Review of The Upside Down World of St Francis


MaryAnn Koopman has written a generous review of my book The Upside Down World of St Francis.

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Franciscans in ship-wreck


FRANCISCANS DISCOVER HOPKINS
5. THE WRECK OF THE DEUTSCHLAND

The Deutshland foundered in a severe storm in the North Sea. All on board were drowned. Far away in Wales, Hopkins was deeply moved by this ship-wreck, and began to compose a long poem about it.

Hopkins was particularly saddened by the loss of five Franciscan nuns on their way to mission. In the poem, Hopkins explores the issues of ‘theodicy‘, the problem of a loving God in a world where things goes wrong.

Hopkins asks why God lets bad things happen to people in general, and in particular, he asks why God would call the Franciscan sisters to a mission and then cut their lives off. He describes their death as an instance of the stigmata like their father Francis’.

In this poem, Hopkins has no answers to the questions raised in theodicy, but he affirms God’s huge power and the tragedy of the ship-wreck.

The whole poem is 280 lines long. I have chosen the three stanzas about the Franciscan sisters.

22
Five! the finding & sake
And cipher of suffering Christ.
Mark, the mark is of man’s make
And the word of it Sacrificed.
But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,
Before-time-taken, dearest prizèd & priced —
Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token
For lettering of the lamb’s fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake.

23
Joy fall to thee, father Francis,
Drawn to the life that died;
With the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance, his
Lovescape crucified
And seal of his seraph-arrival! & these thy daughters
And five-livèd & leavèd favour & pride,
Are sisterly sealed in wild waters,
To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.

24
Away in the loveable west,
On a pastoral forehead of Wales,
I was under a roof here, I was at rest,
And they the prey of the gales;
She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails
Was calling “O Christ, Christ, come quickly”:
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wildworst Best.

The Franciscan who influenced Hopkins


FRANCISCANS DISCOVER HOPKINS
4. THE INFLUENCE OF DUNS SCOTUS

DUNS SCOTUS – Franciscan Theologian 1265-1308

Hopkins acclaims Duns Scotus in Duns Scotus’ Oxford

Towery city & branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark charmèd, rook racked,
river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country & town did
Once encounter in, here coped & poisèd powers;
Thou hast a base & brickish skirt there, sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural, rural keeping — folk, flocks, & flowers.

Yet ah! this air I gather & I release
He lived on: these weeds & waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;
Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.


Hopkins’ poetic and spiritual interest in Duns Scotus was in his concept of haecceitas.

Duns Scotus’ spirituality was deeply Franciscan. He absorbed the Franciscan idea of prayer as gazing, which was discerned in the prayer of St Francis by St Clare. Clare wrote not only about gazing on Christ the mirror, but also more generally on gazing as prayer.

Sister Ilia Delio in Franciscan Prayer traces how gazing as a way of prayer becomes Duns Scotus’ philosophical concept haeccietas.

1. “Thisness”: this creature (thing, animal, person) is different from all other creatures like it.
2. This creature is unlike all other creatures.
3. This creature was uniquely made by God.
4. This creature is a unique expression of the Word.

Exercise.

Spend some time with a creature. Explore its haecceitas. Engage in dialogue with the Word communicated by the creature.

Suggested creatures: tree, flower, rock.

[A more “advanced” exercise would be to explore the haecceitas of a person, or love, or a kind action.]

Questions to ask about this creature.
1. What makes this creature different from all other creatures like it?
2. What makes this creature different from all other creatures – i.e. what makes it unique?
3. What is there about this creature that reveals God’s special love uniquely directed at this creature?
4. What Word does this creature speak to us? (What revelation of God’s nature is in this creature?

Blessed Duns Scotus contemplates the haecceitas
Blessed Duns Scotus contemplates the haecceitas

Do Franciscans Bless Animals


Before I start criticising the practice of blessing animals, let me confess that I have blessed animals, and would do so again. In fact for a couple of years, Tom Sutton of Subiaco Parish in Perth invited me, along with other Franciscans and other priests to a great outdoor animal blessing. There is a picture of me blessing a great St Bernard, and it was a delight to make friends with this gentle creature.

Bless me St Bernard!
Bless me St Bernard!

This jamboree was stopped only because a certain dog food manufacturer was a sponsor and took advantage of this event. It took it over by emblazoning its name on every object and dog parade and snail race in sight.

Tom rightly believed that such rampant capitalism was at odds with the spirit of animal blessing.

But as a Franciscan I do feel ambivalent about blessing animals. Not that I have any theological problem with asking for God’s blessing on either pets or wild animals. Our blessing simply confirms the reality that God has already blessed creation. See Genesis 1.

Nor do I mind the chaos that can be caused by creatures great and small in a little church with God’s people trying to celebrate the Eucharist with devotion.

My problem, I think, is twofold. Firstly, blessing animals can become a sentimental act. “Isn’t it nice? Isn’t it lovely?” If an animal blessing is organised only to evoke superficial sentiments, then it is a dangerous waste of time. If an animal blessing is organised only to delight children, then it is a diversion from reality.

Secondly, blessing animals can easily turn companion animals into possessions rather than being seen as God’s gifts to us. The attitude that our pets are simply a convenience can easily lead to neglect and abuse , but even before it gets to that stage, this attitude diminishes us, making us consumers of animals’ services, rather than their grateful friends.

What Franciscans can do is to encourage people to think carefully about our relationship with animals. Saint Francis believed that each creature is a Word of God. In our encounter with an animal, St Francis encourages us to allow that animal to disclose its story to us. The animal is not there simply for our unfettered use, but is a fellow-creature put on this earth to share existence with us and to join our praise of the Most High Creator.

And I do love our dog!
And I do love our dog!

Our pets are our companions, not our slaves.

And do we bless the animals that give food, are food for us? Much has been written about the distance between us urban dwellers and the milk and meat that we enjoy. If we bless our pets, then we should equally bless the animals that nurture us. We should be prepared to ask whether the cost of being a meat-eater is too high. Dr Rajendra Pachauri Chair of the IPCC spoke of the positive environmental impact of eating one less meat meal each week.

Wild animals are a blessing, too, although I suspect it’s impossible to catch a blue wren or an Oenpelli python to lay hands on and pronounce a blessing over it!

So my plea as a Franciscan is, if we are to bless animals, then let’s do it with thorough thought and prayer, and not just as a liturgical stunt. But no one would do that, would they?