Thursday, October 4, 2012

St. Francis

Today is the memorial of St. Francis of Assisi.

At some point in my sophomore year of college I started reading a biography by GK Chesterton on St. Francis of Assisi. I heard that Chesterton was somehow similar to CS Lewis and I wanted to learn more about St. Francis. He was the first person I can remember calling a “saint”, and I had a notion that he was somehow a good Christian.
photo credit: Ben Johnson

It turns out that the Chesterton biography was an awful place to start learning more about St. Francis. It presumes a basic knowledge of the traditional stories about St. Francis, which I was mostly unfamiliar with. I don’t remember gleaning all too much from the book, which is why I’m re-reading it now.

But both the day and the book prompted me to reflect on the various times where Francis has been present in my spiritual journey.

In elementary school, my mom had convinced me to recite a poem about St. Francis and the birds while holding one of our parakeets on my hand for the school talent show. (Talented or not, it was "cute" and popular with the other moms in attendance) It may just be an indication of how odd of a child I was, but I remember being influenced by that poem. Later, when my parents weren’t watching I remember lining up our pet birds on the arm of one of the sofas in our living room and gave them my best shot at a sermon.  

photo credit: Ben Johnson
We didn't realize we could also take a bus up to the top!
As noted, I specifically set out to find more about the saint in my sophomore year of college. I mostly failed, but something must have continued my interest. The summer of 2008 when my brother and I travelled through Europe, I tried to make a daytrip to Assisi a priority. I had just read Pope John Paul II’s “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” in my last few days in Papua New Guinea that summer, and I was interested in reading up on Catholicism at the time. As my brother and I set off for Rome, our first stop in a couple week tour of Europe, I had high expectations for my trip to the home of the Apostolic See.

I was disappointed. In the midst of my questions and spiritual seeking, something about the Catholic Church had started to call to me, but as I entered into its home world, I realized how foreign that Church still was to me. I have no memory of considering actually becoming Catholic at that point, but I still wanted and expected to find more of a spiritual affinity in Rome than I did. Instead, I found that I still didn’t understand the papacy, marian devotion, sacramentals, or the communion of saints. The many statues and monuments didn’t resonate with my evangelical spirituality at all, and the names of Popes, the sight of relics, and the glitter of gold all prompted more questions at a time when I was more interested in answers.

Our one day trip to Assisi was different. The Italian countryside could not have been more beautiful. A walk up to the basilica from the train station made us feel like pilgrims. The story of St. Francis and even the aesthetics of the basilica appealed to me. A couple moments stand out. One was seeing Francis’ robe, now in a glass case and partially disintegrated, but still there.
photo credit: Ben Johnson

Another was when my brother and I somehow lost each other in the basilica. I looked for him for a bit, but then decided to wait near a side chapel to see if he came by. I heard American English being spoken and found myself sitting in a back pew while an American pilgrimage group celebrated Mass.

I remember three things from that Mass: 1) I heard Scripture being read. 2) I left at some point while the Mass was happening. I think my leaving may have been prompted by feeling suddenly uncomfortable or out of place. Perhaps the liturgy of the Eucharist had just begun; perhaps we had arrived at consecration. I’m not sure. I was totally unfamiliar with the liturgy at the time. 3) I prayed while I sat there, and it was a real prayer and a moment of surrender to God. I had no idea what specifically I was surrendering, but I was very aware that summer of how my plans and ideas about my future could suddenly change. In Ignatian terms, it was a moment of spiritual consolation. I arrived late and left quite early, but that was the first Mass I ever attended.

I also remember following the flow of other pilgrims and tourists down to the crypt where St. Francis is buried. It was dark, and people were praying. People walked around the spot where he was buried and would place their hands on the stones there. I don’t remember seeing this as problematic. Instead, I tried it. I placed my hand there and said a prayer. I forget what I said. I’ve thought back to that moment, wondering why I wasn’t weirded out by the earthiness or sacramentality of the moment. Somehow it made sense to me. It seemed ok and even good that people came from all over to be close to where he was buried, and to pray there. Sometimes I had felt repulsed by Catholic spirituality, but at a time when I logically should have felt that same reaction, I instead felt peace.

Now knowing that I’ll spend two years with Franciscans, I can let myself be challenged by the poverello again. I find Francis impractical, impulsive and over the top sometimes, but I know that the Gospel sometimes (always?) demands all three. I once heard a priest speaking about Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel as “prompt, generous, and total.”  I want that. I want to be “all in” in regards to following Jesus, but I know that I’m not. My natural inclination is to question again and again what it means to follow Jesus, while continuing to withhold parts of myself from Him. Francis’ simple, at times even literalistic attention to and imitation of the Jesus of the Gospels should prompt me to look more at my own heart than at my petty questions, and more at the cross of Christ than either my heart or my petty questions.