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.