Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Feast of Saint Francis, 2013

"Six Days of Creation" by Hildegard von Bingen

There are many reasons to honor Saint Francis of Assisi.  When explaining to journalists why he chose the name “Francis,” the newly elected Bishop of Rome said it was because he was a man of poverty, a man of peace, and a man who loved and protected creation.  Pope Francis added, “These days, we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we?” 

The relevance of Saint Francis today is, in part, the way in which he understood the relationship between God and creation.  Although Christianity has frequently been interpreted as preoccupied with “getting to heaven” and therefore as, at best, indifferent to and, at worst, exploitative of the earth and its creatures, this point of view doesn’t comport very well with the biblical witness that shaped Francis’ life. 

Here, we do well to pay attention to the foundational premise upon which the whole biblical narrative is based: God wills and will have a faithful relationship with the earth.[1]  God will be faithful to his promise to bring the whole creation to its fulfillment.  The creation story in Genesis presents an image of God as deeply related to, and concerned with, the well being of the world.

It is important to be clear that what we have in the creation story is not a scientific history of how the world was made.  This is the error of biblical literalists.  Neither is it simply a myth, like other Near Eastern myths, describing the ordered structure of the cosmos.  This is the error of biblical rationalists. 

The creation story is neither science, nor mythology.  It is doxology, a hymn of praise, a proclamation of the creative Word of God that invites the response of the creation in freedom, trust, and gratitude.  Its purpose is not to tell us how the world was made, as if it were preoccupied with method or technique.  Its purpose is not to tell us how the world is, as if it were a fixed, closed system.  Its purpose is to give poetic expression to the relationship between the Creator and the creation; to proclaim the enduring, life-giving quality of that relationship in the face of all that is chaotic, death dealing, and unpredictable in our experience. 

The creation story is an affirmation of God’s faithfulness and graciousness, an affirmation that this graciousness is revealed precisely in the goodness and blessedness of the earth; not in some escape from the earth.  And it is a reminder that this creation is a unity: profoundly diverse, yet also one it its harmonious dynamism and complex relationships. 

While the creation story includes the images of creating and making, the dominant metaphor is that of speaking.  “God said” is the characteristic image for the relationship between God and creation:  it implies a dialogical relationship, speaking and responding.  The creation story itself, as a hymn-poem, is a response of the worshipping community to God’s creative Word, a response of praise and thanksgiving. 

In this regard, the creation story is much more akin to the Psalms than to a scientific or mythic description.   The Psalms speak of God’s graciousness manifest in creation, and the grateful response of all the members of the earth community.  “Praise him, sun and moon; praise him all you shining stars!  Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!  Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.  He established them forever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.”  (Psalm 149:3-6, cf. Psalms 65, 66.)

This psalm expresses the grateful response of all the earth, not only its creatures, but the mountains and deeps, the fire and hail, all manner of trees; the entire earth community hymns God’s praise in what Derrick Jensen has described as “a language older than words.”[2]  St. Francis understood this language.  Nikos Kazantzakis tells the story of St. Francis
standing in front of an almond tree in
mid-winter.  Francis called to the tree, “Speak to me of God.”  Suddenly, the tree burst into bloom, covered with beautiful blossoms.  It is the response of the creature to the creative Word of God that brings life out of death.  It is a language we have forgotten, and desperately need to remember.

This metaphor of the relationship between God and creation as dialogical, as word and response, gives a very different texture to our usual way of thinking about divine power.  God, who speaks and invites our response, is intimately near: close enough to be heard.  But this same God is also distant, leaving space for our response.  The biblical image of God is one of closeness, but not an authoritarian or smothering control.  It is one of distance, but just enough to allow for our freedom. 

Thus, the creative Word of God is not “must be,” but rather, “let be.”  “Let there be light.”  It is not a word of command, but of permission.  Our Jewish brothers and sisters have retained a much better sense of this dialogical relationship.  God speaks a word to his people, but by way of invitation, such that we may respond with praise, or cajoling, or rage, or silence.   There is, then, a tension between God’s promise and our response, between God’s desire to bring the whole creation to its fulfillment, and our willingness to share that desire and the responsibility it entails. 

St. Francis, conversant as he was in this language that is older than words, extended the dialogical relationship between the human creature and God to include a dialogical relationship between the human creature and the rest of creation.  Sun, moon, stars, earth, wind, and water – even death – were his brothers and sisters, members of an intimate family.  He spoke lovingly of them, and to them, all.

He did so because, like the Psalmist, he perceived the graciousness of creation as a sign that “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  (Psalm 136)  Like the authors of the creation story, he believed that God’s creation, in all its parts and as a whole, was “good” – indeed, “very good.”   This characterization as “good” has more of an aesthetic than a moral quality, and might better be translated as “lovely, pleasing, or beautiful.”  God blesses the creation and so pronounces the world itself as the vehicle of divine blessing.  We need go nowhere else to receive this blessing.  It is always, already, available.

There are many stories of St. Francis speaking with animals: with birds, fish, and, of course, the famous wolf of Gubbio:  striking a deal between the wolf and the villagers so that they could live in harmony.  He once admonished a rabbit that he freed from a trap to be more careful next time!  Mostly, he preached the good news of God’s generosity in providing them with everything they need, urging them to hymn God’s praise in their own language.   His speaking to them also implied a deep listening. 

This is a clue, I think, to the way in which St. Francis serves for us as an icon of what it means to be created in the image of God.  To be so created is to participate in the ongoing dialogue of the whole earth community with God, and with each other.  To realize our humanity in the image of God is to enter into this life giving dialogue, not speaking a word of command, but a word of permission, of “let there be.”  Like Francis, we need to see our humanity as coming to fulfillment ultimately and only as a part of a much larger and inclusive earth community.

The dominion of the human in relationship to other creatures, then, must model the dominion of God over all things.  In the words of Walter Brueggemann, “The image of God in the human person is a mandate of power and responsibility.  But it is power exercised as God exercises power.  The image images the creative use of power which invites, evokes, and permits.  There is nothing here of coercive or tyrannical power, either for God or for humankind . . . Thus the task of ‘dominion’ does not have to do with exploitation and abuse.  It has to do with securing the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition.”[3]

Saint Francis is an icon of divine power as servanthood, after the example of Jesus.  This is what is so difficult for the powerful and wise of this world to grasp.  It is the exercise of power as domination, as control, as oppression that creates such a difficult yoke, such heavy burdens, for the poor, the victims of violence, and the earth itself. 

The Cross is the sign of God’s power, God’s outpouring in self-giving love that evokes a new creation.  This new creation is not a repudiation of the initial creation, but a bringing it to its fulfillment: for God’s steadfast love endures forever.  God has spoken the creative Word.  This Word has been made flesh in Jesus, reverberating through the language older than words spoken by Saint Francis and all of the members of the earth community.  God is still speaking.  How will we respond?

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1982), p. 24.  My reading of the creation story is entirely indebted to Brueggemann’s exegesis.
[2] Derrick Jensen, A Language Older Than Words (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004).
[3] Brueggemann, p. 32.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

It's All Right

Priests are often hard pressed to describe exactly what it is that we do.  A teacher helps us to gain knowledge about a particular subject, a psychologist helps us solve problems by fostering self-knowledge, a doctor cures illnesses by prescribing a course of treatment.  While the role of the priest partakes of elements of all of these other professions, I’ve come to believe that these are really quite peripheral matters. 

The role of the priest is to confess what we cannot know, to forgive what can’t be undone, and to bear witness to suffering that cannot be cured.  In other words, the priest is a person who is willing to be useless for the sake of others.  To be a priest is to be willing to walk alongside others as they travel beyond the limits of the human into the Mystery.  In so doing, we try to communicate something of the trustworthiness of the Mystery, and the consolation – even healing – experienced in surrender to the Mystery.

The priest is not an expert.  She is someone who points beyond herself – beyond all expertise – to the Mystery of God.  All that the priest can offer is this embrace of vulnerability, of uselessness, of simply being here and now.  At most, we can hedge this vulnerability round with honor and look upon those we serve with soft eyes, reflecting back to them the image of God revealed there.

Wendell Berry expresses this beautifully in the character of the Rev. Williams Milby, as seen through the eyes of his wife, Laura. 

As the knowledge of this depth of suffering grew upon her, Laura understood, as she had not before, the gravity of her husband’s calling, for she saw that it was to this suffering that he was called.  As he sank inevitably into it or as it rose inevitably out of its depth, its quietness and darkness, to meet him, she saw not only the gravity of his calling but its authenticity.  For Williams Milby had the gift of comforting.  He carried with him, not by his will, it seemed, but by the purest gift, the very presence of comfort.  And yet even as it was a comfort to others, it could be a bafflement and a burden to him.  His calling, and the respect accorded to it, admitted him into the presence of troubles he could not mend . . . It was plain to him – and Laura knew this – that he was always hopelessly in debt to his own ministry, for he could not give all that he wanted and longed to give.  He was needed, even so, and what he had to give, and more, was continually asked of him.  People were glad to see him coming.  They called him to come.  They were glad to have him around when they did not need him, just for the assurance that he would be at hand when they did need him.[1] 

What is more, the claim upon the priest is not limited to the members of the congregation, to the Church.  In fact, were it so limited, it would diminish her capacity to point beyond herself to the Mystery, for the Mystery far transcends the Church.  Laura comes to understand this, though not always readily.

And when, having done all he could do to help a family through a quarrel or an illness or a death, performing services he was not paid for and could not have been paid for, he might never hear from them again, let alone see their faces for the courtesy of one Sunday among his hearers.  Laura felt herself wounded with sorrow for him and anger at them for their ingratitude. 
     “It’s not right!” She cried to him once, breaking for that once into his silence about it.  “It’s just not right!”
     “No.  It’s not right,” he said quietly, and he gave her his smile with which he sought to quiet her.  “But it’s all right.”[2]

A priest will spend hours with a couple in premarital counseling, never to hear from them again after the wedding.  She will baptize many babies whose parents will never trouble with church on a Sunday morning thereafter.  She will hold the hands of many a lonely, or frightened, or dying person, known to her alone and never to her credit.  “But it’s all right.”

Priests walk alongside those whose tragedy and whose joy (Berry forgets this part) demands a witness.  It is just too big not to be shared.  It is just too awful or too wonderful to be contained by anything less than the Mystery that transcends and comprehends us all.  And so, we call the priest.  Not to teach us, or solve our problems, or cure us, but to accompany us over the edge into the abyss, into the Mystery.  And, in so doing, to hint at the image of God within us that makes us – all of us – so worthy of such lavish attention.

A priest is someone whose gift it is to remind us, always and everywhere, “It’s all right” – not by their words, which quickly devolve into cliché – but by their presence.  By their very uselessness, they are made usable for God.

[1] Wendell Berry, “A Desirable Woman” in A Place In Time: Twenty Stories Of The Port William Membership (Berkeley:  Counterpoint Press, 2012), pp. 52-53.
[2] Berry, pp. 54-55.