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

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