Monday, April 30, 2012

Our Sister, Mother Earth

Praised be my Lord for our sister, Mother Earth,
who keeps us and feeds us,
and brings forth fruits of many kinds,
 with grass and flowers bright.

Bless and praise my Lord,
thank Him, and serve Him in all humility

There is something inexpressible about the heart of Nature and the heart of Man.  It is right and well that Francis called her “our sister, Mother Earth”.  We are made of the same stuff, as siblings, and we are born from her dust as children, formed from her clay by the hands of God.  Indeed, when we are in communion with her, it is also a communion with the Father himself.  To see this communion at play (often quite literally “at play”) is lovely.

The city is a hard place to live, and for those who live there with little to no opportunity to escape from it from time to time, it can be downright deadening.  The noise of incessant traffic, the glint of steel, the hardness of concrete beneath your feet.  The “F” word is as common as the clamour of construction as the drama of dysfunction plays out constantly before your eyes;  the hardened heart of the city seeps into your own, calcifying tenderness and petrifying love.  These things work a terrible, cacophonous song into the soul of a person whose life is already marked by seclusion, by pain, by isolation.

But it’s a strange and wonderful magic when that discordant tune gives way to the song of sister Mother Earth.  Noise gives way to silence, confusion gives way to clarity, and callousness gives way to tenderness as you are swept into the arms and cradled in her maternal embrace.

My friend has been to prison more than once.  His life has been hard in more ways than I will ever know.  He has lived the life of a criminal, a working man, a hobo and a wino.  It was the wino that I first met, so many years ago.  His story, which is still being told, is a novel in itself; let it be enough to say here that it is a story of friendship and redemption.  It was a redeemed man that we brought that day to Knight’s Ferry, a beautiful conservation area that’s just a 40 minute drive from downtown Modesto.  A redeemed man, to be sure, but one (like all of us) still prone to the temptation of living in old patterns of hardness and isolation.  Sometimes such a man needs to rip off his shirt and dive into the ice-cold waters of a mountain-fed river.  Sometimes such a man needs to be baptized again.

I wish I could adequately describe the picture I still see in my mind of that moment, the unexpectedness of the moment when three friends standing by the riverside became two friends watching and laughing while the third is throwing off his clothes and jumping with abandon into the frigid waters.  I wish I could share without words the picture of that man floating on his back, eyes to the sky, his face the very picture of a hobo’s peace.  That day the river held him like a newborn son, and the old drunk was like a weened child with his mother.

Richard is a man I’m still coming to know, someone I’ve met on the streets of the Canadian town I’ve been tentatively calling ‘home’ since my return from my Italian adventures.  His eyes are soft and kind, his fingers stained with nicotine, his heart carrying a terrible burden.  He’s lived on the street for a very long time, and has rarely had the opportunity to leave the city.  But he has the soul of a truck driver, a profession he held for over thirty years, and his heart still longs for the open road.  I asked him, one blustery January day, if he’d like to take a drive.

“Where are we goin’?” he asked.

“Away from the things of man,” I said.

He threw his backpack in the back seat, and wobbled into my borrowed black PT Cruiser.

We drove.

It’s amazing to see where you’ll go when you have no particular place to be.  We listened to Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zeppelin.  We stopped by a bridge in a small village and looked out at the rushing river below.  Again I saw the familiar look of a man finding his soul.

A few weeks later, when good friends with boarding stables invited us out for a visit, I saw that soul kissed by the whiskers of a mare named Molly.  They would be friends for a long time to come.  We still make it out for a visit every other week or so, and at every visit he stands by Molly’s gate, and she saunters over to say Hello.  There is a mothering magic at work here, a whispering of the Kingdom into Richard’s soul as he nuzzles the nose of his favourite horse, for her horse breath is as the breath of God in Adam’s nostrils.

When I see his face clouded with confusion and cheap sherry, his eyes darkened by a lonesome gloom, I need only mention Molly and light breaks through.

“She sees me and youknowwhat?  She knows.”  And he smiles, and his soul remembers its source.

On the western side of the mountain of La Verna, Italy, there is a cliff.  At the top of the cliff is the Chapel of the Stigmata, built on the site of Francis’s vision of Christ’s Passion.  From here there is a small walkway that leads outside, built for visiting the small hole in the wall where Francis was known to seclude himself in prayer.  Here you can visit the small stone womb where he would restore himself as he watched the sun’s gold light fall down upon the hills around him.  This place is known as the Precipizio, the Precipice, and from Francis’s hollow, it is a long, shear drop down into the tree-spotted meadow below. (Once, the devil himself tried to throw Francis down to his death from this cliff, but as Francis fell, the face of the rock turned to putty and...  well, that’s another story.)

I stood on the Precipice, and watched the sun — that same ever-blessed sun that Francis saw — crown sister Mother Earth with another golden diadem.  If I had the words to describe every sunset I’ve seen, I don’t think the world could contain the books that would be written.  This one, this particular, never-to-be-repeated sunset, was of course unlike any I’d seen before.  My cane — that ever-blessed cane — lay atop the stone wall overlooking the golden green trees below, the blue-grey mountains in the near distance.  Birds chattered and sang songs about the close of the day, and I drank up all the sights and sounds in slow, savouring draughts.

The birds, the sun, the trees below, were beautiful of course, but not a surprise.  What did surprise me were the maple seeds, falling upward from the trees below into the sky above.  I watched in wonder as one by one, every few minutes, “helicopter seeds” ascended the face of the cliff, up, up and over the roof of the chapel above.  I noticed more helicopter seeds on the walkway around me.  Like a kid, I gathered them up, set them carefully on the stone wall, and flicked them one by one into the sky in front of me.  They would descend for a moment, only to be caught by the graceful wind and carried up and away.  With great joy I found that I was, like these seeds, caught up in something unexpected, carried along and brought back to a place of giggling wonder.

Once, 1200-or-so years before Francis sat here in the womb of the Precipice (undoubtedly watching with the same kind of wonder at the ascendent maple seeds), a pharisee named Nicodemus asked Jesus, “How can a person once grown old be born again?”  Jesus told him that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  “Do not be amazed,” he told the pharisee, “that I told you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

And here is a key, a secret, to life in the Kingdom, to rebirth, to life in the Spirit: the holy, holy Earth that God has given us; this sacred older sister who sustains us.  By her silent witness have countless souls been caught up like helicopter seeds into the Spirit of God.  She keeps us, and feeds us, and washes us in rivers.  She puts her fingers (which are soft and strong and smell like earth; like a china doll working in a garden) to our drooping chin, lifting our eyes to the golden sky and the miracle of seeds in flight.  And she sings, oh she sings so sweetly, songs of the Father into the hearts of hardened men.  She blesses Him, and praises Him, and serves him with all humility.  The Lord bids her send winds as whispers to carry us where the Spirit wills, that we who were born from sister Mother Earth, we who have sinned and grown old, may be born again of the Spirit, and born from above.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Brother Fire, Boisterous and Strong

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire,
through whom you light up the night for us;
and he is beautiful and jolly,
boisterous and strong.

The men on fire danced, and the flames rose high and exuberant into the night air.  Crowds of people watched and clapped and snapped digital pictures from an unsafe distance.  Burning embers fell from the giant flames, scattering across the ground at our feet.

I had walked here to the Basilica Di Maria Di Angelus from the church of the Rivotorto.  The words of Francis lingered from my time at the chapel by the river, and they were sinking slowly into my soul. “The Lord has given me brothers.”  As I arrived, the sun was still bright on the gathering crowds, but getting low and taking on a distinctly golden hue.

Angels hovered above, as children on floats, with sturdy rigging and seraphic costumes, stood levitating gracefully in the air.  Next to the little cherubs, men dressed in trilby hats and expansive cloaks carried on their shoulders what looked like giant sets of brooms, bound together and splayed in rows of four.  Along with the angel children, it was one of the strangest things I’d yet seen, and I wondered for what in the world these contraptions would be used.

I wandered into the cathedral amid the crowds of people, who were milling about and settling in.  They lined the pews, and stood against the pillars, and sat on the floor.  And the Porziuncola, the tiny church of the Little Portion, stood in the midst of it, silently testifying to the life of the saint we had all come to honour.  Tonight was the anniversary of the Transitus: the night that Father Francis was at last welcomed into the embrace of the Saviour; the night that the saint at last was caught up into the ultimate fire of Divine Love.  It was right here, 785 short years ago, close by to his beloved Little Portion and in the company of his closest friends, that Francis had died. 

As the service began, a great stream of brown robes of every shade came flowing in through the great doors of the basilica, as Franciscans of every variety processed into the cathedral.  The service itself was simple, and mostly unintelligible to my North American ears, but I made friends with an undercover Capuchin at the back of the church.  He was dressed in his civvies, and had the kind, round Brazilian face.  He spoke almost no english, but between my broken amounts of spanish and italian, his broken amounts of english and italian, and an iPhone translation app, we became quick friends.  I told him of my life in California, my love for Francis, and about my small, strange, and wonderful community of brothers and sisters.  I told him of my desire to live out the vows of Francis in poverty, chastity, and obedience.  He was fascinated.  In portuguese, italian, english and spanish, we figured out a way to meet again.

After the service, we shook hands and parted ways.  I felt the glow of friendship in my chest, and smiled at the strange way in which two people who could not speak each other’s language could share such a heartfelt conversation.  The darkness of night was now creeping in, and I followed my nose toward the savoury scents of street food.  

My budget was tight, but when I saw a sign on a small food cart which read, “Crepes alla Nutella”, I knew it was meant to be.  I held my finger up and said, “Uno!”  The Crepe Lady deftly swatted the pancake-like dough on the portable griddle, generously applied the chocolatey, hazelnutty goodness, and folded it all up in a triangle of sweet loveliness.  I took a bite, crepe crumbs and Nutella spread baptizing my beard.  It was good.  It was very good.

I turned to admire the basilica, now lit up against a darkening sky with floodlights and filaments, and I noticed a great crowd in front of the church.  I heard music and clapping, and saw what seemed to be several gigantic fires rising into the sky.  But the fires were not stationary bonfires.  They seemed to be moving and twirling.

What in the…?

I approached the crowd, winding my way slowly through the mass of smiling, picture-taking people.  There in the open area of the square were several men, the men with the cloaks and the trilby hats I’d seen earlier, dancing around, engulfed flames.  I saw now the purpose of the giant brooms.  They were worn on the necks of these men (who were, clearly, quite insane), and set ablaze.  The music played and the men danced, red-hot embers falling all about the square, as they began to make their way through the piazza.  The crowd followed, clapping and walking circumspectly through the multitude of still-burning coals.  

I tried to imagine an event anything like this ever happening in North America, and instead imagined an insurance agent having an aneurism.  Kids ran freely through the scattered coals, as grown-ups, less mindful than the children, singed their leather soles.

I had no idea how such a thing ever came to be associated with the foolish little saint, but it was reckless and beautiful, dangerous and jolly.  A perfect fit for a man like Francis, for what is holier than fire, and what is more foolish than dancing?  

And what a dangerous thing it is to burn.

Fire is a strange thing: utterly destructive and completely fascinating.  Perhaps a key to understanding Francis is in understanding Francis as “Brother Fire” himself.  That flame that so engulfed his life, and set him dancing across the Umbrian countryside like ball lightning, was fed by something.  Francis became fire because he let himself be consumed.  

But this was no disembodied, metaphysical flame of mere enlightenment, or some kind of self-perpetuating (and self-extinguishing) fire of youthful exuberance.  This was nothing less than the burning love of a Holy God.

After centuries of stories and religious art, we may see pictures of Francis tending to the poor and the lame in some merely symbolic or vaguely spiritual sense.  But the truth is that love is never merely symbolic, and never vaguely spiritual, for real spiritual love is manifested in the flesh.  Francis did not serve lepers because it was a spiritual thing to do.  He served lepers because he loved them.  He knew their names.  And Francis’s real hands washed real feet.  And as he did this, the fire burned and the fire grew, and his heart felt the sweet, almost physical pain of selfless love.  The kind of love that, at the thought of the beloved in any kind of pain, constricts the muscles in your chest and gives birth to the purest of prayers:  “Oh, Lord… Have mercy!”

This was the fire that consumed Francis.  And with it, everything unworthy of such a pure and blazing love was torn away from his heart, from his mind, from his flesh.  Here, in the face of such holiness, Francis was made aware of the limits of his humanity.  There are stories of Francis abusing himself verbally, even physically, but it’s important to kneel down and inspect closely the source of these actions before we shake our heads and dismiss them.  These were not just a commendable but ultimately misdirected bits of self-deprecation, nor were they some kind of severe case of “Catholic Guilt”.  These words and actions came from a profound knowledge of the human condition, an unveiling of the heart that happens when we attempt great acts of love.  When we strive to come close to the holy heart of Jesus, the paper-thin covering that hides the darkness of our heart goes up in a flash of smoking embers, and our truest, most selfish selves, are revealed.  And it’s here that God can truly begin to heal us.

Finally, in this healing, in this release of the self, in this letting go of pride, of protection, in this embrace of holiness, there is joy.  Deep, tears-to-your-eyes joy, and perfect freedom.  Unfortunately for us, these things don’t happen in stages, like the ascent of a mountain.  No, God is not so easily captured as Everest.  If we set ourselves upon his love, if we commit ourselves to the burning, it happens all at once in an ever-swirling, roiling fire of tears and laughter, of longing and crying and singing with joy, and it goes on and on for the rest of our lives.  We spin, we twirl, we dance, we burn.  We light up the night with the light of God.  

And we are beautiful, and jolly, and boisterous and strong.