the Lord bless you and guard you,

May he show you his face and have mercy on you,

May he turn his countenance to you and give you peace.

The blessing is addressed to Br Leo and signed with the Tau cross - a cross in the form of a T - by Francis who regularly signed this way. In addition on the parchment, in red ink and a different hand, are lines by Br Leo, who identifies himself and explains how the poem came to be written by Francis. The chartula has been folded twice and forms a small rectangle.

St Francis wrote this prayer, The Praises of God, while on a 40-day retreat from August 15th (Feast of the Assumption) to September 29th (feast of St Michael and All Angels) in 1224 at La Vergna. Some hagiographers believed that he wrote the praises to comfort Br Leo in response to a spiritual crisis that he was experiencing, but Br Leo writes that the words were written by Francis in gratitude for the vision of an Angel and the impression of Christ’s stigmata on his body. Br Leo kept this parchment till his death around 1271. (For a more detailed and fascinating explanation of the Chartula see: The Autographs of Brother Francis, Jean-Francois Godet-Calogeras in The Writings of Francis of Assisi, Letters and Prayers, Ed by Blastic, Hammond & Hellman, 2011, Franciscan Institute Publications P52-81)

Rather than choosing one or two of these names of God to reflect on, this prayer invites me to ponder the plurality of names given to God and qualities ascribed to God. For me it prompts the question: what place can a person - and here in particular, a saint - go to where the nature of God is understood and praised in such a varied way and yet remain one God?

Soon after his conversion before the crucifix Francis begged the old Benedictine priest living in that church that he be able to ‘stay for the Lord’s sake.’ (A Mended and Broken Heart, Wendy Murray, Basic Books, 2008, p58) The priest relented. So, in 1206 Francis Bernadone became an oblate under the protection of the church, and at that time was thereby subject to its jurisdiction, rather than the civil one. But dad, Pietro di Bernadone, continued to demand return of his money from Francis. He now pursued Francis using the authority of the Church and brought down legal action. A trial was subsequently held before Bishop Guido.

Amongst the early documents about this trial are these words addressed to Francis from the Bishop: “Your father is infuriated and extremely scandalised. If you wish to serve God, return him the money you have, because God does not want you to spend your money unjustly acquired on the work of the church. (Your father’s) anger will abate when he gets the money back. My son, have confidence in the Lord and act courageously…”

St Francis acted courageously, but in a different way from expected. He responded:

‘My Lord, I will gladly give back not only the money acquired from his things, but even all my clothes.' And going to one of the bishop’s rooms, he took off all his clothes, and, putting the money on top of them, came out naked before the bishop, his father, and all the bystanders, and said: 'Listen to me, all of you, and understand. Until now I have called Pietro di Bernadone 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, wanting to say from now on: “Our Father who is in heaven,” and not “My father, Pietro di Bernadone.”'

(A Mended and Broken Heart, Wendy Murray, Basic Books, 2008, p64)

Is Francis here simply substituting one father figure for another? His biological one for a spiritual one? Perhaps, on one level yes. But here was a Father ‘in heaven’ who did not encumber him with the obligation to be a well-bred, happily married and successful son of a merchant. Here was a Father who released love in his heart and furthered for him a path that made sense for him personally. St Francis has often been described as a Holy Fool: someone so single-minded in pursuit of sharing the love of God with others that she or he is oblivious to social boundaries and norms that the rest of us take for granted. Holy Fools are prepared to act in ways that make them vulnerable to ridicule and derision. But with St Francis these actions were startling in their symbolic meaning. By stripping himself naked and proclaiming his Father now to be ‘my Father who art in heaven’ and no longer Pietro di Bernadone, he was externalising an inner reality that he had already come to terms with.

The words of this poem about St Francis by Clive Sansom, written in 1981, illustrate something of this quality in St Francis:

God’s Troubadours

by Clive Sansom

Brothers! We are the Troubadours of God,

Wandering, singing his praises to the world.

Our theme is love: we sing our love of him

And all that he created, from the Sun

To the lowliest earthworm, tunnelling from the Sun.

Our theme is love: we sing God’s love for us -

For Man, this tarnished sun, this glorious worm

Who is redeemed by Christ. Our theme is love:

Our song is to the cities of the plain,

To vines and olive-groves, until God willing,

We send it hurtling through the courts of Heaven!

We are his jongleurs too - jesters and jugglers,

Mountebanks of God! - Not saints for whom

The world turned upside down. It turns for us

Because we turn. We leap and somersault,

Head-over-heals in love. So, in our eyes,

The world has turned: its values are inverted.

Our poverty is wealth, obedience

Is freedom, giving is receiving, and

This topsy-turveydom is Christendom:

Our song made visible. Brothers, we are

Minstrels and tumblers to our Lord and King!

(From Francis of Assisi, Clive Sansom, Cat & Fiddle Press, Hobart, 1981)

To live in the way of St Francis is to begin to see that the processes of Love invert the values of the world. The world becomes a ‘topsy turveydom’ - ‘poverty is wealth’ and ‘giving is receiving’. Richard Rohr asserts that ‘In Francis as in Jesus the turnaround consciousness was complete: the enemy of the small self became a friend of the soul, and he who lost his small life could find his Great Life. Only such a new person can take on social illnesses of our time, or any time, and not be destroyed by cynicism.’ (Eager to Love, Richard Rohr, Franciscan Media, 2014, P158)

For St Francis the Gospel message most importantly was not a ‘head thing’ but had to be embodied. Francis wrote The Praises of God prayer sometime after he had briefly befriended the Sultan Malek Kemel. Francis lived in a period of great crusades and he could see that the Papal forces were doomed. Finding his advice ignored Francis, with a few brothers, stowed away on a ship and paid a visit to the Sultan in a spirit of reconciliation. It was an audacious act and at personal cost. Initially affronted, the Sultan was quickly won over by Francis’ wit and desire for peace. Francis himself was open to learning about the Muslim faith. This prayer of Praise itself has been composed in Islamic form. The prayer itself would have helped both Br Leo and St Francis focus their thoughts on the many different faces of God, and reminded them how our Christian God finds ways to speak into even the most acute suffering. God meets our needs through thick and thin, and God can also choose to speak to us even through other religions.

But what was the lifelong source for St Francis which nourished such a turned around consciousness? Where did St Francis go to re-source himself and can we possibly go there in our own times?

There are clues in his letters to his brothers and the Rule for his Order. His first rule, sometimes known as the ‘primitive rule’ we no longer have. Towards the end of his life in 1221 when some of the intentions of the earlier version were difficult to maintain in the Order because of rapidly growing numbers, and also Francis felt that many brothers were beginning to lose their way, he wrote the Rule of the Order of Penance, or the Third Order. It picked up on the intentions of the first rule but broadened them. The intention of the Rule was to live life in imitation of Christ. ‘Francis does not really provide many systematic answers to theological questions as much as he is a living answer to those who are asking the right questions.’ (Eager to Love, Richard Rohr, Franciscan Media, 2014, P164)

With a small group of Brothers, Francis wandered helping the poor and offering work in exchange for food, and also spent solitary time in the hills fasting and praying. They owned nothing and travelled far. Obedience was very important. And for St Francis, unlike some other Rules, obedience meant, first and foremost, to Christ in our hearts, not obedience to an abbot.

By choosing a life of radical poverty, St Francis was laying his life bare in its needs before God. The God of Love was central to this poverty, not self, not social norms. The brothers built hermitages, on land they did not own. Francis taught the life of ‘littleness’, being ‘lesser brothers’ within a larger church. The hermitage communities were small, each monk having his own hermitage, and three or four hermitages at most were to be grouped together. The balance between silence and proper speech, between solitariness and community, was maintained by the rhythm of the saying of the offices and coming together at mealtimes.

Initially this small group of radicals were derided, but over time gained respect and admiration. They gained more and more followers. Though the guidelines were minimal, Francis was quick, to correct any idleness in contemplatives, and warned then against the abuses of ‘holy poverty’ - ‘the friars should always wander as pilgrims in the cloister of the world within the cell of their bodies.’ He himself not only continued to struggle with his health, later receiving hot cauterising treatment for incipient blindness, but increasingly he struggled with the overwhelming growth of his order an