Maybe it was the day-old pizza. Maybe it was a sermon I heard recently on the epistle of St James and the power of self-deception. Maybe I was just inexplicably cranky. Whatever the reason, I found myself this past week feeling cynical about, of all things, St Francis Day. I say "of all things" because how can one dislike a day that features puppies and kittens and lizards in church? Or upholds the goodness of all creation? I say "of all things" because I am the chaplain of the St Francis House Episcopal Student Center, and St Francis Day is our patronal feast. Happy birthday! But celebration notwithstanding, today I am wary of the feast as we have come to observe it in the Christian Church.
The concern is this: to what extent has St Francis Day been given over to the tendency within the Christian faithful to dismiss the challenge of a particular witness by lifting it up in part, and in a manner comforts the faithful without also discomforting the faithful? Without keeping us honest... Put differently, has the Blessing of the Animals - however good and well intentioned an act it is in itself - become within the context of the Church's practice an act so isolated from the whole of Francis' life and witness that it now stands alongside Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny as a sentimental caricature of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the subsequent life and calling of the people his Spirit conceived, that is, the Church?
Parenthetically, I’ve long feared that something like this happens in ordination: that the Church, by the enormous, comic spectacle of making priests, keeps the rest of the Church at arm’s length from the challenge of being so called. As if holiness were an optional elective among the faithful. “Here, you go be holy for us.” And yet any priest with the audacity to acknowledge such a call surely does so only within the context and understanding of the priesthood of all believers, with Christ as the head and great, high priest; that is, she understands that she has no priesthood to exercise apart from the whole Church living her priestly calling.
G. K. Chesterton once famously said that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried. If Francis meant to show us anything, it is that the life of the Christian - every Christian - can be radical, beautiful, and distinguished from the lives we would have otherwise lived.
Now, to be clear: let’s keep blessing the animals! I’m not THAT cranky. But remember - as we’ve said before - that Francis preached to them, too. Constantly. Converted them, even, if the stories are to be believed. The homiletic take-home was almost always "praise him." Through your barking, fetching, soaring, tweeting (not that kind, but that kind, too), praise the Lord. If Francis preached these things to wolves, there’s no reason to think he’d change it much for students: praise him! In your reading, speaking, learning, writing, procrastinating - in all things, praise him, and proclaim him! So I ask you: why doesn't October 4th occasion church-wide reflection on the call of each one to preach with the same passion with which we bless hamsters? Again, I ask you: where is the exhortation to proclaim? And of course to sing the praises of God? How can we let the day pass us without praying Canticle 13 at least three times? Or singing hymns 400 and 407 at every mealtime?
Francis preached and praised ALL THE TIME, yes, with animals. "PRAISE THE LORD IN ALL YOU DO," he said. And they listened to his words. That’s significant. Cats and dogs - all creation is important, but/and exactly because creation is important, as the good work of our Creator, the words with which we describe creation and speak to it, as it, are every bit as vital. Indeed, just to the extent that we live lives unintelligible from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (and our desire to do so is the obvious rub that Chesterton names), humble and courageous words - and not just the preacher’s - are necessary to articulate our actions with any meaning. We preach Christ, and him crucified.
Shifting gears. You might remember me sharing before a favorite quote of Francis’: "It is no use walking to preach unless our walking is our preaching." We might read these words in a number of directions, but I daresay a direction we cannot omit is this: Francis' vow of poverty (and this as something different from simply being a university student). Would that October 4 re-called Christians to our call to be present to and among the poor; indeed, to walk with them. Would that October 4 became our reclaiming the call that William Law penned for Christians when he exhorted us to “Love poverty and [have] reverence [for] poor people as for many reasons, so particularly for this, because our blessed Savior was one of the number and because you may make them all so many friends and advocates with God for you.”
As a child, reflecting on the witness of St Francis, I used to pray that I would become a person of sufficient peace that birds would find me a worthy perch. Ridiculous, I know - what a sad childhood, you’re thinking - but it worked for Francis. How does the peaceful witness of Francis stand to challenge our society's deeply ingrained patterns of ritual violence and force? Where is the symbol-act alongside the blessing of turtles for especially costly peace, an end to war, on St Francis Day? Surely this peace is as central to Francis’ witness as the call to sprinkle water on Muffins, the cat.
Finally, I am unreasonably fascinated by the readings assigned to feast days. I sometimes ask my would-be confirmands, "What Scriptures would one appoint for your day?" Of course the saints don’t get to pick their lessons. The Church picks them for them, as a sort of rehearsal, a remembering, a treasuring, of a given saint’s life. The readings become an act of observation. What Scriptures, they ask, did this individual’s life call to mind, speak to life. The appointing of lessons for a Christian is like having one's life woven into the grand narrative of God's story. And this is the appointment - this is what the Church sees and hears in the life of St Francis:
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule-- peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.
The literal connection between Francis and the text is the allusion to the stigmata, the marks of the crucifixion that Francis is said to have prayed for, and received: “I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” But in every other aspect of his life also: the marks of Jesus branded on his body. And this is what he prayed for. I don't know what to do with this prayer. And yet I know it is the prayer my being a Christian is training me to pray: the marks of Jesus branded on my body. On my good days, I even pray to want to see it happen. On my other days, though, I'm grateful for puppies and kittens and lizards and photo ops, which prove suitably pious distractions from the call of the Christ with holes in his hands; holes Francis prayed to made worthy of sharing.
Francis blesses the animals; but when he is done he looks up at us, too. And there in his gaze: the conviction that the life of every Christian can be radical, beautiful, and decidedly distinguished from the lives we would have otherwise lived.
Thanks be to God.