Friday, October 5, 2012

St. Francis and the Freedom of Christian Joy

Are we losing sight of St. Francis' message in all
of the cuteness?

When many Episcopalians think of St. Francis today, they tend to see images of animal blessings. This aspect of Francis' life and teaching is, of course, delightful and very important. Indeed, we are only now starting to understand the significance of his close association with nature...that "other book of scripture" given us by God. This is not a rant against such blessings.

But I think the "pet blessing" focus has had its costs, as well.

Increasingly, we are making the radical friar from Assisi into an object of middle-class sentimentality. Instead of one who challenges our consumerism, militarism, worship of power, and sensuality to the core, he is the nice little man in the brown cloak who loved the animals. We bless our pets and (increasingly) stuffed animals with soothing words, ignoring the revolutionary and discomforting message of this follower of Christ who was so committed to the Gospel that his disciples ended up booting him out of his own Order for his austerity and insistence on poverty and the renunciation of power.

The Gospel appointed for St. Francis' Day has this to say about the life of honest discipleship:

Jesus said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will."

This is not sentiment. It is utter Gospel realism. The only people who are ever going to "get it" about the Gospel are those who turn away from the World's wisdom to embrace the seeming folly--the "childishness" and "infantile" nature of the Gospel. Infants are the image used because infants are entirely dependent on God. While the institutional Church is always finding ways to undermine or minimize this fact, Christ Jesus and those who really want to follow him are always maximizing it. That was what made Francis so significant: he took the Gospel literally--not in the destructive way of literalism through ignorance or ideology, but the literalism of Love, humility, and service. When we understand St. Francis this way, he was perhaps the most radical follower of Jesus Christ we have known. 

This talk of literalism and radicalism is dangerous talk in our day. But this is another reason to review how we are thinking of St. Francis. His sort of "holy literalism" and "radical commitment" results in a very special--and very strong-- kind of joy. It is a joy lodged not in emotions, passing happiness, or even the world affirming or understanding us. This joy springs from a knowledge that we are already loved, affirmed, and understood beyond measure. The joy of the Gospel frees us to become fully human, fully alive, fully capable of seeing the Creation and the Other in the light of the Resurrection, not in the darkness of the tomb.

This is something we need to reaffirm about St. Francis in our own day, lest his holy witness be overcome by an avalanche of cuteness and sentiment.

The "Prayer Attributed to St. Francis" in the Book of Common Prayer was likely not written by him, but that really doesn't matter in this case: it expresses what simple acceptance of the Gospel means in such concrete and moving terms. It is a beautiful prayer with a great poignancy and power to modern readers. But, it really does invite meditating very slowly on each of the its clauses to see its source...a commitment based on the experience of divine Love for all people and the whole of Creation.

Only the joy of a life centered on the Gospel gave that "man in rags" from Assisi the power to overcome the world. So, let's bless the animals, but let's not bury Francis' message under too many layers of  cuteness.

The Prayer Attributed to St. Francis
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.  Amen.

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