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St. Francis: A Message for Our Times

St. Francis: A Message for Our Times

Saturday: October 10, 2020
Summary: Sunday, October 4—Friday, October 9, 2020

St. Francis stands as one who made the way of Jesus credible and concrete, both for those called to formal religious life and for men and women living in the ordinary world. —Robert Ellsberg (Sunday)

Humans and the creaturely world have as their vocation the duty to support and complete one another, not to compete against and destroy one another. —Michael Perry (Monday)

Creation itself was Francis’ primary cathedral, which then drove him back into the needs of the city, a pattern very similar to Jesus’ own movement between desert solitude (contemplation) and small-town healing ministry (action). (Tuesday)

Francis and Clare were not so much prophets by what they said as in the radical, system-critiquing way that they lived their lives. (Wednesday)

When we agree to live simply, we put ourselves outside of others’ ability to buy us off, reward us falsely, or control us by money, status, salary, punishment, and loss or gain of anything. (Thursday)

We must move to the laboratory where all radical change can occur—inside of our very mind, heart, and the cells of our body. I call it the laboratory of contemplative practice, which rewires our inner life and confirms in the soul a kind of “emotional sobriety.” (Friday)

 

Practice: Two Practices with Animals

Who could ever express the deep affection Francis bore for all things that belong to God? Or . . . tell of the sweet tenderness he enjoyed while contemplating in creatures the wisdom, power, and goodness of the Creator? —Thomas of Celano

Francis of Assisi is known for his love for animals, but too often the stories become overly romanticized or even magical in their thinking. The truth of Francis’ respect for animals is far more profound than mere “birdbath Franciscanism” lets on. Everything was a mirror for Francis. What he saw in the natural world, in the sky, in animals, and even plants was a reflection of God’s glory. His first biographer, Thomas of Celano, writes about how Francis was constantly praising creatures for giving God glory just by their very existence. They could simply be and be themselves. Eventually, nature mirrored back the same message to Francis himself: He could just be and be himself in all of his freedom and joy and poverty. Today’s contemplative practice from biologist Rupert Sheldrake invites us to share a “mirroring” experience with the animal world so that we might have a glimpse of the reality that Francis lived throughout his life.

Be Present with an Animal

If a cat is purring while you stroke it, be completely present to the stroking and the purring—rather than stroking distractedly while having a conversation or watching TV. The cat is present; become present with it.

Or listen to a bird singing. I live in England, and my favorite birdsong is that of blackbirds singing in the spring and early summer. I listen to their songs, which change every time they sing. Often I hear another blackbird respond: they interact with each other and reply to each other’s tunes and variations. They are present to each other. We can be present through listening. Wherever you live, you will be able to find birds singing. . . .

Get to Know Another Species

If you keep a cat, dog, horse, parrot, budgerigar, rabbit, hamster, ferret, lizard, goldfish, stick insect, or another kind of animal, you are already getting to know another species. If you have, or have had, more than one cat, dog, horse, or other animal, you will also know that each animal is different. Each expresses its unique individuality within the context of its species’ instincts.

If you do not have a companion animal, or even if you do, you can get to know a wild species by observing individuals that live near you—like birds in your garden or in a nearby park—watching and listening to them, perhaps feeding them, relating to them throughout the year. Or you can raise caterpillars or tadpoles and witness their transformation into butterflies, moths, or frogs.

The better you know your chosen kind of animal, the more you will appreciate its way of being, its form of life. You will feel connected to a world much wider than your human concerns, and with which you share a common source.

References:
Rupert Sheldrake, Ways to Go Beyond and Why They Work: Seven Spiritual Practices for a Scientific Age (Monkfish Book Publishing: 2019), 71–72.

Epigraph: The Life of Saint Francis, chapter 29. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, The Saint, ed. Regis J. Armstrong, J. Wayne Hellmann, William J. Short (New City Press: 1999), 250.

For Further Study:
Leonardo Boff, Francis of Rome & Francis of Assisi: A New Spring in the Church, trans. Dinah Livingstone (Orbis Books: 2014).

Robert Ellsberg, The Franciscan Saints (Franciscan Media: 2017).

Francis and Clare: The Complete Works, trans. Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady (Paulist Press: 1982).

Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, The Saint, ed. Regis J. Armstrong, J. Wayne Hellmann, William J. Short (New City Press: 1999).

Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, The Founder, ed. Regis J. Armstrong, J. Wayne Hellmann, William J. Short (New City Press: 2000).

Pope Francis, The Spirit of Saint Francis: Inspiring Words from Pope Francis, ed. Alicia von Stamwitz (Franciscan Media: 2015).

Dawn M. Nothwehr, Ecological Footprints: An Essential Franciscan Guide for Faith and Sustainable Living (Liturgical Press: 2012).

Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014).

Richard Rohr, The Franciscan Way: Beyond the Bird Bath (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), online course.

Richard Rohr, In the Footsteps of Francis: Awakening to Creation (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2010), CD, MP3 download.

Image credit: Early Autumn (detail), Qian Xuan, 13th century, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Let us place our first step in the ascent at the bottom, presenting to ourselves the whole material world as a mirror through which we may pass over to God, the supreme Artisan. —Bonaventure
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St. Francis: A Message of Our Times

The Soft Prophecy of Francis
Friday, October 9, 2020

At its core, Franciscan prophecy is “soft prophecy”—which is often the hardest of all! It is a way of life that is counter to the ways of the world. I personally have found that few of us can offer “hard prophecy”—direct and challenging words—from a truly clean heart and humble spirit. “Hard prophecy” often has more to do with our own self-image as strong, smart, zealous, or committed than with actual service or caring for others. The present culture of angry partisan politics that exists on both the Left and the Right is far more effective at making us feel morally superior than it is at changing anyone’s mind. We should first seek to “clean the inside of our own dish,” as Matthew puts it (23:26), before we try to clean other people’s dishes, but that is less visible or heroic and, therefore, less common.

The Franciscan teaching of soft prophecy became a primary reason why we founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in 1987. The teaching and seeking of the nondual mind through solid contemplative practice seems to be the only effective way to integrate the inner with the outer journey. The result is summed up in one of our eight core principles: “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” [1] This approach guards against the most common criticisms of religion in general and social-justice work in particular, which, frankly, has tended to produce many negative, oppositional, and judgmental people. It has given Christianity a very bad name in much of the world, and seldom looks or feels like love. Integral Theory calls such people on the Left “mean greens”!

Soft prophecy, a change in lifestyle, moves all religion from any kind of elitism to the most egalitarian worldview of all. The broadest and biggest viewpoint possible is the harmony of goodness itself, where goodness is its own inherent reward. This is always beautiful in people and yet also demands a basic change in attitude. For some reason, “doing charity” to get a reward later became much more common among Christians. Such service and “good works,” however, are often not so beautiful or healing for those who receive it.

We lost our unique and prophetic way when we turned Brother Francis into “Saint Francis.” It was no longer considered “foolish” to say that we followed either Jesus or Francis and were living on the “edge of the inside.” In fact, it became fashionable, tame, sweet, and safe to do so. A truly prophetic lifestyle is never fashionable or safe.

That is why we must move to the laboratory where all such radical change can occur—inside of our very mind, heart, and the cells of our body. I call it the laboratory of contemplative practice, which rewires our inner life and actually confirms in the soul a kind of “emotional sobriety.” [2] It gives us an inner sense of divine union so we can do the needed works of justice with peace, enduring passion, and insofar as possible, personal invisibility.

References:
[1] Richard Rohr, “Eight Core Principles,” Radical Grace, vol. 25, no. 4 (Fall 2012), 44–45. No longer in print. See https://cac.org/about-cac/missionvision/

[2] Richard Rohr, Emotional Sobriety: Rewiring Our Programs for “Happiness” (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2012), CD, DVD, MP3 download.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 41-43.

Image credit: Early Autumn (detail), Qian Xuan, 13th century, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Let us place our first step in the ascent at the bottom, presenting to ourselves the whole material world as a mirror through which we may pass over to God, the supreme Artisan. —Bonaventure
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St. Francis: A Message for Our Times

The Gifts of a Simple Life
Thursday, October 8, 2020

My brothers! My brothers! God has called me by the way of [humility], and showed me the way of simplicity. . . . The Lord told me what He wanted: He wanted me to be a new fool in the world. God did not wish to lead us by any way other than this knowledge. —Francis of Assisi

We can summarize the transformative gifts of a truly Franciscan simple life in these ways:

When we agree to live simply, we put ourselves outside of others’ ability to buy us off, reward us falsely, or control us by money, status, salary, punishment, and loss or gain of anything. This is the most radical level of freedom, but, of course, it is not easy to come by. It might be called foundational restorative justice, or primal solidarity with the mass of humanity and the earth. Francis and Clare created a life in which they had little to lose, no desire for gain, no loans or debts to pay off, and no luxuries that they needed or wanted.

When we agree to live simply, we have little to protect and no desire for acquisition, even for acquisition of any “moral capital.” When we imagine that we are better, holier, higher, more important to God than others, it is a very short step to “justified” arrogance or violence toward those others. It is almost inevitable, in fact, and we are witnessing today how it manifests itself at every level of our societies. If we could eliminate such manufactured and desired superiority, religion might finally become nonviolent in thought, word, and deed. Francis and Clare were experts at it, and so nonviolence came quite naturally to them and to the early movement they inspired.

When we agree to live simply we can understand what Francis meant when he said that “a man had not yet given up everything for God as long as he held on to the moneybag of his own opinions.” [1] Most of us find out that this purse is far more dangerous and disguised than any wallet and we seldom let go of it.

When we agree to live simply, we no longer consider immigrants, refugees, people in poverty, or anyone else on the margins of society as a threat. When we choose to relinquish our privileges, whatever they are, we have freely and consciously chosen to become “visitors and pilgrims” in this world, as Francis puts it (quoting 1 Peter 2:11). A simple lifestyle is quite simply an act of solidarity with the way most people have had to live since the beginnings of humanity.

When we agree to live simply, we have time for spiritual and corporal works of mercy, like prayer, service, and justice work, because we have renegotiated in our minds and hearts our understanding of time and its purposes. Time is not money anymore, despite the common aphorism! Time is life itself and we want to give our lives away freely as Jesus, Francis, and Clare did.

When we agree to live simply, we have little energy to defend or protect our group, our ethnicity, our country, our money, and our religion. Our circle is no longer defined by these external and accidental qualities, because we now find the joy and beauty of the real essentials and the actual center which is God.

References:
[1] Thomas of Celano, The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, chapter 102. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, The Founder, ed. Regis J. Armstrong, J. Wayne Hellmann, William J. Short (New City Press: 2000), 338.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 37-38, 39.

Epigraph: Francis to the first friars, The Assisi Compilation, chapter 18. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, The Founder (New City Press: 2000), 132–133.

Image credit: Early Autumn (detail), Qian Xuan, 13th century, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Let us place our first step in the ascent at the bottom, presenting to ourselves the whole material world as a mirror through which we may pass over to God, the supreme Artisan. —Bonaventure
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St. Francis: A Message for Our Times

A Cosmic Mutuality
Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Jesus saw God in all that he saw. —James Finley

Let us place our first step in the ascent at the bottom, presenting to ourselves the whole material world as a mirror through which we may pass over to God, the supreme [Artisan]. —Bonaventure (1221–1274)

In stories of his life, Francis is quoted as talking to animals and natural elements. He does not speak to them just as birds or wolves, but as mutual spiritual beings who are worthy of being addressed. He was always telling them who they are, why they should be happy, and why they make him happy. He said they give glory to God just by being who they are! One of his early biographers wrote, “We who were with him saw him always in such joy, inwardly and outwardly, over all creatures, touching and looking at them, so that it seemed that his spirit was no longer on earth but in heaven.” [1] That may sound sentimental to our modern ears, but perhaps that is what a saint looks like—completely attuned to God’s presence everywhere and at all times.

Francis talked to larks, lambs, rabbits, pheasants, falcons, cicadas, waterfowl, bees, the famous wolf of Gubbio, pigs, and hooked fish that he threw back into the water whenever possible. He addresses inanimate creation too, as if it were indeed ensouled, which we know because his Canticle of the Creatures includes fire, wind, water, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and, of course, “our Sister Mother Earth” herself. [2]

So-called “nature mysticism” was in fact a worthy first path for Francis, and also for Bonaventure, the scholar who brought the vision of Francis and Clare to the level of a total theology, philosophy, and worldview. Bonaventure saw all things as likenesses of God (vestigia Dei), fingerprints and footprints that reveal the divine DNA underlying all the links in the Great Chain of Being. Both Francis and Bonaventure laid the foundation for what John Duns Scotus (1266–1308) would later identify as the univocity (one voice) of all being, and what Dawn Nothwehr, a Franciscan sister, calls “cosmic mutuality.” [3]

Creation itself—not ritual or spaces constructed by human hands—was Francis’ primary cathedral. His love for creation drove him back into the needs of the city, a pattern very similar to Jesus’ own movement between desert solitude (contemplation) and small-town healing ministry (action). The Gospel transforms us by putting us in touch with that which is much more constant and satisfying, literally the “ground of our being,” which has much more “reality” to it, rather than theological concepts or ritualization of reality. Daily cosmic events in the sky and on the earth are the Reality above our heads and beneath our feet every minute of our lives: a continuous sacrament, signs of God’s universal presence in all things.

References:
[1] The Assisi Compilation, chapter 88. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, The Founder, ed. Regis J. Armstrong, J. Wayne Hellmann, William J. Short (New City Press: 2000), 192.

[2] Francis of Assisi, The Canticle of the Creatures. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, The Saint (New City Press: 1999), 113–114.

[3] Dawn M. Nothwehr, Ecological Footprints: An Essential Franciscan Guide for Faith and Sustainable Living (Liturgical Press: 2012), xx.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 45, 46–47; and

In the Footsteps of Francis: Awakening to Creation (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2010), CD, MP3 download.

Epigraphs: Finley, Interior Castle (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2018), online course.

Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey to God, I, 9, trans. Ewert Cousins (Paulist Press: 1978), 63.

Image credit: Early Autumn (detail), Qian Xuan, 13th century, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Let us place our first step in the ascent at the bottom, presenting to ourselves the whole material world as a mirror through which we may pass over to God, the supreme Artisan. —Bonaventure
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St. Francis: A Message for Our Times

An Invitation to Cosmic Community
Monday, October 5, 2020

Author and editor Robert Ellsberg reflects on Francis’ legacy from a modern perspective:

Jesus left no formal religious rule for his followers. The closest he came was his proclamation of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers. . . . Francis took to heart [Jesus’] spiritual vision [proclaimed in the Beatitudes] and translated it into a way of life. . . . For many men and women since the time of Francis, his particular example has offered a distinctive key to the Gospel—or, as Pope Francis might say, “a new way of seeing and interpreting reality.” [This is what the CAC is about as well.]  Among the central features of this key: the vision of a Church that is “poor and for the poor” [what we call “the bias from the bottom”]; a resolve to take seriously Jesus’s example of self-emptying love; the way of mercy and compassion [as Francis lived by solidarity with and service to lepers]; above all, a determination to proclaim the Gospel not only with words but with one’s life. . . . [1]

In a recent homily given in Assisi itself, Father Michael Perry, the Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor (the name Francis gave us), shared his vision of Francis’ message and legacy for our time:

Brothers and sisters, the call to repentance, conversion, to open our minds, hearts, and lives to a new way of living together on this planet is more urgent now than in any other moment in human history. [As Pope Francis teaches,] conversion requires that we hear “Both the cry of the earth and the cry of the Poor.” [2] But is this not also what Francis of Assisi intended when he prayed that all people, and I would add, all of the created universe, might be admitted to paradise, might come to an experience of what St. Matthew calls the “Beatific way of life,” (Matthew 5:1–11) defined by living in just and right relationship with one another and with all of creation? . . .

In the Canticle [of the Creatures] Francis celebrates God’s loving presence in all of creation. He looks to nature for guidance on how we are to model our relationships with God, one another, and with the natural world. . . . This one [community], this common home, has been created by God and given the vocation to love, serve, and honor the Creator by loving, serving and honoring one another. Humans and the creaturely world have as their vocation the duty to support and complete one another, not to compete against and destroy one another. We are co-responsible with and for one another, especially for the poor and excluded. We are co-responsible for the life of the natural environment, showing gratitude and respecting nature’s proper limits, not pushing the planet to the brink of ecological disaster. [3]

References:
[1] Robert Ellsberg, The Franciscan Saints (Franciscan Media: 2017), xvii.

[2] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (May 24,2015), 49. Full text http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html

[3] Michael Perry, Homily for the Feast of the Pardon of Assisi (August 2, 2020). Full text https://ofm.org/blog/as-members-of-a-cosmic-fraternity-all-creatures-share-the-same-dignity-and-vocation-given-by-god-homily-of-the-minister-general-for-the-feast-of-the-pardon-of-assisi/

Image credit: Early Autumn (detail), Qian Xuan, 13th century, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Let us place our first step in the ascent at the bottom, presenting to ourselves the whole material world as a mirror through which we may pass over to God, the supreme Artisan. —Bonaventure
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St. Francis: A Message for Our Times

An Unexpected Francis
Sunday, October 4, 2020

During the election, I was seated next to [Brazilian] Cardinal Claudio Hummes: a good friend, a good friend! . . . When the votes reached two thirds . . . he said: “Don’t forget the poor.”. . . Right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. . . . For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; . . . He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man. Oh! How I would like a church which is poor and for the poor! —Pope Francis

I’d like to dedicate this week of meditations, which begins with the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226), to my spiritual father’s life and legacy. Although many people are familiar with Francis’ story, I believe his well-grounded, revolutionary values of nonviolence, simplicity, and care for creation become more important with each passing year. Happily, we have a spiritual leader in Pope Francis who understands the power and the urgency of Francis’ message. Author and editor Robert Ellsberg describes the ways Pope Francis embodies the message of his namesake:

The first Jesuit elected pope, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, became the first to assume the name of Francis. . . .  That no previous pope had ventured to take that name is unsurprising. Among the many associations conjured by the name of Francis, one of the most obvious was his utter rejection of the trappings of status, power, and importance. He called his followers the Lesser Brothers. He esteemed Lady Poverty as his spouse. He called it “perfect joy” when he was reviled or treated with contempt. . . .

Yet, as soon became clear, Pope Francis aspired to live up to the challenge posed by his name. This was reflected immediately in his choice to dispense with fancy garments and the custom-made red shoes and, more notably, in his decision to forgo the Apostolic Palace in favor of a modest room in the Vatican guesthouse. But beyond these gestures of humility, the remembrance of St. Francis implied an agenda and a program for renewal. Francis, after all, was the saint who set out to rebuild and reform the Church by evoking the example and spirit of the Poor Man, Jesus. He spurned violence and power. He reached out to members of other religions. He treated women with dignity and respect. He cherished the earth and all its creatures. He pointed to a new form of human and cosmic community, marked by love. And he did all this with such a spirit of joy and freedom as to make him a source of wonder and attraction to many of his contemporaries. . . .

Nearly eight hundred years later, St. Francis undoubtedly remains the world’s most popular saint—honored in every land, even by the secular-minded and people of other faiths. This reflects, in part, his winsome qualities and the romantic gestures that sometimes encourage sentimentality [what I call “bird bath Franciscanism”—RR]. But beneath all that, St. Francis stands as one who made the way of Jesus credible and concrete, both for those called to formal religious life and for men and women living in the ordinary world.

References:
Robert Ellsberg, The Franciscan Saints (Franciscan Media: 2017), xv–xvii.

Epigraph: Address to media representatives (March 16, 2013). Full text http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2013/march/documents/papa-francesco_20130316_rappresentanti-media.html

Image credit: Early Autumn (detail), Qian Xuan, 13th century, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Let us place our first step in the ascent at the bottom, presenting to ourselves the whole material world as a mirror through which we may pass over to God, the supreme Artisan. —Bonaventure
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