Arriving in Assisi, I had already traveled 200 miles by train by 2:30 PM. I knew I was running behind schedule, and so I jumped on the first bus that I could, headed toward the Basilica of San Francisco. I was supposed to meet Fr. Dennis somewhere near the Basilica, but I didn’t know where, and I didn’t know how. I would go to the shrine, and if I failed in finding him, I would call his cell phone. The bus stopped, and as I stand up to leave, there was a dark, black face, right in front of me, that looked very familiar. “Dennis!” I exclaim! And he cheers with me, and we embrace. We were so relieved to find each other. We were concerned for each other person, not knowing where the other was, only to discover that we were on the same bus all along!
Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon of St. Francis of Assisi
Most High, all-powerful, all-good Lord, All praise is Yours, all glory, all honour and all blessings.
To you alone, Most High, do they belong, and no mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your Name.
Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour,
Of You Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
In the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all weather's moods,
by which You cherish all that You have made.
Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water,
So useful, humble, precious and pure.
Praised be You my Lord through Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You my Lord through our Sister,
who sustains and governs us,
producing varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
Praise be You my Lord through those who grant pardon for love of You and bear sickness and trial.
Blessed are those who endure in peace, By You Most High, they will be crowned.
Praised be You, my Lord through Sister Death,
from whom no-one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Blessed are they She finds doing Your Will.
No second death can do them harm. Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks,
And serve Him with great humility.
Coming to Assisi is a bit of a curiosity to me. I’ve spent much of my life butting heads with Franciscan spirituality because of my Jesuit upbringing. A classic disparity between Franciscans and Jesuits goes like this. A Franciscan looks out at the desert and beholds the Grand Canyon. It is marvelously painted in the setting sun and the Franciscan says, “Behold the wonders of God! Isn’t he majestic to have created this!”
A Jesuit on the other hand, hears about the Grand Canyon and exclaims, “It’s just a ditch!” He then looks out to the urban skyline of the city of Chicago and says “Behold the wonders of God! Isn’t he majestic to have created human beings who can do this!”
The disparity between Francis and Ignatius confounds me. They have the same origin, the same desire, and often the same conclusion, but the process they use to get from point “a” to “b” is entirely different. In this regard, their coexistence within the Catholic Community is a brilliant demonstration of how plurality is possible in a cohesive, unified worldview.
Fr. Dennis and I get off the bus. He introduces me to Catherine, his friend and countrymate from Uganda. She has come with us to see the tomb of St. Francis. We walk together up the steep hill to the basilica, elated that we are making the journey together. Assisi is quite interesting. In Francis’ day it was rural and remote. Now, little souvenir shops crowd the streets in a large village that has very much become a tourist… I mean, um… a pilgrim site.
If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view my pictorial of the Basilica of San Francisco by clicking here. Click on the folders to the left of your Google Earth Browser to see other pictures of the village of Assisi, including the Basilica of St. Clare, the partner of St Francis.
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;
and 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
This prayer is referred to as the Prayer of St. Francis. It is definitely written in the Fransiscan tradition, though all credible scholarship indicates that St. Francis did not write it. The prayer came to the religious landscape around the fifteenth century, four hundred years after Francis. There is something spectacular about the prayer that I have learned to appreciate. I tend to focus on the line, “To be understood as to understand.” It has struck me time and time again.
It seems to me that most of the problems in the world come from people not understanding one another, and this happens because people don’t stop to listen to one another before making judgments. We tend to prejudged a given situation in such a way, that the individual we encounter has no opportunity to be heard. We’ve already determined what we want to understand, and it shapes our conclusions unfairly. It takes a lot of courage to really let go of our prejudice, and listen.
“It is a problem in Uganda. The weather patterns are changing so much.”
“Really?” I ask, “You can actually see the difference?”
“Yes! Our planting season which used to have rain no longer has rain. A whole season of crops cannot be grown, and the people are hungry because of this, and this is because of Global Warming.”
“What kills me about this is that it’s not like the Ugandans are the ones using up all the fossil fuel. Ugandans didn’t cause Global Warming, but they are the ones suffering from it.”
“Exactly!” Fr Dennis exclaims as we wait for the train to go back to Rome. “I want just five minutes in front of the United Nations to tell the story of my country. The people are starving, not by their own doing. They are the innocent victims of other nations’ choices. The problem begins with the fact that the industrialized nations do not listen to us, and do not consult us, as to how their choices affect us.”
“I’d give you five times five minutes Dennis, but I’m afraid they won’t listen. They will agree that it is unfortunate, turn off your microphone, or the evening news (if you’re lucky to have gotten on it), and then go back to their dinner.”
In the most somber tone I’ve ever heard Dennis speak, he replies. “We have to find a way for people to hear the voice of the poor. To truly listen.”
As an adult, I’ve come to a much better understanding of St. Francis of Assisi. Instead of irreconcilable differences between sophisticated intelligence (Jesuits) and sandal wearing tree-huggers (Franciscans), I’ve learned that Francis and Ignatius have two different approaches which are often just using different process to reach the same conclusion.
One of Francis’ well known sayings is “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary use words.” St. Ignatius on the other hand said, “Love expresses itself more through actions than through words.” It is pretty much the same thing, but oh the fights the Franciscans and Jesuits have! The funny thing is that Francis and Ignatius, both do very nicely at balancing each other out.
The first prayer that I included in this blog, The Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, is truly the Prayer of St. Francis. Historically, we believe that he actually wrote the prayer. To me, the prayer is really about listening. Listening to the Earth and the things of the Earth, in order to discover the majesty of God. Francis lived… in solidarity with the Earth and all things in it, as his brothers and sisters.
Assisi is a very established village now. I know that many people find a unique peace in Assisi, but I have a bit of difficulty with the place. I have to admit that I had a little smirk on my face when I think about how anti-commerce Francis was, and saw how commercial Assisi has become. A man of tremendous simplicity, now has his tomb at the center of a grand basilica.
More than just a dream to come where Francis lived, it was a tremendous experience to walk the streets of Assisi with two Ugandans, patriots of a nation that is radically effected by the way mankind is treating Brother Sun and Sister Moon (OK I really don’t think we’ve done anything to damage the sun (yet), and we’ve really only landed on the moon (if you believe the U.S. government), but I think you get the point, we’ve done a lot to ruin the environment.)
As I left Assisi, and Brother Sun was shedding a golden light over the faces of my two tired, and dozing, Ugandan friends, I couldn’t help but wonder what St. Francis would say today. We need to listen. We need to listen. The Earth will tell us what it needs, but first we need to listen. The poor will tell us what they need, but first we need to listen.
I am troubled as I leave Assisi. My Ugandan friends are asleep. Their country is suffering. And I don’t know how to get people to listen. St Francis of Assisi. Pray for us.