It had been my intention to write this week about my adventures of this past weekend, immersed in the glories of the island of Ischia, just off the Western coast of Southern Italy. But the day here in Rome has been cold, and rainy, and dreary. And I have spent it in bed, suffering the pains of a particularly unusual, and particularly painful headache.
Further, today as I lay tossing and turning in my bed it happened, as is often the case in illness, that certain current anxieties appeared to me magnified and vividly. I woke several times from terrifying dreams, and found myself unable to return to sleep. And with the specter of several tests looming over my head, and the obligation of composing an article before the end of the night, the sand and the sun and the blue sea of Ischia seem as a distant, and not very believable dream.
Thus are my thoughts unable to focus on Ischia long enough to translate the beauty of the reality to the art of writing in any worthy fashion. And rather than the beauty of Mediterranean islands, I instead find myself thinking a lot about the beauty of St. Francis of Assisi, which strikes me as much more appropriate, and a whole lot more comforting. So I will write a little, a very little, about him.
As I sit down to write the sun is just setting on his feast day. I have just returned to my room after attending Mass in the chapel of the half religious house, half hotel where we Romans live out our days and do (or, as is more common, not do) our studies. The celebrant, a priest originally from Dublin, delivered a quiet, penetrating, peaceful homily on St. Francis, and I am afraid that the best I can do is to do my best to plagiarize a little of it.
I am only sorry that whatever I do I will not be able to do it with anything of the quiet joy, and the sly smile that perpetually emanates from out our already beloved chaplain’s youthful face. Perhaps the good father did not know it, but as he spoke of the joy and the innocence of Francis, his words were only a secondary lesson to his own sparkling eyes and gently laughing self. And that right there, I might as well note, in all its wordless simplicity, is already found one of the profoundest lessons one can take from the life of the Assisian saint.
“Though he only ever slept on a wooden board,” said Father in his homily, during which he must have made us all laugh a dozen times, “St. Francis always slept like a baby. And we, with our electric blankets, and giant pillows, and feather beds, we find ourselves unable to sleep, because of all of our anxieties.” After a day like today that struck home.
Perhaps, indeed, at some time the question has tormented you, as it has me, of whether or not it is possible to regain one’s innocence. I have long thought about the question, but been unable to resolve it in my own life; because, despite my burning desire for the peaceful, quiet rest of the innocent, I don’t think I’ve ever truly known it. Perhaps as a child I did; but I don’t recall that, so it hardly counts.
True, I have sometimes known tastes or grasped at hints of such a preternatural state; sometimes following a good and particularly needed confession, and at others in the mere contemplation of something good and beautiful like a sunset or the face or voice of a loved one. But the poison buried in the mind of a sinner inevitably oozes through to the surface again, and one is aware of the presence in oneself of something dirty and dark and sickly and undesirable. The desire to wash it off is sometimes there, but one is unsure of how, or what soap will ever do to scrub away such a stubborn filth.
It has often been easy to give in to the despair of our age which, besides saying that innocence of this sort isn’t a thing to be desired in the first place, further twists the knife in the heart of hope by telling us that even if it were, innocence of the kind for which I yearn isn’t at all possible. I of course find it very strange that the same age that tells me I am divine, and that I can do whatever my heart pleases, qualifies by saying that on second thought the one thing I can’t do is that–the one thing that my heart truly pleases with a tearful fervour.
But in my greatest moments of clarity I know it has often been easy to believe these things only because it is in this age that I am immersed; it has been easy to believe because we humans have terrible memories.
St. Francis is, I suppose, something different for every age. As Father said in his homily, St. Francis is everything to everybody; everything and everybody was his brother, from all of humanity, individually, to brother wolf and the birds and the moon and the sun. But for our age, the age that has disbelieved in innocence itself, the joyful saint is most of all a reminder that innocence is truly good, and desirable, and best of all, possible. For it is clear St. Francis wasn’t always innocent, but that by the time he died he most certainly was to an extraordinary and unbelievable degree, and that, therefore, at some point he must have become so from not being so. It is clear that he very well knew sin and its insidious and poisonous and dirty pride, and that it was really only after that day when he walked out of his house, and shed all of the finery, all of the silks and fabrics of his father’s that he wore, and claimed God in Heaven as his Father, and unabashedly embraced the lepers and Sister Poverty in the perfect act of conversion, that he washed himself clean and knew innocence.
That, I repeat, is the one lesson that the modern man studying the life of Francis ought to walk away with: innocence, which every man at some time or another knows he wants more than anything in the world, may be regained.
“In Assisi,” said Father, “even the buildings give off this sense of innocence. It is everywhere in the whole town.” And that is good and exciting to hear, because we are slated to have a three or four day retreat in Assisi later this semester, that I am greatly looking forward to.
In asking how this miracle came about, it is obvious that the innocence of Francis could only have been a result of the fact that in nearly every way he imitated and became and was another Christ. So much so was he another Christ that he became the first known saint in history to bear the marks of the stigmata.
Perhaps my favourite passage from all of scripture is the opening of the book of Job. God has allowed Satan to take away so much of what is precious to Job, so the faithful man falls on his knees, sprinkles himself with ashes and prays: “Naked I came from my mothers womb / naked shall I return. / Yahweh giveth, and Yahweh taketh away / Blessed be the name of Yahweh!”
Being a Catholic and averse to Scripture I never read the book of Job until some time in the last two years. But I will always remember the feeling that washed over me when I read that profound and unexpected and impassioned cry of faith, such that tears sprung to my eyes. This cry that erupted from the depths of Job’s soul, that flies in the face of all of the logic of the world, was, I knew, exactly the sort of childish faith that Christ talked about in the Gospels, when he encouraged men to be like little children. This truth touches something so fundamental in the soul that it cannot possibly be described, only experienced.
It is interesting then, that, just as Christ entered the world as a lesson in and as a fulfillment of these words of Job, naked in the manger, and exited it in the same way, naked on the cross, so too did St. Francis enter and leave this world, free from attachment to all things but the Creator of all things.
It is told that when he knew he was going to die, St. Francis removed his robe, and lay on the floor, curled up like a baby, naked and happy and peaceful and ready for the hands of Sister Death to take him into the embrace of his bride and the loving gaze of his Father. And in some mystical fashion, he did so nailed to the cross with Christ, with the marks of the stigmata still on his body.
Francis died innocent and happy and free.
Here, it is so undeniably clear to any man with any vestige of moral vision left, was a man who was free. Of course, I think that that is why St. Francis is so popular, because most people do have the vestige of a moral vision left; they recognize and thirst for his freedom. It is true, though, that so many, or rather all, of the saints are lessons in freedom; but the simple truth is that it was so exactly purified in the case of St. Francis.
As is usually a good rule of thumb when one feels that one hasn’t expressed one’s topic well, in the least, I close with a quote by Chesterton that I’m not sure directly relates to what I have said, but that I love very much:
“The whole point about St. Francis of Assisi is that he certainly was ascetical and he certainly was not gloomy… It was not self-denial merely in the sense of self-control. It was as positive as a passion; it had all the air of being as positive as a pleasure. He devoured fasting as a man devours food. He plunged after poverty as men have dug madly for gold.”