Thursday, October 04, 2007

St. Francis of Assisi: Dancer, Rebel, Archetype


Today is the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi.

I’ve been reading quite a bit about Francis these past few weeks, as well as living with Jon Giuliani’s beautiful depiction of him (see detail above). In fact, as you can see from the photograph below, I have this particular portrait of Francis in a simple frame and positioned next to a potted ivy plant, the vines of which grow up and around it. Before this picture sits a candle, usually lit whenever I’m at home.

In recent weeks, this portrait of St. Francis has watched over numerous meetings that have taken place around my dining room table. These spirited and energizing meetings have facilitated the coming together of Catholics dedicated to renewal and reform within the Roman Catholic Church.

We call ourselves “progressive” Catholics because we are drawn to participate in the Church’s wondrous capacity to grow, change, and evolve in ways that ever increasingly reveal God’s transforming love in our midst.

Later today, after months of brainstorming, planning, networking, and writing, this group of Catholics will launch The Progressive Catholic Voice, an online journal that will serve as a forum for reflection and dialogue within the local Catholic community, and as a means by which the progressive voice of this community can be developed and unified.

Several weeks ago I suggested that we consider St. Francis of Assisi as the patron saint for both this online journal and the coalition of individuals and organizations behind it. Accordingly, each issue of our monthly journal will contain the following inscription: “Dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, who heard and responded to God’s call to ‘repair my Church,’ and, in so doing, emulated the justice-making and compassion of our brother Jesus.”

Unquestionably, many Catholics recognize that this call to “repair my Church” continues to resound today in a Roman Catholic Church that, at its worst, is corroded and weakened by clericalism, hypocrisy, intellectual dishonesty, a profound lack of imagination, and a monarchical mindset and structure totally contrary to Jesus’ egalitarian model of community.

Yes, my friends, there is much work to be done!

The “ultimate rebel”

In his book, Sanctity and Male Desire: A Gay Reading of Saints, Donald L. Boisvert suggests that “we all like to think of Francis of Assisi as the ultimate rebel” – perhaps yet another reason why he is such a perfect choice for our journal’s patron saint! After all, you can be sure that there will be some Catholics who will dismiss such an endeavor as the work of “dissenters,” “heretics,” and “rebels.”

Yet according to Boisvert: “Each generation creates its own Francis, and takes from his character and legacy that which appeals most to its sense of priorities” – whether this be his anti-materialism, his simplicity, or his profoundly sacramental understanding and experience of creation. (“For if Francis was anything,” says Boisvert of the saint’s sacramental view of creation, “he was earthy; not the angelic figure of the tacky holy cards, but bold and brawny in his spirituality and in his humanity . . . Francis, the ultimate outsider.”)

As progressive Catholics in the 21st century, we claim Francis’ “profoundly new and uncompromising paradigm for understanding the gospel teachings of Jesus” in the face of a “very rich, feudal, medieval church” (sound familiar?). Francis, says Boisvert, “created fresh ways of understanding relationships and material goods, and the manner in which power, whether religious or secular, should be comprehended and lived out.”

“In his radical yet deeply disturbing simplicity,” Boisvert reminds us, “Francis altered the course of Christian history. He opened new vistas, showing that there are different ways of relating to each other, of ordering our priorities and values, of making sense – just as gay [people] are now doing.”

Boisvert, of course, is writing for gay people – gay men in particular. But we have a broader focus and audience, built on the belief that the perspectives and insights of progressive Catholics are also capable of opening up “new vistas,” and showing “different ways of relating,” of “ordering priorities and values,” and of “making sense” of the important issues confronting the Church – issues related, in particular, to organizational structure, decision-making, and Vatican II’s call for the “full, conscious, and active participation by all the baptized.”

Dancing with the Divine

Another book I’m reading is Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone by Susan Pitchford. She observes that for Francis, “to be a disciple of Jesus Christ was to be engaged in a lifelong love affair, swept into an intense dance with the Divine.”

“It was a passionate God who called Francis into this dance,” writes Pitchford, “extending a torn hand in invitation. Everything that is distinctive and compelling about Francis’ life followed directly from the intensity of this love: when Francis renounced worldly possessions, he did so that he might embrace the poor Christ unencumbered. And when he took the leper into his arms, the kiss he left on the disfigured face was given to the risen Lord.”

One of my favorite parts of Pitchford’s book is when she relates the story of Francis and the wolf of Gubbio. For Pitchford, this legendary tale serves to highlight how Frances “had the courage to confront his shadow side and be reconciled to himself, and to God.”

Writes Pitchford:

One of the most famous stories told about Francis concerns the time when the people of the town of Gubbio were being terrorized by a bloodthirsty wolf. The wolf had killed several people, and the townsfolk were afraid to leave their homes. So Francis decided to go meet the wolf . . . When he found the wolf, it lunged at him open-jawed, but when Francis greeted it as “Brother Wolf” and commanded it not to harm him or anyone else, it stopped and knelt in submission at Francis’ feet. Francis and the wolf made a deal: the people of the town would provide food for the wolf for the rest of its life, in exchange for the wolf’s ceasing to harm them. The wolf bowed its head and placed its right paw into Francis’ hand, and sealed the deal. So the wolf lived in peace with the people of Gubbio for the rest of its life.

. . . The reason this story has such a central place in Franciscan lore is that it points to Francis’ role as a reconciler of enemies. But a deeper reading suggests that Francis was unafraid to go forth alone and confront the beast within himself. This is a very Franciscan approach to penitence: Francis didn’t kill the wolf – he tamed it so that he could live with it in peace. Likewise, our wounds – even the scary, shameful, self-inflicted ones – shouldn’t become occasions for doing ourselves further violence. They’re to be occasions of mercy, of reconciliation, of peace.

We’re living in a time when many are asking: What does it mean to be Catholic? In relation to many important issues, this question generates strong feelings. It’s so easy to be carried away by our emotions and to say and do things that lack awareness and compassion. (I know that I can tend to dismiss people and their legitimate concerns by labeling them “reactionary.” And only last week, I was referred to as a “sodomite heretic” by another Catholic blogger!).

Without doubt, we’re living through many “occasions” for mercy, reconciliation, and peace. Like St. Francis, my prayer is that we may open ourselves to being vessels of peace for one another. And certainly those of us who have labored to produce The Progressive Catholic Voice see this ongoing project as a positive and proactive endeavor, one that will be undertaken in a respectful tone and in a spirit of love for our brothers and sisters throughout the Church – regardless of how they understand and/or identify themselves as conservative, moderate, or progressive.

Still relevant

Yet another book I’ve been drawn to as I’ve worked with others in preparing The Progressive Catholic Voice, is Leonardo Boff’s Francis of Assisi: A Model for Human Liberation. In this book, Boff shares a wealth of insight on how “some aspects of [Francis’] life make him particularly relevant for our times in this planetary phase of humankind.”

The first of these aspects include Francis’s “introduction of care, heartfelt reason, and emotional intelligence.” I appreciate Boff’s insights on Francis as a “postmodern brother.” For instance, Boff quotes Max Scheler’s description of Francis as “the Western world’s most characteristic representative of the way of relating with empathy and sympathy,” as “no one has better achieved the unity and integrity of all elements than did Saint Francis in the realm of the religious, the erotic, social relations, art, knowledge.”

Boff contends that “essentially, Francis liberated the springs of the heart and the outpouring of Eros” (understood, in the words of psychoanalyst Rollo May, as “desire, hope and the eternal search for expansion,” and described by Boff as “creative spontaneity, freedom, fantasy, and the ability to demonstrate gentleness and care”).

Francis, continues Boff, “achieved an admirable accord” between Eros and Logos [that system of reason that can tend to be antagonistic toward those dimensions of life that are less productive, though more receptive]. In short, Francis “demonstrated with his life that, to be a saint, it is necessary to be human. And to be human, it is necessary to be sensitive and gentle. With the poor man from Assisi fell the veils that covered reality. When this happens, it remains evident that human reality is not a rigid structure, not a concept, but rather it is sympathy, capacity for compassion and gentleness. . . . In Francis, one can see the sovereign rule of Eros over Logos, a communion and confraternalization with all of reality such as has never been seen since.”

Related to this, of course, is the second aspect of Francis’ life that Boff identifies as being relevant for us today. It’s Francis’ “living out of universal kinship,” a trait, writes Boff, which is “crucial today when all cultures and religions encounter one another and can generate conflict and even war, due to lack of dialogue and true encounter.”

“Brother tree”

And then, of course, there is Francis’ “profound ecological stance.” As Boff reminds us, Francis “did not look at nature and all things as lifeless objects to be used, but rather as living members of the creation community that we must respect. He called the Sun, the birds, and the animals his brothers, and the moon, the earth, plants, and flowers his sisters. He cared for bees in winter so that they would not die of hunger and cold. He took the worm off the road to keep it from being stepped on and killed.”

I read this words and chuckle. I have a family of spiders living in my attic bathroom that I simply cannot bring myself to destroy! And the photograph we’re using as part of The Progressive Catholic Voice banner is one I took in the spring of 2005 of a tree by the Mississippi River. Whenever I go to this favorite spot of mine to reflect and pray, I always greet this tree as “brother tree.” It’s not that I’m not drawn to other aspects of nature, but for some reason I’ve always felt an especially strong kinship with this particular tree.

Archetype of the human ideal

And finally, says Boff, “the joy, enthusiasm, and optimism of Francis of Assisi toward life should be highlighted.” These words, too, bring a smile to my face, as I recall the great sense of excitement and energy my friends and I have experienced as we’ve worked to bring to fruition The Progressive Catholic Voice.

And it’s not just been among ourselves that we’ve experienced this energizing and joyful movement of the spirit, but among the many people – priests, religious, lay parish workers, teachers – whom we’ve met with over the past few weeks so as to introduce and discuss our new project. They have expressed great interest in the prospect of a monthly journal containing not only information about upcoming events, but interviews, commentaries, and articles written by and for Catholics who share the call to actively participate in (and contribute to) the ongoing renewal of the Roman Catholic Church.

Without doubt, there’s a heartfelt recognition that the progressive voice, along with the conservative voice and the moderate voice, is essential to the dialogue that is part of any living faith community.

St. Francis of Assisi belongs, of course, not just to those Catholics who call themselves “progressive.” Indeed, he doesn’t belong exclusively to Catholics or even to Christians. As Boff notes: “Through his deep humanity, Francis of Assisi has become an archetype of the human ideal: open to God, universal brother, and caretaker of nature and of Mother Earth. He belongs not only to Christianity, but to all humankind.”

Blessed Francis of Assisi, saint of saints,
wonder of God’s creation, divine rebel, teach us to be like you.
You changed your times. You made possible
a new way of seeing and belonging in the world.
As a community, help us to understand
our own path and our own vision.
Guide us. Sustain us. Comfort and reassure us.
Instill in us a deep respect for the unique gifts of the earth,
as we acknowledge and celebrate their goodness.
We ask for your blessings on our endeavors, and we give
thanks for your holy and timeless example. Amen.

– Donald L. Boisvert
(From Sanctity and Male Desire: A Gay Reading of Saints,
Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, 2004)

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
St. Francis of Assisi and Human Sexuality
Out and About – September 2007
What It Means To Be Catholic
Joy: The Most Infallible Sign of God’s Presence


Anonymous said...

I thought intercessory prayer prohibited direct appeals from the saints, in favor of their mediation with the one savior? Asking a saint to do what only god can do is blasphemous. Asking a saint to "pray for us" is within the communion of saints.

Many of the saints were rebels: Augustine, Aquinas, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, and many of them were borderline, histrionic, and schizo-affective personalities. I realize that Catholics seek to imitate Christ, or his Mother as the perfect disciple, but to imitate a saint imitating the master seems rather indirect way to achieve divinity.

Through the saints, we hopefully see a prism of different stars in the constellation of the church, but in the final analysis, whether it is Benedict of Nursis or Anselm of Canterbury or Francis of Assisi, our star is the light within us, not borrowed from the others whose light flickers in memory. And while dance was once integral to liturgy, I have yet to see it done in a way that does not look jarring.

Thus, I once joined my Catholic buddies for Church I of the Great Vigil in the traditional pontifical mass, and proceeded to the White Party of Church II in a gay disco. But the thought of combining these two rituals jars my sensibilities. And in terms of enjoyment? Well, I leave that to the readers' imagination.

crystal said...

I like Leo Boff too - sometimes visit his website. I haven't read that book of his on Francis, but a while ago I posted something about an old article by James Alison on Boff and two of his books, one of which was Francis of Assisi: A Model for Human Liberation.

Michael J. Bayly said...


Thanks for the link to your post about Leonardo Boff. I found it very interesting and, like you and Jeff, I too am an admirer of his theological insights and writings.