|Zurbarán's St. Francis|
What is it about St. Francis, and other saints, that is so fascinating, even to those who are not Christians? What is the secret of their continuing hold on our attention, such that we appreciate them even when we no longer seek to imitate them? Two stories about St. Francis provide a clue to this secret.
One day before his conversion, Francis of Assisi was walking along the highway weeping. Thinking he was ill, a man asked him: “What’s the matter with you, brother?” “Ah,” he answered, “For the love of Christ, I should not be ashamed of going around the world like this grieving for my Savior’s agony.”
Many years later, at the end of his life when St. Francis was going blind, the doctors found the cause to be an excess of tears. This “excess of tears” is an expression not only of grief, but also of joy. You know the wrenching tears evoked by tragedies such as those in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas, as well as the grief of personal loss. But you also know the tears of joy shed the first time you held your newborn baby in your arms, or when that same child graduated from high school. I’ve officiated at enough weddings to have witnessed plenty of tears of joy – usually the groom’s! I hope it is tears of joy . . . I recall starting down a trailhead at the Bishop’s Ranch for a hike and suddenly being overwhelmed by the beauty and sense of homecoming evoked by that special place. I burst into tears.
It is this “excess of tears” that both fascinates and frightens us. We are a little bit undone by the vulnerability of the saints, their capacity to embrace the sorrow and joy of the world with undefended hearts. Yet, in their vulnerability, the saints also wield a certain kind of power.
Even Friedrich Nietzsche, no lover of Christianity, recognized this when he noted that
So far the most powerful human beings have still bowed worshipfully before the saint as the riddle of self-conquest and deliberate final renunciation. Why did they bow? In him . . . they sensed the superior force that sought to test itself in such a conquest, the strength of the will in which they recognized and honored their own strength and delight in dominion: they honored something in themselves when they honored the saint. Moreover, the sight of the saint awakened a suspicion in them: such an enormity of denial, of anti-nature will not have been desired for nothing . . . There may be a reason for it, some very great danger about which the ascetic, thanks to his secret comforters and visitors, might have inside information. In short, the powerful of the world learned a new fear before him; they sensed a new power, a strange, yet unconquered enemy – it was the “will to power” that made them stop before the saint. They had to ask him -
The powerful of the world recognize the power of the saint: she mirrors something of their own authority. They just have to ask, like the chief priests and elders of Israel asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” The powerful are fascinated, not just by the ascetic feats of self-control whereby the saints master their own desires, but also by the saints’ will to know and to love, to know through loving, that compels them to action in the world. The saints exercise power. This is what brings them to the attention of the politicians in the first place.
As E. M. Cioran notes in his Tears and Saints,
The difference between mystics and saints is that the former stop at an inner vision, while the latter put it into practice . . . Ethics plus mysticism gives birth to the intriguing phenomenon of sainthood. The mystics cultivate a heavenly sensuality, a voluptuousness born of their intercourse with the sky; only saints take on their shoulders the load of others, the suffering of unknown people; only they act. Compared to the pure mystic, the saint is a politician.
The saint is a politician: one who acts in the public realm. Cioran thinks of them as “failed politicians,” but I’m not so sure. They are successful enough not only to come to the attention of conventional politicians, but to come into conflict with them: Nietzsche refers to saints as a “strange, unconquered enemy.” I suppose Jesus’ execution as an enemy of the state marks him as a failed politician. St. Francis imitated Jesus even in this failure. Five year before he died, Francis lost control of the Order of Friars Minor that he founded because of his insistence on the renunciation of private property. It is the authority of these powerless saints, these failed politicians, that so fascinates the powerful of the world and eludes their understanding.
What they fail to understand is this “excess of tears” that motivates the saints’ will to power, their relentless desire to know through love all things in God, and so to become transparent to God’s healing love for the sake of the world. It is love that energizes their action in the world.
The difference between authority derived from God and human authority is the way in which power is exercised. Violence and the sacrifice of human lives is the normal way of exercising human authority, as the chief priests and elders affirm in their description of what the owner of the vineyard will do to the wicked tenants in the parable by Jesus: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” This is how law and order is maintained.
The chief priests and elders identify with the owner in the story. They are members of the aristocratic, landowning class, and they know all about how to deal with unruly tenant farmers. They assume Jesus will agree with their response to the parable, and are shocked when he replies: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” God’s authority is not exercised like human authority. It is exercised through the power of love, which takes the form of justice in history. That power is demonstrated through self-sacrifice in solidarity with the victims of injustice, rather than through sacrificing victims to maintain privilege masking as law and order.
Human authority is recognizable by the excess of blood it produces. Divine authority is recognizable by the excess of tears it produces; tears of compassion and tears of joy. Human authority creates subjects with power and objects to be acted upon, who are divided against each other. Divine authority creates communion between subjects who share the power of love in a common life. The saints inhabit a kingdom without borders, and recognize no ultimate authority other than that of God. It is love that makes them strange, unconquered enemies of violent human authority.
And yet it is to the powerful, as well as the powerless, that Jesus and St. Francis preach the good news of God’s Kingdom. In his parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus follows the prophetic tradition of using parables as a kind of verbal ju-jitsu to turn the tables on the powerful. He draws them into a story that they think is about somebody else – the erratic violence of unruly tenants – only to discover that the story is very much about them – and the violence of law and order, the systemic violence of the powerful.
In so doing, Jesus breaks one of the cardinal rules of social order. It is OK to speak of the immorality and violence of the oppressed. It is not acceptable to speak of the systemic immorality and violence of the powerful. Into this silence, Jesus speaks the mercy of God. Into this silence, St. Francis spoke the mercy of God to lepers, outcasts, birds and wolves, even Muslims: the perennial bogeyman of the West beginning with the crusades that Francis preached - against. This mercy is for the sake of the powerful as well. It is preached for their conversion, so that they may embrace communion instead of domination; so that together we can touch into the depths of joy that lies beneath our tears.
Jesus quotes Psalm 118 and describes himself as the stone that the builders rejected. If he is a “failed politician,” it is because the powerful reject the invitation to conversion that Jesus offers them; the renunciation of their exploitation of the poor that turns them into landless tenants in the first place. They reject mercy, dismissing this “excess of tears.” Yet, Jesus remains the cornerstone of a new form of human community, an alternative way of exercising power together, upon which St. Francis and all the saints, have continued to build.
Nietzsche saw correctly that the powerful fear the saints. This is what is so amazing about the them! Despite their failure, their excess of tears, their rejection by the powerful, God is continually renewing the world through the ever-flowing stream of mercy flowing from their lives. If the Cross reveals the usual imposition of law and order for what it is: a sacrifice of victims; the Resurrection reveals the life-giving power of God to forgive, heal, and renew. St. Francis exercised that power. That is the power that we are invited to exercise. We can claim our vulnerability, our solidarity, our compassion, and jump into the stream of mercy that is renewing the world.
The imitation of Jesus and the saints requires us to become “failed politicians.” This is the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes!
 E. M. Cioran, Tears and Saints (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 30.
 Cioran, p. 62.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (New York: Random House, 1966), p. 65.
 Matthew 21:23b.
 Cioran, p. 6 – 7.
 Matthew 21:40-41.
 Matthew 21:43.