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 and the challenges that this brought about. He resigned from being head of the Order in 1220.

I want to slightly change gear here for a moment. In a lecture on Faith and Human Flourishing (See online - Faith and Human Flourishing: Religious Beliefs and Ideals and Maturity? - Humanitas: Visiting Professorships at the University of Oxford and Cambridge 2013-14), Rowan Williams spoke about the tension in our lives between dependence and autonomy. We are all in varying degrees, dependent on one another, as on God. Yet, we also seek autonomy, we desire self-sufficiency. To talk about our dependence and our autonomy is vastly different when we grow into the divine life compared to how they can be measured in terms of power and will in human relationships. Life lived in God is not constricted to processes of passions and instinct, or coercion and control.

As Christians, Rowan Williams says, we live in response to an ‘authority that comes about from yielding not to an alien will, but an affirming source.’ What St Francis discovers I think is this,‘transforming power of acknowledging dependence on an unconditional source of affirmation.’ It’s also a power which transforms suffering. The more Francis let go, entered into the depths of Christ’s suffering, the more he discovered the deeply unconditional nature and profound nurture of God’s love. From this sprung joy. His stigmata was symbolically the kinaesthetic marks of God’s love pouring into the suffering of the world. St Francis channelled peace. He became the sign of a God whose well of love is endless, a God who could be named and praised even in the greatest suffering. Perhaps something next to impossible for us today to get our head and hearts around.

Recently, at the Second Hand Book Fair held at St Peter’s, I picked up Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone by Susan Pitchford (Morehouse Publishing 2006), a Franciscan Tertiary.

Sometimes I think St Francis in our Church gets pressed into a very sentimental depiction. He is a popular saint for children. We’re about to have a family of animals visit us at St Peter’s Eastern Hill this Sunday. There’ll be blessing of pets and St Francis medallions given out. The good thing about this is that it highlights our interconnectedness with creatures and all creation, which is very Franciscan in spirit. However, if this is the only image of St Francis that we have I think it can distort an even deeper message.

Susan Pitchford visited Ghana in the early 2000s. Hers was a desire to witness and contemplate the historical suffering of human trafficking along the ‘Slave Coast’, a string of castles and forts along the Ghana coastline. Here is the infamous Cape Coast Castle, which housed thousands of slaves from as early as the 17th century who were shipped off to places around the world, including America. Barack Obama visited here in 2009. It’s a kind of ‘pilgrimage site’ for what’s become known as ‘dark tourism’, that is visiting a place where human atrocities have been committed.

Susan Pitchford writes:

The tour started in the men’s dungeon. This was right under the Anglican Church - a nice touch, I thought…….The guide pointed to a mark on the wall about two and a half feet off the floor. He explained that when the dungeon was excavated from the floor to this mark was a mixture of old chains, and shackles and solidified human excrement….the guide took us into the women’s dungeon and pointed out that there were places in the corners where the captives were meant to ‘ease themselves’ but that after their forced march of one to nine hundred kilometres from the interior, most were too weak to do anything but relieve themselves where they were……Periodically the women would be paraded naked before the governor of the castle. When he’d made his selection, the soldiers would clean her up and give her enough food to keep her form passing out. Then they’d send her to the governor’s quarters; she’d be returned to the dungeon afterward. Women who resisted the sexual advance of any authorities were put into special cells, and subjected to even worse conditions than before. Men who resisted captivity were placed into the cell of the condemned, where they were left without food, water or ventilation until the last one was dead. Only then would it be considered safe for the guards to go in and remove the bodies.

When they reached the Dutch Reformed Church Pitchford tells us that the “tour guide joked how the Europeans thought that since they kept their God in this room, he wouldn’t see what was going on outside.” And it was at this point that an Italian tourist demanded to know ‘Where was God when all this was going on?’ The guide shrugged but he was not to be deterred and kept asking in ever angrier tones, ‘Where was God?’

Pitchford writes:

I wanted to tell him that God was here, in this place, being raped and branded and shackled, forced to lie on bricks covered with excrement and vomit and blood, that God wept and agonised with every single soul who passed through this place, and that he subjected himself to the full weight of mankind’s brutality because of his immense, immeasurable love….but I don’t know how to say them in Italian. I wonder if he would have heard then if I had?

But I wonder also if Susan Pitchford herself believed these words at that moment?

At the end of the chapter she asks: “How am I to respond to suffering? How do I respond in a way that is faithful to the all of Christ and the way of St Francis …. How can I take action that will really help, not just soothe my own conscience? How can God love me when I live in luxury while others suffer so horribly? Have I been deluding myself? I can’t go for a little spiritual joyride and just ignore the questions that are pressing on me so heavily, but I don’t know how to answer them. So I pray about them….” She begins to “understand that whenever we witness the suffering of another in an attitude of radical openness - of compassio, not turning away but allowing ourselves to feel something of that suffering - we enter into Christ’s own heart. Just as when we suffer for him, we share something of his cross.’

She concludes the chapter with these words: “My tears don’t redeem men: I cannot redeem myself. But to the degree that they signal my openness - to the suffering of others, to the truth about myself, and to whatever action God may command - they are a place to begin.” (Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone by Susan Pitchford Morehouse Publishing 2006, p98-99)

St Francis learned to look at suffering without flinching. The most powerful image that struck me here in Pitchford’s account is the nakedness of the women taken away to be raped by the governor. This is a very different nakedness to one of St Francis before his father. Now here is a nakedness of objectification, of violence, of obscenity, of endorsed rape. Not one of chosen vulnerability and letting go into God’s love and care. What’s been sanctioned here is a system based on abuse of power, and ego gone rampant. For punishment men were locked up until they were dead. There was systemic evil at work here; and the churches were complicit. Susan Pitchford knew she was privileged to see it from distance and time, and her own place of luxury. And she knows too that it’s impossible in human terms to ever fully enter the deep trenches of another’s suffering. Only Christ in God can do that.

But, this is the place of empathy that Francis, like Jesus, directs us to try and head toward. And it’s precisely in the prayer praising God with all God’s different faces, that we can start to do this. When we begin to try and look at suffering unflinching, when we don’t turn our gaze away from historical atrocities in places such as Ghana. Still in Ghana today homosexuality is outlawed - men and women liable to imprisonment. Owning the injustice of the treatment of Indigenous Australians, or refugees kept in detention centres, or the suffering of those in my own home or workplace, or even more radically choose to visit the suffering taking place in our own souls - to begin to look at this suffering with a gaze unflinching, is to begin to recognise what kind of atrocities we as human beings are capable of doing.

However, when this gaze also includes empathy, shaped through the lens of Christ on the cross and the Word of God in the Gospels, we also recognise that this lens can be the only way in which God can redeem us. Suffering remains real, but the unutterable quality of God’s own compassion and love can begin to be named in a new way. And if God can be glimpsed even here, then God can be praised. Light can exist without darkness, but darkness can never exist without the light.

When we are truly poor before God we begin to see our world a little from Love’s place. We glimpse the world from a perspective that starts to make sense. All this from a God with at least 33 names, who is an unconditional source of affirmation loosening our ties from the world and setting our hearts free. With St Francis we enter the ‘topsy turveydom,’

Not saints for whom

The world turned upside down. It turns for us

Because we turn.