Friday, August 31, 2012

All-Highest, Almighty Good Lord

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.

And so we begin a story.

Of course, any big story is really just a collection of smaller stories.  Sometimes it’s best to tell the stories in a line, laid out like train tracks toward a sure destination.  But sometimes it’s best to gather those stories together like a bright bunch of little flowers, letting your nose decide which to admire next.  My story, the story of Francis and me, is not a story of train tracks (though I did ride a train a few times).  It’s more like a bouquet.  

For now, however, I’ll begin at the beginning.  Or at least, a beginning.

Francis was in prison again.  His cell was cramped, and he couldn’t stand.  He sat crouched on the ground, his left hand resting its fingers in the steel rods of his tiny cage.  He prayed, and prayed, as tears ran from his eyes onto the hem of his robe.  For the second time in his life, he was in prison.  He was not yet 25.  He couldn’t help but be reminded of the first time he was thrown into a cold cell.

War was a popular pastime for the people of his city, and Francis had enthusiastically enlisted to fight against the evil forces of the neighbouring town of Perugia.  His first day in glorious battle did not bode well for him, however. He was captured, and cast into prison with several other men.

The cell was dank, and the scent of men who were more dead than alive filled its darkness.  Each day, he breathed in sickness, filth, disease.  Illness came to him as surely as did despair.  He crouched in the cold as a fever took hold of his mind and body.  Shivering with sweat, his sickness became his prison within a prison, and his thoughts seemed to be carried like captives into an inner cavern, black and bottomless and eternal.  Here there was no light, only waves of red sickness behind his closed eyes.  Here there was only eternity, and he fell into it like Jonah into the bottomless deep.  His youthful dreams of glory, of conquests, or riches, now lurked like black, monstrous shapes in the depths, waiting to swallow him up.

Each day was darkness, and this, in its own way, was a mercy, because he could not count them.  He began to pray as only a man in complete despair can pray:  “God… oh Jesus…  oh God…” and his prayer would become one, one strange and shapeless form, with his sickness, his fever, his eternity.

But something else began to form in his fever.  A seed was planted in the emptiness.  Light entered into darkness.  His prayers began to take shape, for he began to believe that maybe Someone was hearing them.  His sickness remained, weakening his body with each passing hour.  His mind could be overtaken with feverish visions and confusion.  But something in his spirit grew stronger, or at least sustained itself against the darkness.  Hope had come into his despair.  Light had come into his darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.  

It would be over a year until he would be released.  There were certain advantages to being from the family of the burgeoning middle class of Assisi.  Francis’s father, Pietro, was no nobleman, but he had done very well for himself as a cloth merchant.  He paid his son’s ransom, and Francis came home.  Here he would remain for another year as he lay in bed, his prison fever with him still.  Slowly, he recovered, but he would never again be completely whole and healthy, and sickness would follow him for the rest of his days.  

As his health returned, so too did his ideas of glory.  Certainly he had experienced something of the Divine in his prison, in his sickness, but he was young, and God and glory were all but the same.  To fight for the one was surely to fight for the other.

The fourth Crusade was set to begin, with popes, counts, and kings readying an army to invade Egypt.  Francis insisted he was well enough to fight, and set out to join a company of men in southern Italy.  He was only a day’s journey from Assisi when he turned back.  The people of Assisi whispered of supposed visions from God.  Most began to conclude that his imprisonment and sickness had taken more than his health: it had taken his mind as well.  He no longer attended the parties over which he had once been crowned “king”.  He spent his days riding the plains beneath the town, and was even known to willingly visit a leper colony.  He stopped wearing the trendy clothing so readily available to him, and began to wear instead a field worker’s robe.  Their suspicions about his mental health were confirmed when he began to talk of hearing Jesus speak to him in the ruins of old San Damiano.  He said that Jesus had told him to rebuild his church.

As any good young son on a mission from God would do, he began by selling his father’s stuff.  His father was infuriated.  Francis’s insisting that it was Jesus who had asked this of him did not help.  

“You disrespect your father!” Pietro screamed.  “You humiliate him!  You steal from him!  How is this the will of God??”  Pietro was wild with anger, and the man named for the Rock of the Church fell hard upon his son.  His fists fell blow upon blow upon his child as tears lined both their faces.  Francis, the young man who had once had dreams of glorious battle, lay passively beneath his father’s rage.

“You will respect me!  You will respect your father!  You will respect your father!!”

There was a small closet with a small iron gate in the house.  Pietro dragged his only son across the floor and threw him inside.  He slammed shut the door and locked it.

“There you will stay until you learn what your God says about honouring your father!  Until then I have no son!”  Pietro walked away, weeping with rage.

For the second time in his young life, Francis was in prison.  But it was in prison that his soul had been awakened to the Divine, and this prison was no different.  He prayed.  He prayed not for himself, however, but for his father, entrapped in his wealth and caged in his poverty.  He prayed for his mother.  He prayed at last for his own soul.  He prayed for forgiveness for his pride, his impiety, his holy arrogance.  

If in his first imprisonment a seed had been planted, this second prison would be the womb in which a new man was formed.  

Three days later, he was born again.  He stood naked before God and his father, handing the last remnants of his worldly identity back to his earthly patriarch.  His father had dragged him to the doorstep of the church, demanding justice.  This Pietro received in a form he never could have imagined.  His son returned to him every cent he had taken, and with the money he returned his clothes, and his sonship.

“I love you, father, but unless a man hates his father and mother for the sake of Christ, he can never walk in the footsteps of Jesus.  I return to you my sonship.  I have no father now but my Father in Heaven.”

Eight hundred and six years later, I would stand before that cramped cell in wonder.  My fingers would gently follow the edges of the brick, reflecting on my own misunderstandings and conflicts with my earthly father.  Here, from conflict and imprisonment, a man was born.  He would change the world, he would change my life, because somewhere between his first prison and his second, his soul had been awakened to something great, something Good, something worthy of his love, his riches, his poverty, his pain.  To this Divine Good alone, this source of all goodness, Francis pledged his life, his praise, and his honour.  Though no man is worthy to speak the name of this Almighty Good, he bowed low and taught us instead to call him Lord, to call him Father

It was from this Father that Francis would learn his sonship, and from this Father that Francis would learn his brotherhood to all creation.  Eight hundred years later, I would begin to learn mine.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

In All Humility

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

It was a year and nine months into my year of exile, and I sat with Chyna on his corner in Victoria, BC.  He was hunkered down with his cap out.  His skin was dark and red, his hair pulled back in a ponytail.  His native ancestry didn’t allow for much of a beard, but he wore a sparse but effective goatee.  This was his spot, on the edge of Victoria’s Chinatown, and every day he sits beneath the red dragon.  I first met him a year ago, when I’d volunteered with a group of friends, handing out sandwiches, socks and conversation to the street community of the island city.

“Hello how are you today?” he said to people passing by.  Most people ignored him, but some would smile and say, “Fine, how are you?” as they walked on.  Chyna doesn’t ask for change.  He just says Hello and holds out his hat.

“Sometimes I like to give poets to people,” he said.  “People like it if you give them poets.”

I was not sure I’d understood correctly.  Did he mean “compliments”?  I nodded anyway.

“Watch me.  I’ll give somebody a poet.” 

Two young women approached.

“Hey how are you ladies doing?  Can I tell you something?”

“No.”  They kept walking.

A man and his wife approached from the other direction.

“Good afternoon, how are you today?”

“Fine,” said the man.

“Can I tell you something?”

“No thank-you.”  They kept walking.

A woman approached from the left.  She was pretty.

“Can I tell you something, Ma’am?”

She said nothing and kept walking.

Chyna turned to me, nodded toward her and said, “Why didn’t you introduce me to your wife?”

“She doesn’t talk to me anymore,” I told him.

“Ha-HAAA!  ‘She doesn’t talk to me anymore’.”  He laughed and gave me a fist bump. “That’s a good back-up!  That’s good!  Ha-haa!”

Finally, two more young women approached from the right.

“Hello, ladies,” he said.

“Hello,” they said.

“Do you have a second?  Can I tell you something?”

“Sure,” the dark-haired one said.

Chyna began his “poet”.  It went something like this:

When you walk down the street, people feel something when you go by.
They wonder what it is.  
They don’t know.
“What is that?” they say.
But that doesn’t matter!
It’s your eyes.  They shine.
But that doesn’t matter!
People are drawn to you.  
They wonder what’s happening.  They can feel it.
It’s your smile.
But that doesn’t matter!
It’s your eyes.
It’s your smile.
It’s your spirit.

I realized that a “poet” is something between a compliment and a poem.  “Poet” is actually the perfect word for what he gives people.

“My name’s Chyna, by the way.  With a ‘Y’”

The dark-haired girl extended her hand.  “Hi, Chyna.  I remember you.”

“Have I given you that one before?” he asked.

“Not in a while,” she said.

They politely introduced themselves and shook our hands.  When they finally moved on, he told me it was my turn.

“My turn?” I asked.

“Yeah, give somebody a poet!  Come on!”

I laughed, and my heart began to pound.  He wasn’t kidding.  

“Oh, man!” I said.  “I’m too shy!  I’m just a bashful little kid inside, Chyna.”

“Oh come on.  You can give somebody a poet.  Come on.”

I pride myself on being able to blend in with the homeless.  Homeless people don’t necessarily think I’m homeless, but when I’m sitting on a street corner with somebody who lives on the street, I can look like one of the fellas to the untrained eye.  Once, in Rome, as I sat with Franco and Antonio, a kindly gentleman gave a coin to Antonio, a coin to Franco, and a coin to me.  That made Franco smile.  I suppose the beard helps a lot.  I like that I don’t feel self-conscious about sitting down in the middle of the street with a homeless man.  What Chyna was asking of me, however, was something else, and the tragically bashful kid inside me was freaking out.

“Hi,” I squeaked out to a passerby.  I don’t think they even noticed.

“What was that?” Chyna asked incredulously.

“I’m sorry!  I’m tellin’ you, I’m shy!  I’ll try again.”

But as the street corner conversation between us went on, and we even progressed to deeper things like God and the Gospel of John, I secretly hoped that his suggestion, his dare, that I give a “poet” to someone would be quietly forgotten.

Graffiti lines the walls of San Damiano.  Some of it is as recent as 1899 or 1948.  One piece scratched into the wall reads, as well as I can translate it, “Brother Kilroy wuz here.  1309.”  

I was walking through the hallowed halls of the ancient monastery, exploring the places of communion where the Poor Claires would meet for meals and prayer.  The graffiti caught my eye as I ascended the stairs into one small chapel room in particular.  I peered closely at the small scratches of writing, fascinated and bemused at how ancient a practice it really is to mark a place with one’s presence.  From bathrooms to tourist sites to holy places, it seems people have always wanted to leave their mark and say, “I was here.  Remember me.”

Along with a few signatures and dates from pilgrims of the last 800 years (“Vincenzo wuz here, 1760”), there were also a few drawings scratched into the old frescoes.  A cross.  A cartoonish-looking figure that must have been a friar.  Two little drawings that grabbed my attention were of two little birds.  They might have been little sparrows.  I ran my fingers lightly over their scratched-in feathers and smiled.  Now this, I thought, is some truly Franciscan graffiti.  

There is a reason Saint Francis is the statue of choice for bird baths.  In most paintings of him, ancient and modern, he is pictured in the presence of birds.  He is famous for having preached to the birds when people wouldn’t listen, exhorting them to sing and praise their Father in Heaven.  Most often, a particular little bird is seen at Francis’s feet or on his shoulder: a sparrow.

Sparrows are, perhaps, the most humble of the birds.  They don’t soar like eagles, nor do their little wings fascinate like the thrumming wings of a hummingbird.  They are plain and brown, dressed in their own kind of religious habit.  Their song is more pleasant than some, but neither is it as beautiful as others.  It’s simple and sweet, and they live, quite literally, off the crumbs from our table.  They do not reap or sow, but their Father in Heaven knows their needs, and sends them our leftover donuts and Big Mac buns.  That is why they have come to represent the poor, and whenever you see an image of Francis with a sparrow on his finger, it is saying less about his communion with animals than it is about his communion with the lowly.  It speaks of his humility.

Like the sparrow, the humble have a song.  It often goes unheard and unnoticed in the noise of the city and the rumours of wars, but it is beautiful and small, and sings of simplicity and providence, of trust and freedom.  To embrace humility, to let it rest on your finger and look it in the eye, is to be given a song to sing.  

Or in my case, a “poet” to recite to a passerby.

“You haven’t given a poet to anybody yet!” said Chyna.  He was still hunkered up next to me, his cap outstretched between his thumbs.  He hadn’t forgotten.

“Alright,” I sighed, “I will.”

I tried to think of something to say to someone in the style of a “poet”.  My heart raced.

A lady came walking by.  Chyna gave me the look that said, This is the one!  My heart pounded.

“Hello!” I said.

She turned and smiled and said, “Hi,” as she walked on.  It was now or never.

“Can I tell you something, Ma’am?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said, stopping to listen, her hand above her eyes against the afternoon sun.

I felt like a little bird, small and low upon the ground, staring up at a world that seldom chooses to notice.  I was reminded that sometimes humility is simply voluntary humiliation.  Someone had stopped to hear my little song.  It was time to sing.

“You don’t know it, but you’re walking around shining with the Glory of God.”

It was nothing on the scale of Chyna’s poet-ry, but it was something.  I waited.

She put her hands together, smiled, and bowed a little as she said, “Thank-you.”  She turned and crossed the street, walking onward into the rest of her life.  Chyna chided me.

“No,” he said, “people don’t like to be preached at.”

But I think she liked it, at least a little, and in Chyna’s exhortation to me to give people “poets” (even with the admonition not to “preach”), I can almost hear the words of Francis himself, when he preached to his friends:

“My little sisters the birds, you owe much to God, your Creator, and you ought to sing his praise at all times and in all places, because he has given you the liberty to fly about into all places…. He has given you fountains and rivers to quench your thirst, mountains and valleys in which to take refuge, and trees in which to build your nests.  Your Creator loves you much, having thus favoured you with such bounties.… Study always to give praise to God.”

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

Friday, August 3, 2012

Sister Death

Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death…

I’m not a fan of Death.  I remember the death of my brother, when he was 24 and I was 19, and I feel very little love for her.  She tore a wound into my family and me, and the wound still aches in cold weather.  The scriptures themselves name her as an enemy, The Last Enemy in fact, and one day she will be destroyed.  She entered our world when our failure and sin unlocked the gates so long ago in the Garden of Delight, and she crashes in again and again, those same gates swinging wide, and takes from us our closest friends, in suffering, in disease, even, as with my brother, in fleeting mistakes.  We’re left reeling in the vacant wake of her taking, and we wait our turn.  We try to distract ourselves like restless patients in a waiting room, but she comes for us nonetheless.

How, then, am I to have peace with such an unrelenting foe?  How can Brother Francis name her as a Sister through whom he praises the Almighty?  

From that first night I spent in Italy, Death was all around me, and she would stay with me throughout my pilgrimage.  

I wandered past the basilica around the corner from my hostel on that first evening in Rome.  There were people in fine attire gathering at the doors, filing in for some sort of special event.  I asked the security guard what was happening.  

“A concert tonight,” he said.

“How much are tickets?” I asked.

“It is free,” he said, “Come in, come in.”

I shuffled in and found a seat near the back, feeling a little self-conscious about my tourist shorts and the plastic bag I was carrying (Raman noodles and fruit were on the menu for some fine Italian dining this evening).  The orchestra tuned their instruments and the choir members took their places as I perused the program.

 Ein Deutsches Requiem Op 45, by Johannes Brahms

I read the words of the movements as the choir filled the basilica with a hundred voices:

For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass.  The grass withereth, and the flowers thereof falleth away….

Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am.

There she was, seated beside me, my new companion on my journey.  That night, in the music of this lilting, rolling requiem, Sister Death and I began a silent conversation.

I remember when I first became aware of the reality of death.  A little boy from our church had drowned, and we attended his funeral.  I remember viewing the coffin.  Tucked into the coffin with him was his stuffed Sesame Street Ernie doll.  He seemed to be tucked in for bedtime, but I knew he wasn’t sleeping.  He was dead.  I didn’t know the boy, but I sat in my pew and cried.  I knew that this was not what was meant to be.  This Death was very bad.

I remember the night my brother died.  It was an ordinary Thursday night.  The doorbell rang, and my parents went downstairs to answer it.  I stood at the top of the stairs to listen for who it was.  I don’t remember hearing what the police officer said, I just remember my mother crying out.  Everything became a dream.  There was a mirror in the hall way, and I remember looking into it and speaking to myself.  “Andre’s dead.  My brother is dead.”  I ran into the back bedroom and began to cry out to God.  “Wake me up!  Please wake me up!  Please wake me up!”

But I’m still here, and he’s still gone, and sometimes it feels like I’m still dreaming.  Sometimes I find myself still pleading.

All of this came to mind as the choir sang, as the soloists lamented the frailty of life and the certainty of death.  The requiem played on, rising and falling and rising again, building and building until the last movement.  These words rang out among the stone pillars and the people:

For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.
Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed…

I still hated her, but it was good that we were talking.

Three days later, I was in a crypt, surrounded on every side by the bones of the dead.  It was a good place to continue the conversation.  

Almost four hundred years ago, a group of Capuchin friars moved their brotherhood from France to the friary of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Rome.  With them, they brought the remains of their dead, almost 300 cart loads of bones.  With limited space, the friars found a creative solution both to honour the dead and to remind themselves of their mortality.  From death, they would make something beautiful.  In this crypt, femurs became crosses, fingers became chandeliers, and shoulder blades became the wings of angels.

I walked silently down the tiny hallway, stopping at each nave along the way.  Intricate patterns of vertebrae adorned the walls. Here and there, skeletal friars in familiar brown robes bowed in eternal prayer.  A placard in the sixth room of the crypt caught my eye. 

What you are now, we used to be.  What we are now you will be.

I should have been shocked, even horrified, to be surrounded by death in this way.  Strangely, I was not.  Instead I looked in silence at the bones of the dead, and I felt great peace.  Long had I hated Sister Death.  Here I stood in her home, in her very embrace, and I was reminded of her place in the mysterious order of God.  This crypt was not a macabre celebration of death, and to see it as such would be to miss the point completely.  This crypt was a testament to the resurrection, a reminder that death does not have the final word in the conversation.  For the first time, I began to feel at peace with this enemy, Sister Death.  She and I were coming to an understanding.

It was night, on the third of October, 1226.  Francis lay naked on the cold earth, his frail body racked with pain, his blind eyes staring into eternity.  A few of his closest friends gathered around him.  He knew his time to die was drawing close, and he sang his canticle of praise to God.  But before he finished, he faltered.

“Wait,” he whispered. “It is not complete.  It needs another verse.  Will you write it for me, Brother Leo?”

Brother Leo held his hand.  “Of course, Father.”  Leo found parchment and pen, and Francis began to sing as faithful Leo took down his words:

Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

As he sang these words, he felt the arms of Sister Death around him.  But he smiled, and kissed her, and completed her embrace with his own.  From the stinging wrath of his own earthly father, to the threats of the brigand Brother Wolf, to the last adversary of Life itself, he remembered the simple words of Jesus:  “Love your enemy.” 

In this, he had peace.  And in this, I find my own.  To love my enemy is to take away her power over me.  Woe to those who kick and scream and run from her.  Woe to those who live as though they would not die.  Woe to those who are willfully ignorant of their end, who hoard life to themselves and think nothing of giving it to others.  She will find you.  She will take you no matter how you protest and ignore her.  She will embrace you.

But for those who love their enemy, who know their end and the measure of their days, who know their frailty and welcome the inevitable embrace of Sister Bodily Death, they will become her conqueror, and she will joyfully relinquish her power.  They will pass from the dream into the reality of Divine Love.  In dying we awaken.  In dying we are born to eternal life.