Recently, I’ve been reading Le très-bas or in its English translation, The Very Lowly by Christian Bobin. This is the first time I’ve ever read anything by this French Catholic author. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard of Christian Bobin for that matter. The Very Lowly is a biography of St. Francis of Assisi. But it isn’t like any biography I’ve ever read before. Les très bas reads more like poetry even though it’s written in prose. Honestly, it isn’t like any book I’ve ever read before.
Le très-bas is described on the book’s back cover as “exquisite and moving.” It is very much both of those things and I have found myself reading it as lectio divina. Savoring the depths of its insights as a meditative exercise while basking in its strikingly beautiful language.
In a chapter entitled “The Sweetness of Nothing,” Bobin spends a good deal of time reflecting on Francis’ childhood of which we know practically nothing. It’s in this “nothingness” which forms a deep thematic thread in the book, that Bobin is able to mine so much rich material.
About one hundred years after Francis’ death, the Dominican and future archbishop of Genoa, Jacques de Voragine, wrote the Golden Legend, a sort of mediaeval precursor to Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Bobin draws a comparison between the Golden Legend and a child’s drawing. He puts it this way, “A child’s drawing goes right to the essential. If life feels blocked the child draws a house with no door. If life is lilting along, he puts in lots of windows, flowers, sun. The same is true of the miniatures of the Middles Ages, where the dress of the great lady is bigger than her castle, where a horse’s eye rivals the oval of the moon. It is not that we are dealing here with some sort of juvenile stage in art or a childish incapacity of the hand. Rather, the painter is expressing a perspective different from reasons’ indifferent geometrical one. He is following the perspective of the heart, which depicts what is not, so that what is can be seen better.”1
“The Golden Legend is a collection of saints caught in midflight of a word or a gesture. As many saints as there are ways of fluttering like a butterfly in light. Saints with wings rich like velvet, saints with dragonfly wings, saints with long antennae, saints with fine insects feet. And nothing, ever, about childhood. As though childhood had no role to play in the grace of taking flight. As though butterflies did not come from caterpillars. For Francis of Assisi, there is just a pen stroke, a wrinkle in the paper: ‘Francis, the servant of the Most High, lived in vanity until the age of nearly twenty years.’”
Voragine was a man of the Church and of his age. “For this kind of man, vanity means nothingness.” All of what we kindly admire as childhood’s milestones amount to nothing. “The chirping of the first words: vanity, nothingness. The fragile dance of the first steps: vanity, nothingness. The wonder at the first snowflakes, at the profound softness of summer evenings; the mad laughter and the tears in the eyes, the sores on the knees and the carefreeness in the soul: vanity. Nothingness.”2 For Voragine, a man of his time, “childhood is a passing disease. If any heed at all is paid to it, it was to see in it nothing but a mortifying testimony to human weakness…The child at this time is at the lowest point in creation, not far from madmen or animals. The only complete reception it gets is in the word of Christ. Jacques de Voragine was a theologian. He comments on this word, and the ruckus he makes with his commentaries prevents him from hearing it. He is an organization man, and he names his God following the model of the military hierarchy of the clergy: the Most High. This is forgetting that nothing can be known about the Most High except through the Most Low, through this God the height of childhood, this god on the ground level of one’s first falls, with one’s nose in the grass.”3 And Jesus’ words, “…unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,”4 echo in my head. Unless you become like one of these nothings you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
We tend to forget that our contemporary notions about childhood are largely the product of the Victorian era. Through much of human history, children have been largely discounted. Childhood has appeared as an unfortunate inconvenience, a passage from infancy to adulthood with everything in between seen for nothing. And yet Jesus says this is what we are to become if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Not much had changed between how the Middle Ages and the ancient world saw children. Then as in the Middle Ages, they had no social or legal standing. Fathers were endowed with the law of paterfamilias and fathers’ rights always trumped children’s rights, because they had none. Children ranked in the same category as women and slaves; even if Roman law gave some women of certain social standing some rights under the law. Children had none. Children were in a sense throw-away people. As children, they didn’t figure much into adult worlds. They were largely non-entities except in terms of their future potential; what they would eventually bring to the group at some future date. But for now, not much good for anything. They were powerless in the true sense of the word. Powerlessness is one of the biggest words in our spiritual vocabulary. It lies at the center of the best spiritual thinking. It can be one of the scariest too.
Jesus taught that “unless [we] change and become like children, [we] will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”5 We see Jesus upending and reversing a God-image at odds with the God that he knows first-hand. Jesus again deftly abolishing another idol unthinkingly created by human beings.
This is all very strange, certainly illogical, because we worship the God who stands behind the very existence of time and space; on whom our very being, all being, depends for its existence. And yet, and yet, to find this omnipotent divine, we must change and become like nothing; we must live into our powerlessness. We must search where there is nothingness and lowliness to discover the All-Powerful One who identifies with our world’s throw-away people.
What does it mean to change and become like children? How do we become like what is not in order to see better what is?
I’m not sure what this means for me let alone what it might mean for you. What I think I know is that God somehow rests divine favor among those who are most vulnerable, least able to fend for themselves, most at-risk in this life. That somehow we are commanded to embrace this life, this existence, with all its joys and sorrows, all of its light and darkness, all of its truth and uncertainty. That we have to risk being alive. That somehow we have to find ourselves embracing the lowliness and powerlessness of our own lives if we are to enter the kingdom.
Francis of Assisi lived out this truth in his own life in his own particular way. Maybe you are already living this way? Or maybe you would like to try and find out what this might mean for you. Maybe it’s time to re-consider what is often so easily discounted in life as worthless and insignificant. Because, if we do, Jesus tells us, we will find the kingdom of heaven.
- Bobin, Christian. The Very Lowly: a Meditation on Francis of Assisi. Boston & London: New Seeds, 2006, p. 24.
- Bobin, p. 26.
- Bobin, p. 27.
- Matthew 18:3
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