Saturday, 3 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.

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.