With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Feast of St Francis of Assisi

Today's the day! It's the feast of St Francis of Assisi!

Troparion Tone 3.
When riches had impoverished the world, you enriched it with the poverty of Christ, and by your love for all creation, you revealed to us the radiance of Tabor's light, so that all nations see in you the deep desire of all mankind. Beg Christ our Lord to save our souls.

Kontakion Tone 6.
Hearing the words of the Holy Gospels, you left your earthly father to serve your Father in heaven, showing us the riches of poverty and the perfect joy of the Cross. And in opposing the pride of the mighty with the humility of the simple, and breaking down the walls of hatred with the power of your love, you became yourself an image of the crucified Christ, who is everywhere present and fills all things.

When St Francis was told to repair the church, he was given this message while kneeling in front of a Byzantine-style Crucifix, reportedly in an Italo-Byzantine parish. St Francis saw the ruined building he was in and believed it was the church he was supposed to fix -- and in a way, it was, but it was to be the foundation for his greater mission, the mission to help rebuild the Catholic faith from within. Yet, what an amazing turn of events - this mission, this foundation for one of the greatest saints to grace the pages of history, took place in an Eastern Church. Could there be another message here, an indication of the kind of mission Francis and his friars can play in church unity? Perhaps.

Despite some Orthodox who reject St Francis, usually from small sectarian groups which present their limited understanding of tradition as normative for all, we find in the Orthodox world profound respect for St Francis. Indeed, there is an understanding of many Orthodox that St Francis is for the Catholics what St Seraphim of Sarov is for the Orthodox. St Seraphim, like St Francis, was filled with the spirit, and constantly seen interacting with animals, treating them as his personal friends. Indeed, in some spiritual biographies of St Seraphim, some Orthodox have reported seeing a vision of heaven where St Francis of Assisi is standing next to St Seraphim, showing us that theway of holiness they offer is one and the same, and (as some see it) that the East and West are not so fundamentally divided as the political situation on earth makes it out to be.

It should come as no surprise that, among the scholastic theologians, it was St Bonaventure, a Franciscan, who seemed to edge closer to the East than any of the rest. His theology continued with the Eastern sympathy of theology with mysticism (all the major scholastic saints did this, to be sure, and St Thomas Aquinas is a profound mystic, but there seems, at least to me, a greater mystical overtone throughout all of Bonaventure's writings, even in his systematic treatise, than any of the other schoolmen). St Francis was his guide in understanding the Christian life, and Bonaventure's theology can be read as a theological commentary on what St Francis said and did.

In the way of St Bonaventure, I wanted to write a small treatise to celebrate St Francis' feast, showing how Francis has influenced my own theological ideas. Every time I read one of the major, early biographies of St Francis, I learn something new, and I find it somehow mixing itself into my own thoughts and transforming them in subtle ways.

This was a treatise I was not able to write for today. Perhaps next year.

However, I thought I would share one thing I have learned from St Francis, something I think Catholics today need to know more than ever: the true path of inter-religious dialogue. This path is ever loving, ever open, and yet ever willing to state the truths of the Catholic faith in bold, but compassionate, ways. In a time where Christians and Muslims were fighting each other in the Crusades, St Francis decided it was his mission to go into Muslim territories and proclaim his love for Christ. He did not go to defame anyone, he only went to uplift the faith. His sermons were simple and humble, never inflammatory. He showed the truth without having to be harsh. Even in the most hostile of territories, where a bounty was given to anyone who killed a Christian, St Francis was able to turn the tables around, to earn the respect and affection of even the darkest of hearts. He was given the freedom to preach, and through his work, the Franciscans were given the protection of the shrines in the Holy Land.

We need more like St Francis today, people so filled with a radical love for Christ and their neighbor, that they become imitators of Christ, who was love incarnate. And where did St Francis get such love? By the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Beauty, who transformed St Francis' eyes in San Damiano so that St Francis could only see the world in the light of this spirit, in the light of beauty, which we see in his famed Canticle of Brother Sun.



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