Fierce Desert Skies
Every morning as I sit in my garden for my morning meditation, I look upon an image of Saint Francis of Assisi in my garden. It is a rather typical depiction of this well-known saint, the kind of image that can be found in many gardens. He is dressed in a flowing robe, has a serene face, and a bird is gently perching on his shoulder.
This morning as I gaze upon this image, I reflect on how our pictures of great religious heroes tend to get very tame and domesticated over time. The fact is that Saint Francis was kind of a wild and crazy guy. In fact, had he lived in our own day, he may well have found himself committed to some sort of institution or asylum to receive treatment for his mental breakdown.
Francis was a descendant of a prominent merchant family - an heir to a great fortune. One day he realized that money, fame and fortune was not bringing him peace and happiness. He was hungry for a deeper peace. His dried up spirit yearned for something more. Then he encountered the living spirit of a wild and untamed God, and he was "set on fire." - enflamed with love and compassion.
So he marched himself into the public square, and in front of all the good people of Assisi he stripped off all his clothes. Standing there naked, he publicly renounced all his worldly possessions and denounced his former life of opulence. Then he went off to devote the remainder of his life to caring for the poor - embracing those on the margins.
The good people of the town, the bishops and clergy of the church, all thought he was crazy, that he had lost his mind.
But now Francis has been tamed - turned into a convenient "plastic saint," a "pretty" piece of art in flowing robes with a bird on his shoulder, adorning a garden.
As I think about it, most of the great men and women who are celebrated as great religious heroes were pretty much considered to be "crazy" by the good people of their towns and by the established institutional hierarchy of their day.
Siddhartha Gautama (later known as the Buddha) was a noble prince. He gave it all up and went out to live on the streets among the poor. He dressed in rags and begged for his next meal- many people thought he had lost his mind.
Jesus of Nazareth (later known as the Christ) boldly and foolishly stood against the mighty establishments of his day. He opposed the culture of the Roman empire and stood in the face of the powerful religious authorities by defying their laws that would exclude people -wildly and without reservation, honoring and embracing everyone with respect and dignity. Many good people thought he was crazy.
The stories of the 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers are filled with depictions of wild, unrestrained, untamed people. After all, these desert monastics had abandoned "cultured" society. They had moved away from their tame, comfortable and well-defined status in society and church, and went out to the fringes of the world to live in caves, simply, committed to radical hospitality and unbounded compassion for one another according to the teaching of Jesus. The Church officials and the good, established people of the towns thought these desert monastics were crazy.
Maybe we tame and domesticate our images of these wild and untamed heroes of the past because we want "God" to be tamed, convenient and domesticated. We want "God" to be under our control, comfortable and pastel, and so we make "God's" heroes into plaster colorless saints that we can carve into a statue or hang on a wall as a pretty decoration to be gazed upon from time to time.
One of my favorite stories from the Desert Mothers and Fathers is a story told about the monk who came to "Abba Joseph" for some advice:
Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, my little fast, my prayer and contemplative silence; and according as I am able, I try to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts: now what more should I do?
The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to the heavens, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. Then he said:
WHY NOT BECOME FIRE?
When I first moved out to the desert, a parishioner told me she thought I was crazy to move out here. I think maybe that was a compliment.
I want to become "fire".
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