Thursday, 25 July 2013

In the Middle of this our Life in the Middle of Middle Park in the Middle of Winter

Philip Harvey

Middle age was once our thirties and forties, based perhaps on halving the biblical seventy years. Today it seems to be whatever one feels like, we being only as old as we feel, apparently. Few people today under forty think of themselves as middle-aged, or admit it, while there are those in their sixties and seventies who are only as old as they feel and therefore, by their own reckoning, middle-aged. Middle age seems to go with keeping fit to reduce the middle of your anatomy. It sometimes means losing focus on objects in the middle distance. It means discovering you are not the centre of all attention, not the middle of the universe.

Our middle name is often a cause of involuntary denial and identity puzzle. A middle name is like some personal secret that, once disclosed in a social context, can give way in others to mirth, amazement, disbelief, and infinite conjecture. How could you live with a name like that? What deep meaning did it have for your parents to have chosen that name of all names? The name itself may be as common as your main name, yet something about it being your middle name turns it into a weird revelation of everything you are trying so hard to keep from the world. Just the revelation of having a name other than the one you use every day is enough to send some minds into a spin. And sometimes the more middle names you have, the worse it gets. 

These thoughts sprang to mind in the middle of winter while at my workplace in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Middle Park. The terms middle income, middle management, middle stump are not misplaced when talking about Middle Park, and the suburb today is decidedly middle class. None of these things have to do with the name itself, but its name lands us in the middle of a quandary. ‘The Encyclopedia of Melbourne’ (ed. Brown-May & Swain, 2005) has an entry for the suburb but no explanation for how it got its name. Even more strangely, neither does the recent book ‘The Heart of Middle Park : Stories from a Suburb by the Sea’ (Middle Park History Group, 2011), so invitations are out for someone to explain why the suburb is a Park and what it’s in the middle of. Albert Park is to the north, but there is no park to the south. It is possible that its toponym comes from being land reclaimed between the old lagoons, including the one known as Albert Park Lake, and Port Phillip Bay. Any improvements on this guesswork are welcome.

Obviously things become more relative the more we learn. The middle is only the middle in relation to the definition points around it. Another Melbourne planning oddity is Middle Camberwell, which has been on the periphery of Camberwell for decades. When Europeans finally got around to changing Near East to Middle East, this still didn’t mean much to those Australians who from their angle care to see the region as the Near West. J.R.R. Tolkien adopted the Old English word ‘middle-earth’, meaning the world we live in, for use as the setting of his considerable fictions. He reintroduced the word into usage. The term has older echoes in the Chinese concept of the Middle Kingdom, or Zhongguo in Chinese, which is in fact the oldest and most common name for China itself. So if you live in China at any age in any age you regard yourself as being in the middle, just as a librarian in Middle Park would feel he is at the centre of everything in the Library, and the world as a matter of fact, in the middle of winter.

Even the middle of winter is open to conjecture. Is it the longest night of the year, the solstice? Or the coldest, rainiest week? Is it the height of the ski season or the low of knowing your team will not reach the finals? Is it the week the cootamundra starts to blossom? The overlay of the four seasons of Europe on Australian conditions has never helped in saying when we experience the middle of winter. The Indigenous Australians have seven seasons of the year, of which at least two correspond with the wintry phase we experience in Middle Park and the rest of Melbourne: any concept of middle is not fixed.

The Library itself caters mainly for two kinds of brow, the high and the middle, while the lowbrow is not actively encouraged, even if treated as a worthwhile object of research within reasonable grounds. The Library holds plenty on the middle period of Kierkegaard, the middle period of Jung, and in fact the middle period of almost anyone spiritual you care to name. Being a library specialising in spirituality it holds an extensive collection of writings in Middle English, which is the English that last employed the term ‘middle-earth’, by the way. And the Library, due to buying policies in several areas including church history, mysticism, and hagiography, has a huge and always growing collection of works of all sorts about the Middle Ages. Just as users of Middle English knew they were speaking English but didn’t know it was Middle English, so no one in the Middle Ages (which includes all speakers of Middle English) knew they were living in some pre- or post- age of some kind or another but would never have thought of it as the Middle Ages. Many believed the End could arrive any day now. The Middle Ages could only have been defined by someone who was postmodern enough to see that the Middle Ages had come to an end. Various postmodern people in the 15th century seem to have judged that the Renaissance had hit and it was time to put the old times behind them. Two events are amongst those treated as points of closure, the fall of Constantinople (1453) and the day Columbus conked into somewhere Indian (1492), though most people agree the Middle Ages begin with the recognised fall of the Western Roman Empire (476). Those who adopt the long view argue in philosophical vein that we all live in a Middle Age, others that humanity itself exists in a Middle Ages, with a fairly certain before and after.

The Old English word ‘middle-earth’ contained its own implicit meaning, was its own Weltanschauung as latter-day Germans like to say. On either side of the middle where we now find ourselves, is heaven or hell, a prospect described in fervent detail in the here and now by the most famous medieval poet, Dante Alighieri, in his big poem, the Divine Comedy. This is how it opens:   
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
chè la diritta via era smarrita
which some translate as the poet in the middle of his life finding himself lost in a dark wood, though you will notice the Italian actually says he finds himself in the middle of the way of our life. The opening line, in other words, says that we all share with Dante in this way, that we each find ourselves in the middle asking questions, searching for a way forward. From the first line we are with Dante and see things through his eyes: it is an invitation, in the middle of everything else, to go on a tour of discovery. It is a tour of discovery of everything else, and so in its course of ourselves. Literal scholars say Dante was 35 at the time.

What is the middle anyway? Often we are in too much of a state of flux to say exactly. At the Library counter if a borrower asks how I am the response might be “oh fair to middling”, while if a long, distracting conversation looms the polite excuse is, “sorry, I am just in the middle of something.” The middle of what, though? More work? The ‘something’ won’t be finished until the middle of next week. Only some things are certain: it is neither the beginning nor the end, we are neither in youth nor old age, and we are in a place that is neither a park nor between other parks yet is called Middle Park. We can go whole days not thinking about our middle name.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Susan Southall on Fenton Johnson

On Tuesday the 16th of July the Spiritual Reading Group met for its monthly meeting in the Carmelite Library. Susan Southall presented this short introductory paper on the American writer Fenton Johnson and his book ‘Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey Among Christian and Buddhist Monks’.

Fenton Johnson is a spiritual writer who is also a novelist and a gay man. He grew up in a religious Catholic family as the youngest of nine children, and he knew the church would reject him as the person he really is. He left his home in Kentucky, in the conservative American South —located so near to the Gethsemani Monastery where Thomas Merton had lived that the monks would often eat at his family’s table and the family would visit the monastery — for the more open and accepting society of San Francisco.  He also left his family’s expectation that he would enter the church for his life as a writer. At the age of 34, he met Larry Rose, a high-school English teacher, who was the only child of Holocaust survivors and was HIV positive with an active case of AIDS in 1987 when that diagnosis was a death sentence that attracted severe discrimination, as Johnson would discover.
            Johnson knew that in Larry he was facing the reality of mortality, but it didn’t register with him.  He says, “My bent sexuality gave me insight into some way of being other than boundless American optimism, but for many years I’d lived in California and I’d acquired the prevailing denial of darkness and death.” He was young enough to trust in his own immortality. However, in his book Geography of the Heart, he states that the first lesson of love is “how love chooses us, if we will let it, rather than the other way around.” Johnson chose the way of love which lasted three years as Larry weakened and died, and his partner was refused the right to see him even on his deathbed. He didn’t count as family.
            Johnson describes the reaction of the church to the AIDS crisis this way:  “Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s I helped some of the most virtuous men of my acquaintance as they died of HIV, when silence was the best the dying and their caretakers could hope for from institutionalised churches.  Many priests and ministers suggested the sufferers deserved their fate, and almost all helped spread the disease by blocking or criticising frank discussion of sex or sexuality…After Larry’s death, in a desperation of grief I considered returning to the church of my childhood — what was religion for but to offer solace at such dark moments?  But crashing a party to which I had been so explicitly disinvited seemed a fool’s invitation to more pain.”
            Johnson was invited to the Gethsemani Encounter by Brother Paul, whose novice master had been Thomas Merton. Merton, as we know, had an interest in bringing Asian spirituality to light in the West, and the Encounter was a result of his inspiration. Johnson decided to treat the event as a journalist: to find things out. The first thing he found out was that although he had “expected that religion would explain the world, then I rejected it when its explanations failed the test of logic.” He saw the error “not in religion’s faulty explanations but in my faulty expectations…religion might serve some purpose other than to satisfy reason’s demands to know why.”
            On listening to the Buddhist speakers he began to understand that some of his anger at religion had its roots in envy. He noted that he was “born healthy and white and male, an English-speaking citizen of the American Empire — these great advantages I owe entirely to fate but take for granted, even as they surely outweigh the challenges of being born working-class and gay.  Now I was listening to a man whose life had been one long confrontation with violence and death” in South East Asia, “and yet his simple presence projected peace into the room….a man of great faith, who seemed free from the anger about which he spoke with such eloquence and which had so readily seized me.” Johnson determined to learn more about Buddhism and especially about meditation, and at the same time he wanted to ask some questions of his own church: “How had it evolved from the teachings of Jesus...into a place where outsiders have to fight to be allowed to participate?... How did it come to be an institution of power and exclusion? And ... where was the place of the contemplative life?”
            Johnson spent time interviewing monks and participating in the life at Gethsemani and the three campuses of the San Francisco Zen Centre, where he explored a practice of meditation that he still follows today. During those early meditation sessions he says, “I began learning … to live in dialogue with my body rather than as its overlord … To understand the physical body as the seat of memory, to grasp how life is the accumulation of gesture, how I become what I do, how every moment contains and expresses the sum of my history as it contributes to shaping my future — this was for me the beginning of change.”
            “The bad, or at least the tough part: intensive zazen is not an undertaking for the faint of heart of weak of knee.  The practice reveals my self to myself, and…what I learn is not always what I’d like to know. In my case I was finding first and foremost that I worry too much about the future at the expense of the present.”
He notes that Aquinas meets Zen in the statement ‘The most marvellous of all things a being can do is: to be.’ “Aquinas, meet Suzuki Roshi.” When Johnson asked his Tassajara Zen teacher, “What is the goal” of meditation, the answer was, “The goal is to have no goal. The goal is to take a few minutes just to be.”
            Johnson found the choir at Gethsemani the heart of monastic life. “Music doesn’t lie, and it’s impossible to fake faith, and so (he finds) the twentieth-century hymns sound false to the ear and the heart.  What does it say of our culture, I wondered, that we have lost the ability to sing praise?”  He asks, “How much of Gregorian chant was about being a community saying a mantra together?  In switching to another form of music are we really aware to what we’ve done, how much music was a part of the culture?”
            Johnson notes that “an essential aspect of the sacred… is that it cannot be bought or sold. Whether gesture or thought, almsgiving or prayer, the sacred act is done not for personal gain but for the sake of the doing.” Monasticism, he says, “is about making time sacred, removing it from any possibility of a price. And this is because monasticism and monastic time trace themselves not to the linear time of the later prophets and the book of Revelation but to the round time that came before. Monastic time is feminine time — monastic space is an essentially feminine space — anyone who troubles to spend even a weekend  at a monastery will perceive this… though at Christian monasteries more tangible evidence abounds in the current and historical predominance of images of the Virgin — or, as the women of my family have taught me to name her, the Holy Mother. As institutions dedicated to round, feminine culture, monasteries give the community priority over the individual.”
            Monasteries, says Johnson, “are overflowing with retreatants … because they offer a refuge from the cultural obsession with masculine (and, he thinks, Protestant), linear time, in which individual achievement takes precedence over all other considerations and in which everything, most particularly time itself, is quantified and measured, usually for the purposes of being bought and sold.”
            A Zen teacher told him: “If a layperson is whole-hearted, sincere, reverent, grateful. Isn’t that the same as being a priest or a monk? He gives the example of jazz musician John Coltrane. “He’s a musician who puts heart into every note — no single note is more important than another.  I heard him talking on radio — in every word you could hear gratitude, reverence, awe. He couldn’t wait to get back to the studio.”
            Johnson wants people to get in touch with the preciousness of their lives.


Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Zen Photography of Thomas Merton

In the next two weeks (10th-24th July) there is an exhibition of photographs by Thomas Merton at the ACU Melbourne Gallery, 26 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, in Melbourne. The show is called ‘A Hidden Wholeness: The Zen Photography of Thomas Merton’. At the launch on Thursday evening, Michael Casey OCSO of Tarrawarra Abbey had some perceptive remarks to make about Merton as human and artist. He saw Merton as someone who was always striving to seek the opposite of what he already had, that he had a side to him that was like an unfulfilled adolescent. It was implied that this helps to explain, in part, Merton’s interest in Eastern spirituality later in his life. Merton died at the age of 53 while on a tour of discovery of East Asia, though in the final days of his life was writing home that he missed the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where he had spent half of his life.   Fr Michael observed that Merton’s parents were both artists, leading to the conclusion that Merton had an “innate talent”. One could also observe that Merton’s parents created a home environment in which free artistic expression was permitted, so that when later in life he was allowed to live in a hermitage in the grounds of the Abbey, Merton could relive that childhood world of artistic freedom. His move to the hermitage coincided with an amazing expansion of creativity in many media, including photography.


Fr Michael put forward the theory that all of Thomas Merton’s graphic art became more abstract in the early sixties, due in part to his discovery of Zen. The photography is yet one more example of this move towards abstraction. The 35 photographs in the show exhibit an interest in strong forms, but also in the transience of the created world. The full impact of the photographs is felt when we encounter the original prints in the ACU Gallery. We see the spare and practical environment of Cistercian life, a masculine world of basic objects and unpretentious designs.  It is a pleasure to stand where the photographs were taken and try to imagine why Merton took the pictures. Whether the built environment or the natural world, Merton is focussed on getting at meanings beyond immediate appearances. We are struck by the directness, the lack of artifice in these early experiments in photographic theology. Who knows where Merton would have gone next with his artistic interests in word and image, if he had retuned to Kentucky in 1968. In conclusion, here are some words from the gallery site, quoted from John Howard Griffin in his book on Thomas Merton, ‘A Hidden Wholeness’, pages 49-50

“… he photographed the natural, unarranged, unpossessed objects of his contemplation, seeking not to alter their life but to preserve it in his emulsions… these photographs do not need to be studied, they need to be contemplated if they are to carry their full impact.”
The photographs come from the Collections of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. This exhibition is generously supported by: Australian Catholic University Melbourne, Catholic Archdioceses of Melbourne, Tarrawarra Abbey,The Oceania Leadership Team of Christian Brothers Oceania Province, The Society of the Faithful Companions of Jesus.


Monday, 8 July 2013

Saint Francis of Assisi A CREATIVE APPROACH TO SPIRITUALITY by Lynne Reeder

This paper was presented to the Spiritual Reading Group at the Carmelite Centre for its June 2013 meeting and discussion. It provides a short background on St Francis of Assisi; identifies a range of more recent writers, artists and poets who were influenced by St Francis; and then identifies some of the elements that the author, Lynne Reeder PhD, believes constitute a creative approach to the spirituality of St Francis. A large component of the content has been taken from her PhD, including the interviews that are mentioned.  
Francis was born at Assisi in Umbria, in 1181 or 1182 and died there on 3 October, 1226. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant. Of his mother little is known, but she is said to have belonged to a noble family of Provence. Francis was one of several children. At baptism he received the name of Giovanni, which his father afterwards altered to Francesco, through fondness it would seem for France, where he was at the time of his son's birth. Although associated with his father in the cloth trade, he showed little liking for a merchant's career, and his parents seemed to have indulged his every whim. Certain it is the saint's early life gave no indication of his life to come. No one loved pleasure more than Francis; he had a ready wit, sang merrily, delighted in fine clothes and showy display and he soon became the prime favourite among the young nobles of Assisi. But even at this time Francis showed an instinctive sympathy with the poor, and though he spent money lavishly, it still flowed in such channels as to attest a generous spirit.

When about twenty, Francis went out with the townsmen to fight the Perugians in one of the petty skirmishes so frequent at that time between the rival cities. The Assisians were defeated on this occasion, and Francis, being among those taken prisoners, was held captive for more than a year in Perugia. A low fever which he there contracted appears to have turned his thoughts to the things of eternity; at least the emptiness of the life he had been leading came to him during that long illness. With returning health, Francis's then became a knight of Assisi. 

After a short period of uncertainty he began to seek in prayer and solitude the answer to his call; he had already given up his wasteful ways. One day, while crossing the Umbrian plain on horseback, Francis unexpectedly drew near a poor leper. The sudden appearance of the leper filled him with disgust and he instinctively retreated, but presently controlling his natural aversion he dismounted, embraced the unfortunate man, and gave him all the money he had. About the same time Francis made a pilgrimage to Rome. Not long after his return to Assisi, whilst Francis was praying before an ancient crucifix in the forsaken wayside chapel of St. Damian's below the town, he heard a voice saying: "Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin." Taking this behest literally, as referring to the ruinous church wherein he knelt, Francis went to his father's shop, impulsively bundled together a load of coloured drapery, and sold it and the horse to procure the money needful for the restoration of St. Damian's.

He founded the men's Order of Friars Minor, with Clare the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the Third Order of Saint Francis for men and women not able to live the lives of itinerant preachers followed by the early members of the Order of Friars Minor or the monastic lives of the Poor Clares. Though he was never ordained to the Catholic priesthood, Francis is one of the most venerated religious figures in history.

Identifying that St Francis still connects with many secular people in the centuries since his death was shown by Roy Gasnick in his book to celebrate the anniversary of Francis’ birth. The Francis Book: 800 years with the Saint from Assisi, contains references to poems, articles, songs and paintings on Francis by a wide range of poets, artists, politicians and writers. The volume (1980:57) referenced Oscar Wilde’s reflection on the uniqueness of Christ, and his comments that there has been no other like Christ since, except for St Francis: ‘But then God had given him (Francis) at birth, the soul of a poet, and he himself when quite young had in mystical marriage taken Poverty as his bride; and with the soul of a poet and the body of a beggar he found his way to perfection not difficult.’
Albert Camus an atheist took the nonexistence of God for granted, rather finding meaning in life’s struggle itself. Camus wrote the following after a visit to Franciscan cells: ‘‘Being naked’ always has associations of physical liberty, of harmony between the hand and the flowers it touches, of a loving understanding between the earth and men who have been freed from human beings. Ah, I should become a convert to this if it were not already my religion’ (Gasnick, 1980:136). And Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote:
‘….Are we devils? Are we men?
Sweet Saint Francis of Assisi,
Would that he were here again,
He who in his catholic wholeness
Called the very birds and flowers,
Brothers, sisters’. (Gasnick, 1980:205)

It is also documented that Wordsworth, Longfellow, Dante, Hopkins, Rembrandt, Lenin all recognized Francis’ influence in their work and thoughts. In the publications’ foreword, Gasnick (1980:7) also referenced an event that took place in the US city named after St Francis – San Francisco where a sculpture of Francis was made from the melted-down hand-guns voluntarily turned into the mayor following the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy.


The following are the aspects of St Francis that I feel brings to his spirituality a creative endeavor and can discuss with you later. They come from my thesis – and the quotes come from those I interviewed who like me had a connection with Francis.

As a mystic Francis was very much about lived experience – Francis was in pursuit of communion with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight.

·        WONDER & AWE
·        TRUST & OPENESS
·        PASSION
·        JOY

Symbols are very powerful in gaining appreciation and understanding. Francis used his creative abilities to develop his own spirituality and to reach others. Francis was well known as the first Italian poet and was instrumental in developing Italian theatre. Campion Murray in his interview reflected, imagine all the songs, the stories…a society where everything was passed on by word of mouth…and he had schooling so he was literate…he wrote the first Italian poetry. It was Francis who created the first Christmas scene of the crib, to bring to life the birth of Christ. It was a symbol of an event that happened many years previously, but one that has provided a long-standing way of relating to the birth that still exists at Christmas today. Francis himself explained it as ...I wish to do something that will recall the memory of the little Child who was born in Bethlehem and set before our bodily eyes in some way the inconveniences of his infant needs, how he lay in the manager, how, with an ox and ass standing by, he lay upon the hay where he had been placed. [1]

The Franciscan movement has influenced all forms of cultural expression. The art and culture of Europe that surrounded Francis during his life also affected the ways in which he identified with others. He realized the importance of symbols and of speaking to people in an inclusive way. In order to reach as wide an audience as possible, the Franciscans ‘greatly extended the methods of medieval preaching, making lyric poetry and drama more accessible through the use of the colloquial speech’ (Cook, 1983:313). Francis himself sang in French and wrote in Italian (Moorman, 1968:270). He purposely tried to reach as many people as he could so as to demystify his messages. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries preaching was often seen as a theatrical experience. ‘As in opera, the sound of the words was as important as their meaning, and as in a play, the preacher sought to touch the hearts of his listeners by his actions as well as his words’ (Constable, 1996:151). This is what Francis sought to do in bringing stories to life, particularly that of the Nativity.  Cook (1989:89) believed that the first Nativity scene successfully achieved the 'democratization' of mysticism’ and contends that the experience of the Nativity that Francis created at Greccio ‘…was the greatest influence on Franciscan spirituality and thus on the spirituality of Western Christendom for centuries’. Francis wanted to ensure that everyone was able to share Christ’s birthday by recreating the reality of the birth, to clearly identify the inconvenience of his infant requirements (Fortini, 1992:531-532). 

During the Middle Ages, the language of learning had been Latin, but alongside this international tongue there existed in each country the popular spoken language, the vulgar tongue or vernacular. It was medieval France from which the most powerful cultural influences radiated throughout western Europe, including Italy. In the field of poetry, there were two traditions from France that had particular importance for Italian literature. One was the tradition of epic poetry, and the other influential French tradition was that of courtly love, spread by the troubadours. There were troubadours in the feudal courts of northern Italy in the later years of the twelfth century.

These traditions came to Italy originally in the French language, although there was some literary work in the Italian dialects in the twelfth century. By the following century, the Italian dialects had won out, and the thirteenth has been called the first century of Italian literature and one of the first important poets in Italian was St. Francis of Assisi.

The imagery of ‘brother sun’ ‘sister moon’, ‘brother fire’ are clear relational symbols and evoke the way in which Francis believed humans should relate to, and interact with the earth. Tenzin Palmo in interview commented …well if there is a creator, then everything is a child, not just humans, are brothers and sisters, but the insects, animals, the elements…and it’s very vivid to call them brother sun, sister water, sister wind...then you can feel immediately - if you think of sister water there is an immediate sense of relationship and’s a lovely way of looking at it. Feyer Mathews (2005:204) agrees that a shift in thinking is what’s required to create a deep connection with the earth. She states that such a connection requires not only tending the earth at a physical level, ‘…but also to sing it, to be in poetic rapport with its inner dimensions, to awaken it and evince its poetic response.’

Francis’ connection with the birds was sometimes interpreted as a hippy response – eg. Zeferrelli - but Franciscan priest, Murray Bodo[2] has noted that in the depictions of Francis preaching to the birds, the images were mostly of crows. In the 13th century crows were often used as symbols for the poor and marginalised. In other words the image of Francis preaching to birds could be construed as a symbol of his relationship with the marginalized.

Francis viewed the world with wonder and awe and this view had its basis in his mysticism and spirituality. Freke (1998:28) reminds that ‘for the mystics, religion is not just a matter of creeds and rituals; it is a spiritual path to experiential knowledge of God’. Francis believed that reflection and direct experience of the wonder of the universe was most important (Moorman, 1968:77). His direct connection with the environment stayed with him all his life. The Fioretti reveals that Francis and his followers prayed in the woods many more times than they did in churches (Armstrong, 1973:24). When he was dying, Francis requested that he be laid naked on the earth. This was so that he could be close to the earth and to acknowledge his humbleness. G K Chesterton (1990:82) describes the gesture as a desire ‘...even in his death agony to lie bare upon the bare ground, to prove that he had and that he was nothing’.
This aspect of Francis’ direct connection to all living creatures, including to elements, such as the stars and fire as having its basis in admiration for the created universe was commented on by some of the interviewees.  There is a story about St Francis and the moon: … one night Francis saw the moon and was so overcome with awe that he ran into the village of Assisi and began ringing the bell. Everyone came because you should only ring the bell in an emergency. They said ‘what are you doing?’ and he replied ‘lift your eyes and look at the moon’.

Tenzin Palmo commented on Francis’ ability to be in harmony with all around him, stating Francis was a wonder, he really must have somehow had a very profound experience…because even insects and animals moved him so, that he showed his complete empathy with everything around him…  Martin (2001:14) describes St Francis’ connection with all on the earth and in the heavens in another way, stating that Francis ‘…was not so much a nature lover…as a man who saw no distinction between himself and the natural world’.
More contemporary writers have also used such imagery to articulate the link between nature and humans. Thoreau for example has written that, ‘[I]t is in vain to dream of a wilderness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brain and bowels, the primitive vigour of Nature in us that inspires our dreams’ (Rothwell, 1991:126-27).

Intuition and openness - not only did Francis show respect for another way of knowing, he incorporated some of what he had learnt and observed from the Muslim faith. Rout (1996:80) states that Francis was particularly ‘struck by the religious attitudes of the Muslims, the call to prayer, the approach to a transcendent God, the deep respect for the sacred book of the Qur’an’. Svenhoven (survey) commented on this, noting that Francis changes his mind about the Sultan and Saracens…Francis is the one who learns by making himself vulnerable, susceptible for other people, other insights, other ways of life. He experienced meeting other people, other cultures, other religions as a gift

Francis’ sense of trust was also commented upon by Peter Kearney when describing the way in which he approached putting together a musical based on the lives of St Francis and St Clare entitled “Good Morning Good People’. Kearney noted that in staging his performances that in general I’d go places and not look for any guarantee and take my chances on the doors … so in small ways I’ve felt that Franciscan spirit in taking those chances… Jan Ruff-Aherne gave another perspective on a sense of trusting in commenting on her experience in the Second World War prison camps and that’s Franciscan poverty, that I really experienced in the war prison camps…because we had nothing there, totally nothing and you become completely dependent on God alone…

Francis sought to rebuild lives of all his listeners, through the same purifying action of the Spirit, i.e. without external coercion. In this context Francis reminded his friars of the requirement of reflection to review their actions and beliefs stating ‘[T]herefore, let us stop speaking and let us pray to the Lord that we may be granted the experience of that about which we have spoken (SC Epilogue, in Rout, 1996:87). 

Petrea King in interview spoke about the different ways of knowing, there’s intellectual understandingwhich is different from a real knowing… your intellect is fascinated by intellectual knowing because it’s looking for an answer…but when you experience the answer then no-one can take it away from you…it becomes who you are, and filters down literally to every cell of your body…
Francis' power as a mediator, reconciler and bringer of peace was grounded in part on his integration of the negative and the positive aspects of his being (Dennis, 1993:90). His way of being is reflected in the prayer ‘make me an instrument of your peace’. Francis did not want to ‘do’ as much as ‘become’ G.K. Chesterton (1990:89) believed that Francis’ imaginative response to life enabled him to make ‘the very act of living an art…’ and described him as ‘a poet whose whole life was a poem’. Similarly, Simone Weil noted that, ‘not only his poem was perfect poetry, but his whole life was perfect poetry in action….wandering and poverty were poetry for him’ (Irwin, 2002:193). Francis’ mystical approach to directly ‘experiencing’ his faith and not being ‘instructed’ in it, meant he was adamant that learning should not interfere with the friars’ reflective life, nor diminish their humility. Francis was very inclusive in all his undertakings. This led him to establish the Third Order for those people who for various reasons were not able to join monasteries; albeit that the establishment of such Orders was not unheard of at this time.

Francis spent his converted life reflecting on what it was that gave his life substance and what this meant for his life’s journey. At the end of his life Francis was credited with saying, I have lived my life as I felt called to do, may Christ teach you what is yours to do. This has come to be known as the Franciscan question ‘what is mine to do?’ [3] and it still reverberates today. In her recent book, Martin (2001:14) writes that she had no particular connection to Francis, was neither Italian nor a Roman Catholic, but in visiting Assisi was significantly influenced by Francis. She recounts that like many of the tourists looking at the frescos that covered the walls of the Basilica at Assisi, she was initially more interested in the art than in the story. ‘But that story, so sorrowful and triumphant, seemed to reach out from the walls and ceilings and grasp me by the shoulders. At Assisi, Florence, Rome, Arezzo the ragged barefoot beggar cried out to me: This is what I made of my life! Now go out and change your own!’  Assisi - In commenting on the images by Giotto in the upper church at Assisi Margaret Wertheim notes that: The frescos in Assisi heralded a revolution both in representation and in metaphysical leaning whose consequences for Western art, philosophy, and science can hardly be underestimated.
Mansukh Patel commented on another aspect of discovering your passion and that is the importance of finding your own sense of self ….unless you find your own place, then you can’t operate from a place of courage and clarity or selflessness, because outside that domain is selfishness, outside is greed and fear and all that tarnishes your decisions, so from Francis’ perspective we are invited to go back to that place that is within us, which means we will come to the decision ourselves about what is right and not right…You start practicing what comes out of yourself.

Petrea King in interview highlighted that Francis’ power was in his passion about his work and his philosophy, not in his ability to establish an Order…he wasn’t interested in creating an organisation that would go on into the millennium. He was interested in demonstrating a life that was lived with passion for the philosophy that he felt… … his power was in his passion about his work and his whole philosophy - to be confined to a structure…that wasn’t his interest…
However, Mertens in his survey response agreed that it was the Franciscan movement that ensured the message of St Francis was passed on through the centuries. Without the academic contributions of people like Bonventure, William of Ockham or Duns Scotus who introduced the Franciscan seminal institutions into the academic discussions of the day, our Franciscan vision would be incomplete.

The 13th century was a time of troubadours, and Francis had their best characteristics. He was happy, he sang, he loved nature. For Francis the ability to discover joy in sadness was the heroic quality he defined as ‘perfect joy’ (Fortini 1992:483). Francis’ notion of joy is best understood in the context of his adoption of values associated with chivalry. For Francis sadness was an ‘illness of the soul’ and he wanted his approach to joy to be incorporated into the Rules of the Order. Chapter 7 of the Rule of 1221 stated, ‘They should let it be seen that they are happy in God, cheerful and courteous, as is expected of them’ (Fortini, 1992:483). This value of Francis should not be underestimated, as during the Middle Ages, the Church drew on the imagery of the devil and hell to often rule by fear. 
Thomas Celano in his first biography The First Life of St Francis wrote, ‘[F]or who could ever give expression to the very great affection he bore for all things that are God’s? Who would be able to narrate the sweetness he enjoyed while contemplating in creatures the wisdom of their Creator, his power and his goodness? Indeed, he was very often filled with a wonderful and ineffable joy from this consideration while he gazed upon the stars and the firmament’.[4] 

Tenzin Palmo also noted this when she moved from India to live in Assisi …although there are a great many scholarly Franciscans, they still do have that sense of appreciating spontaneity and joy and what comes from within...even today the Order has a very special flavour…when you’re in Assisi and you see the Friars there you know you’re with Franciscans, you’re definitely not with Dominicans, not to speak of the Jesuits! There is definitely an see the friars running down the know these young friars, their habits up the little bare legs, and they can still do that and everybody is happy to see them...there is a simplicity, there is an appreciation of the meditative, the joy. 
So these are the elements I have identified of St Francis’ creative approach to his spirituality: i.e   imagery & symbols; wonder & awe; trust & openness; personal reflection; passion and joy - and I’m happy to discuss.

[2] Murray Bodo, O.F.M is a Franciscan priest, associate professor, and writer-in-residence at Thomas More College, Kentucky. He is the author of A Retreat with Francis and Clare of Assisi; Song of the Sparrow; Clare, A Light in the Garden; Tales of St. Francis; Through the Year with Francis of Assisi; Francis: The Journey and the Dream; and The Almond Tree Speaks: New and Selected Writings, 1974-1994.
[3] Uhlien OSF 2000 Creating a Franciscan Conversation