I have been reading Thomas of Celano’s two lives of Saint Francis, with all the complicated pleasure of advancing age. In 1973 the Franciscan Herald Press put out a lovely edition of the early writings about Francis, Saint Francis of Assisi: Omnibus of Sources, a beautifully executed book, hardbound, with maps of Italy and Assisi, cloth bookmarks, and nearly two thousand pages of thirteenth century writings translated competently into English and printed on a fine thin paper. Selections were required reading for a course I took at Princeton. I was unable at the time to afford all the books required for my courses, and so I had to choose which ones I would buy. I never bought the photocopied course packets of selections from books, and so I went to the library to take out the Francis Omnibus, and was treated to the full text, in which I read very widely freshman spring. In later years I searched for the book in vain – a trip to a Franciscan bookshop was bootless, as the Franciscan Herald Press had revised the edition, split it into three volumes, printed it in trade hardback form, and was charging something like sixty dollars per volume. Searching for the old edition online showed that people had a sense of what a good book was worth, as people were charging hundreds of dollars for them.
But on a whim I searched for one just after getting my first paycheck from landscaping work a few weeks ago, and found one for thirty dollars, and as the spring flowers were pushing up from the forest floor I found myself thinking so much of Francis I decided to buy the book. And so I have been enjoying the spring with him and with my nineteen-year-old self, thinking Wordsworth thoughts about what then I was and what I am now.
I have the pleasure of not having changed too much, I suppose; those things I wanted so much to do then I am doing now. I read page after page and see how I got to where I am now. The ideals are the same. “Changed, therefore, but in mind, not in body, he refused to go to Apulia and he strove to bend his own will to the will of God. Accordingly, he withdrew for a while from the bustle and the business of the world and tried to establish Jesus Christ dwelling within himself.” “He lived a long time, leading a holy life, justly and piously, and giving us examples of perfect obedience, manual labor, solitary life, and holy contemplation.” The obedience of course I am incapable of, but Francis was incapable of it as well. But I will let Celano speak; this was what I wanted when I was nineteen, and I find myself wanting it still:
It would take too long and it would be impossible to enumerate and gather together all the things the glorious Francis did and taught while he was living in the flesh. For who could ever give expression to the very great affection he bore for all things that are God’s? Who would be able to narrate the sweetness he enjoyed while contemplating in creatures the wisdom of their Creator, his power and his goodness? Indeed, he was very often filled with a wonderful and ineffable joy from this consideration when he looked upon the sun, while he beheld the moon, and while he gazed upon the stars and the firmament. O simple piety and pious simplicity! Toward little worms even he glowed with a very great love, for he had read this saying about the Savior: ‘I am a worm, not a man.’ Therefore he picked them up from the road and placed them in a safe place, lest they be crushed by the feet of passers-by. What shall I say of the lower creatures, when he would see to it that the bees would be provided with honey in the winter, or the best wine, lest they should die from the cold? He used to praise in public the perfection of their works and the excellence of their skill, for the glory of God, with such encomiums that he would often spend a whole day in praising them and the rest of creatures. For as of old the three youths in the fiery furnace invited all the elements to praise and glorify the Creator of the universe, so also this man, filled with the spirit of God, never ceased to glorify, praise, and bless the Creator and Ruler of all things in all the elements and creatures.
How great a gladness do you think the beauty of the flower brought to his mind when he saw the shape of their beauty and perceived the odor of their sweetness? He used to turn the eye of consideration immediately to the beauty of that flower that comes from the root of Jesse and gives light in the days of spring and by its fragrance has raised innumerable thousands from the dead. When he found an abundance of flowers, he preached to them and invited them to praise the Lord as though they were endowed with reason. In the same way he exhorted with the sincerest purity cornfields and vineyards, stones and forests and all the beautiful things of the fields, fountains of water and all the green things of the gradens, earth and fire, air and wind, to love God and serve him willingly. Finally, he called all creatures brother, and in a most extraordinary manner, a manner never experienced by others, he discerned the hidden things of nature with his sensitive heart, as one who had already escaped into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God. O good Jesus, he is now praising you as admirable in heaven with all the angels, he who on earth preached you as lovable to every creature.
This passage affects me as much now as it did sixteen years ago; I can say that I have in my life wanted little else but this joy in nature and some way of sharing it with other people. And in my past three years living on Wildcat Mountain I can say that I have lived with joys like this, so that few days have been without at least one moment of bliss and wonder. Just yesterday I put down my wheelbarrow in slight pain – back trouble – and sighed a bit, when a tiny male hummingbird, with an astonishing red throat, came to rest on the top of my garden fence, and seemed to sigh himself, in a fellowship of suffering. He has come by my property several times, and I believe has found no food, for my columbines – my earliest hummingbird plant – are not blooming yet. We looked at each other for quite awhile – it was astonishing to see a hummingbird be still for so long – before I picked up my wheelbarrow and got on with my work, and he flew off and continued his quest for food. I asked around in the nursery for hummingbird plants earlier than columbines, but no one knew any, for they are traditionally considered the first. If I knew of something to add to my garden to feed my little friend – for perhaps with climate change his migrating patterns have altered – I would do so.
The Latin word for “Christian love” – some kind of nonpossessive, (theoretically) nonsexual love – is “caritas,” which means literally “dearness,” the quality of being dear or precious or valuable. It is rather perfectly exemplified in the reaction of Francis to the wool in this story, a physical thing which becomes almost unbearably beautiful and meaningful:
Once, when he made trip through the Marches of Ancona and had preached the word of God in that same city and had taken up his journey toward Osimo with a certain Brother Paul whom he had appointed minister of all the brothers in that province, he found a certain shepherd feeding a herd of she-goats and he-goats in the fields. Among the great number of these goats there was one little lamb going along and feeding humbly and quietly. When blessed Francis saw it, he stopped and, touched inwardly with sorrow of heart and groaning deeply, he said to the brother who was with him: ‘Do you not see this sheep that walks so meekly among the goats? I tell you that our Lord Jesus Christ walked in the same way meekly and humbly among the pharisees and chief priests. Therefore I ask you, my son, for love of him, to have pity with me on this little sheep. Let us pay the price and lead her away from among these goats.’
“Brother Paul, wondering over Francis’s grief, began himself to be filled with sorrow. But since they had nothing but the poor tunics with which they were clothed and while they were worrying about the price of buying the sheep, immediately a certain merchant on a journey was there and offered the price desired. Thanking God, they took the sheep and went on to Osimo. There, entering the house of the bishop of the city, they were received by him with great reverence. But the lord bishop wondered about the sheep which the man of God was leading and about his affection for it. But when the servant of Christ had recounted the long parable of the sheep of the Gospel, touched to the heart the bishop gave thanks to God for the purity of the man of God. The next day, however, when he was leaving the city and wondering what he should do with the sheep, he took the advice of his companion and brother and gave it over to a certain monastery of handmaids of Christ at San Severino to be cared for. The venerable handmaids of Christ accepted the sheep with joy as a great gift to them by God. They watched over it carefully for a long time, and they made a tunic out of its wool and sent it to the blessed father Francis at St. Mary of the Portiuncula at the time of a certain chapter. The holy man of God took it with great reverence and joy of spirit and, embracing it, he kissed it and invited all who stood by to share his happiness.
There are edges all over simple stories like this, and I feel them now with some personal pain. Francis’s likening of the lamb to Christ is not without inner bitterness and an awareness of his own difference from other, more worldly people – which comes out in many other stories as well – and then of course there is the simple fact that perhaps Francis felt this a thousand times in his life, and only this once did a good-hearted man with money just happen to appear to save the day for the little lamb. I remember being overcome with compassion for my ex-wife one day in the supermarket, when, standing behind a couple with several children whose food-stamp card was not sufficient to cover the cost of their groceries, I looked at their children and so burned with the desire to pay for their food but could do nothing about it – I did not have enough money to do so. I thought about her and how I knew she valued my love and compassion – she just wanted someone who had that love and compassion and also the power to act on it. And I had chosen not to have that power.
In hagiographies, God compensates for the power poverty robs us of with miracles. (“Miracle” is one of the many central modern-Christian words which cannot be translated into the language of the Gospels; the word used is dynamis, “power.”) Occasionally something like this happens, but as I have said, I feel certain that Francis’s effective compassion for animals was negligible in comparison to the number he saw suffer and die, just as the few healings attributed to him would have had no effect on the public health statistics of thirteenth century Italy. But modern economic development does have a public health effect, which makes the ideal of Franciscan poverty difficult to justify. Francis reportedly refused to even touch money and called it “dung.” He called someone who was attracted to this kind of dung “brother fly,” which rather neatly sums up his capacity, when it suited him, to use his dopey Mother-Nature’s-son image as a vehicle of contempt for people. At least one version of his “sermon to the birds” story is that he did it in frustration, as a commentary on the futility of actually preaching to people.
For the most part the Christian world has ignored Christian calls to poverty, but for those of us whose lives appear to have been bent by this call, I think it is impossible not to be affected by doubts, and wonder whether the skeptics are correct, and the cult of poverty (and chastity, for that matter) a misdirection of effort, or some kind of mental disease, or an outright fraud to keep money in certain hands. No church that I know of, as an institution, desires the curtailment of its own power that poverty would entail; indeed they go to great lengths to amass money and power. Why not follow their example rather than their precept? If I want nature-mysticism, why not do it the normal way, and purchase it? Work for a hedge fund for a few decades and buy a villa in Umbria, perhaps one where Francis stayed, or buy a chunk of Mount Alverna, where he had his mystical experiences. One way or another I think it will not work out that way in my life – for good or ill, I think my star or my choices indicate another end.
But reading Celano with the perspective of experience I can definitely see aspects of the Catholic tradition which certainly are psychologically sick, and not worth emulating. Of course the contempt for the body is part of that; Clare, his good friend, essentially started a convent for anorexics, where the sign of sanctity was reducing food intake. This passage about Francis’s masochism struck me very forcibly:
He had become to himself like a vessel that is destroyed, and burdened by no fear or solicitude for his body, he most zealously subjected it to affronts, lest he be driven by love of his body to desire eagerly some temporal things. Despising himself in all truth, he taught others by his word and example to despise themselves. What then? He was honored by all and extolled by all, with praiseworthy judgement; and he alone considered himself the most vile among men, he alone despised himself most severely. For often, when he was honored by all, he suffered the deepest sorrow; and rejecting the favor of men, he would see to it that he would be rebuked by some one. He would call some brother to him, saying to him: “In obedience, I say to you, revile me harshly and speak the truth against the lies of these others.” And when that brother, though unwilling, would say he was a boor, a hired servant, a worthless being, Francis, smiling and applauding very much, would reply: “May the Lord bless you, for you have spoken most truly; it is becoming that the son of Peter of Bernardone should hear such things.”
The Catholic cult of sainthood – a concept utterly foreign to the Gospel, interestingly enough, where the word “saint” really just means a believer and not a perfect person – is something which no one, in truth, can bear, and here the compensatory complex is clear. Francis accepted the power which his reputation for sanctity gave him – he was the head of a community which vowed to obey him! – but of course it came with a cost, because in truth he was no better than the men who obeyed him and he obviously knew it. The irony of course is that the more he desired these kinds of humiliations the more he appeared saintly in the eyes of others. There are times when you feel that Celano himself might see the contradiction here, writing a hagiography of a man who “despised himself in truth,” but I don’t think he did. It underlies almost all Christian concepts of sainthood, which is more or less a social way of becoming famous and powerful for despising fame and power. It makes solitude even more necessary, because it corrupts all interpersonal relations. It seems all Francis’s happiness came from animals, perhaps because they alone did not know he was a saint. I should correct that – I believe he also enjoyed being with bishops and the pope, because they really did despise him, considering him strange and potentially embarrassing. But it was a high I think more than a full pleasure. The story of him dancing in front of the pope is indicative:
But confident of the mercy of the Almighty, which in the time of need never fails those who trust in it, the bishop brought Francis before the lord pope and the reverend cardinals; and standing before such great princes, after receiving their permission and blessing, he began to speak fearlessly. Indeed, he spoke with such great fervor of spirit, that, not being able to contain himself for joy, when he spoke the words with his mouth, he moved his feet as though he were dancing, not indeed lustfully, but as one burning with the fire of divine love, not provoking laughter, but drawing forth tears of grief. For many of them were pierced to the heart in admiration of divine grace and of such great constancy in man. But the venerable lord bishop of Ostia [Francis's patron] was kept in suspense by fear and he prayed with all his strength to the Lord that the simplicity of the blessed man would not be despised, since the glory of the saint would reflect upon himself as would his disgrace, in as much as he had been placed over Francis’ family as a father.
Whether the Franciscan love of poverty is another of these viruses, like sainthood and probably obedience and chastity, which has infected and damaged Christianity I cannot say; in my life it has been both good and bad. It probably agrees poorly with old age – Francis himself consented eventually to seeing a doctor after he had been made essentially blind by disease and neglect, but he solved this problem mostly by dying at age forty-three – and no one much thinks it agrees well with matrimony. But I will say one thing in favor of it, and that is that it agrees very well with nature. Francis in the realm of spirituality means two things primarily, poverty and the love of nature; and these are aligned. Scientifically of course the link between sustainability and simplicity is growing more and more certain. I am always impressed at how even the most casual things we do have repercussions in nature: recently I read about the decimation of moth populations by artificial lighting. Moths naturally steer in the darkness by starlight, which is fixed relative to almost any point on earth; whereas lights on the ground move relative to a flying object, causing moths to circle around them in order to keep them in a fixed position.
But from the experiential perspective – the mystical perspective – poverty is the doorway into nature. This is the reason why people camp, of course. When you live simply the barrier between you and nature becomes very thin. I was telling my coworkers how I went out in downpours of rain to wash my dishes – this helps with the rinsing – and they just laughed and laughed. I could see that it was strange and funny, though now I’ve done it for more than two years and it seems normal to me. But I know that I feel the weather more acutely because it affects my behavior so directly. When the mountain dries out I use less water, and when it rains I clean the bathroom with the rainwater I gather. On sunny days in summer I take my showers outdoors, and on dry days I stack my wood and fill bins with kindling. And being in a silent house means that I hear the spring peepers and the coyotes and the owls, and every morning in spring I hear the birds greet the dawn. I eat out of the woods and now grow some of my own food as well, which also makes me conscious of warmth and cold and rain and drought. I know fear when I come unexpectedly upon a bear and defiance when I see the vultures circling overhead. I feel part of nature, because a one-room off-grid cabin is such a thin membrane, and I have to draw from it to satisfy my body’s needs.
In the Frick is a fine painting by Bellini, of Francis alone on Mount Alverna, and in the background of the painting is a wild donkey, a reference to the book of Job, and a symbol of the natural desires in us freed and unshackled. It became a symbol of the free life of the hermit:
Who hath set free the wild ass? Or loosed the bonds thereof? - Whose house I have made the wilderness, and the barren land his dwellings. He scorneth the multitude of the city, neither regardeth he the crying of the taskmaster; the mountain range is his pasture, and he searcheth after every green thing.