Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Infirmity & Tribulation

…and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed be those who live in peace,
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.

The angel descended, wings flowing like reeds in water, and touched his hands.  In her hands she held two crimson sashes, and with utmost tenderness, she took these and tied them over his palms.  Wounds appeared, and as they pierced his hands, a suffering which he had not known before (and he had known great suffering) overtook him.  

Another angel came, dressed in white, dancing from the skies with the grace of child.  She carried two more blood red sashes, and with great care she tied them to his feet, and his feet were pierced.  At last another seraph came to him, golden hair twirling about her in an unseen wind, and pinned her red sash to his side, and kissing it gently.  

He sat in silence, wounded in his hands which had built so much, wounded in his feet, which had taken him places he’d never dreamed he would go, wounded in his heart, which had loved so greatly.  But in this suffering, this sweet and beautiful and tender suffering, a Love which he had never known before (and he had known great love) overwhelmed him.  Music from another world drifted through and time and space and settled in the air all around him.

“My God, and my All!”

I looked on in silence from the darkness around him, enraptured by the scene, snapping pictures on my digital camera.

I was nearing the end of my Franciscan pilgrimage.  I had come at last, by train and by chance and by the kindness of strangers, to Mount La Verna.  

The road had been long.  I’d stayed at a house at the bottom of the mountain the night before.  My ankle was still on the mend, but well enough to walk, so that morning I began the hike up the great hill, taking in a beautiful and ever-changing view of the Casentino valley surrounding La Verna. 

Finally, after one last ride from a kind Italian and one last, aching hike for the last 3 kilometres to the top, I arrived at the Sanctuary of La Verna.  (Or, ‘La Santuaria Della Verna’.  Things sound so much better in Italian.)  Here there was a relatively small church and pilgrim’s hostel.  The view from the lookout area by the church was incredible, and that evening I stood in the setting sun as it blessed the land and said goodnight.  

Soon after, I was sitting in the darkened church, surrounded by men and women in varying vocational attire.  There were women in blue habits, men in familiar brown habits, and still other men and women in uniformed shorts.  This last set of men and women were with the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.  The boys and girls of a local troupe were putting on a very special play tonight about the life of Saint Francis.

I didn’t understand much of the dialogue, but as scenes and songs of the life of Francis played out before me, I was enraptured.  For here were two of my favourite things in the world: the life of Francis, and kids putting on a play.  There is perhaps nothing more engaging to me than watching children perform.  I’m charmed by the earnest simplicity and at the same time I’m crossing my fingers, praying they remember their lines.  Perhaps it’s partly because I remember both the thrill of charming an audience and the terror of forgetting my lines.  I was the comic relief king in Parkdale Baptist’s Church’s production of Three Wee Kings.  I killed.  My best line was when one of the other kings talked about going to Jericho:  “Geritol?  I’ve got some right here!”  But over-confidence from my triumph in Three Wee Kings led to under-rehearsing my lines for a production the following year.  I stood frozen on the stage, begging for my line from the director, trying to decipher her loud whisperings.  I learned my lesson well.  This production also had its comic relief with the portly little fellow portraying Brother Leo.  He never missed a beat, and he knew how to work a crowd.

The location was, of course, an apt place to produce a play about Francis.  The church we were in had been here since shortly after the time of Francis, and was built just a hundred yards or so from the actual place where Francis received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ.  

Of all the stories of Francis, some of which are history, some of which are whimsical legends, the story of the stigmata may be the most difficult to truly understand.  But there it is, passionately affirmed as history by his closest friends, confounding the modern mind.  Ultimately, however, it is the story which best defines him, and without it, we are left with a Francis devoid of his power and his longed-for reward.

Francis’s life had been a constant struggle to live out as closely as possible the poverty of Christ, to incarnate in his own flesh, inasmuch as a sinful human can, the life of Jesus.  (Some stories even affirm that this journey began for him from birth, with Francis being born in a stable below his family’s home.)  Sometimes this led him to extremes which he’d later repent of, but, mistakes and all, these choices led him into the very heart of Jesus.  He tried with every ounce of his strength, to embody Christ’s incarnational love, and denied to himself any comfort which Christ himself had been denied.  And like Jesus, he sought to alleviate the suffering of others by embracing their suffering himself.  

For truly, what more could Love do?

Is love ever seen more clearly than when it embraces the tribulations of another?  Is love ever felt more deeply than when it chooses to bear the sickness of the beloved?  It was for this Love that Jesus died, and for this Love that Francis lived.  It was not a fanatical sense of duty that made him live as he lived, nor a somber sense of self-denial.  It was Love.  For Francis, it was an honour and a joy, a privilege in fact, to feel with the living Christ the broken heart with which Christ loves the world.  

I sat in silence one day at his tomb in Assisi, and read a prayer he’d written in the last years of his life:

O my Lord Jesus Christ, I beg from you two graces before I die:
the first, that during my life I may feel in my body and soul, so far as it is possible, the pain that you suffered in the hour of your most bitter passion;
the second,
that I may feel in my heart, in so far as it is possible, that overbrimming love with which You, Son of God, were enflamed so as to bear willingly for us sinners such suffering.

It was on the mountain that this prayer was answered most dramatically, but Francis had lived a life that was itself an answer to this prayer.  Each day he made a choice to embrace poverty, to embrace the suffering of others, to embrace his own suffering.  In these choices, in this one great embrace, he was enflamed with Love.  He lived in peace not by avoiding suffering and violence, but by absorbing it, transforming it, and creating something beautiful where there was previously only discord, darkness, doubt, and injury.

His embrace of suffering and violence was not just spiritual, however.  It was embodied in him physically.  

It had been a year since he received the wounds of Christ in his body.  A disease of the eye had taken his sight from him, and his eyes burned with pain at the slightest brightness.  His body was racked with pain and weakness, and the stigmata persisted.  It would be this suffering that gave birth to his most beautiful song.  As he lay on a sickbed in a small garden in San Damiano, the place where he had first heard that joyous invitation so long before, he wrote his greatest hymn of praise to the God he so loved.  Nearly blind, and perhaps too weak to lift pen to page even if he could see, he sang his song while his close friend, the ever-faithful Brother Leo, took down the words:

All-highest, almighty Good Lord,
to you be praise, glory and honour and every blessing;
to you alone are they due, and no man is worthy to speak your Name.

Be praised, my Lord, in all your creatures, especially for sire Brother Sun, who makes daytime,
and through him you give us light,
and he is beautiful, radiant with great splendour,
and he is a sign that tells, All-Highest, of you.

Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Moon and the stars;
you formed them in the sky, bright and precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Wind, and for the air and the clouds,
and for fair, and every kind of weather,
by which you give your creatures food.

Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Water, 
who is most beautiful and humble and lovely and chaste.

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.

Be praised, my Lord, for our sister Mother Earth,
who keeps us, and feeds us, and brings forth fruits of many kinds,
with coloured flowers and plants as well.

Be praised, my Lord, for those who grant pardon for love of thee,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed be those who live in peace, for by you, Most High, they shall be crowned.

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

Francis sang, and as he did, Brother Sun came and stood behind him, lifting his hands to heaven.  Sister Moon danced in the sky above him, dressed in white, her golden face shining with light.  Brother Wind and Brother Fire, Sister Water and sister Mother Earth, danced around him, caught up in his chorus of creation.  The heavens opened, and angels joined the song.

I’ve seen a lot of films about Francis, read a tonne of books, even taken in a professional production of a musical about him while I was in Assisi, but this humble play by a Boy Scout troupe was perhaps the most profound expression of the life of Francis I’ve ever seen.  It captured something about him that the others could only attempt to grasp.  For all of the suffering he faced, all the infirmities of the world that he embraced, Francis had remained passionately simple in his struggle to live out the Gospel of Christ, profoundly unsophisticated in his attempt to walk in the little footsteps of Jesus.  He remained a child, and the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

I smiled with joy at the comic relief kid.  His cheeks were squished into the cardboard face of Brother Sun.  He stood behind a 12-year-old Francis, and as Chubby Brother Sun lifted his hands in song with the rest of Cardboard Creation, tears filled my eyes.  Here was the saint I had come to love, the saint who in many ways had helped to form my character and my approach to Christ himself, full of life in the embrace of his suffering, singing out his song of praise, stigmatic sashes adorning his hands, his pain turned into the glory of God.

I whispered a prayer in the darkness.

“My God, and my All.”