Saint Francis of Assisi
There are so many endearing stories told about Saint Francis of Assisi. One legend remembers Francis speaking to the birds:
“My bird sisters,” he says, “you are much beloved by God your Master, and always, in every place, you ought to praise [God], because [God] has given you liberty to fly everywhere; and [God] has given you also clothing double and triple. You are loved also by the air which [God] has given to you; and moreover, you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you, and gives you the rivers and the fountains from which to drink. [God] gives you the mountains and the valleys for your refuge, and the tall trees for your nests, and, although you do not know how to spin or sew, God clothes you and your children. God loves you so much…”[i]
Isn’t that enchanting? On and on go the legends about Francis with birds of every feather; of animals large and small; of creatures in the sea; of flowers, grasses and grains; of trees big and small; of stars and galaxies.
Learning from Saint Francis does not encourage anthropomorphism – that is, attributing human characteristics to birds, and animals, and sea creatures. Francis inspires me in the opposite direction, what is called zoomorphism: figurative language that characterizes people with the attributes of animals and other living beings.[ii] Actually one of my Brothers here in the monastery asked me recently what kind of dog I am? “Dog I am…?” That was a first. I responded quite spontaneously that I hoped to be a Labrador! Wag wag. And you? You may or may not find zoomorphism intriguing; however my point – I would say Saint Francis’ point – is about our sharing an intimate relationship with all sentient beings and beyond, and not just other people. Every living being, every element of creation, is a “creature” of God, all of us given a share of God’s magnificent panoply of life. One of the astronomers for the newly-launched James Webb telescope said that there is so much shining in the galaxies, it’s as if it all wants to be discovered. Quite so. Some of you may remember back into the 1970s, various groups of people who particularly loved trees began seeing themselves “tree huggers.” I rolled my eyes. I don’t any more. I hug trees and a lot more. Try it!
Our opening lesson today from the Book of Job asks a rhetorical question: “Where were you, [Job]” God asks,when all else that surrounded Job was being created?[iii] The Book of Job puts us in our place, a place of recognition that we – and everything else in all creation – emanate from God and have a place in God’s heart. Our lesson from the Letter to the Galatians speaks of Christ’s heralding “a new creation.”[iv] Our invitation is to co-operate with Christ’s intention to make new, that is, to renew not only what goes on in human souls, but also what goes on in the whole of creation with which we share life. We are all interconnected.
An inspiration we can take from the life and legacy of Saint Francis of Assisi is to be in a reverenced relationship with God’s gift of life both within us and around us. None of us has a global outreach; however all of us are within arm’s reach of some practice of restoration or renewal, some act of justice-making on behalf of other creatures that can suffer somuch discrimination from us through things we have done, and things we have left undone. Where can we give voice and muscle on behalf of some constituent part of creation that suffers injustice, discrimination, abuse, or neglect? To what people and for what other members of creation can you and I take a stand? When I hear Jesus say on behalf of the poor, suffering, and neglected, “as you have done to the least of these my brethren, you have done to me,” I am thinking about people… but more than people as we serve the creation which has come into being through Christ.[v] Saint Francis is an inspired, inspiring mentor for us to embrace the whole of life as God does.
But Saint Francis’ legacy is not just rosy. As an adult, in his early days Francis attracted a huge audience, and there was such unanimity between Francis, his own burgeoning group of friars, and the church at large. But things changed. The church hierarchy was as smitten as it was suspicious of Francis. Was Francis building up the church, or was he sabotaging it? By the time of Francis’ death, there were even strident factions within the Franciscan brotherhood. Some groups of friars thought Francis had become too rigorous; some groups of friars thought he had become too laxed. Every faction thought it was right. Though we want to remember Francis as such an inspiring emissary of love and mutuality for everyone and everything, even within his own lifetime Francis also faced and engendered controversy.
And so when Francis prays, “Make us instruments of your peace,” he is speaking autobiographically. He was witnessing enormous conflict and dissension, both within his own community of friars and within the church at large. When Francis prays, “Where there is hatred” (because there was hatred), “let us sow love.” When he prays, “Where there is discord” (because there was searing discord surrounding him), “let there be union.” When he prays, “Where there is doubt” (because there was grave doubt that Francis had it right), “let there be faith.” When he prays, “Where there is despair” (because there was despair about Francis succeeding… and about Francis not succeeding), “let there be hope.” “Where there is darkness” (because there was darkness on the path ahead), “let there be light. “Where there is sadness” (because there was so much grief), “let there be joy.” And the phrase on his lips which I find most revealing, “Where there is injury, pardon.” Francis prays, “Where there is injury, pardon,” because he knew how easy it would be to retaliate. The prayer of Saint Francis, “Make us instruments of your peace…” is not a nice prayer; this is an urgent prayer, and this prayer certainly pertains to our own lives today.
The witness of Saint Francis’ gives us both an inspiration and a warning as we live today in this frightening time both of warring political factions near and far, and amidst the ecological collapse and climate emergency that surrounds us. In the spirit of Saint Francis, here are some practices to consider:
- A fascinating experience is to bestow the title “teacher” on some bird or animal, fish or flower, star or galaxy. And then become the student. Learn everything you can from your “teacher.” There are an infinite number of these “teachers” out there. It’s magnificent how complex, choreographed, and correlated the life of each of God’s creatures, one with another.
- Saint Francis was not anthropocentric. “Creation” includes all that God has created. It’s not all about us human types. You might consider including in your intercessory prayer some other constituents of creation – a certain breed of bird or animal or fish, a type of tree or flower, something as vast as the Amazon rain forest or as sequined as a coral reef. Whatever attracts your heart’s attention. Ask this fellow creature the question, “How is it for you?” and then intercede on behalf of this other member of creation with which, with whom, we share life. Give voice on behalf of the voiceless. We all have been given a share of life to share. Saint Francis is such a troubadour heralding how interconnected we are with everything in the magnificent, interdependent constellation of creation.
- Just as in Saint Francis’ day, so today we witness such “moral individualism” with the presumption that I – or “thems like me” – have it right, and the others have it wrong.[vi] Dead wrong. The Jewish poet Yehuda Amichai writes, “From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the Spring. The place where we are right is hard and trampled. Like a yard. But doubts and loves dig up the world.”[vii] Many of Saint Francis’ followers “hardened” and would not listen to one another. In actuality, they all shared many of the same core values, but addressed them differently. For those with whom we differ, we will learn so much more, we will find arable ground in our souls if we prioritize a curious “why” about our differences, not just the “what.” “So you value such-and-such. Why?” Searching for, finding, and claiming our common ground converts the equation from “what we are working against” to “what we are working towards.” It’s what eco-philosopher Joanna Macy calls “intersectionality.”[viii] If we are only listening to ourselves we become deaf because we don’t hear what we are missing outside our own silo. We need one another.
- When you pray, how do you use your body? My default when I pray has been to close my eyes and be very still and silent. But my prayer has greatly enlarged as I open my senses and let the world that surrounds me be an icon. You may know the wondrous prayer of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”:
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…”[ix]
When you pray, rather than closing your eyes you might also want to pray with your eyes wide open. Look outward or look downward to quite literally “ground” your prayer. When you pray, rather than folding your hands, you may also want to use your hands to touch or caress some other creature of God, another creature whose existence is as magnificent and as mysterious as our own God-given creation. There’s the old warning about “being so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good.” We need to embody our prayer.
Francis of Assisi is a saint for us today. God loves what God created. All of it. All of us. By God’s design, we belong to one another. We need one another.
[i] God’s Troubadour; The Story of St. Francis of Assisi, by Sophie Jewett (1910), p. 93.
[ii] The figurative language of zoomorphism derives from the Greek zōon, meaning “animal,” and morphē, meaning “shape” or “form.” Zoomorphism is the opposite of anthropomorphism, attributing human characteristics or behavior to an animal or object.
[iii] Job 39:1–18.
[iv] Galatians 6:14-18.
[v] Matthew 25:31-46; Colossians 1:16.
[vi] Climate Crisis, Psychoanalysis, and Radical Ethics, by Donna M. Orange (2017), p. 13.
[vii] Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) was a much-revered German-born Jewish writer and poet.
[viii] A Wild Love for the World and the Work of Our Time, by Joanna Macy (2020).
[ix] “God’s Grandeur,” by the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (1844-1889):
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Our Gospel this morning centers on Herod the ruler. Herod is not doing well. He is perplexed. He is hearing all sorts of things about Jesus. He has no idea who Jesus really is or what Jesus is capable of. Jesus might be a serious threat to his power. This scares Herod.
At the end of our Gospel this morning, Herod makes an important decision. Herod decides he has heard enough about Jesus and now wants to see Jesus directly. While I do not recommend modeling your life on Herod, there is something we can learn from what he does here. I firmly believe we can always learn something from someone we consider evil or toxic, and Herod is no exception.
Like Herod, we are all going to hear all sort of things about Jesus. This is especially true if you go to church or are like me and live in a monastery. I hear about Jesus all the time. As good as that is, at a certain point, like Herod, we all want to cut through the noise and meet Jesus directly.
Amos 8: 4-7
Luke 16: 13
Today is the third week in this Season of Creation. During this week two pieces of Scripture have ‘grabbed’ me. They are by two very different prophets, and I’ve been praying with both passages. The first is our reading today from the prophet Amos. It’s harsh and fiery. He pronounces God’s judgment on the wealthy who, full of greed, oppress the poor, and who see the fruits of the earth simply as sources of illegal profit. “We will offer wheat for sale and practice deceit, with false balances.” As I prayed with it I had in my mind those terrible images of the violent rape of the Amazon rain forest, the wholesale destruction of the earth’s ‘lungs’, for profit.
But the other passage I have been praying with could not be more different. They are words from Amos’s fellow 8th century prophet, Micah. It is one of the most beautiful words of prophecy in all scripture. It is a vision of hope and healing. “In days to come, nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall all sit under their own vines, and under their own fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.” I love that image of complete contentment. As I prayed with these words I remembered that unforgettable day during the Fall, some five years ago when I was on retreat at Emery House. I was sitting in a simple wooden chair on the deck of the Zen hut, watching with utter joy and wonder, as the leaves of the trees gently fell, hour after hour. I knew something of Micah’s vision of peace and contentment.
1 Cor. 15:1-11
There’s a big river right outside the monastery. I’m frequently reminded of its beauty when I greet guests and show them around for the first time. There are plenty of ways we interact with it, whether trying to get across it to go into the city of Boston or dealing with the inevitable noise of rowing teams and their coaches shouting over loud-speakers. The river is a constant part of our life, but engaging with it on its own terms takes more effort. Getting close to it is a completely different experience. Walking along the banks you begin to notice all of the life that it supports. Getting into a kayak or canoe you really get a sense for the smell, and temperature of the water, its size, and power. It really comes alive in ways that a passing glance from the monastery window fails to offers.
It’s the same with Jesus and our spiritual lives. Proximity doesn’t guarantee engagement. The apostle Paul give the church in Corinth some very basic but vital reminders about the reality of person of Jesus. Handing on of first importance what he had received, Paul reminds them, “That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time… Then to James, the other apostles,” and finally to Paul himself.
The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 62, includes the phrase: “For God alone my soul in silence waits”; however another translation of this text is: “Before God, I am silence.” Not, “I am silent”; but rather, “Before God, I am silence.” And therefore, when God speaks, I am silence: I am an empty, open vessel to receive. Our life’s invitation is to learn to “be silence” so we have space to receive the work and words of God. It is a good thing to cultivate stillness and silence within ourselves.
But for many people, life seems to lose its cultivation because of suffering. We witness, and we may personally experience, tremendous suffering, loss, fear, grief, despair that may simply leave us or others speechless and empty, feeling very much alone and abjectly vulnerable. This is the silence that visits the elderly who have lost their health, lost their companions, lost their meaning in life; the silence of those who are very sick with no help at hand and the silence of those who are very sick with help at hand; the silence of those who are imprisoned because of prejudice and racism, and those imprisoned behind bars; the silence of those who live with inexpressible shame. So many people experience a silence that is unbidden and which may seem to them so vapid, despairing, orphaning.
The psalm appointed for our liturgy, Psalm 51, is an intensely personal lament expressed by David, the magnificent King of Israel whose character is so terribly flawed. He is owning up here to abusing his power and for being both an adulterer and a murderer when he prays:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin…
Tradition has it that King David is the author of Psalm 51, which we have just prayed. What’s significant here is not that David prays these words of Psalm 51, but that we do, and throughout the year, even if we are not adulterers and murders. For our own quite personal reasons, we can relate to the lamentful words of this psalm. Of the 150 psalms, about one third are psalms of lament, expressing to God sorrow, or grief, or rage, or regret. Sometimes it is we who lament being in the wrong; sometimes the lament is from our being a victim of someone else’s wrong; and sometimes it’s a kind of tragic bad blend of things, a collusion. A prayer of lament is usually a mess, when life is a mess.
Commemoration of Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), Mystic and Writer
In the calendar of the church we remember today an English woman, Evelyn Underhill, born in 1875. She had a vast influence on the spiritual formation of her own generation, and to generations since. In her prolific writing, speaking, and retreat leading she was revered as faithful, as insightful and passionate, as wise and practical, and all of it laced with her disarming humor.[i]
She taught how the “mystical life” is not just for the saints, but for all of us.[ii] Mysticism, for her, is how God is always coming to us in “the Sacrament of the Present Moment.” Pay attention to now. God’s presence is always in the present. Now. There will be “thin places” where God breaks through to you, often mysteriously, in here-and-now. Pay attention to now.
Evelyn Underhill comments on the Gospel lesson we have just heard: Jesus’ saying, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”When you pray, shut the door. “Shutting the door” can be very challenging. She says:
1 Corinthians 3:10—14
The Church Pension Fund publishes an infamous yearly calendar, notable for its lighthearted, if not “punny,” cartoons centered on scenes one might encounter in the church. If you hang around Episcopal circles long enough, you’ll come across it, I promise you.
One cartoon appears year after year (as far as I can tell) and it always grabs my attention. Its content is a simple scene. The rector of a church of shown addressing, very matter-of-factly, three young acolytes in the following way: “In observance of the Triduum, our sacristans and our verger with gather in the narthex with lucifer in hand, ready to extinguish the tabernacle light near the aumbry, prior the all night [sic] watch in the columbarium following the Maundy Thursday liturgy. Got it?” Two of the acolytes are noticeably perplexed, looking as if they had just received instructions in ancient Greek or advanced calculus. The third acolyte reassures them, whispering, “Don’t worry, stick with me. I speak Episcopalian.”
Whether you’re new to the Episcopal Church or a cradle Episcopalian, you have probably noticed just how much jargon gets thrown around in Episcopal circles. It is part of our charism; something that identifies us as Episcopalians. Indeed, something we Episcopalians tend to treasure. If you look on the front page of your bulletin, near the top you’ll find one such example in the form of the word “rogation.”
In my early days of church life, when I began thinking maybe this church could be part of my life and I could be part of its life, I remember that for many years, I had no idea what this word, “rogation,” meant. At first glance, this English child of the Latin word rogare, or, “to ask,” might pass us by as just another example of that idiosyncrasy many of us have come to treasure about the Episcopal Church. Another anachronism, a word homeless and out of time, part of a whole collection of eccentricities around music, prayer books, church furniture, bells, and smells.
But “rogation” is not simply some quaint linguistic oddity. Rogation can bring the church perineal invitations to rise to her vocation and examine the foundations of her ongoing building project. In many ways, this is perhaps her fundamental vocation: asking.
Historically, the church has set aside the three days leading up to the Ascension as special times of prayer for the protection of crops and harvests, marked by processions on the land from which the human being was formed and continually fed. This little season within a season marked the significance of human agricultural labors, and the knife’s edge communities often walked, knowing well the deadly consequences of failed harvests.
But we, gathered here in Cambridge, and many of us joining online, don’t likely live in such close proximity to the labors that bring food from the earth. Unless we routinely grow out own food, we are likely quite separated from the kind of historical relationship much of humanity has had with farming.
The provision of three collects for Rogationtide anticipate this, however. Consider the wording of the collect prayed today: Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life shared our toil and hallowed our labor: Be present with your people where they work; make those who carry on the industries and commerce of this land responsive to your will; and give to us all a pride in what we do, and a just return for our labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Note the words like “industries” and “commerce.”
Here is another collect for Rogationtide, and to highlight just how different these collects can be from one another, let’s hear it as it appeared in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer,
Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth, in whom we live, move and have our being, who does good unto all men, making thy sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sending rain on the just and the unjust; favourably behold us thy people, who do call upon thy name, and send us thy blessing from heaven, in giving us fruitful seasons, and filling our hearts with food and gladness; that both our hearts and mouths may be continually filled with thy praises, giving thanks to thee in thy holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This collect definitely smells of the countryside.
So what are we to make of this little season, living as we do in the 21st century west with the impending crisis of climate emergency? Should the absence of explicitly agricultural imagery force our hand—should we admit that rogation is, in the end, an anachronism?
To this question, the lectionary seems to answer, “no.”
You may have noticed, each of the readings for today contain not a single agricultural image. Paul exhorts each member of the church to an honest self-examination of the foundations upon which their lived spirituality is built. The imagery is architectural.
The portions we hear from Matthew’s summary of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are equally lacking any explicit references to farming or seeds or sowers. The imagery is even harder to pin down. Instead, we are told yet again to ask of ourselves:
Where is my treasure?
Where, then, is my heart?
How is my vision?—is the eye of my heart healthy?
Which master do I really serve? God? Or wealth?
We are reading a new book in the refectory during our corporate meals— Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible. What I love about this book (aside from the artistry of its composition and Debbie Blue’s penetrating prose) is the way her exploration of the biblical portrayal of birds has reminded me of the importance of looking, really looking, again and again at what St. Augustine called “the Book of Nature.”
By inviting us to think again about the many and varied ways our human interpretation of birds can teach us, Blue brings into clear focus the bible’s ceaseless insistence that God has given us the gift of otherness as a means to teach us, and as a place for encounter with God. The otherness of birds and beasts to humans; the otherness of people to people, particularly the stranger and the guest. Here, the reality constantly confronting us in the color and song of birds or the difference of a person who does not view the world we do, invites the church to discern her true foundations, her true treasure. And if she cannot—if her eye is unhealthy and her body full of darkness—Rogationtide provides a reminder that she must ask God for the gift of her heart’s true treasure. And she asks for this gift not simply for the sake of successful harvests, but for the healing of the whole of creation.
For the people baptized into Christ’s dying and rising, this means a participation in the paschal mystery, of life laid down to be taken up again. For Jesus is the church’s true treasure. Jesus is the foundation she must constantly seek, asking God to build her faith on nothing less. Not her idiosyncrasies or anachronisms, her liturgies or prayer books, her buildings or furniture.
And so in this little season within a season, those members of Christ’s body who do not live in such intimate proximity to land and harvests are invited to ask Jesus to show them where they have built their foundations. Indeed, the asking nature of Rogationtide is a two way enterprise: God asks us, and we then ask God.
Take these days before the Ascension to ask God to renew the imagination of the church and to build up the Body so that it might rise to the present crisis. To learn from people and bodies and stories and creatures we often disregard.
There, Jesus—risen, glorified, wounded, will meet us in the midst of life, in the midst of our asking. If our foundations will be revealed, as Jesus said, with fire, may it be then be fire of God’s mercy and love, not the fire of our own refusal to ask. For maybe, just maybe, that is the church’s fundamental vocation: to ask.
Tuesday in Easter 6
Ask… and it will be given. Search…and you will find. Knock…and the door will be opened for you.
What prevents you from asking, searching, or knocking?
It might be literal lack of clarity. Who should I ask? Where should I search? Is this the right door, or is it that one?
It might be an emotion on the fear continuum: anxiety; suspicion; pessimism; insecurity; loneliness. What if I hear “No” in reply? What if I spend all that energy searching but find nothing helpful, nothing worthwhile? What if I knock and that door remains shut tight, with not a light to be seen behind the dark window panes as night falls?
It might be a well-intentioned desire for independence or self-sufficiency; or the desire to appear competent or smart. What if I can just figure this out by myself? That way, I won’t have to be a burden or impose my question or need on someone else…
This icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so endearing. On her breast the medallion of the infant Christ. Mary’s arms extended in the orans position, the posture of a priest at the altar. Here Mary pre-figuring how she is carrying and offering the body and blood of Christ who comes from within her.
Mary carries Jesus, who is hidden. God’s taking on our human form, hidden for nine months in his mother’s womb. It will happen again to each of us: Christ’s hiddenness. How Christ who comes to live within us is sometimes so hidden, sometimes working out in the secrecy of our own hearts what cannot be seen. Not yet. Not by us; not by others.
This image of Christ, whom the Gospel of John calls “the Word.” Such a paradox, because the Word pictured in this icon cannot speak even one human word. The Word of God, alive and present in a completely silent way.
And then Mary, whose eyes are not on Jesus. Her eyes are on the world, which she sees and shares with Jesus from her heart. Since the meaning of Christ’s coming is to save the world, the Church’s primary mission must be worldly: the church, not radiating its holiness to a godless world, but giving itself to a world God so loves: people, skies, waterways, plants and trees, birds and creatures big and small. The Church’s primary mission must be worldly, offering God’s love and care to a world dying to be saved.