The Goodness of Creation

Over the last few weeks, we described Francis of Assisi in the role in which he is most popularly recognizable: the lover of nature and animals. Interestingly, this role is not original in the Christian tradition. In a valuable book reviewing the nature stories of Franciscan literature, Edward Armstrong shows that many of Francis’ attitudes have precedents in biblical, early Christian, and medieval ideas about nature. One group of scholars place Francis in the tradition of hermits who retired to wilderness and befriended animals. Others associate him with a theological trend, unfortunately not dominant, which affirms creation as containing intrinsic value. Most see the stories about Francis as having precedents in the already-known lives of saints, although they may have been true of Francis as well. Continue reading

Francis and Nature, Part II

People are surprised to learn that the Early Rule of the friars instructed the brothers not to own pets – as well they were not to ride horses. These rules are only partly about poverty; they encouraged friars not to treat animals as objects or possessions. And, in the case of horseback riding, his rule distanced the friars from the proud world of chivalry. Later in his life when sickness compelled him to ride, Francis always preferred a donkey.

In his own writings, Francis does not adopt images from his experience of nature, rather he took those images from Scripture. In the five passages outside the Rules where he mentions animals, only once does he go beyond the imagery from Scripture, and it is to hold up animals as an example of obedience to God. Continue reading

Francis and Nature, Part I

st-francis-of-assisi-birdsSt. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of Italy, merchants, stowaways, ecology, but most famously, of animals.  If one searches the internet, you can easily find all kinds of pious, ecologically insightful, and often amazingly-modern sounding quotes from St. Francis. And they are inevitably without a citation from one of Francis’ writings or at least a later Franciscan source writing about Francis. As I noted in the beginning of this series, Francis has always been reinvented and marketed as needed.  Perhaps the one book most responsible for casting Francis as the lover of animals and nature is a collection of stories – many miraculous and all very saintly – that first appeared in 1390 in Tuscany: the Fioretti (The Little Flowers). It should be noted that this is about 160 years after Francis’ death.

But can we say about St. Francis, the patron saint of animals? Continue reading

Growing Pains

By the spring of 1213, four years after the founding of the “order,” Francis’ reputation had risen to the attention of the Italian aristocracy – not just in Assisi but throughout central Italy.  The order was beginning to attract men from the higher social classes. Sons of merchants like Francis, sons of the landed wealthy, sons of ruling households, men with established careers in law, music and the arts, and also ordained priests. They joined the already formed group of men from middle and lower backgrounds in muddling through what it meant to follow Christ in the manner of Francis. G.K. Chesterton’s later definition of the Catholic Church – “here comes everybody” – was being lived out in Francis’ day. Continue reading

The stories spread

francis-in-stained-glassOver the last several weeks we have been considering what awaited the men who came to join Francis of Assisi and this growing fraternity of believers seeking to follow Christ more fully in the world. We had mentioned there were no rules, regulations, or even a formation program; there was only Francis and the other brothers. But what drew the men to want to “come and see?” Undoubtedly, as today, a complex of reasons, but key among those reasons was Francis of Assisi’s reputation for holiness and miracles.

Francis’ reputation for holiness began at home among the brothers, not necessarily in the public square. The more “public” Francis was still a few years down the road when the reluctant saint began to be called more often to speak and appear and to increasingly gain public exposure. In the beginning, it was his brothers who experienced the holiness of Francis. First and foremost, Francis was a compassionate brother – especially for those who were tempted, spiritually troubled, or depressed. The medieval age was a time when these things were attributed to diabolical powers. Francis had a special gift for consoling those who suffered from such illnesses. Perhaps it stemmed, not only from the grace of God, but also arising out of Francis’ own experience of these same aliments.

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Freedom’s Forge

Forge-CompanyWhile reading the morning news I noticed an article that talked about the role that industrial mobilization has played in combating the coronavirus pandemic. Industries from the pharmaceutical companies, logistic and delivery organizations, manufacturers of syringes/swabs/alcohol pads/etc., refrigeration companies… and the list is quite long. The article compared the response of US industry to that of the mobilization that was such a key role in the Allied victory of World War II. The article implied that US auto companies produced cars one day and tanks the next. Were it that easy.

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St. Clare of Assisi

In the last several articles we have described the brothers who gathered around Francis and committed themselves to his way of following Christ. Two of the earliest arrivals were Leo and Rufino.  The first became Francis’ chaplain and confessor, as Leo was an ordained priest already. Rufino, a lifelong confidant and wisdom figure for Francis, was also the first cousin of an aristocratic woman of Assisi, the niece of Monaldo, lord of Coriano.  Clare di Favarone di Offredicio was a woman from the very class of landed aristocrats that the young Francis had imitated and longed to join socially. Continue reading

And we wait

easter_crossThe sun has risen on Holy Saturday. The Christian world has remembered and celebrated the events of the Last Supper, all that unfolded in Gethsemane, the trials, the scourging, the via dolorosa, crucifixion, death, burial, and now… we wait. This week someone remarked how lucky I was to be Franciscan friar and that I could take these days for solitude, reflection, and quiet. And indeed, some of my brothers not in parish ministry are able to do that. Many are on retreat. Not so here in the parish.

This morning there is a meeting to finalize the materials for tonight’s Vigil Mass, decorate the church from the solemnity of Good Friday into the joy of Easter morning, and a rehearsal for the events of the evening’s celebration. There are many moving parts in a Vigil celebration well done – some involved in the liturgy come with a veteran’s experience while others, the Elect and Confirmandi, are new to this stage. New to the liturgical choreography is the understanding and framing of the scenes and movements for live stream. The rehearsal will finish, the notes receive a last minute editing, and all put right until we again assemble hours later. Until then we will wait. Continue reading

Franciscan poverty

Francis and Lady Poverty

Many people have a very romantic idea of Franciscan life and the vow of poverty. What I can tell you is that the meaning and the manner of living poverty has vexed Franciscans since the beginning with very little about it being terribly romantic. Most of the descriptions and stories of the life of early poverty were written years after St. Francis’ death, when the manner of living the vow – in conjunction with the vow obedience – was a divisive issue among the brothers. In one of the more notable descriptions from the Sacrum Commercium, an anonymous text from a latter period, the author tries to give his or her insight into St Francis: “While they were hastening to the heights with easy steps, behold Lady Poverty, standing on the top of the mountain. Seeing them climb with such strength, almost flying, she was quite astonished. ‘It is a long time since I saw and watched people so free of all burdens.’ And so Lady Poverty greeted them with rich blessings. ‘Tell me brothers, what is the reason for your coming here and why do you come so quickly from the valley of sorrows to the mountain of light?’ They answered: ‘We wish to become servants of the Lord of hosts because He is the King of glory. So, kneeling at your feet, we humbly beg you to agree to live with us and be our way to the King of glory, as you were the way when the dawn from on high came to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.'” Continue reading

Itinerancy

As we noted in last week’s article, Francis expected his brothers to learn by imitation – and to understand that as Francis sought to imitate Christ, so too should the brothers. But in reality, the first generation of Assisi-area brothers simply did what Francis did: daily prayer, work at a local leprosarium, go to local churches to participate in Eucharist, eat, pray again, witness to the local Umbrian people near Assisi, and live a life in community.  You have to remember this was all new. Prior to this “Franciscan moment” the spiritual journey of medieval people consisted of being a monk or cloistered nun behind the walls of the monastery, being a priest and living close to the sacraments and the Scriptures, or being a lay person and hoping the other groups were praying for you. And then along comes this different, new, intriguing way of being spiritual in the world. And it was not set down in writing; it did not come with instructions. But sometimes is borrowed from the past. Continue reading