Domesticating Francis of Assisi

(Today, October 4, is the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi).

We have a garden statue of Francis of Assisi holding a bird as he is known for caring for the natural world. Our statue if fairly innocuous compared with other statues or illustrations of Francis talking to a half-circle of birds, deer, squirrels, and other animals, which remind of old Disney movies. Francis comes across an eccentric, dotty yet endearing uncle.

But there is a different story to Francis of Assisi. Francis was not a charming, avuncular monk as history has portrayed him. Rather, Francis was a challenging prophet, who, like Jesus, confronted the political and religious authorities of his time with the truth of the gospel.

Francis lived in the early 13th century which saw the rise of a new economic era in the city republics of upper Italy. A growing population and the economic boom restricted the medieval makeup of cities. The rural economy was waning and next to the aristocracy and clergy, there arose an additional class to which affluent cloth merchants like Francis’ father belonged. New forms of trade developed in the flourishing towns and the upper classes imported and consumed luxury articles like silk and spices from the East. People who once worked the land were uprooted while more and more wage-dependent workers roamed the streets.

This new era was no longer based on the exchange of natural goods but on the traffic of money. Profiteering, speculation, and market swings determined the economic destiny of even the newly poor. At the same time, this early capitalism sustained this new class of people who were profoundly fascinated by money, property, success and upward mobility.

And here enters Francis of Assisi, born into this new wealthy class. His father was a very wealthy merchant of cloth and, prior to Francis’ conversion, Francis was known as a playboy, who was to inherit the family business. Francis became desperately ill and during his recovery he began reading religious materials and the Bible. His encounter with Jesus in the gospels changed his life forever. When he recovered from his illness, he broke with his family and lived in the nearby woods outside of Assisi, following Jesus without a permanent home or any possessions.

The commitment Francis made to poverty must be seen in this context. His break with his family was a rejection of the values of the bourgeois world. When he refused to run the family business he was cursed by his father and regarded as dead to the family. As Francis rejected affluence for poverty, he also rejected the dominant culture and all its values. Importantly, for Francis, choosing poverty was not only to avoid the dangers of affluence but also was a total renunciation of the self and subsequent giving of that self to God.

Unfortunately, throughout history, religious authorities developed two different ways of dealing with prophets—they either expelled them or attempted to domesticate them. Francis was domesticated, robbed of his prophetic sting. The radical stories about Francis were prohibited and his biography was suppressed.

A sanitized version of Francis’  life was declared the official biography which left Francis as the mild, gentle friend of nature—with a few oddities—who loved poverty more than anything else. This is the story that survives even today. Yes, Francis, did preach to the birds, but according to Umberto Eco, he was talking to vultures and birds of prey in the cemeteries telling them the things that the rich city councilmen did not want to hear.

Political and religious authorities were subject to his radical critique. Francis embraced and kissed lepers not only out of love but because he wanted to liberate them from exclusion, from being told that they did not belong. As Eco suggests, leprosy is a sign of those who are disenfranchised, oppressed, uprooted, and pushed around, then it is precisely this spirit of exclusion that Francis was intent on eliminating. His goal was not an aimless and self-satisfying asceticism—rather, Francis sought to live the vulnerable openness of love that gives itself without condition, protection, and reassurance. He was hardly the domesticated, dotty, peculiar monk that history has portrayed him.

(Originally posted in 2011).

What the World Needs Now: Boundless Compassion (book review)

 

 

Boundless-Compassion-3d

Boundless Compassion: Creating a Way of Life

By Joyce Rupp

(Sorin Books, 2018) 211 pp

 

Soon after a close friend’s death, Joyce Rupp had a life-changing experience which she describes in her new book, Boundless Compassion: Creating a Way of Life (Sorin Books). As she stood at her patio door:

I was trying to absorb this enormous loss when a hummingbird fluttered in front of my face, just a few inches outside the glass. It hovered there, facing me for several minutes, enough time to convince me that my friend—who treasured those little creatures—was assuring me all would be well. As the tiny bird departed, an inner knowing swept through my being: ‘Love is all that counts.’ Since that moment I have never been the same. (p. 2-3)

Rupp attributes this “showing” by her friend as a compassionate presence, convinced that the message was for her. “I turned from the patio door determined to give the rest of my life to living in such a way that compassion would be the most essential focus.” (ibid)

While Rupp was doing graduate studies at Naropa University, a Buddhist university in Boulder, Colorado, she read a description of an upcoming workshop to be led by the Dalai Lama. During her studies, she came to appreciate the emphasis on compassion within Buddhism and was committed to integrating compassion more deeply within her Christian life. As she read the Dalai Lama workshop details she wondered: “I really appreciate his wisdom. I wonder who is teaching Christians how to be more compassionate?”

Rupp heard God’s call to teach Christians how to live with more compassion. This book is part of Rupp’s response to God’s call. The book is a six-week study designed for individual study or a weekly group study.

Each week’s focus builds on the previous week’s theme:

  • Compassion as a Way of Life
  • Welcoming Ourselves
  • The River of Suffering
  • From Hostility to Hospitality
  • A Thousand Unbreakable Links
  • Becoming a Compassionate Presence.

Within each week’s section are daily reflections followed by questions for pondering, a prayer, and short Scripture verses to “carry in your heart today.” Just as each week builds upon the other so do the daily meditations lead the reader into a deeper exploration of the theme. Day seven is always “Review and Rest” with a series of examen questions over the previous week. After completing this book, Rupp suggests creating a “Circle of Compassion” monthly group as a way to encourage and nurture one another to live a more compassionate life.

Rupp created the book to lead readers and participants to an inner transformation that includes compassion for both our enemies and ourselves. The purpose of the book is to establish a spiritual discipline of compassionate transformation which will in turn enable us to become the compassionate presences needed around the world.

Yet, throughout the book,Rupp reminds the reader that compassion is more than being “nice” or even “kind.” She underscores the reality that compassion draws us closer to suffering whether it is our own, our families, our communities, or our globe. Rupp quotes the Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross on what she discovered in her research on death and dying:

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen. (Positive Outlooks Blog, quoted in Boundless Compassion, p.182)

If we are to be transformed we need to participate in the daily spiritual practices Rupp leads us through Boundless Compassion. She concludes her book with this blessing: “The journey of compassion does not stop with the end of this book. It has only begun. So much waits to be discovered, explored, and integrated into daily living. Compassionate presence will always require taking another step further into personal transformation. This way of life is continually evolving.”

Rupp has also created a small book, Prayers of Boundless Compassion (Sorin) and a set of five DVDs, each one containing an hour-long presentation by Rupp which covers one of the topics from the primary text, available at www.joycerupp.com.

(This review was first published at Englewood Review of Books, May 3, 2018)

A Lesson in Yielding: St. Kevin of Glendalough

(St. Kevin of Glendalough’s Feast Day is June 3 and I returned to my reflection just after we returned from our trip to Ireland in 2016. I offer it again to you.)

 

Kevin of G.

 

Last fall Kevin and I participated in the The Soul’s Slow Ripening: Monastic Wisdom for Discernment pilgrimage in Ireland. We learned about St. Kevin of Glendalough, an important figure in Celtic Christianity and we were intrigued with the most famous story about St. Kevin holding a bird in his hand while he prayed.

A little background: the original Kevin is somewhat mysterious—it is challenging to know where the facts about him end and the myths begin. For instance, it is said that Kevin was born in 498 and died in 618 giving him about 120 years of life.

He lived as a hermit in a cave in Glendalough yet he attracted people and created community—his cave became the hub of a monastery.

Many of the stories about St. Kevin suggest that he had a deep relationship with the natural world. For example, one legend is that the loneliness of a hermit’s life was alleviated when “the branches and leaves of the trees sometimes sang sweet songs to him.”

Then there is the famous story of St. Kevin and the blackbird.

One day, as the story goes, Kevin was praying with his arm outstretched in his cell in the monastery. The cell was so small that his right arm had to poke out through the window. As he was praying, a blackbird came and nestled in his hand. Then the blackbird started to build a nest. When the nest was complete, the blackbird laid an egg.

Once Kevin realized that the nest and the egg were in his hand, he decided not to move until the egg had hatched and the fledgling had flown away. He didn’t want to risk breaking the egg.

One of the great things about legends is that simple stories are never that simple. This one works on several levels: a good deal of Celtic spirituality is about finding love in hard places; it is about both blood and stone. So, here we have St. Kevin, in his austere cell, undertaking something which is painful and difficult. Another level of the story is the small chick, a fragile creature for which Kevin feels great tenderness, inviting nurture and the pain that might involve. And another facet is yielding to what is emerging.

When we returned home, I ordered the Dancing Monk icon of St. Kevin (from Rabbit Room Arts) then found a small wood hand sculpture and I added a small nest with a bird. These reminders of St. Kevin have been on our home altar since October and I pass it several times a day and  I reflect on these invitations:

*I am invited to yield to what is, to what has been, and what will be.

*I am also invited to pray for the patience of St. Kevin because I sorely lack it.

*And I am invited to submit to God’s work in me, in (my) Kevin, and in our lives.

Kevin of Glendalough Dancing Monk

Seamus Heaney wrote this lovely poem:

St. Kevin and the Blackbird

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff

As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands

And lays in it and settles down to nest.

 

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked

Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked

Into the network of eternal life,

 

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand

Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks

Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

 

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,

Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?

Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

 

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?

Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?

Or has the shut-eyed blank of underneath

 

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?

Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,

“To labour and not to seek reward,” he prays,

 

A prayer his body makes entirely

For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird

And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

The Spirit Level, 1996

 

Also, Christine Valters Paintner wrote this exquisite poem here.

Questions I ponder:

  • How many times in my life do I reach out my hands for a particular purpose and something else arrives?
  • What needs to be surrendered or yielded in my life for new life to emerge?
  • What might need nurturing? Is there anything holding me back from nurture: fear of pain, fear of loss, fear of what it might cost?

Praying the News

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The last few weeks the news has been sickeningly familiar: bombings, war, violence, accidents, murders, disasters, fear, misunderstandings, hate—the list of humanity’s failures and sufferings goes on and on.

 How do we respond as Christians?

What can we do about all these distressing things that continue to happen around us?

Here is a possibility: We pray the news. It’s an idea I picked up several years ago while at a conference on contemplative prayer. I became captivated by the idea and began experimenting with praying the news. I discovered it can make a difference not only in my world but also in how I approach the world.

At first thought, praying the news can simply a quick prayer after reading the headlines or listening to the news. But it’s more than that. It involves what Anabaptists believe about spirituality: that it involves both action and contemplation. We cannot effectively act without prayer, not can we effectively pray without acting.

To pray about the events occurring in our world, we must believe that God does listen and does respond to our prayers on behalf of others. There are three requirements to pray the news effectively: faith, stamina, involvement.

Faith: The writer of Hebrews tells us: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The mystery and confounding aspect of prayer is that we can’t measure its effectiveness. We don’t know when we have prayed for something or someone, and it happened as we had prayed, that it’s a direct result of our prayers. Frankly,  we tend to explain away results rather than believe in answered prayer.

For example, I lived in Los Angeles during the two trials of the police officers who beat Rodney King in the early 1990s. During the first trial I didn’t pray at all for the legal process, for the jury, for the witnesses, for the truth to be told and not distorted. The result of that verdict: Los Angeles was gripped by fear and anger and hostility for more than three days in riots across the city.

During the second trial, I prayed diligently. I know churches throughout the city were also praying for justice and peace. The result after that verdict: peace and—depending on who you talked with—justice.

We can explain away the difference. The second judge was wise to have the verdicts read on a Saturday at 7:00 a.m., the city officials were prepared, and on and on. Or we can believe that God—in response to our prayers—gave the judge wisdom and enable the city officials to be prepared. At some point we choose to believe that God is listening and moving on behalf of the prayers of us who are God’s children.

Stamina: We pray for the world because God has called us to pray. Paul encourages u in Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing”—to pray diligently. Paul understood how easy it is to give up praying because we don’t often see measurable results. Or something good may happen and we can stop praying about. We need to continue praying.

Diligent, unceasing prayer is work. It takes concentration. It requires stamina made by strong by faith. If all we can do is pray for five minutes, we must pray those five minutes. But we must also strive to increase the “prayer muscle” by working up to ten minutes a day.

Involvement: To pray effectively requires involvement. A basic level of involvement is the news media. If while watching the news we hear of a murder, we can pray for the victim’s family, for the surrounding community, for the investigation, for the perpetrator. We can pray about the fear the victim’s family will experience, the anguish in imagining final moments, the rage against the murderer.

But we must not stop there. We must go on to pray for a government. Pray God’s goodness into that system. I sometimes pray God into a system by using the image of someone breathing into another while trying to resuscitate that person. Breathe God into systems.

If there is a bill to be decided, pray for the committee, pray for the committee staff, pray for the lobbyists, pray for the family of government officials. Pray for wisdom and for eyes that see and ears that hear for those government employees. And, engage with government workers, including staff and elected officials. Act on your prayers on behalf of others.

Occasionally I like to use Pavlov’s psychological discovery in my prayers. I’ve prayed for dictators and warlords like this: whenever the lust of power sweeps over them, I ask that God will put either a bad taste in their mouths or that an overwhelming nausea may seize them. My hope is that they will eventually equate power with physical illness. Will it work? Beats me. But I am called to pray regardless of the results.

Praying the news can change our lives as we learn to act in tandem with our prayers. And praying the news can change the lives of others as we act with wisdom and insight as a result of our prayers.