It has been a historical week in the world of religion... a new Papal authority was elected to the Roman Catholic Church. He is a gentle and humble Argentinian monk who took the name of Francis, after the famous Saint Francis of Assisi. Although a Jesuit priest (“God's Marines”, an Order dedicated to social justice and usually highly educated), the new pope is taking an interesting stance on the Catholic Church's role in the world right now. Professing a need for humility and smallness, the Franciscan theme to Pope Francis' approach is inspiring. Promoting peace and poverty, the Franciscan order was founded in 12th century Italy by a man named Francesco di Pietro di Bernardon. Coming from a wealthy merchant family, Francis eventually went on pilgrimage to Rome only to be changed forever during the journey. He lived amongst the poor and downtrodden, tended to lepers, experienced their sorrow and desperate faith. Francis was inspired by a sermon he heard from the book of Matthew, in which Jesus tells his followers to leave behind coin and comforts, to seek the ascetic life of non-attachment. Francis returned home to preach in the streets, delivering his message of simplicity and the kingdom of heaven for everyone. His followers and Francis wandered the countryside, sleeping amongst the trees and animals, joyfully singing praises in their extreme poverty. A friend to Francis, Clare who was also from Assisi, was so inspired by his work she ran away from home to follow him and his teachings. Francis helped to establish the Order of Saint Clare, or the “Poor Clares” as they are referred to; a cloistered order of nuns who live in poverty and shut off from the world, contemplating God and the peace.
Now, these stories are very familiar... thinking about it this last week, I am reminded of the story of Buddha; his wealthy comfortable upbringing and the suffering he welcomed to integrate with his already extreme practice of spirituality. And like the Buddha, Saint Francis has a tremendous connection with the natural world. There are several stories about his encounters with animals: preaching to birds, making pacts with wolves, he was a wild mystic and shaman of sorts. Saint Francis created the first nativity scene, which is probably why there are so many animals fitting in those stables. He was also the first person in Catholic history to receive the stigmata; a miraculous replication of Christ's wounds inflicted during his passionate death.
So why do I toss aside much of my Catholic background, yet still cling to SOME of these Saints? Because in a way, they are like demi-Gods... just as our Gods and Goddess, Spirits and Nature Devas were ALL human ancestors from some bygone era, so too will the “new” spirits become deified. People pray to Saint Francis, his presence is seen in many garden themes, often depicted with birds, animals or the olive branch of peace. As a baby Pagan, I wanted to become like Saint Francis, to throw off all ties to the world, run out into the woods or wastelands like Saint John the Baptist and live on honey and locusts.... to live in peace, sharing with all who come before me, but especially the sick and miserable. But then I grew up and realized this was not the path I was to live. I have been this person before, and although I long for the life of a renunicant, I think the new Pope Francis is taking the Middle Path: asking for the participation of all Catholics in this vow of spiritual 'poverty', to get back to the basics, and heal the hurts so deeply inbeded in the rock of Saint Peter. I have high hopes for the changes and challenges facing this new Pontiff. I pray the teachings of Saint Francis shine through and speak beyond the borders of Catholicism... it is a message and prayer for all faiths.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.