Tuesday, October 2, 2012

St Francis Day: for the Birds?

Maybe it was the day-old pizza. Maybe it was this (exceptional) sermon. Maybe I'm just cranky. But I find myself feeling unusually cynical today about St Francis Day, of all things. I say "of all things" because how can one not like 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 at UW, and St Francis Day is our patronal feast. But today I am wary of the day as we have come to observe it in the Christian Church.

The concern is this: to what extent has St Francis Day become the exemplification of the tendency within the Christian faithful to dismiss the challenge of a particular witness by lifting it up in part, and in a manner which does not speak to the incongruity of our present lives with the larger witness - and so also of the cost of faithfulness? 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 sentimental caricatures of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the subsequent life and calling of the people his Spirit conceived, the Church?

Don't mishear me now - keep blessing the animals! But remember that Francis preached to them, too. Constantly. Converted them, 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. Why doesn't October 4th occasion church-wide reflection on the call of each one to preach? 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 is often quoted as having said, "Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary." The context of Francis' life should determine how we read this. He preached ALL THE TIME. TO ANIMALS. "PRAISE THE LORD IN ALL YOU DO," he said. And they listened. 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), humble and courageous words are necessary to articulate our actions with any meaning. We preach Christ, and him crucified.

A more believably Franciscan quote is this: "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. 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 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, but it worked for Francis. How does the peaceful witness of Francis stand to challenge our society's deeply engrained patterns of ritual violence and force? Where is the symbol-act for especially costly peace on St Francis Day? 

Which brings me to the last point I'll make (though not the last point one could make). I am unreasonably fascinated by the readings assigned to feast days. "What Scriptures would one appoint for your day?" I sometimes ask my would-be confirmands. The act of the appointing of lessons is a kind of having one's life written into the grand narrative of God's story. And this is the appointment that is made for 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 is the allusion to the stigmata, marks of the crucifixion, that Francis is said to have prayed for, and received. But in every other way, too: the marks of Jesus branded on my body. 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. 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.


  1. Wonderful reflection! and an honest evaluation of a popular practice. I have shared it with my own blog community at the Crossing.

  2. Thanks, Daniel, for the shout-out among the Crossing community. I'm always especially grateful for perspectives outside of my own tradition; they make for the best conversation. Grateful, too, for our running to into each other yesterday - let's do it again before too long!

  3. What a great post! It is tragic, the extent to which we have chosen (not so inadvertently, I think) to ignore the great and truly difficult challenge which Francis provided us in his life. I know I have been guilty of using the oft-cited "preach the gospel, and if necessary use words" statement to rationalize my own evangelistic reticence. Thank you for putting this, and the rest of Francis's witness, in context. Peace.

  4. Hope you don't mind that I've re-posted a brief excerpt of this on my blog. Thanks again.