Saint Francis – The Patron Saint of Birdbaths?

The following is a sermon preached by Brother William of the Anglican Society of St. Francis. Brother William is a remarkable old man who I have had the privilege of crossing paths with on several occaisions over the last few decades.

(He did not call his sermon “The Patron Saint of Birdbaths”)

reproduced from Faith Futures

See also Brother William’s blog The Divine Universe

A sermon preached at St Francis’ Theological College, Brisbane for the Festival of St Francis, 2007.

I was delighted to receive the invitation to speak at today’s College celebration. Not only is St Francis the patron of the college where I have studied and, later on, taught but also the patron of the religious community I belong to.

St Francis is the most popular saint in Protestant Christendom. Even agnostics and atheists have a soft spot for him. And, of course, pet-lovers adore him, seeing him as a kind of patron saint of birdbaths.

No man among the saints of Christendom has had more written about him; none enjoyed so wide a popularity as Francis of Assisi. I do not have in mind the pop-art image of a handsome, tall young Anglo-Saxon with a funny haircut, wearing a cute brown costume and surrounded by tame animals. The real Francis is far more enigmatic and more challenging than that. The fact that so much has been written about him (a new book appears almost every year) is not because he is easy to write about, but rather because the enigma is so fascinating, the impact of his life so powerful.

Remy de Gourmont wrote:

No man since St Paul has had as much influence on the orientation of the human spirit as the founder of the Friars Minor: a new poetry, a new art, a renewed religion, have radiated from the humble Porziuncular convent through the Christian world.

The Church hierarchy was frantically focussing people’s attention on themselves but Francis focussed attention on Jesus. His was an incarnational theology rather than an ecclesiastical one.

G K Chesterton, in his popular biography, said that Francis was one of the great nature mystics. Nature mysticism has had a revival recently. New-agers, post-modern philosophers and theologians, and even scientists, have been rediscovering what Western society lost during the modernist era and the industrial revolution, namely, our sense of unity with the living organism we call the universe.
During the modern era of the 18th, 19th and most of the 20th centuries, people were taught to regard humankind as separate from the rest of physical nature. We are still in the eventide of that era. Some theologians and scientists (dinosaurs like biologist, Richard Dawkins, and biblical scholar, Bishop Spong,) still wave the frayed banners of modernism. Post-modernism, slowly emerging, tends to abandon the old dualisms and dichotomies of modernism.

St Francis seems very much in tune with the new age. As a mystic he saw things monistically rather than dualistically. (I suppose you’ve all heard about the mystic ordering a hamburger: “Make me one with everything.”) Though he never expressed it in philosophical, theological or scientific terms, Francis felt deeply his unity with all things in God. Everything was God’s offspring, God’s family, and, therefore, Francis’ brother or sister. His feeling for the natural world around him was joyful and affectionate. Only in self-centred, self-destructive humans, including himself, did Francis see grounds for sorrow and penitence.

People don’t always see this unity of spirit and matter, yet it is definitively expressed in the Nicene Creed. God is spirit, yet also embodied, incarnate in physical nature – the cosmic Christ. In God, spirit and matter are not two entities; they constitute one dynamic total reality. Ultimately, God, transcendent and immanent, is the only reality.

During the industrial revolution, people lost sight of our relationship with the rest of nature. The consequent poisoning and destruction of land, sea and air, of trees and plants, birds, fish and beasts, now threatens even our own survival. I don’t think Francis would have been worried so much by the affluence of the industrial world as by the mindless and destructive exploitation of his Mother Earth. She is finding humankind a source of great stress. And the first to notice the symptoms has not been religious prophets but scientists – the sceptical, inquisitive, rigorous interrogators of nature, and also the principle generators of modernism and industrialisation. But scientific enquiry is not only a dialogue with the rest of nature; it is also self-exploration; it raises introspective questions: what are we? What is our relationship to our universe? This is where science interdigitates with philosophy and, eventually, with theology.

The resurgence of mysticism in the West, some of it in the church but most of it not, may have come at a providential time. Those with a mystical and contemplative bent were probably the first to appreciate what the scientists were saying.

There are mystics in the science community too, of course, and quantum physics has made a strong appeal among many who are interested in what we loosely call “spirituality”. Quantum physicists discovered the unity of everything in a mysterious, dynamic, multi-dimensional dance of energy. In the last analysis, everything is simply energy, even matter. Solid matter is not really solid at all.
Personally, I find it hard to distinguish between what I vaguely call spirit and what scientists (with clearer analysis and precision) call energy. I can say that God is pure spirit, but I can also say that, in the Cosmic Christ, God is pure energy, formed into matter. That’s a bit metaphysical I suppose, but the real point is that each of us is not only related to every other person; we are related in cosmic energy fields to everything, even to the most distant galaxies. It is not only because we are members of the Church that we are in Christ; it is because we are members of the universe.
Anyway, coming back to Earth: it has been geologists, biologists, and meteorologists, who have finally seen most clearly Earth’s worrying symptoms of stress. But hope for the future requires more than intellectual assent and pious aspirations; it needs real compassion. We need to feel the earth’s sickness. Indeed, millions of people are already suffering from catastrophic natural events caused by climate change. Our planet needs sympathetic care and therapy: the kind of sympathetic care our indigenous people have been giving for thousands of years.

Francis would have understood completely, but the therapeutic measures proposed by scientists are unattractive to us and worrisome to politicians who are afraid to make unpopular decisions. We grieve over our withered gardens; we are shocked by catastrophic floods, droughts and fires; but we are still inseparable from our air conditioning, our cars and our jumbo jets, all, at present, dependent on burning carbon.

Jesus said, “Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it remains a bare grain.” Continuation of life involves dying, and we do our dying even while we live. Our industrial-commercial organism urgently needs something like a heart transplant, and it looks life threatening. Francis probably loved life even more than we do, but he welcomed “Sister Death”. For him, life and death, death and resurrection, were one glorious process.

The post-modern philosopher, Don Cupitt, once experienced three close encounters with death within a month through heart attacks. Reading his reflections on this experience I came upon these words.

We seem to have forgotten how to die. . . . We live by dying, pouring ourselves into the flux of life in such a way that death, when it comes, is not a threat but a consummation.

He could have had St Francis in mind, but such thoughts of total absorption into the flux of life totally contradict the individualistic spirit of our day. Francis would be an outstanding and eccentric individual in any age: he consistently showed a desire to pour himself, destitute, into the flux of life – the life of Christ. The focus of Francis’ life was the living and dying Christ, the glory of God, manifest in the world around him. If only we could focus our own lives so sharply. Amen.
© 2007 Brother William SSF


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