As we continue to wait, watching the story of Coronavirus unfold around us day by day, affecting each of us in different ways, as we also evaluate decisions made by political and medical leaders there’s an increasing sense of being worn down and of carrying a great weight. When I travel to pick up food supplies or work I’m noticing now more people out and about on the roads and in the city. This is despite the Government lockdown still being in place.
That human longing, almost at any cost, to be out moving amongst others in community is very strong. Financial hardship, stress, uncertainty about the future, increase in domestic violence makes it very difficult to be still. Our rapidly changing global and local terrain makes us restless.
However, this time also continues to also be a landscape that is marked by many spontaneous unexpected acts of kindness. Unlooked for, gratuitous but powerfully felt acts of goodness continue to be shown by all sorts of people towards all sorts of other people, strangers and friends, in need and distress.
But despite all this, and despite the Government assistance at this time, there are those who in their heightened sense of isolation, loneliness and helplessness - fall through the cracks.
A saint whose story, in more recent years, for me has broken free from being cliche is St Francis. He is a saint who fell through the cracks. And despite all improbability, found the God of Love right there in that dark deep crevice.
We can interpret the life of St Francis in many different ways - depending on the lens we look through. The story of St Francis, who lived at the turn of the 13th century, on one level makes a rollicking good read. His father was a wealthy merchant. Francis was well educated, loved fine clothes and the high life. He was a romantic figure who, as young man, became a knight fighting for Perugia in its town’s warfare with Assisi.
Locked up for a year as a prisoner of war in a dungeon, after release he suffered physical pain for the rest of his life. He was filled with longings, passions, partying and dreaming. But prayer became increasingly important and in early 13th century he had his famous vision: sitting in a dilapidated church, before the San Daminiano cross he heard Christ speak to him: ‘Francis, go and repair my house, which as you see is falling completely into ruin.’ And so began his life of radical poverty, wandering with his brothers teaching the life of ‘littleness’ within a larger church. He founded an order, wrote a Rule but later struggled with its overwhelming success and resigned as its Head.
This ‘littleness’ of St Francis is not one of subservience to an big external force. What St Francis discovered I think is what Rowan Williams describes the yielding to the ‘transforming power of acknowledging dependence on an unconditional source of affirmation.’ Note well, ‘littleness’ here is not about yielding to an alien force. This is a power which affirms us deep down inside our very self.
The more Francis let go, entered into the depths of his own suffering with a strong felt sense of the Love of God, the more he discovered the deeply unconditional nature and profound nurture of God in his own life. With God, he was then able to climb down into the cracks and reach into the brokenness of other people’s lives and bring comfort. His own stigmata was symbolically the kinaesthetic marks of God’s love pouring into the suffering of the world. St Francis channelled peace. He found joy and 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.
There is a famous story of St Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. A wolf was terrorising that Italian town and keeping it under siege. No one could go out. St Francis did, met the wolf, named him as his brother and commanded the wolf in the name of God to cease its attack on the township. The wolf bowed its head and relented going back into Gubbio as a friend of St Francis.
I’m not telling this story to inspire us to disregard our present Government instructions for saving lives by staying at home. Far from it. But because this story begs the questions: what wolf is it that terrorises and keeps our own heart under siege? Is it fear? Uncertainty? Suffering? St Francis was able to venture into these hard places with courage and the love of God. He was transformed here, and from here able to transform others.
This is where the love of God is most with us during this time of COVID-19. In the cracks of our hearts and our lives. When we, like St Francis, notice and name the fears that keep us under siege, like that wolf at Gubbio, then we can offer something that’s very real, life giving and transformative to another. Friend or stranger.