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).

Tudor’s Chili

Tudor's chili

I’m making chili again using my friend Tudor’s recipe. The recipe was published in the Pasadena Mennonite Church newsletter more than 26 years ago. I held on to the recipe in my big move from Los Angeles to seminary in Elkhart, Indiana (AMBS) in 1993 and additional moves since then. I love this version of chili partly because it is delicious and partly because I think of Tudor.

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The first time I had a bowl of Tudor’s chili was when Tudor was the chef in a deli in Altadena, CA. I no longer remember the name of the deli but I remember Tudor working behind the counter, greeting customers, inquiring about their lives, offering encouraging words when needed. He was a pastor for several years previously but was taking a pause from congregational work. Instead, I came to think of Tudor as the pastor of the deli, literally “feed(ing) my sheep.” I gratefully received his pastoral care whether it was through his concern for me or through feeding me.

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Tudor generously provided his chili when Kevin and I married at AMBS seminary. We both had several out-of-town guests and we hosted a noon meal of Tudor’s chili, salads, and cornbread. This allowed for friends and family to reconnect with one another prior to the mid-afternoon wedding ceremony and reception. My mother-in-law still remarks about that chili nearly 24 years later.

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I have adapted this recipe for our palates—less meat more beans. As I stir the chili I think of Tudor feeding people, his face beaming at everyone, displaying the loving face of God. I imagine God’s face beaming like Tudor’s as we enjoy the Great Feast together.

#falliscomingtimeforchili #homemadechili #fredandethelive #pastorofdelis #ambs #pasadenamennonite #beamingfaces #collegevillewrites

Renouncing Violence: A book review

Renouncing Violence book photo

 

Mary Margaret Funk’s latest book, Renouncing Violence, was born out of the fractious discourse across the world, but particularly in the United States. She writes in the preface: “The intent of this book is to gentle down. Calmness prevents and scatters violence. When violence is tamed, we find peace of heart. A working definition of violence is ‘form or forces that cause harm’.”

Funk has written ten books, primarily on training the mind which in turn converts the heart, including Thoughts Matter, among others. In Renouncing Violence, Funk clearly articulates how she trained her mind to convert her heart away from damaging thoughts and feelings which were impacting her life. She describes her purpose: “We can do something about violence …. Through renunciation, both individually and together, we can reduce, redirect, refrain, and reprogram our instinctual propensities toward retaliation, recompense, and rage.”  (xi)

Funk is conversant with the classical monastic writings, particularly the desert ammas and abbas from the 3rd and 4th centuries, which influence her understanding of training our minds in order to convert our hearts. Additionally, her knowledge of scripture, nurtured by years of practicing lectio divina informs her approach of inner heart movement from violence to nonviolence.

She describes her process of writing this book in three phases: first phase was listening and hearing that something new was happening these recent years: “The new normal [in our culture] was anxiety from within and fear from without.” (xi)

The second phase was listening to her own “disquietude.” After the U.S. presidential election in November 2016, “I realized that I was saturated with the affliction of anger.” A few months later Funk went on a weeklong retreat with a nun who “prayed out my anger.” But, Funk realized that she needed to guard her heart of anger returning “bringing seven more demons stronger than the first.” (xii)

Funk’s third phase was waiting on the Spirit to direct her to something that she should do about this new normal as “We are in a global bad mood.” She believes Jesus reversed violence through his death and resurrection and that there is “no anger in Jesus, only love.” Additionally, Funk is confident there is no wrath in God and the church was commissioned to extend God’s reign of love, peace, and shalom. From this foundation she wrote Renouncing Violence.
In the first chapter, Funk explores both the word “renunciation” and how to live a life of renunciation. She tells of her experience of choosing a vowed life in a Benedictine order. She had to renunciate her previous life in order to become a nun, she yields to the other members of her community, and devoting her life to God. “Renunciation is also a way to focus energies,” she writes.

Renunciation is also an opportunity to go beyond oneself for the sake of others. It is sweet to take on responsibilities that ensure other people’s desires are fulfilled, maybe even at some sacrifice.” (3)

But, she warns, “renunciation, in and of itself, will seem to have a missing piece if, indeed, there isn’t an overarching and underpinning belief.” (3)

For Funk, this “overarching and underpinning belief” is rooted in Jesus, whom she identifies as “the way out of violence.” She surveys 22 pericopes from all four gospels of Jesus as healer from which she concludes that,

Jesus’ healings show that he is the presence of God in the world enabling humanity to live a new life. Those healed by Jesus become free to become who they are meant to be, part of a community that lives in gratitude and praise, extending God’s work of restoration and healing to the world. (17-18)

She delves into the question if Jesus was ever angry stating “If Jesus was angry and did harm intentionally, then this narrative runs counter to all episodes where Jesus supported, healed, and restored life.” (18)

Furthermore, Funk reminds readers that none of the gospel accounts describe Jesus as angry but they do describe the priests and scribes as angry. The John account of Jesus clearing out the synagogue was an example of nonviolent prophetic action in the tradition of the prophetic witness displayed throughout the Old Testament: Jesus frees the birds, drives out the large animals, turns the tables, and strikes no one.

She summarizes the theme in the chapter “About the Practice of Renouncing Violence” of moving from violence to nonviolence; however, the structure of the chapter itself is a question and answer format rather than exposition. The content in the answers is excellent but the questions appear awkward, stilted, and ultimately off-putting. Nevertheless, Funk provides useful answers based on teachings from the early monastic tradition. She writes:

The training of the monastic way of life has an inner goal: shifting from self-consciousness to an immersion into a mystical consciousness, a knowing and experience of God acting from within, rather than the self acting toward the self. This shift is to have the self in service of God rather than God in service of the self.  (73)

Ultimately, Funk says, the early monastic practices are designed to “root out the affliction” of our anger and violent compulsions.

She concludes the book with three appendices: “Holy Water Prayer”, “Prayers in Time of Trouble”, “What I’ve Learned from Those Who’ve Been Harmed by Violence”; and a helpful bibliography for additional resources regarding nonviolence.

Renouncing Violence is an accessible, straight-forward book that could be used in small groups, Sunday school classes, or weekend retreats for study for those wanting to turn away from “disquietude” in contemporary culture and toward a loving, compassionate, nonviolent approach to all of life.

This review appeared May 17, 2019 on the Englewood Review of Books website.

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)