03 October 2009

Saint Francis (2): Community Life for today?

Patrick Comerford

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Let us pray:

Almighty Father,
whose blessed Son
before his passion
prayed for his disciples that they might be one,
as you and he are one:
Grant that your Church,
being bound together in love and obedience to you,
may be united in one body
by the one Spirit,
that the world may believe in him whom you have sent,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord;
who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The call to rebuilding and the Body of Christ

We have just been contemplating the Cross of San Damiano.

Let me just briefly recall the story of Francis and the Cross of San Damiano.

One summer day, in 1206, Francis was walking close to the crumbling church of San Damiano when he felt an inner call from the Holy Spirit to go inside the Church to pray. In obedience, Francis entered the Church, fell on his knees before the familiar icon cross, open to what the God might have to say to him.

In eager anticipation, Francis looked up into the serene face of the crucified Lord, and prayed this prayer: “Most High, glorious God, cast your light into the darkness of my heart. Give me, Lord, right faith, firm hope, perfect charity, and profound humility, with wisdom and perception, so that I may carry out what is truly your holy will. Amen.”

Ever more quietly he repeated the prayer, lost in devotion and wonder before the image of his crucified Lord.

Then, in the stillness, Francis heard Christ speaking to him from the Cross: “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you can see, is falling into ruin.”

Other translations give these words as: “Rebuild my house which has fallen into disrepair.” Or: “Francis, don’t you see that my house is being destroyed? Go, then, and rebuild it for me.”

In short, “Rebuild my Church!”

So Francis looked around at the crumbling church, gathered some of his friends together and rebuilt it. Then they went out and began restoring other church buildings in the vicinity of Assisi that were in need of repair.

Gradually, Francis realised that the call to “rebuild my church” was also a call to reform the institution, to rebuild it by witnessing to the truth of the faith and calling people to renewed faithfulness to Christ and commitment to his mission.

The Body of Christ on the Cross had called Francis to rebuild the Body of Christ in the world.

In the year 1209, Francis and his eleven companions walked into the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome for an audience with Pope Innocent III. The Lateran was then the equivalent of the Vatican, the earthly centre of power in the Western Church, and it was the Papal residence in Rome from the early 4th century until the mid-16th century.

So, 800 years ago, Francis and his eleven companions travelled almost 200 km from Assisi to Rome along ancient roads to seek Pope Innocent’s approval of the Franciscan way of life. Innocent – having dreamt of Francis holding up a disintegrating Basilica of Saint John Lateran – heartily granted the approval, giving us the Franciscan community as we know it today.

Perhaps this afternoon, we should take some time to reflect on Christ’s call to Francis to rebuild his Church and to ask ourselves those words might mean for us today.

Rebuilding the Church

The church at the Franciscan College, Gormanston

We’re very good in the Church of Ireland at raising funds for repairing our church structures – money for the roof, money for redecorating the inside of the building, money for the steeple or the bells. And yet, we would be the first to protest that the Church is not a building but is the community that is the Body of Christ.

If we spent less of our time, energy and commitment on the fabric and more on the community, would the Church be in need of repair today? Would the Anglican Communion be in the state it is in today?

The Church is in need of repair and rebuilding – whether it is the Church of Ireland, the Anglican Communion, or the Church Universal and Catholic as it exists in areas of the world that are now “post-Christian,” in a world that is wracked by materialism, hedonism, apathy, and lack of commitment.

The call to “repair” or “rebuild” implies work on structures that already have foundations that have already been in place for some time. Repair and rebuild do not imply beginning from scratch or building something completely different, completely new.

Although Francis understood these words in a very literal way and began the work of physically repairing the structure of the small chapel in San Damiano, God surely had more in mind than developing Francis’s muscles and his brick-laying skills!

Just as all the baptised share in the priesthood and mission of Christ, so too we are all called to take part in rebuilding the Church through our varied ministries and service to God’s People.

Christ is the Master Builder but each of us has our part in building, renewing, restoring and strengthening the Church, the Body of Christ.

And the Body of Christ lives and moves, like all bodies in community.

Community Life:

Community Life is one of the gifts of the monastic tradition that is sadly neglected at many levels in the Church of Ireland.

The dissolution of the monasteries and the suppression of the religious communities at the Reformation was one of the most serious blows to Anglican spiritual life.

The dissolution of the monasteries damaged the spiritual life of the Anglican community, but also damaged the life of the whole community. Think of how the monastic houses had functioned as centres of healing, learning, hospitality and refuge.

But I would be grossly sentimental today if I was to transfer the call to Francis to rebuild the church to being some sort of antiquarian call to rebuild monastic houses rather than recovering the spirit of community as holy community, the Body of Christ, at the service of the wider community, at the service of the world, the cosmos, which God so loved that he sent his only Son (John 3: 16).

While you are committed to family responsibilities or engaged in ordinary tasks of life, you accept as Franciscans a life of challenge and the support the Franciscan community you in facing up to the call to a deeper commitment to Christ, your Lord and Master.

For Franciscan tertiaries, as a dispersed community, the concept of community is more difficult to realise. But do not think that it is any easier for those who live in community.

As the students returned to the Church of Ireland Theological Institute over the past two weeks, I have spent some time with them discussing the concept of community.

In the aftermath of the rebuilding and refurbishing work at Braemor Park, there are some practical considerations about how to respect our stewardship of the new building. We are the guests of those who come after us.

But we have also discussed how in community we each need to build up one another, to trust one another, to see and respect each other as part of the Body of Christ.

But we have also discussed how that community is also located within the other, overlapping communities of which we remain a part … our families, the local neighbourhood, our home and sponsoring parishes, our dioceses, our church, national and international communities, the world.

What is community?

What is community?

This afternoon I would like us think about community as a concept that spills out in ever widening circles, each containing and embracing the one before it.

1, The Family as Community

In our post-modern society, we have reduced, devalued and debased words and concepts such as family and community.

Today, when we talk about family we usually mean a social unit that comes close to one husband, one wife and 2.4 children. When we talk about family values, we usually talk about the nuclear family.

And this concept, which is a recent innovation, has damaged the effectiveness of the Church, in its life, in its worship and in its mission.

When we talk about Family Services, so often we mean half-baked liturgies that talk down to children.

Apart from asking more liturgical questions about which family ever met properly or celebrated properly without eating together, I have to ask: Where is the place for grandfather and grandmother at these services? Is the family unit of a divorced or single mother with her child or children made to feel welcome at these services?

When I was a child on a farm in West Waterford, the family unit included my foster parents, my grandparents, an elderly, disabled spinster aunt, my uncles, my cousins.

When we use terms like family values and limit our concept of family, family stops being community, stops being healthy community in all its glorious diversity.

And we then start imposing restrictive “family values” on other families and on the wider community in an unhealthy and uncaring way.

2, The Church as community:

Francis can be seen as being both Catholic and Evangelical. His conversion was the principal impetus for his mission, yet that mission included a call to the traditional church.

Francis valued the traditional expressions of Church life, yet his rule of life and his gathering of friars was then a fresh expression of church.

His visit to Damietta to meet the Sultan shows how Francis could balance the Church’s call to mission and the Church’s call to dialogue.

Francis could balance the tension between respecting diversity and maintaining the unity of the Church. Francis in his life is a model of how to hold together in community different tensions.

3, The Ecumenical Community

It is easy to see, then, how Francis and his community are models for ecumenical community. In drawing up his rule, and in his life, he valued the various strands or traditions in the Church in his day, including the Benedictine and the Dominican traditions; indeed, our account of his meeting Pope Innocent in Saint John Lateran comes from an English Benedictine source, Roger of Wendover, while he was a life-long friend of Dominic, although he did not want to merge or amalgamate their two communities of friars.

Francis has long had a natural appeal to Anglicans. This works in numerous ways. I have spoken earlier about the pleasure of seeing the Franciscan community in Wexford and the Church of Ireland parish in Saint Iberius’s offering each other reciprocal hospitality as each other’s church was being refurbished and rebuilt.

The call to “rebuild my church” took on a real ecumenical dimension in Wexford.

It is no wonder that as the tradition of religious communities was being explored once again, rediscovered, revived and rebuilt in the Anglican Communion in response to the Anglo-Catholic revival, many of those involved turned for inspiration to the Franciscan tradition.

The gentle approach to obedience in the Franciscan tradition has been described as a “middle way” in the monastic tradition, and so the Franciscan tradition has an immediate appeal to Anglicans of the Via Media.

The Daily Office, which is the office book of the Society of Saint Francis, was among the first to be fully up-dated with the Common Worship Lectionary, and so was used in the wider Anglican Communion. But it also provided the model for the offices of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer in Common Worship.

An icon of the Virgin Mary and Saint Francis of Assisi by Nikolaos Tsafouris in the Byzantine Museum in Athens

Francis has also had an obvious appeal to the Orthodox tradition.

There are no religious orders as such in the Orthodox Church. But Francis is the only saint from the post-schism Western Church seen in icons or frescoes in Orthodox churches in Greece.

There is a well-known icon in the Byzantine Museum in Athens of the Virgin Mary and Saint Francis of Asssisi, dating from the 1490s. This icon has been attributed to Nikolaos Tsafouris, an icon writer who worked in Crete and died in 1501. In more recent years, some Orthodox writers have also drawn comparisons between Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Seraphim of Sarov.

4, The Interfaith community

Francis before the Sultan in Damietta (Giotto)

In Ireland today, it is increasingly important that we recognise that this is no longer Catholic Ireland – indeed, that this is no longer even Christian Ireland, but that we live in a community that is diverse, that we live in a pluralist Ireland, that we live in an interfaith Ireland, where our relationships with other faith communities become increasingly vital.

If we see the Church as a Community of Faith within a Community of Communities of Faith, then we can see the Body of Christ as being a life-giving source for the life of all.

I said earlier that in his visit to Damietta to meet the Sultan, Francis showed how to balance the Church’s call to mission and the Church’s call to dialogue.

Francis is particularly a role model for Christian-Muslim dialogue at a time when violence seems to increasingly mark the relations between Christians and Muslims.

It was in the midst of a time of such violence that Francis undertook his visit to the Sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil, in Damietta in 1219. At a time when thousands of Christians had taken up arms against Muslims in the Fifth Crusade, Francis was outstanding as a Christian who followed his heart and the example of Christ. He sought a way towards peace and understanding through dialogue with the Sultan.

The initial goal of Francis was to convert the sultan to Christianity or to become a martyr in his efforts. But what Francis learned from that pilgrimage changed his life and sent him on the path to peace, so that his message of brotherhood and understanding among all humanity resounds as loudly today as if we were back in the Dark Ages.

Francis had predicted the Christians would ultimately lose the battle. Sickened by the violent behaviour of his fellow Christians, he decided to visit the sultan. Although mystery still surrounds how Francis gained admittance, it is widely believed that the sultan’s guards thought that Francis and Brother Illuminato were Christian wise men.

Francis entered the sultan’s camp empty-handed. Although he had been taught to think of Muslims as his enemy and the enemy of Christianity, he approached all he met, beginning with the leper, as his brothers.

Francis challenged the Muslim scholars to a test of true religion by fire; but they retreated.

When Francis proposed to enter the fire first, under the condition that if he left the fire unharmed, the sultan would have to recognise Christ as the true God, the sultan was so impressed that he allowed Francis to preach to his subjects.

Francis refused to insult the Muslim prophet Muhammad or to insult Islam, but talked about why he was a Christian and how people find the way to God. Because he saw the brotherhood as God’s most beautiful creation, he could also see Muslims as his brothers too.

Meeting the sultan confirmed for Francis that we are all brothers and sisters. The Sultan recognised in Francis a Christian unlike any other. In their meeting, did they exchange their respective visions of the world and God’s role in it? Historians say that Malik al-Kamil was moved by the words of Francis and listened to him very willingly.

Two greatly different men met in the spirit of respect and concern – one with remarkable temporal authority, the other with unsurpassed spiritual energy. Perhaps each recognised the Spirit of God at work in the other.

Neither converted the other and yet they met each other as men of God. Although Francis did not succeed in converting the sultan, the sultan’s last words to Francis were said to be: “Pray for me that God may deign to reveal to me that law and faith which is most pleasing to him.”

And so this encounter was the first real dialogue between Christians and Muslims. According to historians, the Sultan was impressed with Francis as a servant of God. Francis had learned some things about Islam, including how Muslims pray and how Muslims experience God.

In his visit to the Sultan, Francis encouraged a ministry of presence – living peacefully among Muslims – which serves as a model for us as Christians today.

When I visit Muslim countries like Egypt and Turkey, I find the call to prayer from the minaret five times a day a reminder of both my need to have a rhythm of prayer that punctuates my daily life, and of the value of seeing those who respond to the call of prayer as a true community of believers, a true community of faith.

Francis returned to the Christian world to take up again the challenge of preaching and living the Gospel. He was impressed in Egypt by the daily rhythms in Islam that are centred on prayer. And when he returned to Assisi, he encouraged Christians to have “a mindfulness to prayer.”

Then, when he was at La Verna, where he received his stigmata, he wrote on parchment praises of God in a text that is very similar to way pious Muslims think of the 99 names of God in Islam.

By sparing his life, al-Kamil had given Francis a renewed sense of purpose. The Lord did not fulfil his desire for martyrdom, reserving for him instead a different task.

God wanted Francis and his brothers to reinvigorate every aspect of Christian society with the concrete experience of God’s loving mercy. For Francis and his brothers, divine mercy would find its expression in tolerance and compassion, the precursors of reconciliation and unity.

Indeed, their meeting appears to have changed more than Francis and the Sultan. One of the Sultan’s own spiritual counsellors engraved on his tomb that what changed his life was the meeting between a Christian monk and the sultan in his tent.

Francis challenges us to ask what it means to engage in meaningful dialogue in the spirit of Saint Francis. He shows us that people must understand each other’s perspectives. Until we in the West understand the anger and the sense of oppression of Muslims in the Middle East, can we look beyond the slogans our political leaders give us, can we get anywhere?

Francis’s visit to Egypt and attempted dialogue with the Islamic World had far-reaching consequences, long past his own death – the Franciscans remain the “Custodians of the Holy Land” on behalf of all Christianity. The Custodian is accorded equal rank with the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, while Franciscan Church property in the Holy Land is second only to that of the Greek Orthodox Church.

But dialogue only works as a two-way process. And the attitude of Francis invites Muslims into conversation with Christians too. Francis offers this potential, for there are Muslim writers across the centuries who claim that Francis was a Sufi mendicant, and compare his Canticle of the Sun with the poetry of the Sufi saint Rumi.

5, Political communities:

Finally, I want to relate the Franciscan values of community to the social and political communities in which we live, and for which Franciscan values are so relevant today.

I digress if I recall that Franciscan traditions have continued much to an Irish sense of shared identity and community.

Luke Wadding, the Waterford-born Franciscan, helped shape that identity by having Saint Patrick’s Day inserted in the Calendar of the Church on 17 March. But we have to remember how much those Irish Franciscans at that time were visionary in how they saw their Irish identity, the Irish community, only within the context of a wider European community and a wider European identity.

Luke Wadding had studied in Spain and Portugal before moving to Rome, where he was instrumental in founding the Irish College. He edited the first collection of the writings of Francis of Assisi and the works of the Irish-born Cambridge Franciscan, Duns Scotus.

Duns Scotus and the early Cambridge Franciscans commemorated on a plaque in Cloister Court in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In many ways, he points to the way Francis and the Franciscans have shaped European identity, and points too to the reality that we can have no proper Irish identity unless it is rooted firmly in our European identity.

But Francis and Franciscan values also have a relevance to the wider, international and global community.

This is a world that has never been more in need of those Franciscan values of Peace, Poverty, and respect for the environment.

The Church exists to call the world into it not so much that the world may become the church, less so that the church may become the world, but that through the Church the world may enter into the Kingdom of God.

In this age of a nuclear overkill, climate change and global poverty, Francis and his rule for his community, first shaped 800 years ago in 1209, continue to call us back again to the true values of Christian community and lifestyle.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Let us pray:

Heavenly Father,
help us to recognise the dignity
with which you have endowed each of us.
Allow us to respect your image in one another
and to find ways to bring peace and
mutual acceptance to our world.
We ask this in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This was the second 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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