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—1 —

From The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols

 

We all love St. Francis, and most of us know a bit about him, too.

But as many have noted over the years, St. Francis is like Jesus in more ways than one. Like Jesus, he’s put to many uses by people with sometimes wildly varied agendas.

In general, though, we all agree that in essence, Francis of Assisi decided to follow Jesus by giving up material things and living with and for the poor, he really loved nature and he founded a religious order in order to spread his message.

There’s truth in that common portrait, but there are also distortions and gaps.

Because Francis lived so long ago and because the written record is challenging to interpret, the search for the “real Francis” is a fraught one. A few years ago, Fr. Augustine Thompson set to the task, and produced a biography that anyone seriously interested in Francis should read.  I’ve written about it a couple of times, including here. 

Bullet points for brevity’s sake.

— 2 —

  • Francis didn’t have a plan.  He did not set out to form a band of brothers – at all.   His conversion was a personal one, and the life he lead for the first couple of years after it was the life of a penitent, pure and simple.
  • What was his conversion, exactly?  This actually is a knottier problem than we assume.  It wasn’t simply rejecting a life of relative wealth for a life lived in solidarity with the poor, through Christ.  In fact, well, it doesn’t seem to be fundamentally about that at all.
  • Screen shot 2014-10-05 at 11.50.50 PMFrancis doesn’t say much about this at all himself.  He refers to being “in his sins.”  After his traumatic battle experiences, Christ drew him closer, he abandoned all for Christ, lived as a rather sketchy hermit-type penitent on the outskirts of Assisi, and then, in a crucial moment, encountered a leper.
  • As he describes it himself, lepers had been figures of particular horror to him when he was “in his sins.”  But now, God intervened, converted him, and the leper became a person through whom Francis experienced peace and consolation.
  • Francis sought to do penance, live the Gospel and be a servant.  He did not intend to draw followers, but did, and their initial way of life was simply living in this same way, only in community.
  • It wasn’t until their form of life was approved by Pope Innocent that preaching entered the picture – it was an element that the Pope threw into his approval.  This was a surprise to Francis.

— 3 —

To me, this is most fascinating because, as I mentioned in the other blog post,when we read history, we often read it with the eyes of inevitability.  As in:  everything unfolds according to intention and human plan.  Just as it is with life in general, this is not the way history is, and it’s not the way the life of Francis was – well, not according to his plan.  For he didn’t have one.

But this interesting turn of events shows how the Spirit shakes us up and turns us in a slightly different direction from where we thought we were going.  It happened to Francis.  He adapted, shakily and slowly.  It happens to us.

— 4 —

  • When you actually read Francis’ writings, you don’t see some things that you might expect.  You don’t, for example, read a lot of directives about serving the poor.   You don’t see any general condemnations of wealth.  You don’t read a call for all people, everywhere, to live radically according to the evangelical counsels.
  • You do read these sorts of things – although not exactly – in the early guidelines for the friars and the few letters to fellow friars that have come down to us.
  • But surprisingly, it’s not what is emphasized.  So what is?
  • Obedience. 
  • When Francis wrote about Christ embracing poverty, what he speaks of is Christ descending from the glory of heaven and embracing mortal flesh – an act  – the ultimate embrace of poverty – not just material poverty, but spiritual poverty – the ultimate act of obedience.
  • Through this act of obedience, Christ is revealed as the Servant of all.
  • So, as Francis writes many times, his call was to imitate Christ in this respect:  to empty himself and become the lowly servant of all.  To conquer everything that is the opposite: pride, self-regard, the desire for position or pleasure.
  • Francis wrote that the primary enemy in this battle is our “lower nature.”  He wrote that the only thing we can claim for ourselves are our vices and all we have to boast about is Christ.
  • Francis also emphasized proper celebration and reception of the Eucharist – quite a bit.  He had a lot to say about proper and worthy vessels and settings for the celebration of Mass.  He was somewhat obsessed with respectful treatment of paper on which might be written the Divine Names or prayers.  He prescribed how the friars were to pray the Office.
  • The early preaching of the Franciscans was in line with all of this as well as other early medieval penitential preaching: francis of assisithe call to the laity to confess, receive the Eucharist worthily, and to turn from sin.
  • Praise God.  Whatever the circumstances – and especially “bad” circumstances – praise God.
  • Accept persecution.  It’s interesting that Francis routinely resisted church authorities affording his order any privileges or even writing them letters allowing them to preach in a certain vicinity.  He felt that if they entered an area and were rejected, this was simply accepting the Cross of Christ, and should not be avoided.
  • Begging was not a core value for Francis, as we are often led to believe.  He and his friars did manual labor.  In the early days, begging was only allowed on behalf of sick and ailing brothers, and then only for things like food.  No money, ever.
  • He really didn’t like telling people what to do.  Well, my theory was that he actually did – what we know about his personality, pre-conversion, indicates that he was a born leader.  Perhaps his post-conversion mode was not only an imitation of the Servant, but a recognition that his “lower nature” included a propensity to promote himself and direct others.
  • That said, Francis’ emphasis on servanthood meant that his writings don’t contain directions for others beyond what the Gospel says (repent/Eat the Bread of Life) unless he’s forced to – when composing a form of life and so on.   This tension, along with ambiguities in the Franciscan life, made for a very interesting post-Francis history, along with problems during his own lifetime as well.

To me, Francis is a compelling spiritual figure not simply because he lived so radically, but, ironically, because the course of his life seems so normal. 

Why?

— 5 –

Because he had a life.  That life was disrupted, and the disruption changed him.  Disoriented him.  He found a re-orientation in Christ: he found the wellspring of forgiveness for his sins and the grace to conquer them (a lifetime struggle).  His actions had consequences, most of which were totally unintended by him, and to which he had to adapt, as he sought to be obedient to God.  His personality and gifts were well-equipped to deal with some of the new and changing circumstances in his life, and ill-equipped for others.  He died, praising God.

Yes, Francis was all about poverty. All about it.  He was about the poverty of Christ, who was obedient and emptied himself.

“I am the servant of all”  

— 6 —

What can you do to celebrate the feastday of St. Francis of Assisi? Pick some flowers? Pet a wolf?

Maybe.

Or (after you pray) you could read his writings. 

Hardly anyone does, unfortunately. It’s too bad because there’s no reason to avoid them. They aren’t lengthy or dense, and you don’t have to pay to read them. You could read – not deeply, but you could do it – his entire corpus in part of an evening.

Here are links to all his extant works, although you can certainly find them in other places. 

The bulk of what he left was addressed to his brothers, but since most of us are not Franciscans, I’ll excerpt from his Letter to the Faithful:

Of whose Father such was the will, that His Son, blest and glorious, whom He gave to us and who was born for us, would offer his very self through His own Blood as a Sacrifice and Victim upon the altar, not for His own sake, through whom all things were made (cf. Jn 1:3), but for the sake of our sins, leaving us an example, so that we may follow in his footsteps (cf 1 Pet 2:21). And He willed that all might be saved through Him and that we might receive Him with a pure heart and our own chaste body. But there are few, who want to receive Him and be saved by Him, though His yoke is sweet and His burden light (cf. Mt: 11:30). Those who do not want to taste how sweet the Lord is (cf. Ps 33:9) and love shadows more than the Light (Jn 3:19) not wanting to fulfill the commands of God, are cursed; concerning whom it is said through the prophet: “Cursed are they who turn away from Thy commands.” (Ps 118:21). But, o how blessed and blest are those who love God and who do as the Lord himself says in the Gospel: “Love the Lord thy God with your whole heart and with your whole mind and your neighbor as your very self (Mt 22:37.39).

Let us therefore love God and adore Him with a pure heart and a pure mind, since He Himself seeking above all has said: “True adorers will adore the Father in spirit and truth.” (Jn 4:23) For it is proper that all, who adore Him, adore Him in the spirit of truth (cf. Jn 4:24). And let us offer (lit.”speak to”) Him praises and prayer day and night (Ps 31:4) saying: “Our Father who art in Heaven” (Mt 6:9), since it is proper that we always pray and not fail to do what we might (Lk 18:1).

If indeed we should confess all our sins to a priest, let us also receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ from him. He who does not eat His Flesh and does not drink His Blood (cf. Jn 6:55.57), cannot enter into the Kingdom of God (Jn 3:5). However let him eat and drink worthily, since he who receives unworthily eats and drinks judgement for himself, and he does not dejudicate the Body of the Lord (1 Cor 11:29), that is he does not discern it. In addition let us bring forth fruits worthy of penance (Lk 3:8). And let us love our neighbors as our very selves (cf. Mt 22:39). And if one does not want to love them as his very self, at least he does not charge them with wicked things, but does good (to them).

Moreover let those who have received the power of judging others exercise it with mercy, just as they themselves wish to obtain mercy from the Lord. For there will be judgment without mercy for those who have not shown mercy (James 2:13). And so let us have charity and humility; and let us give alms, since this washes souls from the filth of their sins (cf. Tob 4:11; 12:9). For men lose everything, which they leave in this world; however they carry with them the wages of charity and the alms, which they gave, for which they will have from the Lord a gift and worthy recompense.

We should also fast and abstain from vices and sins (cf Sir 3:32) and from a superfluity of food and drink and we should be Catholics. We should also frequently visit churches and venerate the clerics and revere them, not only for their own sake, if they be sinners, but for the sake of their office and administration of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which they sanctify upon the altar and receive and administer to others. And let us all know firmly, since no one can be saved, except through the words and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which the clerics speak, announce and minister. And only they should minister and not others. Moreover the religious especially, who have renounced the world, are bound to do more and greater things, but not to give up these (cf. Lk 11:42).

We should hold our bodies, with their vices and sins, in hatred, since the Lord says in the Gospel: “All wicked things, vices an sins, come forth from the heart.” (Mt 15:18-19) We should love our enemies and do good to them, who hold us in hatred (cf. Mt 5:44; Lk 6:27). We should also deny ourselves (cf. Mt 16:24) and place our bodies under the yoke of servitude and holy obedience, just as each one has promised the Lord. And no man is bound out of obedience to obey anyone in that, where crime or sin is committed. However to him whom obedience has been committed and whom is held to be greater, let him be as the lesser (Lk 22:26) and the servant of the other friars. And let him show and have mercy for each one of his brothers, as he would want done to himself, if he were in a similar case. Nor let him grow angry with a brother on account of the crime of a brother, but with all patience and humility let him kindly admonish and support him.

We should not be wise and prudent according to the flesh, but rather we should be simple, humble and pure. And let us hold our bodies in opprobrium and contempt, since on account of our own fault we are all wretched and putrid, fetid and worms, just as the Lord say through the prophet: “I am a worm and no man, the opprobium of men and the abject of the people.” (Ps 21:7) Let us never desire to be above others, but rather we should desire that upon all men and women, so long as they will have done these things and persevered even to the end, the Spirit of the Lord might rest (Is 11:2) and fashion in them His little dwelling and mansion (cf. Jn 14:23).

Why such a long excerpt? To give you a taste of what St. Francis was actually concerned about, which is perhaps not what we have been led to believe.

St. Francis is, not suprisingly, one of Bishop Barron’s “Pivotal Players.” So that means I wrote about him in the prayer book. 

Last year, I wrote a lengthy post on Francis. It’s linked here. Earlier this year, I noted that it was unfortunate that a bishop had cited the “Prayer for Peace” as having been penned by St. Francis – it’s wasn’t. 

*****

SO…I decided to write a book trying to communicate this to kids.  I worked, of course, with my friend Ann Engelhart, and the result is Adventures in Assisi, in which two contemporary children travel in Francis’ footsteps, confront their own need for greater charity and humility, and experience the fruit. It’s intended to be a discussion-starter, to get kids talking and thinking and praying about how they treat each other, and how they think about Christ in relationship to their own lives.

I mean..it’s not hard to get kids to get into animals or Christmas creches.  But St. Francis of Assisi was fundamentally about imitating Christ in his poverty of spirit, and I thought that aspect of the saint’s life was woefully underrepresented in Francis Kid Lit.

Here’s an interview Ann and I did with Lisa Hendey:

Q: What prompted you to write/illustrate “Adventures in Assisi” and what will our readers discover in this book?

Amy: I love history and I love to travel and the saints are central to my Catholic spirituality. In my teaching and writing, I’ve always particularly enjoyed bringing Catholic tradition and history to readers and listeners and many of my books reflect that interest.

St. Francis of Assisi has always interested me not only because his is a truly compelling, radical figure, but also because he is  rather mysterious.  The radical nature of his conversion and the singularity of his journey is unique, but the legends and stories that have grown around him over the past eight hundred years have only added to the mystique and have always piqued my curiosity.  My earliest encounters with Francis were both quite memorable, although both were rooted, I now understand, in more fiction, personal ideology and a cultural moment than fact – reading NIkos Kazantzakis’ St. Francis as a teenager and seeing Brother Sun, Sister Moon with my friends from the Catholic campus ministry in college.  Despite the serious limitations of both, what moved me in these works was my vivid and thought-provoking encounter with the possibility that radical sacrifice was, paradoxically, the path to fullness of life.

In the subsequent years, I encountered St. Francis here and there.  I taught his story when I taught high school theology.  I wrote about him in the Loyola books. I wrote about his prayers in The Words We Pray.  Over the years, I probably read every existing children’s picture book about Francis to my own children, most of which were about either the wolf of Gubbio or the Christmas creche.

And then, a few years ago, I read the new biography of Francis by Fr. Augustine Thompson OP  – Francis of Assisi: A New Biography.  It’s a tight, compact, rich work, and Fr.Thompson’s insights struck me to the core, so once again, St. Francis moved me…. MORE

Q: Ann, please say a few words on the artwork in this new book. How did you conceive of the characters “look”? What type of research do you have to undertake to artfully depict a venue like Assisi?

Ann: I was able to visit Assisi on two occasions, once with my teenage children and another time alone with my husband. I was able to walk the same paths as the characters in this book as they followed St. Francis’ footsteps.

I took countless photos because the style of my work is quite detailed, and I wanted the reader to authentically experience the exquisite Umbrian landscapes, the extraordinary architecture that is both grand and humble, and the simple beauty of the country roads and olive groves that surround St. Francis’ hilltop hometown….

MORE

— 7 —

Finally:

How about that Peace Prayer of St. Francis, guys?!

Nope.
The incorrect association of “Make me an instrument of your peace” with St. Francis runs so deeply now, it’s presented, unquestioningly, that way on the USCCB website, but still. It shouldn’t be this way. Truth matters, in areas great and small.

I explored the matter in my book The Words We Pray.  There are a couple of pages available for perusing online.  I think the actual history of the prayer makes it even more interesting than it is as a mythical pronouncement of St. Francis. Also, when Make me a channel of your peace comes to define the saint, we miss out on even more challenging words. Try it. Read his letters and Rule. 

A bit more on who didn’t write what – some other incorrect attributions out there. 

Tomorrow?

St. Faustina, who’s in the Loyola Kids Book of Heroes. 

 


For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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My late husband was the most spiritually serious and sensible person I ever knew, and he was also a huge sports fan. NASCAR most of all, and then all the other sports, especially those that involved Florida teams, and especially football. I ranged between indifference and SJW snark. It’s a waste of money and resources, it’s exploitative, it’s a distraction, it’s concussions. But I had to rein all that in, I had to reconsider, I had to pause because, indeed, he was so serious about the God Stuff but still loved his football, it made you think. It’s not that you give in completely, no. It’s that you just see another point of view, it’s just that if you are going to live and love you must stay true to yourself and say yes and no to what you think is right, but you also – oh, you must live in empathy, too, and maybe you don’t have all the answers, and maybe you don’t see the whole picture, just you alone.

So, yes, sports.

And it seemed as if  he was passing it on. I have this particular memory of an Indiana winter. Our older son was probably about five years old, and it was a Sunday afternoon.  The two of them were seated on the couch, and the NFL hustled and grunted on the television screen. I was going out shopping. I waved good-bye. I left them, son on dad’s img_1283lap, son talking a mile a minute about what was on the screen, asking questions, keeping up a running commentary on I don’t know what.  I returned two or three hours later. The two of them were in the exact same position. My son was still talking.  I raised my eyebrows in wonder. My husband shook his head and made that talking gesture with his hand. You know the one, like a clacking duck’s beak. He shrugged. This was the way it was, and there was a lot to talk about, even if you were five. It was football. It was good. It would always be this way, and it was a comfortable, lovely warm thing.

A couple of years later, we moved to Alabama. The older one was seven, the younger was three. It seemed pretty clear how things were going to shake out. The older one couldn’t stand the noise of engines, but the younger one thrived on it, but was, in turn, uninterested in team sports. So my husband would have his sports buddies, it seemed. The younger one for the races, and the older one for football and basketball. It would just go on and on.

cropped-engines.jpg

And then he died.

You know that story.

A few weeks after he died, we used the tickets to a UAB basketball game that he’d bought for the three of them. It was not a given that we would go, and I asked the oldest if he wanted to and he answered yes, of course. I think UAB was playing a Florida team, or maybe an Indiana one. So on a Saturday afternoon, we trooped over to the arena, and sat there, and all I could remember was years of sitting next to him at sporting events and I’m sure it was all they could remember too. I felt it. In a crowd of thousands, all I felt was stark, terrible absence, and I’m sure it is what the boys felt as small as they were – even perhaps especially because of it –  and so at halftime, I looked at them.

“Do you want to stay?”

The older one shook his head.

“It’s not the same without Daddy, is it?”

He bit his lip and his eyes glistened. So did mine.

A few months later, it was late summer, and life had gone on. We had been on this massive trip to Siciliy and Spain which had recalibrated life in a radical way and third grade was coming, and so was something else. Football.

Anxious to keep going, but still make connections, and build on the past and look into the future and whatever else you do, at some point in the beginning of August, six month after, I put on my most cheerful face, my Forge on With Faith Face, and thinking that the Worst Was Surely Over,  I pointed out this most interesting, exciting fact about what had always been such an important part of life in our house:

“Wow! Football season is starting soon! Don’t the Gators play next week?”

That eight-year old didn’t look up from whatever he was doing. He didn’t cry, he didn’t shout and he didn’t pause to consider. He simply uttered what his heart was beating:

I never want to watch football again.”

 


 

And so we didn’t that year. Any of it. College or pro. It was not on our television, and it was as if it had never happened and would never again.

A year passed. I bought a house here in town, because really, where else was there to go? A cunning frame bungalow that was all about starting over. We had been to counseling, sister was starting her senior year, little brother would be in kindergarten. One older brother, David, was back from Rome living with us and going to grad school, the other, Chris – the much older one – was still in Atlanta, working in sports media. Everyone was doing what they could, everyone was conscious of absence, everyone trying to figure out what that meant, how to live, what to take forward and what to just leave behind and how to help.

The summer melted us, then started to wane, and once again the talk out there was of rankings and quarterbacks and such and this time I didn’t know what to say. Nothing, I thought. I’ll say nothing.

Then one day, the nine-year old looked up from something. Maybe he was watching television, maybe we were driving home from school. I don’t know. I just remember what he said, out of the blue, after more than a year.

“Do you think,” he ventured, “Chris could take me to a Falcons game this season?”

YES.

Sooner than you know, I was on the phone. YES was the answer, for he got it, he understood. Of course.

It is seven years later now. I am still not a fan and could still give speeches if you asked, but I won’t. Because on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, there he sits. He makes sure he is here for Florida and Indiana, he likes the Vikings and Chargers, and once I even worked it so he could meet Philip Rivers, and that, I tell you, was a great day.

Not because football is anything transcendent or even inherently good, but just because it is a game that men play and men watch and maybe, I think, as the fifteen-year old sits there, almost as tall as his father was now, still chatting up a storm, a running commentary full of facts that I listen to the best I can, yes, it is fine and even good, warm and lovely. And maybe in this very good present,  maybe in these weekends filled with  color, noise, conflict and life, maybe, just maybe watching football on the couch…maybe that boy remembers.

 

 

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Before

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