The actual details of the life of St. Francis of Assisi played a significant part in attracting me to a Franciscan version of religious life. Especially important was my reading of the Fioretti (also called The Little Flowers of St. Francis) when I was a student. The dedicated and caring manner of Francis as presented there, his keenness to set up communities and make them fully Christian, touch a deep chord in me. The stories tell us also of the readiness of his brothers and neighbours to get fully involved in this process of forming Christian relationships, and sharing the joy and the burdens. There is a very lovable sincerity and directness about Francis that can call forth greater spontaneity and creativity in others. He had a gift of awakening love and compassion in all sorts of people. And like St. Paul, in Acts, he had a vigorous sense of God giving him a mission to talk to many people about salvation.
Once I had prayed and studied my way through initial formation with the friars, I was beginning to accumulate a sense of the diversity of encounters and undertakings that might shape the calling of a friar. Francis himself is a striking example of this. Think of the decisions he made which took him away from standard social routines. As a young man, if he was to look good in the eyes of his father and the local citizens, he was expected to sell himself as one of the best available options in a competitive labour market. His father ran an ambitious cloth merchant business, and made sure that his son contributed time and effort to it. The recruiting of well equipped soldiers was also an approved career path which began to suck him in. This was seen as a chance to receive training in managing men, extending one’s roles in the property ownership network, and boosting your city career options. When Francis broke free from this mercantile economy, he had to try out other ideas about how to connect beneficially with society, preferably trusting in ideas that were thoroughly Christian. The result was a diversity of experience. He spent time preaching; nursing lepers; writing songs and prayers; dramatising gospel events in new versions; pursuing story-telling that sized up relations between those who are strong in faith and others who were weak in mercy; guiding followers in how to have better community relationships. He often drew attention to symbolic reminders of God’s kindness, his generosity, and the abundance of God’s love. Praising the Holy Spirit was one of his ways of transforming understanding, emphasizing the multi-cultural outreach intended by the New Testament. Christ as suffering Lord was another focus for his new perceptions, as when he referred to Jesus as “Friar Christ” and as Mother. He travelled with pilgrims around Italy, and across the Mediterranean. He spoke out against warring city rivalries.
Chris with some of the community of brothers in out Friary in Stratford
So how could I hope to derive from such a range of behaviour some indications of where I would be able to share my faith, hope and love today? It was not a matter of following a blueprint. Yet I have found ways to be involved in certain activities that echoed his sensitivity. Collaborating with L’Arche communities in their commitment to building up an interesting and humanising home life for mentally handicapped adults was a great experience of how those on the margins of our society can be most open to the love of God. This was an international, multi-denominational community with a network of supporters covering a large area. I found it a place of many fruitful lessons in ecumenical collaboration and friendship. It also stood in support of gentle people who, when accompanied through a shopping centre, were clearly not always welcome.
Wanting to devise a style of preaching that might include some theatrical characteristics (as Francis did), I have been fortunate in writing a musical called Echoes of Peace, and putting this on to celebrate our Edinburgh parish Jubilee. Some fifty parishioners, young and old, took part, reliving stories about reconciliation from the early Franciscan writings. Other such opportunities have included two Peace vigils, and visits to a Primary School to act out some Bible stories with the children, who were then able to reflect on how Goliath’s bullying, for instance, was a reminder of problems they too had to face. Catechetical work has also sometimes allowed me to explore how receptive a new group would be to making Christianity’s best stories of salvation their own.
In our formation house we have had a tremendous variety of visiting students from many parts of the world: Mexico, Pakistan, Taiwan, Korea, South Africa, Australia, Uganda, Italy, France, Croatia, Germany, Malta, Singapore, Lithuania and many more. Helping these visitors to have a lively and memorable experience of community was always a challenging task, but also a rewarding and life-enhancing one. Community in these circumstances is not monastic, in that it is not a long-term settled existence. But it opened up hearts and minds with a dynamism of respect, attentiveness and readiness to learn that I have rarely found in other English social settings. Praying, studying and relaxing together can allow the gifts of God’s Spirit to permeate levels of our personality that would otherwise stiffen and grow antagonistic.
Chris with his noviciate year
Chris with the youth theatre
Another area of engagement with current social realities, for me, has been learning to help and support refugees. This is not entirely unrelated to touching all sorts of needs that arise amongst migrants in general, as they struggle to work out whether they can survive, in a culture that is strange to them and sometimes pretty cold and threatening. But the refugee or asylum seeker aspect calls for special inner resilience and patience, the ability to become a good, caring listener when someone’s case seems most hopeless and unresolvable. Getting up a petition, fund-raising, writing to officials, MPs, and housing staff are all likely to feature, and can be exhausting. I have to add, however, that few other sorts of apostolate bring us so close to the sufferings of Christ and the search for meaning in that unpromising context. This is simply my experience, of course. Work with those who are dying of terminal illness, which I have not done, would be a different example of a context in which faith as a path through distress is most profoundly needed. Our modern ease of travel, by plane, by rail, by car, is one reason why the refugee problem has grown hugely. It has become a prominent indication of how far the world has still to progress before it can say it has brought about justice. But there is also a different aspect to all this restless journeying we do. We churn ourselves up, wanting to make some ultimate reality show itself, and then wonder why we have missed seeing it. Our journeying can make us spiritually tense. It brings in reminders of how incomplete our lives and personalities are. But these reminders on their own do not give us the assistance we need for rooting our lives in Christ as the giver of meaning and peace. We need Christian faith, hope and love to turn our travels into a pilgrim’s liberation and forgiveness experience. The 90% of the population who do not go into any Church are caught up in this empty mode of journeying, with little awareness of what theological traditions, especially the Franciscan tradition, could do to help them. Because of this hollowness, I have been particularly glad to find opportunities for lecturing, and for research into the Franciscan sources. The inter-relationship between journey symbolism and memory in the best Christian story-telling has been a key theme in my years as a teacher.
Taking part in the annual conference of the Catholic Theological Association has made valuable contributions to my growth as a rounded person. It has also enabled me to experience a sympathetic and constructive setting in which I can raise awkward problems, and move towards better interpretations of Scripture, theology, Franciscanism and my own motivations. Speaking to other teachers and communicators provides a better perspective from which to put together articles for journals and the Press. But living in a community also opens up a fuller perspective and sustains it. When we come together to pray, one of our regular prayers runs like this: “make our love for one another generous and sincere”. I feel that this sums up particularly well what life in a religious community brings into being. Both amongst the community members themselves, and then in outward engagement with our neighbours and fellow worshippers every week, we hope to share this sense that love cannot sit still without soon becoming rather mouldy. Our hearts and minds have to grow more alive through generosity and integrity, as we become capable of seeing more deeply into who God made us to be.
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