“Never Mind the Pope; What Would St. Francis Do?” Read about it here.
As I reflect on the recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States – already vastly publicized and widely discussed – I wonder where Saint Francis was sighted.
When Pope Francis chose his name, the eminent Catholic theologian Hans Küng wrote in the National Catholic Reporter that no previous pope had “dared to take the name of Francis” (italics mine). I’ve thought about this myself in the past — the fact that the name of this beloved figure is so conspicuously missing from the papal rolls. But it’s not really surprising. The name implies a very high standard: absolute poverty, cold and hunger, exposure to disease. What Pope would sleep in a stable or a ruined church, get his food by begging, and spend his days hanging out with lepers and preaching in the streets? To be Francis is to turn away from any kind of predictable life or institutional support. You can’t really be a Pope that way. You might be the head of a church, if you could get people to follow you, but you wouldn’t be an administrator or a head of state or an international spokesman. You wouldn’t direct a bank or a group of museums.
There is, of course, the example of the Third Order. Like Third Order Franciscans, a pope could be someone who lives “in the world,” but who lives simply and serves others, and who engages in a regular life of prayer and spiritual devotion. Then, too, life in the other Franciscan orders has evolved toward a more stable pattern since the time of their founder. But Pope Francis doesn’t belong formally to any of these communities.
What he has done is to move the needle. Pope Francis doesn’t pretend to be imitating Francis of Assisi in every particular. But in many of the things he does, he moves one step closer to St. Francis’s example, and he does it publicly and conspicuously. Pope Francis still uses a car, but he downsizes it. He still wears clean clothes, but they’re simpler. He speaks to the United Nations, but he also, as we all know, goes to the prisoners and the people in shelters and the children.
In a way, he does what a lot of us do. I’ve often been bemused by the ambivalence of people’s reactions to Francis of Assisi. Of the many people who love and admire him, very few really do give everything up to follow him. Nor do I think that’s strictly necessary – I’ve reflected on this question at some length in the book. On the other hand, I also don’t think admirers of Francis should willfully ignore his difficult side and the challenges he presents.
Most of us fall into the realm of compromise. A person who admires Francis as an early environmentalist, for example, is probably also recycling and composting, and maybe wearing secondhand clothing or doing a little lobbying, even if he/she has to say “Well, yes, I do still heat my house in the winter.” A person who admires Francis’s poverty might be an anti-capitalist politician or an underpaid social worker, but might resist living on the streets. In the course of my research, I found a lot of historical figures who walked consciously in that middle ground, such as Vida Scudder and Laurence Housman. Many others walked it unconsciously and unintentionally.
Pope Francis, it seems to me, does it intentionally. He accepts the office of the papacy, but he doesn’t accept the way it’s always been done, or the way it’s been done recently. In this way he offers hope to those who are not radicals, and, at the same time, a reproof to those who might like to shrug and say there’s nothing we can do. Granted, we always need purists and absolutists to show us the way. But it’s also useful to think that we ordinary sinners can do something, even if we can’t or won’t do everything.
It’s the season for blessings of the animals – the time around the feast day of St. Francis, October 4. This is largely a Protestant tradition, and Protestants these days are holding other blessing services as well, for bicycles, backpacks, chainsaws and more. But when did Protestants start blessing things? And why?
Read more about it here:
A young relative recently visited Istanbul, where he saw, in the Archaeological Museums, the remains of a cycle of frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis. The exhibit said that they came from a “St. Francis Chapel” and were the “earliest known examples of the life cycle of St. Francis,” dating from the mid-thirteenth century.
Since my work concerns modern versions of Francis, I hadn’t known about these, and I set out to learn more. The most useful source was Rosalind Brooke’s magisterial study, The Image of St. Francis: Responses to Sainthood in the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Brooke cites Striker and Kuban, Kalenderhane in Istanbul (Mainz: von Zabern, 1997), as an important source on the chapel.
Incidentally, the Web proved to be a welter of inaccurate, misleading, and contradictory claims. Even the respectable Frommer’s Guide site said that the frescoes dated from 1204, a time when Francis had not yet begun his ministry. (1204 was the date of the Fourth Crusade.)
Brooke thinks that these are, indeed, the oldest known frescoes depicting St. Francis, much earlier than those attributed to Giotto. While no direct evidence for their age survives, she builds a strong circumstantial case from architecture, archaeology, political shifts, Franciscan presence in Istanbul, and the few other contemporary examples of Francis imagery. On these grounds she concludes that the Franciscans acquired the building – parts of which date from the sixth century C.E. – in about 1231, and that the frescoes date from the early 1250s. (The cycle in the Lower Church in Assisi is just slightly later, probably about 1260-65 – although Brooke observes that “the evidence is not tidy.” The cycle associated with Giotto dates from the early fourteenth century.)
The little chapel was located off the diakonikon (something like a sacristy) of an early basilica which was later incorporated into a larger twelfth-century church. The chapel was apparently walled off some time after the Greeks reconquered Constantinople in 1261, while the diakonikon was abandoned after the Ottoman conquest in 1453.
In Brooke’s words:
[During archaeological excavations in 1966-67] a barrel vaulted hall was revealed, almost filled with black earth, owing to its use, since the seventeenth century, as a sewage settlement tank. Off this hall was discovered a small, hitherto unsuspected chapel. … On the semi-dome of the apse were several fragments of scenes, of which only one could be immediately identified. But it was conclusive; it was St. Francis preaching to the birds.
There followed years of painstaking collection and reconstruction of fresco fragments, presumably from amidst the now well-decayed sewage. Enough pieces survived to allow art historians to reconstruct the “program” of the chapel decoration, but not every single scene. At the center of the apse, they believe, was a fresco of St. Francis standing. Above him were the Virgin and Child with angels. Four, perhaps five, of the surrounding scenes probably depicted miracles; one may be a deathbed scene; and one, of course, is Francis preaching to the birds. Three remain completely unidentified.
At the entrance to the chapel are frescoes of two Greek church fathers, clearly made at the same time as the Francis scenes (“the fresco surfaces are continuous”). Brooke suggests that their presence reflects the efforts then in progress to reconcile the Roman and Byzantine branches of the church.
So the physical record here, in its many layers, remembers both reconciliation and conquest. The building retains the image of a moment in time – or a period in time – when reunion between the Eastern and Western churches was thought possible. Yet many other layers reflect repeated conquests and conflicts.
And here is the sermon to the birds again. Clearly this story, which is so beloved today, was also significant very early on. In the chapel, though, it isn’t associated with nature or animals or the environment. It appears instead among miracles – quite possibly to be understood as a miracle itself. Thus do meanings change with time and culture.
As a historian, I can’t make judgments about the cosmic significance of the story. If I could, I’d be tempted to see some larger message in the survival and visibility of this one beloved scene.
St. Francis was sighted on the front page of the New York Times yesterday. Travel writer Nina Burleigh wrote about a “new kind of pilgrim” in Assisi. These are people who come to Assisi for meditation, yoga, and various modes of eclectic spirituality.
Burleigh is not quite right when she says that “until recently, most [pilgrims] were Catholic.” Protestants have been making pilgrimages to Assisi since around the turn of the twentieth century, with a few scattered examples earlier. I’m referring here only to those Protestants who actually called their journeys pilgrimages. There were already plenty of Protestant tourists. They, too, may has been pilgrims of a sort, but they were not so explicit about it.
Still, this is an illuminating article. Burleigh gives particular attention to a large retreat center – some hundred and fifty people – set up by followers of Paramahansa Yogananda, the founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship. Yogananda claimed actually to have seen a vision of Francis, an unusual occurrence among Francis’s non-Catholic followers.
Subsequently, he “ranked Francis with Buddha and Jesus” among spiritual guides. In this, he wasn’t so unusual. Some of his counterparts in the Vedanta Society – an earlier Hindu-based outreach movement – took a similar view. So have others who are inclined toward universal spirituality; many people feel that Francis transcends the formal boundaries of Christianity. Burleigh and her informants use the language of “mystical essence,” “spiritual energy,” “a place that raises your soul to a higher level.”
That last quote came from a hotel manager. The article notes the confluence of commerce and luxury with the spirit of St. Francis. Pilgrims have always wanted to bring home tokens of their journey, just as tourists want to bring home souvenirs – as reminders, memorials, or carriers of special spiritual power. But there is irony here, since pilgrims often seek to divest themselves of material possessions and commercial transactions. Luxurious accommodations further blur the distinction between tourist and pilgrim. And I suspect the level of luxury is higher today than in earlier times. There’s particular irony in the fact that one luxury hotel is a former convent. But it’s built on top of Roman baths. It includes a spa, with waters for healing.
So many layers.
The other day I ran across another quote attributed to Francis. This one was in Italian, proving that it isn’t only English speakers who do this.
Quite regularly, people give Francis credit for some attractive spiritual text – a prayer, a poem, an aphorism – that he didn’t really say or write. The famous “peace prayer” is probably the best-known example. I had thought at first that it was the only one, but I was wrong. We also have “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words” and “Ask of the beasts and they will teach you the beauty of this earth” and others (see my book for a fuller discussion). That last one – “ask of the beasts” – is paraphrased from the Bible, but it got into the Francis canon because a composer added it to a musical setting of Francis’s Canticle of the Sun. Even a New York Times reporter got the attribution wrong.
Anyway, here is the Italian quote:
Chi lavora con le sui mani è un lavoratore. Chi lavora con le sui mani e la sua testa è un artigiano. Chi lavora con le sui mani e la sua testa ed il suo cuore è un artista.
The one who works with his [her] hands is a laborer. The one who works with his hands and his head is an artisan. The one who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.
(It’s hard to say it in gender-inclusive language without losing the cadence of a folk saying.)
This was on a website called Dictionary of Quotes; I ran across it while looking for something by Oscar Wilde. The person who submitted it, in early May of this year, wrote in a few days later to say sadly, “Non e un frase di Francesco d’Assisi :- ( ” – It is not a phrase of Francis of Assisi.
But there it still is on the web page.
A correspondent writes:
I wanted to tell you about something I spotted on the bus recently. I noticed
that a woman sitting in front of me had a wordy tattoo on the back of her left
upper arm. After idly staring at it for a while I focused on what it said, and
– you’ll have guessed – there was, “Lord, make me an instrument…” I don’t
think her arm accommodated the whole prayer; the last word I could make out,
down around her elbow, was “joy.”
I wonder if the rest of it was on her forearm, or her other arm.
In any case, this got me wondering about St. Francis tattoos. It turns out there are quite a lot of them. Those that are pictures of Francis often seem to use blended imagery: the stigmata, or a crucifix, alongside birds and animals. As I note in the book, those symbols rarely appeared together until quite recently.
But there are a lot of “wordy” tattoos as well. In 2012, the evangelical online journal Christian Post reported on British actor Russell Brand’s tattoo of the prayer. For him it was a sign of recovery from drug abuse; the article notes that the prayer appears in the Alcoholics Anonymous book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (see my book on this, too). It’s interesting that Brand’s tattoo uses the wording “Make me a channel of thy peace,” rather than the more common “instrument.” “Channel” was popularized through song lyrics, a 1967 setting by Sebastian Temple. Since it was performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, its popularity has taken off. (On the other hand, Temple used the modern “your,” not “thy.” More blending.)
Someone’s Pinterest board shows several terrific images of this tattoo. There’s one that covers a person’s back, another with “Make me a channel” (sic) on a forearm, and a very elaborate image that first turned up on Buzzfeed. It’s everywhere.
One source actually calls this tattoo the “prayer of St. Francis recovery tattoo,” suggesting a strong association with the recovery movement. But a Facebook member involved in animal rescue wants one, too.
Tell me what you see.