03 October 2009

Saint Francis (1): Lifestyle for today?

Patrick Comerford

The Lord be with you:
And also with you

Let us pray:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


It is not just a matter of good manners and of going through the ritual of a polite preface that I want to thank you for your invitation to share some of my thoughts with you this afternoon, and for the opportunity – I hope – for me to share in some of your thoughts too this afternoon.

The Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule, by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Sassetti Chapel in Santa Trinita, Florence

We are here this afternoon on the eve of Saint Francis’s Day. But this gathering is particularly symbolic because not only is tomorrow Saint Francis’s Day, but this year also marks the 800th anniversary of Francis and his small group of brothers receiving their “Form of Life,” their first rule of life.

Apart from this day and this anniversary, this invitation is also a personal joy. My secondary education was a Franciscan education. Both my brother and I went to school at the Franciscan College in Gormanston, Co Meath, and we had a number of cousins who went to school there too.

The Franciscans first introduced me to their values through the Third Order, inviting us to work with their projects in Drogheda with a variety of people with different forms of need. I continue to hold deep gratitude in my heart to teachers like Father Louis Brennan, who was my inspiring English teacher in the Leaving Certificate class of 1969, and the late Father Frank O’Leary (Father Solanus), who was Rector of Gormanston in my days, and who later was so closely identified with the life and work of the Simon Community in Dublin – bringing Franciscan values of lifestyle, prayer, spirituality and love into the harsh realities of city life in Dublin.

Later on, at an early stage in my working life, when I was working with the Wexford People, I lived in High Street, near the Franciscan Friary Wexford, where cousins of grandfather and other members of the extended family had been baptised many years before.

It was a particular joy to my ecumenical heart years later when the natural ecumenism that is at the heart of Franciscan spirituality was given practical but liturgical expression, when the Friars of Wexford and the Church of Ireland parishioners at Saint Iberius’s Church offered each other hospitality as their churches were being redecorated and refurbished.

Then, in the past two years, I have been studying Orthodox spirituality and patristics at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and was fascinated to find out that Sidney stands on the older, mediaeval site of Greyfriars, the Franciscan house in Cambridge. And, of course, Cambridge University is celebrating its own 800th anniversary this year.

A plaque in Cloister Court in Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge, recalls Duns Scotus and the early Franciscan community in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The early Franciscan community in Cambridge included Duns Scotus (1266-1308), one of the most important theologians and philosophers of the High Middle Ages. Arguments continue over whether Duns Scotus was born in Duns in Berwickshire or in Ireland.

Greyfriars was a common name for Franciscan houses, just as Blackfriars was the name of Dominican houses. That Franciscan community in Cambridge continued to live, work and pray for almost 300 years at their foundation in Bridge Street – now Sidney Street. From the mid-14th century, Greyfriars in Cambridge included a church, cemetery, refectory and other buildings. I was amused to learn that Sidney’s wine cellars are mediaeval structures from this lost monastic world.

Cloister Court in Sidney Sussex College … the site of the Greyfriars’ church and cemetery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Until the reformation, Greyfriars’ Church was used regularly for Cambridge University ceremonies. But, at the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, the Franciscans were forced to leave this site, Henry VIII gave the freehold to his new foundation, Trinity College, and most of the Greyfriars’ buildings were demolished.

It was appropriate that Love was the theme this year for the Summer School organised at Sidney Sussex by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, for love is a core value at the heart of Franciscan values and lifestyle.

As Brother Ramon points out in his book on Franciscan Spirituality, Franciscans are primarily a Community of Love, and that love is both personal and community love.

“When God gave me some friars,” Francis wrote in his Testament, “there was no one to tell me what I should do; but the Most High himself made it clear to me that I must live the life of the Gospel.”

Love and the Gospel must be at the heart of the lifestyle not just of Franciscans, but of all Christians.

Franciscan values, Franciscan spirituality and Franciscan lifestyle have always had a particular attraction for Anglicans. But what do we mean by lifestyle?

As members of the Third Order of Saint Francis, I trust you believe that God is calling you to live out your Franciscan vocation lifestyle in the world. And so, in seeking to follow this path, you have pledged yourselves to the service of others and to respect for all life.

That life involves a commitment to the Franciscan quest to worship and serve God in his Creation. In that quest, you aim for a simple lifestyle that is marked by self-denial, being aware of the poverty of the world, and being conscious of the claims of that world upon our stewardship.

But what happens when we contrast this with what is meant by lifestyle in the commercial and secular world today?

It’s seven years since I left the staff of The Irish Times, but I still have it delivered at 6 a.m. every morning. Over the last two months or so, it’s been arriving once a month with a heavy-duty glossy magazine. Not my normal sort of reading, I have to confess – I much prefer the Church Times, the Economist, the Tablet, or the New Statesman. But I have noticed that for magazines like these heavy-duty glossies, “Lifestyle” is a fashionable label that is making a connection with commercialism, fashion-statements, accessories and brand names.

This use of the word lifestyle bears no relationship to the Lifestyle Movement, founded by the Dean of Bristol, Horace Dammers (1921-2004), in 1972, challenging the values of the First World in the interests of the Third World, and proclaiming in its motto: “Live simply, that all may simply live.”

Before moving to Bristol, Horace Dammers was attached to Coventry Cathedral and the Community of the Cross of Nails. During my reflection at the early morning Eucharist last Tuesday, the Feast Day of Saint Michael and All Angels, I drew extensively on the imagery and iconography of Coventry Cathedral, where there is that wonderful sculpture on the wall by Jacob Epstein of Saint Michael and the Devil.

And I pondered how Saint Michael had become the patron saint of Marks and Spencer, and so in some way the patron saint of all who make the Shopping Centre their cathedral.

For those who use the language of “Lifestyle” as a marketing trick, it would have been so much more difficult to adapt a brand name like “Saint Francis.”

Franciscan lifestyle is counter-cultural when it comes to the world of consumerism and fashion statements. It is a commitment of real love to a world that so often sees the values behind the Franciscan lifestyle as being irrelevant or unfashionable.

Perhaps, if anything, the world needs Franciscan lifestyle more today more than we did 800 years ago.

The students have returned to the Church of Ireland Theological Institute over the past two weeks. For some, they are setting out on a new journey that they hope will lead to a life-time of ministry and service in the Church. For others, they are in their final year, and looking forward to ordination within the next seven or eight months.

The refurbishing and rebuilding work at Braemor Park over the summer months has certainly meant an improved lifestyle not just for ordinands, but for the staff too. And in the first few days of talking to them about their spiritual life in the institute, I have talked with them too about what it means to live in community, and what it means to seek a lifestyle for yourself.

Because if you do not set your priorities in life as an ordinand and as a priest, if you do not draw up a rule for yourself, then the pressures of the world, and the demands of the world will become your rule of life.

And Francis knew this so clearly, was aware of this so clearly, when he went to Rome 800 years ago to seek approval from Pope Innocent III.

Before presenting himself before Pope Innocent, Francis had already made his commitment to his lifestyle of imitating Christ and had shown his love for the Church, which he demonstrated so literally three years earlier when he rebuilt the church of San Damiano, downhill from Assisi. This process of rebuilding San Damiano was a major step in the conversion experience of Francis. They are life-long experiences marked by those instances when we move one step closer to God.

And so lifestyle commitments cannot be transitory, in the way that fashion statements are. Lifestyle commitments involve a continuous process of conversion of refocusing, or redirecting, so that the whims and fashions of the world cannot toss us about.

And it is interesting how the ordinands learn how purposeful and helpful a personal rule of life is.

On Thursday afternoon, we were discussing summer placements, and consistently the students noted how much they missed and appreciated the term-time regularity of chapel prayer, using the daily offices twice or three times a day, and the consistency and stability of celebrating the Eucharist once a week and on the great feast days and saints’ days.

A personal rule of life is a good gift for any ordinand preparing to enter into a life of ministry and mission. That’s why I find in the Rule of the Third Order so valuable, where as members of the Third Order you are bound together by those three major commitments: accepting the Rule of the Order, including its Principles, the Constitution and the Forms of Profession and Renewal, always consulting one’s Spiritual Director; daily prayer; and drawing up and living by a Personal Rule of Life.

The Personal Rule of Life

A personal rule of life needs to be carefully fitted to the circumstances of each student, but the personal rule of life of Franciscan tertiaries is a good framework for the rule of life for ordinands, priests and all Christians seeking a rule of life.

The personal rule of life is drawn up under nine headings:

1. The Eucharist must have a central place in our lives and we must pray for a deeper understanding of this Sacrament.

2. Penitence: Each day we need to spend time looking at our lives in the light of Christ’s teachings, asking for forgiveness for our failings and seeking guidance for the future.

3. Personal Prayer: Each day, we must offer praise and prayer to God, with a period of daily prayer and reflection.

4. Self-denial: The Franciscan lifestyle seeks to live joyfully a life of simplicity, humble service and self discipline after the example of Francis.

5. Retreat: A Retreat each year invites God to develop our awareness of him and his calling of us. For the past three years, the students have gone away to a monastery or priory for a retreat on Ash Wednesday. I go a few times each year to the Cathedral City of Lichfield for my own personal retreat and once a year to an Orthodox monastery in Essex. If I cannot find time for me and God, how can I find time for me and anyone else who matters to me in this world?

6. Study: study helps us to grow in the knowledge of God and his world and is a way of making us better able to serve God.

7. Simplicity: if we are to serve God in all we do and with all we possess, then, like Francis, we should set aside the desire to acquire possessions or the good opinion of others for our own glory. Let us live simply that others may simply live.

8. Work: A spiritually rooted lifestyle helps us to relate to our place in society and work and to accept our duty to those to whom their lives are attached, making God’s love known by word and deed. Again, let us live simply that others may simply live.

9. Obedience: And finally a spiritually focussed and healthy Rule of Life seeks to be alert to and obedient to the voice of the Spirit speaking inwardly and through not just a Spiritual Director and but through other people too.

Contemplating the Tree of Life

The Cross of San Damiano

Before we take a break, I would like us to take a few short moments in a spiritual exercise of simply being attentive before the Cross of San Damiano, which was so central to the conversion experience of Saint Francis, that moment in prayer when he was converted and committed himself to a new lifestyle and to a new concept of community in the Church.

The Cross of San Damiano is the icon cross that Francis was praying before when he received the commission from the Lord to rebuild the Church. In the Franciscan tradition, the original cross, which now hangs in the Basilica of Saint Clare in Assisi, is cherished as the symbol of Franciscan mission from God. It challenges Franciscans time and time again, in contemplation and in prayer, to recommit their lives and resources to renew and rebuild the Church in the power of God.

The cross is an icon cross in the Byzantine tradition, This tradition of icon crosses was brought from the Eastern Church by Serbian Orthodox monks to Italy, and the Cross of San Damiano – which dates from around the year 1100 – is one of a number of crosses with similar figures from that time in Umbria.

The purpose of an icon cross is to teach the meaning of the event it depicts and so to strengthen the faith of the people. You will notice how this cross, which was restored to its original iconography in 1938, has images of people who have key roles in the meaning of the cross.

On the Cross, Christ is seen as being both wounded and strong. He stands upright and resolute. His halo already includes a representation of the glorified cross.

The bright colouring of Christ’s body contrasts with the dark red and black. This contrast accentuates the prominence of Christ. He projects the life of divine nature in a body that is pierced by nails in the hands and feet, by the crown of thorns on his head, and by the soldier’s lance in his side.

This representation contrasts with the regal Christ portrayed on the cross in earlier centuries, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the suffering, dying, crucified Christ depicted generally throughout the church from the 14th century on. Christ is represented here in full stature while all the others are smaller in stature.

Above the head of Christ, in tiny lettering, is the inscription: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

Let us look at some of the other elements on this cross.

First, we have the major witnesses. Alongside Christ, the next largest figures are the five witnesses of the crucifixion and witnesses of Jesus as Lord. On the left side are Mary, Mother of Jesus, and Saint John the Divine, the Beloved Disciple, to whom Jesus gave his mother. On the right side are three figures: Mary Magdalene, Mary, Mother of James, and the centurion who in Saint Mark’s Gospel proclaims: “Truly this man was God’s Son” (Mark 15: 39).

Both Mary and Mary Magdalene have their hands placed on their cheeks to reflect extreme grief and anguish. The first four witnesses are saints who gave their lives for the Lord and are therefore represented with halos of sanctity. The names of the five major witnesses are written beneath their pictures.

Secondly, we have the Minor Witnesses, three smaller figures represented as witnessing the crucifixion. On the lower left is Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced Christ’s side with a lance. He is holding the lance and looking up at Christ. The blood running down the arms of Chrust begins at the elbow to drip straight down. It will land on the upturned face of Longinus.

In the lower right is Stephaton or the soldier who offered Christ the sponge soaked in vinegar wine. From the posture of his figure, you can see that he holds the staff and sponge in the same way that Longinus holds the spear.

It is difficult to see, but peering over the left shoulder of the centurion is a small face. A close look at the face reveals the tops of the heads of three others beside him. In accord with the conventions of the time, this may be the face of the artist who was claiming authorship and immortalising himself as a witness to Christ.

Then we have the angels. Six angels are represented as marvelling over the event of the crucifixion. They are positioned at both ends of the crossbar. Their hand gestures indicate they are discussing this wondrous event of the death and calling us to marvel with them.

Next, we can look at the Patron Saints. At the foot of the cross, there is a damaged representation of six figures, two of whom are represented with halos. In accordance with the traditions of the day, these six are the patron saints of Umbria: Saint John, Saint Michael, Saint Rufino, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

At the top of the cross, we see the Heavenly Welcome. There, we see Christ now fully clothed in his royal garments, carrying the cross as a triumphant sceptre, climbing out of the tomb and into the heavenly courts. Ten angels are crowded around, and five of them have their hands extended in a welcoming gesture to Christ, who has his hand raised in the form of a greeting or a blessing.

At the very top of the cross is the right hand of the Father with two fingers extended. Christ is being raised from the dead by the right hand of God the Father. This can also be understood as the blessing of God the Father on all that Christ has done.

Finally, look at the Bird and the Animal. Where? On the right side of the icon cross, next to the left calf of Jesus on the lower shaft, there is a small figure of a fowl. Some art historians have interpreted this as a rooster, symbolising the betrayal of Christ and the way in which he was denied three times. Others say it is a peacock, which is a frequent symbol of immortality in early Christian art. Along the lower right side of the lower shaft, there is a small animal, possibly a cat.

As I contemplate this icon cross, the figure of Christ faces me, the viewer, without any signs of pain, with large, open, almond-shaped eyes, and with slightly smiling lips. In this way I am invited not so much to look into the icon, and there to contemplate a scene of physical suffering, but to return Christ’s attention, his gaze.

Ask yourself this: Who is looking at whom – am I looking at Christ? Or is Christ looking at me? Christ is present to me, and I am present to Christ.

As I focus on the icon in prayer, I am drawn into the moment of Christ’s death and resurrection, I am present before Christ on the Tree of Life.

The focus of Franciscan devotion has always been on the whole Christ and the whole saving mystery rather than exclusively on any single aspect or moment in the drama of salvation.

Later in life, Bonaventure would refer to both the cross and to Christ himself as “the Tree of Life,” and so gave us the dominant Franciscan metaphor for depicting the saving work of God in Christ. And it is this Tree of Life, no matter how the glossy lifestyle magazines and advertising may attract and delude us – on which our lifestyle should be grounded and rooted.

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This was the first of two addresses at the Francistide Observance of the Third Order of Saint Francis in Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin, on Saturday 3 October 2009.

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