Today on the New Calendar is the Feast of Our Venerable Father among the Saints Francis of Assisi.
One of the advantages of being in communion with the Latin Church is that while we insist on our autonomy, we also do not need to do all the typical hand-wringing about whether their saints are holy. Granted, there has been quite a bit of discussion in contemporary theology about whether Francis and his followers are worth celebrating; did their philosophers, for example, contribute to a kind of nominalism and voluntarism that precipitated modern secularization, or is this a hit job from Thomists who are not feeling charitable on a particular day?
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas confesses in a footnote that he is ‘insufficiently schooled to evaluate their claims,’ especially about the Franciscan philosopher Duns Scotus (A Better Hope, p. 224, n. 11), and I say the same about myself. For that matter, I have often felt shy about trying to evaluate the current Bishop of Rome who has taken Francis as his namesake; there are, after all, so many conspiracy theories that abound, and what’s more, there is the tricky situation of Eastern Catholics who see ourselves as ‘Orthodox-in-communion-with-Rome’ asserting ourselves as in communion with Rome while not being under Rome’s authority because Rome is, like us, a local church with a global reach – we respect her autonomy as much as we wish for reciprocity.
But there remains Francis, the little brother of Assisi, himself. Much has been written about him rebuilding the church at San Damiano (which is why that cross with the iconography that looks so eerily Byzantine is used as a Franciscan symbol), or the joy that he took in his Song of Creation and many other conversations with the created order (which Pope Francis taps for Laudato Si’), or his repentance from a life of opulence to gathering a community dedicated to a life of medicant poverty.
I am not going to write about any of those; instead, I want to quote in full a document that exemplifies why Francis might be considered in our calendar ‘our Venerable Father among the Saints.’ Titled ‘True and Perfect Joy,’ this is a piece that is considered authentic that concludes the section of the writings of Francis of Assisi in the first volume of Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. It’s an undated piece, but is said by the authors to reflect ‘the letter which Francis sent to Brother Leo which was the result of a conversation on the road and the resolution of a question about Gospel life’ (Francis of Assisi: Early Documents – The Saint, p. 166). For me, it also reminds me of monastics in our church and our sister churches giving counsel about what a life of holiness would look like; perhaps in this way, the mendicant life of Francis might be compared to the desert retreats of our ancient holy mothers and fathers, in a similar way as my friend Fr Joseph Koczera SJ sees Ignatian spirituality making the city into a desert instead of having to make the desert into a city.
The same [Brother Leonard] related in the same place that one day at St Mary’s, blessed Francis called Brother Leo and said: ‘Brother Leo, write.’ He responded: ‘Look, I’m ready!’ ‘Write,’ he said, ‘what true joy is.’
‘A messenger arrives and says that all the Masters of Paris have entered the Order. Write: this isn’t true joy! Or, that all the prelates, archbishops and bishops beyond the mountains, as well as the King of France and the King of England [have entered the Order]. Write: this isn’t true joy! Again, that my brothers have gone to the non-believers and converted all of them to the faith; again, that I have so much grace from God that I heal the sick and perform many miracles. I tell you true joy doesn’t consist in any of these things.’
‘Then what is true joy?’
‘I return from Perugia and arrive here in the dead of night. It’s winter time, muddy, and so cold that icicles have formed on the edges of my habit and keep striking my legs and blood flows from such wounds. Freezing, covered with mud and ice, I come to the gate and, after I’ve knocked and called for some time, a brother comes and asks: “Who are you?” “Brother Francis,” I answer. “Go away!” he says. “This is not a decent hour to be wandering about! You may not come in!” When I insist, he replies, “Go away! You are simple and stupid! Don’t come back to us again! There are many of us here like you – we don’t need you!” I stand again at the door and say: “For the love of God, take me in tonight!” And replies: “I will not! Go to the Crosiers’ place and ask there!”
‘I tell you this: If I had patience and did not become upset, true joy, as well as true virtue and the salvation of my soul, would consist in this.’ (Francis of Assisi: The Saint, p. 166-7).
Holy Father Francis, pray to G-d for us!