Friday, May 11, 2012

Lessons From St. Francis?

Cimabue's portrait of the Saint above is said to be a fair likeness of his appearance, largely because it was painted within a few decades of his death in Assisi, apparently with the advice of some of the brothers who knew Francesco in life.

There's something deeply sad and other worldly about it. The full-length portrait, in the Lower Church of the Basilica of St. Francis:

shows him with the Stigmata which he acquired toward the end of his life, well after the founding of the Franciscan Orders, and well after the time when the administration of those Orders had been taken from Francesco and put in the hands of Brother Elias, one of his first and most ardent followers -- and conveniently an administrative and architectural genius, though not necessarily a political one, as Elias himself would be removed from his position of authority over the Franciscan Orders in turn.

Cimabue's version of St. Francis is quite different than the more famous versions of Giotto in the same church; most of Giotto's versions show Francesco in a kind of mystical ecstacy, for the man had visions and heard voices after all. Today, of course, we'd call that a "condition" and label it schizophrenia, especially if its onset comes during the patient's early 20's, as was the case with the young Francesco. Medication and treatment would be advised, though a cure remains elusive.

But in Francesco's day, such a condition was considered either of God or the Devil, and appropriate tests and ordeals could be administered to determine which. In Francesco's case, he managed to charm the Bishop of Assisi right off the bat, so the tests weren't necessary, and from that point, the issue of whether he was possessed of demons or was a child of God simply wasn't an issue any more. With the Bishop's imprimatur, Francesco was pretty much left alone to develop his mission and calling as he and Divine Wisdom considered fit and proper and to gather about him such followers as he might.

His approach varied considerably depending on his state of mind. Francesco appears to have both bipolar and schizophrenic such that he was continually beset with contrasting states of utter joy and crippling depression. Add on top of this mental/emotional chaos his frequent physical illnesses and his penchant for mortification of the flesh and we have a picture of a man who must have had a very difficult time functioning at all, something that Cimabue seems to have captured in the portrait above. There is a definite "WTF?" impression about it.

Whatever his personal woes, Francesco's legacy is as vibrant today as his life's work was in his own time, though changes have been made to accommodate the Franciscan Orders to the needs and requirements of the Church. For their part, Franciscans have a mixed legacy through history, though apparently in Francesco's own time, there was no doubt about his and his followers' holiness.

Part of the Franciscans' mixed legacy has to do with their service to the Church and especially to the Spanish Crown in the New World -- which led to such unspeakable horrors against the Indians that even now the mind and heart recoils at what was done and why. The Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico resulted in the execution of 21 Franciscan priests (The Martyrs) who'd been sent to the Natives to save their souls, but wound up tormenting, exploiting and oppressing them -- on the orders of the Church and the Crown, of course -- sometimes quite as viciously as anything Francesco did to himself, if not more so.

Old Cross of the Martyrs in Santa Fe. Erected in 1920 in honor of the 21 Franciscan priests put to death during the first days of the Pueblo Revolt in 1680.

The issue for the Indians was not so much of an issue for the Spanish or their Franciscan missionaries, whose dismissal of Native interests and concerns was notorious throughout their era of conquest. I can't help but think that Francesco himself would not have approved of the highhanded and destructive behavior of the conquerors of the New World -- not that anybody who mattered would listen to him.

There was no real conception of a New World when Francesco lived -- except in the sense of that which could be acquired through Crusades against the Muslims, the Fourth of which got under way during Francesco's lifetime. That led to a remarkable encounter -- or perhaps a series of them -- between the Sultan of Egypt and Francesco at the Sultan's camp in the Nile Delta while a cease-fire between the Crusaders and the Sultan's forces was in effect. Francesco sought to convert the Sultan who had other ideas, but who saw the little monk (Francesco was said to be about 5'4") as a more appealing avatar of the infidel Christians, and with whom he apparently enjoyed parlaying. The Sultan was not converted, but he seems to have become enough of an admirer of Francesco that once the Holy City of Jerusalem was retaken from the Crusaders, the Franciscans were the only Christians allowed back in to care for the Christian holy sites, said to be due to the fact that St. Francis himself had provided the model of consideration and respect for the interests and views of Muslims, a characteristic that later Franciscans would have some trouble applying to the Indians of the New World.

Yes, I know, what happened wasn't entirely their fault, but it's much like the continuing problem of abusive police and military forces in our own day. Abuses become institutionalized far more easily than care and consideration, and failure to oppose or intervene in cases of abuse becomes just as institutionalized. Once that's the case, it is very hard -- almost impossible -- to change the dynamic without completely overturning the status quo. Franciscans may not have wanted to be, but they were participants in the abuses by their secular compatriots, and on some occasions might well have led the abuse.

Early on, though, Francesco and his followers had profound insights into the human condition -- both spiritually and temporally -- as it was in Italy at the turn of the 13th Century. They sought and put into practice another way of living, creating a Utopian spiritual and temporal world of their own in the midst of the crumbling mess being made of Umbria and Italy by The Powers That Be. Their Utopia was based on Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience (to God). They lived simply, served their fellow sufferers and nature, and expressed a joyfulness in life and creation that was practically unheard-of in connection with either the Church or secular powers at the time. The contrast between the simplicity of their lives and their joy in living compared to the misery that even the highest of the mighty seemed to suffer from was instrumental in building up the early membership in the Franciscan Orders, and that success inspired others to found Orders of their own; in Assisi, that meant the Poor Clares, founded by St. Clare, an admirer (and some claim a lover, but I think not) of St. Francis.

St. Clare of Assisi, the Patron Saint of Television, from a fresco by Simone Martini in the Lower Church of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi

The key, of course, for both the Franciscans and the Poor Clares was the simplicity and material poverty of their lives; they found it was possible to live well without striving in the material world. There was plenty enough for the well-being of all. They lived well enough on the surplus of the land and the gifts of their admirers that their communities became magnets for others would do likewise. And in their time, they were very successful.

A great deal of the material presence of St. Francis, St. Clare, and their followers has been preserved in Assisi and round about Umbria and Italy, so it is possible today to not only retrace their steps but to get a remarkably full picture of what their lives and their Utopia was like. And at least some of that picture was translated to the New World through the Franciscan missions that were established in California and New Mexico among other places.

It's actually remarkable to see how closely those missions followed the pattern set in Assisi and Umbria centuries beforehand. Each of the Missions was intended to be an expression of the Franciscan ideal. To an extent, they worked, at least for a time.

They worked to the extent they were joyful, let's say. And when their joy was interrupted, as it always would be, much as happened to St. Francis himself, they could quickly turn into miserable sites of suffering and death.

Yet there is something about the Franciscan mission wherever it has been extended that those who experience it don't want to lose. Much to the disgust of some, for example, Franciscans are notorious for singing and dancing and putting on shows, somewhat like the Mormons, but without the breeding. They have always sought to serve the least advantaged among populations, to lift up the weakest, to gently chastise the proud and the strong. St. Francis and St. Clare were notorious in their own time for feeding and caring for the lepers of Assisi, as many Franciscans today feed and care for those our current societies fear, denounce and despise. Their vows of poverty have meant they never lack for what they really need, and the community and companionship they find with one another and with those they serve has long been a model for intentional communities far and wide.

The ideal of a Franciscan community is to be as self-sufficient as possible, but as a mendicant order, Franciscans rely on the generosity of adherents and admirers as well as what the friars can do for themselves. In other words, they can produce for their own needs to a certain extent, but they can also benefit from the material surplus of the wider society. That surplus is ever-present.

Francesco himself demonstrated that repeatedly, but perhaps best known is the church of San Damiano outside of Assisi where he had gone to pray. The church was falling to ruin, and as he prayed, he heard a voice telling him to rebuild the church. He took it quite literally; accomplishing the task, however, seemed to him to require money for stone and building materials, which he got through the sale of cloth and his mule. But the priest at San Damiano refused the money, which he thought was ill-gotten, as the cloth he had sold belonged to Francesco's father. Francesco threw the money on the window-sill, so the story goes, and retreated to the church basement, where he stayed as a hermit for a month or so trying to understand what was wanted of him. Finally, he went back to Assisi to face his father's wrath, leading ultimately to the famous scene of Francesco's renunciation of his father and all his material things before the Bishop of Assisi, and his return to San Damiano as a mendicant and penitent. Shortly, followers came with stone and building materials, and the church of San Damiano was rebuilt from the generosity of those who had witnessed the scene in Assisi's plaza and had heard Francesco's call.

San Damiano became the initial convent for the Poor Clares, and Francesco moved on to repair and rehabilitate other rural churches and chapels in the Assisi region.

In doing so, the Franciscans often simply "occupied" vacant, abandoned, neglected, and run down buildings or took over land that was otherwise going unused. They didn't ask permission, they just did it. And from time to time, that got them into trouble with the authorities, both with the Church and secular authorities, leading to conflicts and struggles that would not be unfamiliar to observers today given the travails and attempts at repressing the Occupy movement.

Of course it helped somewhat that Francesco himself was a favorite of Bishops and the Pope in Rome and that the Franciscan Order had the imprimatur of the Pope; only two years after Francesco's death, he was proclaimed a Saint by Papal decree. Despite the political turmoil of the times, having such high level patronage was of immense assistance in establishing and legitimizing the Franciscans. So far as I can tell, Occupy has no such patronage from On High.

But the "occupation" strategy was very definitely -- and often successfully -- utilized by Francesco and the Franciscans as their movement grew.

Yet the minute Francesco was elevated to sainthood, what was left of the innocence of the Franciscan movement was lost. The Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi is a gorgeous pilgrimage site that contrasts starkly with the humble places where St. Francis actually lived and did his spiritual and temporal work. When parts of the Basilica's ceiling fell during an aftershock of the 1997 Umbrian Earthquake, killing four -- two Franciscans and two engineers checking for damage -- it was shocking (the video is still terrifying -- and seems to presage other events). The ceiling collapsed over the entrance and the altar -- ie: at opposite ends of the church. Repairs were undertaken quickly, and restoration was beautifully done, but the frescoes were lost from those areas of the ceiling that collapsed, and many other frescoes were damaged. In a sense, it was perhaps a reminder that Francesco would never have approved a church like that to honor his memory. It's too fine, too beautiful and far too decorative. Yet as someone from Assisi pointed out to him when he was railing against the fine accommodations the city had built for pilgrims who were already coming to Assisi in his lifetime, "This wasn't built for you. It was built by and for the Assisi Commune."

If there is a lesson from St. Francis for the modern era, apart from the spiritual, it is in the determination and persistence of Francesco to throw off the shackles of his past and adopt a new and simpler way of life, based on his profoundest beliefs in what was right and moral, and to hold on to his beliefs and practices through thick and thin.

Pax et bonum.


  1. This seems to be an issue with all of these types of figures after their deaths. In life, they impress people by needing very little, after death people think they need gold statues.

    Incidentally, I wouldn't be surprised to find a certain amount of misery among our modern kings and princes. I was impressed by how miserable a wealthy (0.1%) donor to the Mitt Romney campaign, Edward Conard, presented himself in a recent New York times Magazne article. His sneering hatred of Art History majors (and one presumes art itself? What's the point in being rich if you hate art?) comes across as a sort of envy in the article.

    He certainly seems miserable in comparison to most of the Buddhist monks I know, who aren't multimillionaires but own basically 3 pieces of clothing and sleep on boards. However, whenever I see them (I visit once a week when work doesn't interfere) they are always cheerful and happy, unlike the bitter, sniping multi-millionaire in the story. (And he's not the only one of this type. Billionaire Tom Golisano, presented himself as another example of this type in a recent article about Occupy. Apparently dating a 30 years younger tennis star isn't enough to make him happy.)

  2. Tibetan Buddhist monks seem always to be in Assisi, in part, I imagine, because they and the Franciscans see one another as brothers... There was a dedication of a replica of the Porziuncola in San Francisco a few years ago that included Buddhists in the ceremonies. It's hard to imagine Franciscans these days without Buddhists.

    Despite the often magnificent accretions of the centuries there is a core of generosity and joy in simplicity within both Buddhism and Franciscanism.

    As for the unhappiness of the rich, it's sad, isn't it? I read about the Conrad story, and I wondered how he didn't drown in his own venom. So many of these high and mighty billionaires are filled with such loathing, fear and dread.

    Their bitterness has no reward.

    Excerpts from the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order:

    Let the Secular Franciscans seek a proper spirit of detachment from temporal goods by simplifying their own material needs. Let them be mindful that according to the gospel they are stewards of the goods received for the benefit of God's children.

    Thus, in the spirit of the Beatitudes, and as pilgrims and strangers on their way to the home of the Father, they should strive to purify their hearts from every tendency and yearning for possession and power.

    Let them individually and collectively be in the forefront in promoting justice by the testimony of their human lives and their courageous initiatives. Especially in the field of public life, they should make definite choices in harmony with their faith.

    Moreover they should respect all creatures, animate and inanimate, which "bear the imprint of the Most High," and they should strive to move from the temptation of exploiting creation to the Franciscan concept of universal kinship.

    Mindful that they are bearers of peace which must be built up unceasingly, they should seek out ways of unity and fraternal harmony through dialogue, trusting in the presence of the divine seed in everyone and in the transforming power of love and pardon. Messengers of perfect joy in every circumstance, they should strive to bring joy and hope to others. Since they are immersed in the resurrection of Christ, which gives true meaning to Sister Death, let them serenely tend toward the ultimate encounter with the Father.

  3. Buddhist monks, of course, are very tolerant of anyone who they believe is engaged in right activities, and they normally believe that you shouldn't criticize others religions, or at least not do so easily, because it is arrogant.

  4. Franciscans, if they're truly devout and following the example of Francesco, are practically Buddhists anyway. I think they and the Buddhists know that.

    Of course, there are varieties of Franciscan... and Buddhist.

    What is true for some is not true for all of course. But there's a bond between the Franciscan and the Buddhist view that's pretty strong. Among Catholics, Franciscans tend to be least judgmental of others and modest about their own qualities.