Francis – program notes


Program notes for the play Francis, presented by the Midnite Youth Theatre Company, November 21, 22, 23 and 24, by Julian Mitchell and directed by Drew Stocker tssf.

By Ted Witham tssf

Poster for the play “Francis”

Saint Francis of Assisi became a leader by giving power away. Francis Bernadone was born in 1181 or 1182 and grew up in a wealthy merchant’s house. As a teenager, he became a leader of wild parties through the streets of Assisi. He was known as ‘The King of the Revels’, and used his money to attract friends.

Like all young men in Assisi, Francis chose to join in the little wars the town fought – for the Emperor (against the Pope) and against the neighbouring hill-town of Perugia. After one battle Francis was taken prisoner in a dark prison in Perugia. Having a wealthy father meant that he was held for ransom.  It took a year to negotiate a price for his release. He began to realise that even with money he couldn’t have what he wanted when he wanted.

After his release he bought a knighthood to fight in the crusades. Instead of a glorious tour in Palestine, Francis returned home sick. In a vision God showed him that he didn’t want him to be a knight, so he gave away his lavish armour.

Everywhere around him, Francis could see people fighting: fighting to keep their possessions and power. Assisi had always been a barter economy, but now, as Francis grew to manhood, it was becoming a greedy money economy. Instead of giving each other life’s necessities, the people of Assisi began to amass cash. The division between the privileged and the poor grew rapidly.

Francis saw a solution to this greed. All people should treat each other as members of their family. Instead of grabbing resources for themselves, they should share with their brothers and sisters what they had. Francis started a community of those who would follow this way. He dreamed of a new world where people gave everything away to each other, so all would be equally rich.

Francis struggled for the rest of his life to find the best way to be the leader of this community. His idea of a leader was someone who did not have power over others. Like Jesus, Francis wanted to be the leader in serving others, a servant leader, a leader in giving power away. The concept was – and is – difficult to put into practice, but the communities Francis founded continue to try to make it work.

St Francis tells Br. Leo about the incident at Gubbio


My heart in my mouth I set off to meet Wolf.
He filled me with fear. He was Other.
I walked dark into the forest, so deeply looking
That at first I failed to see this Brother.

He appeared to be slinking around a tree.
In shadow, he looked all grey and black.
His eyes though lighted were lifeless,
And I froze, my feet bare on the mountain track.

I stared at the terrible empty eyes.
Brother Wolf still as a stone about to slide.
My eyes entered his and the space between melted.
We became one: my eyes and heart in Wolf’s inside.

He swallowed me whole. Yet I possessed him too.
Confused our hunger for love and humanity.
Crossed our praise of power in life and death.
Gubbio lay below in its simple vulnerability.

We stayed like that for time and a time,
Then slowly, gently in two came apart;
The same, yet different than before.
I burning with hunger and he humbled in heart.

I led him back like a lamb to the village.
Aflame, I rebuked him with voice and with prod.
“Share, show respect, live in harmony.”
The villagers rejoiced. I devoured God.

Ted Witham

Published in Assisi, Volume 2 Issue 2,3, the magazine of St Francis’ College in New York.

Picture by William Schaff.

Christian power: an oxymoron?


Yesterday the residents’ association of our village held elections. There was quite a tussle over the position of Chairman of the Social Committee, with arguments about the Constitution and fights about procedure. The sub-text was reasonably easy to discern: two strong people clashing and both leading with their shadows!

This made me reflect on the nature of power in Christian communities. You can’t avoid the reality of power and it usually plays out in the dance between leader and community.

When St Benedict wrote his Rule – or re-wrote that of the Master – he envisaged the Abbot as God for the monks. They owed him total obedience and he was elected for life. His absolute power was balanced by the requirement that he act to further the needs of the community.

The Rule of St Benedict

Benedictine communities could become dysfunctional. When they did, some believed it was because of the lifelong dictatorship of the Abbot. When St Francis of Assisi in the 12th Century, some four hundred years later, came to set out his ideal community, he made sure that its leaders had limited terms. When they had finished as leader, they went back to being a little brother again. Franciscan leaders are called Ministers, and their focus is to serve their brothers and sisters. Power, for St Francis, was exercised always by giving it away.

The downside of Franciscan leadership is that it can be chaotic, and when Franciscan communities are dysfunctional, it often manifests in fights that no-one has the authority to resolve.

Roger Shutz arrived in France from Switzerland during World War 2 looking for a site near Lyon to establish a community of reconciliation. By 1945, the community at Taizé was working, with Brother Roger as its founding Prior. Leadership, for him, was that of Prior, first among equals. He was evidently aware of the shortcomings of both Benedictine and mendicant leadership, and his Rule shows a new emphasis. Not only should the Prior consult with the majority of the community, but should also pay special attention to those in the community without power: the young, the voiceless, the marginalised, and allow those voices to be celebrated and followed.

Brother Roger’s style of leadership resonates well with our era. Its downside is that it requires a great gift of discernment to hear the voice of Christ when it is not the voice of mainstream members of the Christian community.

I beleive that the heritage of Christian leadership has much to teach us. We are, we claim, the Body of Christ, and the way in which we exercise power should reflect Christ’s way of power.

Brother Roger

Firstly, Benedict teaches us power is for the community more than the individual. Francis teaches us that power becomes oppression when it is held for oneself. Roger of Taizé reminds us of the ways the Bible holds up the little one.

These styles of exercising power can be seen in parishes and all Christian communities. There are some parishes where the priest is Father, and Father knows best what is in the interest of his parish. Father initiates people in Christian faith, particularly in the sacrament of baptism, and Father prevents the nasty nature of some people from dominating the parish agenda.

Other leaders are very conscious that their time in the parish is temporary. The minister is there to coach the ministries that were there before she came and will continue after she leaves. She is an enabler, and an encourager, and above all, she models the way in which Christ gave away his power to others.

In other parishes, the smallest member is heard. Children are on worship committees, clients of the soup kitchen design the ministry for the hungry, and the majority give way to the smallest voice with grace and gratitude that in them they have heard the voice of Christ.

Of course,no parish is purely one or the other of these leadership styles. But I hold them up like this partly as a warning that each can be dysfunctional. If we know that Abbots can become dictators, Ministers can be disengaged, and Priors can so honour the voice of the little one that they desert the way of common sense.

Power can spoil any community, and understanding how it works in the Body of Christ can lead to vibrant community living.

Why Should Franciscans be interested in poetry?


FRANCISCANS DISCOVER HOPKINS
1. SHOULD FRANCISCANS BE INTERESTED IN POETRY?

• St Francis was influenced by the troubadours. His interest in troubadours probably started on journeys to France as a child.
The troubadours:
o Sang in Italian or Provençal (French) and not Latin.
o Broke convention by singing love songs to ladies beyond their status.
o Used popular harmonies and rhythms.
St Francis wanted to be able to sing love songs to God with the same language of intimacy. He liked the fact that ordinary people could enjoy popular song styles and understand both words and music. Churchy Latin was remote.
Brother William SSF (Can it be True) was a modern Franciscan troubadour. In the late 60s and early 70s in Queensland William wrote ballads and songs and performed them at rallies with thousands of young people.
• Saint Francis was influenced by Sufi poetry. He wanted to travel to Morocco, Spain, and he succeeded in travelling to Damietta, all centres of Sufi poetry.
The Sufis:
o Wrote love poetry to God.
o The “whirling dervishes” got themselves into an ecstatic meditative state.
o Lived in covenanted communities.
Saint Francis asked Leo to whirl to determine which way to proceed at a crossroads. He was intrigued by ecstatic prayer, and he wanted to know more. Some scholars like Idres Shah believe that he came away from his meeting with the Sultan in Damietta having quizzed the sufis there.
Poetry expresses deep insights about God. The best theology is poetry. Good poetry is theology.
It is often difficult to discern the boundary between hymns and poetry. The poet-priest, George Herbert wrote Let All the World in Every Corner Sing, as a poem, but it makes a great hymn.

Sufis

Sufis

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?