Friday, July 13, 2007

Francis, Thomas, and the Radically Unprotected Life

On the Magna Animi and the Pusilla Animi.



St. Francis of Assisi,
by Annibale Carracci (c. 1585-1590)


A few weeks ago I happened to be passing by the sign-up sheet in the basement of our church when I happened to come across a neat little novel called Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale, by Ian Morgan Cron, a Senior Pastor at Trinity Church in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Cron weaves the story of Chase Falson, the founder and pastor of a megachurch who is undergoing a crisis of faith and publicly loses it completely one day during a sermon in front of the whole congregation. The stunned Board of Elders call for an emergency meeting and it's decided that Chase should go on an extended leave of absence while the Board considers what to do about Chase and what the next steps should be. Hitting rock bottom with no one else to turn to, Chase calls his Uncle Kenny in Italy. Uncle Ken is a Franciscan friar. The next thing you know, Chase is jetting on Alitalia for Italy, soon to be on a pilgrimage "chasing Francis".

There is a scene where Chase is sitting one night on a hillside overlooking Assisi with Brother Thomas, a companion of Uncle Kenny's, and a Spiritual director. Chase relates:

I couldn't figure out how Thomas knew about my relationship with my father, much less that I was a pastor trying to fool people into believing he was perfect. For years I'd felt this pressure to convince everyone that I had the leadership skills of Bill Hybels, the pastoral gifts of Henri Nouwen, and the teaching acumen of John Stott. I'd never thought sharing my brokenness with people was an effective church-growth technique.

"Do you know the story of Rabbi Zusya?" he asked.
"He was a Chasidic master who lived in the 1700s. One day he said, `When I get to the heavenly court, God will not ask me `Why weren't you Moses?' Rather he will ask me, `Why were you not Zusya?"'

Thomas let that thought hang in the air for a moment, then continued. "Churches should be places where people come to hear the story of God and to tell their own. That's how we find out how the two relate. Tell your story with all of its shadows and fog, so people can understand their own. They want a leader who's authentic, someone trying to figure out how to follow the Lord Jesus in the joy and wreckage of life. They need you, not Moses," he said.

"I don't think I'm ready for that yet," I replied.

Thomas took my hand and squeezed it. "You will be," he said. "Do you know how Simon Tugwell described Franciscanism? He called it `the radically unprotected life,' a life that's cruciform in shape," he said, opening his arms to mimic the posture of Jesus on the cross.
"It's to live dangerously open, revealing all that we genuinely are, and receiving all the pain and sorrow the world will give back in return. It's to be real because we know the Real. Maybe living the unprotected life is what it means to be a Christian?"

I pondered this artful description of a follower of Jesus. "How `real' was Francis?" I asked.

"There was nothing false about him. He only knew how to be Francis, nothing more and nothing less. Do you know Thomas Aquinas?"

"Not well. I read some of the Summa Theologica in seminary, but it's been a long time."

"Aquinas spoke about two kinds of souls-the magna animi and the pusilla animi. The magna animi is the open soul that has space for the world to enter and find Jesus. It's where you get your word magnanimous. The pusilla animi is like that." He pointed at the dark outline of the Rocca Maggiore, far up on the hillside, the fortress where the people of Assisi used to run when they were attacked by a neighboring city.

"The pusilla animi is the defended heart. It's a guarded and suspicious spirit that's closed to the world. It sees everything and everyone as a potential threat, an enemy waiting to attack. It shields itself from the world. It's where you get the word-"

"Pusillanimous," I said.
"Someone who is fearful."

"Precisely. Francis possessed the magna animi. That's what each Christian, and the church, should be like."

I'm not sure how long I sat quietly, moving across the waters of Thomas's words.

"Thomas, why does it feel like God's abandoned me?" I asked at last. •

'Thomas sighed. "Sometimes God's presence is most strongly felt in his absence." He stood up and brushed the grass off his tunic. "Until tomorrow, then?"

"Yes, tomorrow," I replied.


It's so easy to be fearful of things these days. The planet seems in such imminent danger. Many of us in mid-life and even younger can feel let down by people and institutions alike. We can feel let down by country, church, job, school, friends, family, and even by God. For those who wish they could cultivate a worldview and spirituality like that of Francis, open to the world, and ever-cognizant of and joyful in the inherent goodness of the world and the goodness of creation, how does one get there if it doesn't come naturally to him?

Perhaps this is a question that some of my Franciscan friends and partisans out there can weigh in on, like Brother Charles, Don, Rashfriar, and Paula. As I think about the question, however, I get a feeling what some of you might say and what Francis would most certainly say. "Don't look to Francis for an example, but look to the example he looked to - Christ."

Just the same.. Is there a Franciscan temperament, and can it be cultivated, being one of "God's Fools", if magnanimity only comes with a struggle instead of coming naturally? I'm sure it didn't come naturally to the young Francis either.

Cron (as Chase, writing in his journal):

A quote from The Francis Book, "Rembrandt painted him, Zeffirelli filmed him, Chesterton eulogized him, Lenin died with his name on his lips, Toynbee compared him to Jesus and Buddha, Kerouac picked him as patron of the 'Beat' generation, Sir Kenneth Clark called him Europe's greatest religious genius." That's quite a list of admirers...

Francis - a maverick saint who found the tertium quid, or third way. Francis didn't criticize the institutional church, nor did he settle for doing church the way it had always been done. He rose above those two alternatives and decided that the best way to overhaul something was to keep your mouth shut and simply do it better. It's like Gandhi said: "Seek to be the change you wish to see in the world." ....Francis had no theory to offer, but an old practice - the practice of Jesus Christ.

22 comments:

crystal said...

Nice post! When I watched the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon I was really touched by that Francis. Is there a Franciscan temperament? ... to me, he seemed like a person in love (with Jesus)

I read an article by Michael Buckley SJ once that asked "are you weak enough to be a priest?" Sounds like what the character in that novel was told.

Speaking of Jesus, not sure if you saw that I tagged you for Talmida's meme?

Liam said...

That's a great post. I can't get over Francis -- I think he's the saint that speaks most to me.

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

Don't believe the pig's feet calumny about Francis. :-) I'm not as sure he was a vegetarian as some people claim, but he treated animals with utmost dignity and respect.

Thanks for the Buckley article. Somewhat like Nouwen's 'Wounded Healer', right? Thanks for the tag on the meme too. I'm not sure it suits my tonality. It seems a bit "down-home, tent-revival" to me. I think I'll take a crack at it, although you and Talmida have summed it up so well, I'm not sure how much I could add to it. :-)

Liam,

He was really something. I think it's safe to say that it's the simple example and legacy of a saint like Francis that keeps many of us in the fold, not treatises, encyclicals, motu proprios, and heavy tomes on theology. If Francis chose to stay in, I can stay in.

cowboyangel said...

Jeff,

Interesting post. I saw the book title on your reading list and wondered what it was about.

Francis was always my favorite saint, since I was a child. Partly, perhaps, because my mother took me to see Brother Sun, SisterMoon. :-) But I always identified with him more than others.

I think one of the reasons Francis appeals to a lot of people is because he seems so Christ-like. I think many people want to live like Christ, and there's a great longing to see Him manifested in our world. Yet, despite all of our Christian institutions, denominations, seminaries, theologians, evangelism, and public talk of Christianity, how many actual people do we encounter in our lives who really seem to be like Jesus? Not many, it seems to me. The few who do leave lasting imprints upon us. Francis shows that a thousand years after Christ, one could still really live out the life of Jesus - the dangerous and radical life of Jesus. It's not the theology or the morality or even the salvation that we're all longing for, it's the love. The world is filled with religion. But it is so, so desperately in need of His love.

crystal said...

Try to think of it as Jesuit rather than tent revival :-) ... the Jesuits are sort of the Jesus-freaks of Catholicism.

Anna said...

I'd never thought sharing my brokenness with people was an effective church-growth technique.

"But real religion begins with each person appreciating the life he or she has, even with all the weaknesses, because the Lord communicates through that life."

God will not ask me `Why weren't you Moses?' Rather he will ask me, `Why were you not Zusya?"'

"So many of us hold an image of a religious person as always unruffled by the stresses of life, always kind and giving, always praying, knowing the Bible, having special experiences of God. Most ordinary Catholics, however, do not identify with this image. Nor have they ever experienced God in a dramatic way. They therefore conclude they are not religious people."

Churches should be places where people come to hear the story of God and to tell their own. That's how we find out how the two relate.

"Most people in the church at this point in time have nobody to listen to them try to sort out how God might be speaking in their lives. Every baptized person has the right to tell his or her faith story and to get a hearing in the faith community. Without this telling - and the community's response - our consciousness and appreciation of the Lord in our lives develop poorly. ... More difficult still is taking the next step - comparing my personal experience to the church's experience of the Lord in Scripture, Sacrament and Tradition. Only through making these connections can we discover the Lord who gives a focus to our personal life story through the church's story."

"It's to live dangerously open, revealing all that we genuinely are, and receiving all the pain and sorrow the world will give back in return.

"People talk about religion easily enough. We can discuss the changes in the church, what we like and dislike in our parish, even a particular theologian or philosophy of life. But most of us find sharing personal faith - what religion means to us - more difficult."

For those who wish they could cultivate a worldview and spirituality like that of Francis, open to the world, and ever-cognizant of and joyful in the inherent goodness of the world and the goodness of creation, how does one get there if it doesn't come naturally to him?

"[G]iven the unreflective nature of the world we live in, this kind of discernment and sharing actually demands a counter-cultural way of life that can best be maintained with group support. And the size of most parishes means that the parish as parish is too large a group to provide this support effectively." [My emphasis]

Francis didn't criticize the institutional church, nor did he settle for doing church the way it had always been done. He rose above those two alternatives and decided that the best way to overhaul something was to keep your mouth shut and simply do it better.

"Small communities are a practical approach to enhance the faith and genuine love already [present in the parish] - helping us be who we are better. ... Nor is this vision just another - albeit "better" - program ... What is unique in the small groups we talk about is that they do not remain mere small groups. They become church at a new, more basic level. And the pastoral plan for moving your parish in this direction is not just another program that the parish embraces this year. It changes the very way parishioners come together to be church for each other and for the world and, in the process, radically changes - restructures - the parish forever."

Much of what you wrote echoed with things I have been thinking about lately. The quotes I have provided are all from the book Creating Small Church Communities by Arthur Baranowski. I tried to pick quotes that closely dealt with each of the parts that I excerpted from your post. Your post said it all better, but this book offers a possible answer to your question of how to do what does not come naturally.

Paula said...

Hmmm....the Franciscan spirituality spoke the first to me before converting and partially it did trigger my conversion. I may have a bit of Franciscan temperament.:-).

Friar Minor (Br Charles) had a great post about "living open" (written for the Holy Thursday this year).
Here is a bit:

"Our bodies are going to break. We will get sick and die. God saves us from death, but not from dying. So since we are doomed to breakdown anyway, we may as well break our bodies in service and sacrifice to one another.(….) Our hearts will break too. It’s inevitable if we allow ourselves to notice the suffering of the world, and especially the suffering we bring upon those we love. You can do one of two things with your broken heart. You can get bitter, or you can let the brokenness turn into openness, and end up with a heart broken open to a hurting world. That’s learning gentleness and forgiveness, of imitating Jesus by pouring out our own blood for the forgiveness of sins".

Steve Bogner said...

Hmm... I don't think (my opinion here) that a temperament is cultivated; I think it's discovered, celebrated and leveraged. But it takes some serious work to discover it. It's the sort of work that Brother Francis describes. My method of getting there was/is Ignatian because it works for me. That's the first step, maybe; what form of prayer, reflection and self-discovery works best for you?

Steve Bogner said...

Oh and by the way - I really liked this post :)

Jeff said...

Hi Anna :-)

Welcome! It's really nice to see you here, and thanks for taking the time to interact with the post and to relate it so closely to something you've been reading. That's very klind of you. Those are great suggestions. We should never underestimate the importance of community. St Francis certainly understood that. Creating Small Church Communities by Arthur Baranowski... Sounds like a good read. What he says reminds me very much of the "Base Communities" that the liberation theologians formed in Latin America. They would get together, study and contemplate on the scriptures, and discuss how to apply the scriptures in a concrete setting. Our CCD operates something like that. Rather than sending the kids into a classroom setting every week, we meet in "clusters" with other families once a month, with each family taking a turn hosting. It works pretty well, not only for the kids, but also for the parents, as we take the time to talk about faith in ways that we might not be able to do in the workplace or elsewhere.

Jeff said...

Hi Ho, Paula

That's great work by Brother Charles as usual. Thanks for pointing it out. I've always loved the Franciscan themes and meditations you've had on your blog too.

I wonder about my own temperament and whether it fits a Franciscan spirituality well, even though I'd very much like it to. Francis, Il Poverello, was willing to cast everything he had aside and to live each day in complete open trust in imitation of the Gospels, trusting entirely on the benevolence of the Spirit. I've always been someone with a need to feel secure. Always have to have my ducks lined up in a row... That kind of abandon and "live for the day" openness would be a big leap for me. I'm not a natural risk-taker. Furthermore, although Francis was an ascetic, he was not gloomy. The best of the Franciscan spirit is celebratory and joyful, seeing the good in the world and in all of creation. I think it takes a certain kind of optimistic view of the world that I wish I had more of, and which I'd like to cultivate. I've found many of the Franciscans I've met to be joyful people, who are detached from the world, but don't despise it. They are able to enjoy the good things of life in moderation and perspective. They've seemed more along the Friar Tuck model than the thin, ascetic Francis :-) (Someone once asked me, do you know any thin Franciscans?)

Jeff said...

Hi William,

You're very much right about Francis, and that's why he was universally respected, even by people of other faiths. He has that kind of universal appeal, like Christ himself. Interesting to note - Chase, the protagonist in the book, does not become a Catholic. Rather, he finds a way to integrate Francis' teachings and ethic into what he already does.

Jeff said...

Hi Steve,

Thanks. I can always count on you and Crystal to be my Ignatian cadre. :-) I suppose it is true that it's better to discover our own temperaments and to work within them rather than to try to shoe-horn ourselves into something we are not. I might have mentioned this before, but I did do a little research once on prayer types and temperament, based upon the Myers-Briggs model (I'm and INFP). According to this guide I was using, I have an Augustinian temperament, and apparently a good style of prayer for me is to study the scriptures using creative imagination, with an eye towards applying it to current situations. The problem for me is what they call it... I'm much more fond of Francis than I am of Augustine! :-)

Paula said...

Jeff,

Thomas Merton said in his "The Seven Storey Mountain" that to be a Franciscan means also to be prepared to live a material insecure life. He wanted to become a Franciscan but he gave up for other reasons than the Franciscan poverty, although this might have played a role also.

One of the bloggers that I like and from which I did learn much, Steven Riddle of Flos Carmeli (Carmelite Tertiary) was saying that he could not embrace the Franciscan spirituality cause of the extreme mortifications of St Francis.

The Franciscan way is not for everybody to walk.

I try to combine the Franciscan joy and "open living" with the Carmelite spirituality. :-)

crystal said...

Jeff,

I think the fact that you're attracted to Francis is important - I don't think you are shoe-horning yourself into Fransciscanism (is that a word?) if you feel that attraction. An Ignatian method of moving forward might be to learn more about Francis ... Ignatius thought (I think) that to know someone is to love them and to love them is to follow them.

Jeff said...

Paula and Crystal - Good to see you both here. Feels like old times. Like old home week. :-)

Paula,

I try to combine the Franciscan joy and "open living" with the Carmelite spirituality. :-)

Ah, very good. I'd like to see you write specifically on integrating the two. As you recall, St. John of the Cross is an inspiration for a lot of my links.

Crystal,

That's a good suggestion. I've been trying to read up more on Francis lately.

Winnipeg Catholic said...

Heavy post. Thanks for sharing! At first I thought I was just scrolling through some light hearted Simpsons stuff, then I ended up with a real sermon. Very nice, thanks. B

Jeff said...

Hey B.

Thanks. How are you? I like to mix it up a little. It's hard for me to stay earnest all of the time. :-)

Jeff said...

Anna,

I tried to post on your journal, but I couldn't. Do I need a livejournal account to do that?

Anna said...

Jeff,

I just noticed your last comment. You shouldn't need a livejournal account in order to post on my blog. There should be three options: "anonymous", "Open ID" and "Livejournal user". The anonymous option requires no signing in of any sort - you can leave your name in the text of the message if you want.

Jeff said...

Hi Anna,

Yes, I was able to get through before you went on your family trip. Hope your trip was a good one. :-)

Anna said...

Ah, you're that Jeff! Cool. :)