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

Book review: Once You Go In

Dangerous Readers-A

Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith

By Carly Gelsinger

(She Writes Press, 2018)

 

When God created Adam God declared it was not good for man to be alone, so Eve was created to ease Adam’s loneliness. The Old Testament is the story of individuals creating community with God and with one another. It is natural for us to long to belong to others whether this is within families, neighborhoods, sports team fandom, or within a faith tradition. We want to belong.

In her memoir, Once You Go In, Carly Gelsinger describes her adolescent longing to be part of a group, especially a particular church group in her small Northern California town, the Pine Canyon Assemblies of God Church. She grew up in a loving family of four living in the country, singing Beatles songs and Broadway tunes together. “We sang ‘All You Need is Love’ as the sun set behind the wall of pine trees next to us ….My heart bubbled over with the sense that love filled our longs, and that love was bigger than the canyon surrounding us.” And because of this love Gelsinger sensed a Love beyond and greater than the love experienced in her family. “…I had an inexplicable draw to be near to God from a young age.”

One day, while bicycling around town she spots a vinyl banner hanging in front of the Assemblies of God Church with the announcement: “Voice in the Desert Youth, 7 p.m. Thursdays.”

Youth. The word makes me picture slumber parties and pepperoni pizza and group photos and matching T-shirts. The Baptist church I’ve been going to off and on for years doesn’t have Youth. They have babies and old people, and Vacation Bible School, which is for little kids. I wonder what it would be like to have a group, a place to belong.

And Gelsinger joins the youth group. Her well-written memoir tells us of her efforts to belong to this church and what it cost her in terms of her relationships with her family, herself, and with God.

Throughout Gelsinger’s story she tries to understand what the group norms are, to tease apart the religious language, and to guess at the expectations of the church. Despite her efforts she apparently falls short of understanding the religious culture of this small Pentecostal church. Gelsinger attempts to live the kind of godly life the church teaches.  What she doesn’t realize until she was a young adult was no matter how hard she tries to fit in, to fully belong to this congregation, she will always fall short because the god this church worships is mean-spirited, angry, and frequently punishes those who disappoint him. When she disappoints her pastor, his wife, and the youth leaders, she is, in effect, disappointing God and lives in fear of being excluded from the church.

Gelsinger tells several stories of how the church leaders would distinguish church members as separate from non-church members by underscoring their belief that “we are special, we are the faithful ones that God will use to save the world.” The leaders emphasize that “we believe and practice our faith the correct way because we are on fire for the Lord while other people are lukewarm in their faith.” The people were continually exhorted to convert the lukewarm believers and non-believers but “if you can’t convert them then you must separate yourself from those people because they will be an evil influence on you.” Of course, the leaders use the language of “encouraging one another, exhorting for good, and offering godly discipline” to control the group rather than focusing on God’s mercy and love.

Gelsinger remains a part of the church throughout her adolescence in which she genuinely loves God and wants to be God’s faithful servant. She speaks in tongues, prays for miracles, witnesses to her peers, while experiencing life as an American teenager. The church’s emphasis on salvation on their terms puts a strain on Gelsinger’s relationship with her parents, enduring pressure from church leaders to “save” her father who grew up Catholic. She is encouraged by the youth pastor and his wife to refrain from the family activity of listening and singing to the Beatles and other forms of secular music. The same youth pastor and wife routinely suggests that Gelsinger’s family carries generational sin which prevents Gelsinger from becoming a great woman of God. Ultimately, after a confrontation by the youth pastor and wife for having a “Spirit of Rebellion” Gelsinger’s mother tells her, “You are brainwashed.” They do not speak for a few weeks afterward.

The confrontation propels Gelsinger into understanding that she needs to get away from Pine Canyon Assemblies of God Church and even Pine Canyon itself. She transfers from the local community college to a small evangelical college thirty miles away. The physical distance provides room for Gelsinger to begin healing from the psychological, emotional, and spiritual wounds inflicted by the small congregation. She begins to find new friends, groups, and her future husband who do not wish to control her or her relationship with God.

Gelsinger marries, moves across the country for graduate school, finds new friends who love her and love God. She starts the painful process of deconstructing her youthful faith while cautiously reconstructing a faith in a loving and merciful God. Eventually, she and her husband visit a number of churches or not attend at all until they wander into an Episcopalian church on a Sunday morning, which was the denomination of her now-deceased loving and merciful grandmother. Gelsinger concludes the book with this description of her faith:

My fire for God changed me, and while I never want to go back, I can see hope is leading the way to something good. It has led me to the slow growth of faith, of small shoots of life pushing up from dead stumps, of expansive views of hope I may have never seen otherwise…I will keep questioning and thanking and running and falling and searching and rebuilding, because this is the process of being alive.

 In her acknowledgments, Gelsinger states: “I am grateful for every person in this story who led me to where I am today …. There are no villains or heroes in this story—just muddling through.” This is a loving and merciful spirit toward her life and the people of her youth. While Gelsinger doesn’t explicitly state it, she now belongs to her family, to God, and to herself.

(This review first appeared in the Englewood Review of Books, November 1, 2018)

What Sustains Me

Youngest niece with her kitten

(My youngest niece with her companion). Photo by Jill Warden

 

7) At the four-way stop on the road from our house to our work there is a parade of roosters, chickens, and ducks moving from corner to corner. Often a rooster is leading the flock like a drum major. I laugh out loud every time I see them.

6) I am delighted during a chat with my 9-year-old niece as she tells me of her class report “Facts about Cats.” I’m not a cat person but I ask follow-up questions which she answers with authority and passion.

5) At The Hermitage, the contemplative retreat center where I work, we begin meals for our guests with ”Food is God’s love made edible.” Our meals are fresh and nutritious from ingredients grown at local farms. Who can compare the taste of freshly harvested beets to beets from a can on the grocery shelf?

4) At the beginning of meeting with retreat guests seeking spiritual direction, I light the oil lamp to remind us that God is with us and we do not have to be afraid. I listen with a prayerful, soulful heart as they entrust their stories to me. Sometimes the vibrational energy is strong and it unnerves me when I remember the stories of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross levitating in their conversations. I am not levitating and I don’t have to be afraid.

3) When my husband gazes at me with love and I am reminded of Julian of Norwich: “I look at God and God looks back at me.” I receive those gazes as the loving face of God.

2) Hermitage morning prayers end affirming each other with: “[Name], you are the bearer of God’s infinite life.” Some days I believe I can be a God-bearer and other days, not a chance.

1) What sustains? God. God is in all, through all, is all.

 

Befriending My Depression

befriending depression (2)

 

As I meet with a new doctor she reviews my list of prescriptions.

“Do you still need this one?” she asks while pointing at my anti-depressant medication.

I take a deep breath and proceed to tell her my history with depression: “I had my first depression when I was 13 years old, the next one at age 19, another one in my mid-20s, then again when I was 40,” I said. “That last one was deeper and longer than any of the others and I started the medication.”
“Okay,” she said while nodding. “Sounds like you’re a lifer for meds.”

“Yep, probably.”

***

I’ve had this conversation with a variety of physicians, including a dermatologist who said, “You look fine to me!” To which I replied, “That’s because of the medication—it helps me not to be depressed.”

Another doctor suggested I see a therapist and I said, “I’ve done years of talk therapy and have met with four different therapists during my life. I know my depression well enough that if I need a therapist, I see one.

***

My depression is part of who I am and I am well-acquainted with it. When I notice the inner flatness I take a survey: how have I been sleeping? Do I need to increase my vitamin D and/or B12? Do I need to get out of the house and move more? And, as an Enneagram 4, am I veering toward the unhealthy attributes? If so, do I need to do a life correction and move toward the Enneagram 1? Or, is this the return of “darkness, my old friend?”

***

For decades I’ve been ashamed of my mental illness.My friends remember my depression at 19 and describe me as sitting in the corner at Bible Study with a pullover hoodie and greasy hair. I’m ashamed by that description. A few months after I began anti-depressants I wanted to stop because I was “feeling better and don’t need them anymore.” My husband wisely said, “You feel better because of the medication. You have a disease—the mental illness of depression.”

I don’t like the phrase “mental illness” because of the portrayal of people mental illness in popular culture—scary, erratic, irrational. I want to appear normal, steady, and have-it-all-together, not someone who lives with a mental illness.

***

When I first learned of the “dark night of the soul,” I wondered if that’s what I experienced. I asked one of my seminary professors and he quickly responded, “No, that’s depression, not the dark night.”

“How can you tell the difference?” I asked.

In the dark night you still function in life and you have full expression of your emotions,” he said. “With the dark night God is silent. God’s silence is leading you into a deeper or newer form of prayer.”

***

A wise friend suggested that I “befriend my depression” which seemed ridiculous to me. Nevertheless, I’ve pondered this idea and I have come to understand that to befriend my depression is to accept it as an essential part of me as much as my delight at a good joke. To befriend my depression means not disowning and heaping shame on this part of me in an attempt to appear normal. I will never be cured of my depression but medication helps me manage it. I know I will need to introduce this friend to future doctors as “my friend.”

I consider my daily pill as a gift from God. And because that pill is a gift from God it is a daily reminder of my dependency on God. I cannot make myself whole, only God can and there is the grace which allows me to befriend my depression.

befriending depression (4)

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?

Prayer for a New Year

Blog--New Year Prayer

So, here we are God, a new year, a new beginning, a fresh start.

But I’m still feeling worn out,

wrung out,

tuckered out from this past year.

I don’t know if I have the inner wherewithal for a fresh start.

 

Your faithful servant, Benedict, wrote: “Always we begin again.”

It’s a statement of grace,

a reassurance that your mercies are new every morning,

and that there is a wideness in your love.

 

So, I will take you at your word that we begin again. Just as the new year comes around so does your assurance that as challenging as this past year was, we begin again. We begin fresh. We enter 2018 girded by your love, your mercy, your compassion.

 

And, as we are girded and strengthened by your love,

help us to extend love,

mercy, and

compassion to one another and to ourselves.

 

So, thanks God. Here’s to a new year.