Saturday, 4 October 2014

Saint Francis of Assisi - and a Hanging Thread

From a Homily for the Sisters of the Love of God at Fairacres Convent, Oxford
Feast of S. Francis of Assisi, 4th October 2014

Today we are keeping the feast of what must surely be one of the absolutely Top Saints of the Christian Church. His popularity was almost instant from his death in 1226, and today the flame is fanned by a fan club which runs from the international network of Franciscan tertiaries (several of whom I count amongst my friends, and none of whom I consulted for this morning, lest I be inundated with ideas), to the very highest rank of the Vatican itself. Francis was clearly quite a special chap.

Some years ago, I think when I was heading off for my Selection Conference for the Church of England priesthood, I was given a book about Saint Francis by the Greek writer, Nikos Kazantzakis. He wrote a number of other books that got him into a certain amount of trouble, or rather which subsequent film makers managed to turn into trouble, but he's always interesting. The book was called "God's Pauper", and on reading it I was left thinking I might not have found Francis a very comfortable person to be around. Not because of anything sinister or malicious or over-pious about him, no one suggests that, but because he gives the impression of being the sort of person of whom you just don't know what he'll do next. I am a prosaic soul, I like diaries, and rotas, and things happening on time, when they ought to. I do not like surprises. I fear I would have found Saint Francis rather surprising.

Two things that last in my memory of his story are the stigmata, and his affinity for animals. It is said that Francis might have been the first, or the first recorded, person to have experienced the stigmata, the marks of the five wounds of Christ in his body. Our first reading today from Galatians (6:17), however, suggests that Saint Paul might well have understood what he meant. I have found this a fascinating subject, and in exploring it, read a little of the history of the art of the time, and the most striking revelation was that it was in the time of Francis's youth that there was a huge change in the depiction of Christ on the Cross. Until then, he had always been Christ Triumphant, royally robed and crowned, head high, eyes open, and arms wide; the Cross behind him, figuratively, as well as literally. But then a new realism came in, and Jesus was portrayed suffering, and bleeding, and dead. This made a huge impression on those who saw it - about a century and half later, there is much reflecting it in Mother Julian of Norwich's "Shewings", not the famous bits like the stuff about the hazelnut, but a lot of blood streaming down from the cross. One is permitted to be agnostic about such things as the stigmata, but it might just be, if we leave to one side the action of the Holy Ghost (which we do at our peril), that there might have been a psycho-somatic response, so that someone so caught up in prayer before such an image, paying such close attention, lost in a passionate empathy, might produce the signs of the wounds in their own body.

Here I want to connect this part of the story to the second, the animals, and you might consider the thread by which I do so too thin to bear the argument I'm suggesting. That is entirely a matter for you.

I am naturally drawn to anyone who is enthusiastic about animals, and am quite convinced that it was the wonder of the created world that first convinced me of the presence and reality of God. I can't prove it, and Mr Dawkins would disagree with me, but I am entitled to my opinion, and he is entitled to be wrong. When we are children, most of us find animals fascinating, and the popularity, for instance, of "Dr Doolittle" tells us much about ourselves. When we are small, we long to be able to talk with these lovely creatures, because grown-ups are all stupid, and other children are horrid, and surely it would be so much more fun to be able to talk to the animals. I came to caring for animals rather late in life, only a few years ago first becoming a butler to two cats. I had thought cats just go "meeow" and are all the same. Little did I know. My two have a way of greeting me each day which is quite distinct - no matter what time we first see one another. The older one has a kind of "chirrup", which I'd never heard a cat make before. The little one makes a sort of "wow" noise, before hurling herself in a kamikaze dive at the carpet, and swimming across it at full length. She's dark, and svelte, and I call her my little black pudding. But it has taken me a long while to notice this and to understand it.

Animals are drawn to people who are quiet and gentle, and clearly Francis had this in spades (despite his surprises!). We are different species, of different sizes, and necessarily, that is a potentially dangerous thing. They need to know they will be safe with us, that we will be a safe space for them. And when they do, they can relax, and communicate, and be themselves. Now, this is going out on a limb, but is it possible that Francis made a safe space for God? Is this so outlandish - we've only to look around us to see that God is most unwelcome in much of the world that we know. And is this what the saints do - make a safe space for God, and for us, and the animals, to meet, and to mingle, and to be ourselves, and make new things happen? If so, I reckon that is Good News indeed.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
October 2014

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