On the coincidence of my 32nd birthday and the 800th anniversary of the birth year of Saint Francis of Assisi, my friend Linda Culbertson gave me a beautiful book about him with text by Lawrence Cunningham and photography by Dennis Stock. To prepare for his feast day today, I decided to reread it now, 35 years later. A saint’s feast day is observed on his or her first day in Paradise.
I had thought that Francis’s gentle spirit, from his love of the earth and its creatures to his befriending a ravaging wolf, is just what we need in these days of human-caused climate change and dealing with the ravaging wolves of our time, from fearful electorates to elected officials who feed off their anxieties and fears.
What struck me reading the book this time is how Cunningham clarifies that “the simple life” many of us try to follow is not equivalent to poverty:
In its essence, poverty means radical insecurity about the basic means of life. Poverty is literally not knowing where the next meal is coming from, or the frantic fear of getting ill because there is no money for a doctor, or the gnawing despair when one recognizes the gap between the next possible time when money will come and the actual needs of the household. It is, in short, a knowledge that the world is not solid, secure, and benign. Poverty is not only want; it is the fear and dread that derives from want (p 58).
Like many of us, I have only experienced that fear and dread intermittently. That’s why I chose for my ordination (and for my memorial service) my most often read words from Jesus, words of God’s Providence, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. … Look at the birds of the air… Consider the lilies of the field… Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Consider reading the whole text: Matthew 6:25-35.)
But as I contemplate what a chronic experience of such fear and dread can do, I realize what creates ravaging wolves, whether at the polls or in poor neighborhoods. The way Francis befriended a ravaging wolf was by persuading villagers to make sure it is fed and cared for: a social safety net that is mutually beneficial. Francis tells the wolf, “I understand that you did these evil things because of hunger.”
Francis wanted to depend solely on the providence of God, ultimately exemplified for him in the poverty represented in the cross. Joy for Francis came in self-sacrifice, even in—especially in—a world that did not value (and even hated) such service or such servants.
“If one lives purely in the providence of God and after the manner of Christ’s self-emptying, one’s awareness of the world as gift is sharpened,” Cunningham writes. Poverty provided Saint Francis a feast those who are rich often miss.
I think here Celtic Christianity can claim Francis as one of their own, as he viewed the world as a sacrament of God’s presence, and of Christ’s presence.
For Francis, “cortesia” should characterize our relationship with the world. For us, “courtesy” is simply “manners,” though in today’s world simple manners would go far toward healing our relationships, politically and personally.
According to Cunningham, cortesia was far more for Francis: “Cortesia was a way of seeing and a way of acting towards others. … Cortesia is the recognition of rights, duties, gifts, and privileges as they exist in relationship. … The implicit notion in [Francis's] simple observation [of earth as mother] is that the earth is courteous to us…and we, in gratitude, owe an act of courtesy to it.”
Other of my posts that reference Saint Francis:
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Photo (Hawai'i, 1985) and text Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.