Sunday, October 4, 2015

Color Outside the Lines

"Saint Francis"
- in my meditation garden -

On this 4th day of October, the Christian church celebrates the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. Although he lived 800 years ago he continues to be revered not only by Christians but by people of goodwill everywhere - a shining example pointing a way for anyone who walks on a spiritual journey regardless of their path.

The story of Francis has been somewhat tamed and domesticated in our own day. Many people today associate Francis with backyard fountains and bird feeders, lots of churches bless pets on Saint Francis’ Day; and while Francis was certainly someone who loved nature, the fact is that his life was not at all tame and domesticated.  In fact, Francis was pretty radical and subversive in his own day. Francis was certainly one of those people who “colored outside the lines.” Most of the people of Assisi considered Francis to be a raving lunatic, a crazy, demented fool – he was mocked by his fellow citizens and denounced by the official church.

Francis was the favored son of a highly-respected, wealthy merchant - the "world was his oyster," wealth, power, prestige, social status and respectability were all available to him at his beck and call.  And then one day he "woke up," he became "enlightened" by the truth, and realized that "love" was the only true power and that all the bloated, self gratifying "stuff" of his life was the cause of all his greatest suffering. 

Like Jesus who pointed the "way" for him, like the Buddha who had lived many years before, when Francis "woke up," he experienced the truth that everyone and everything all belong to one another - all people have equal dignity, even the creatures of the earth, the wind, the sky and sun, all belong to one another. He saw clearly that no one is isolated, there are no different others or more important others. And so Francis called the sun his brother, he called the moon his sister, and the earth his mother. 

One day, in the center of the city square as all the townspeople looked on, in the presence of his wealthy family, Francis knelt before the bishop who was dressed in jewels and adorned in gilded robes. Francis then stood up and shockingly he stripped off all his fancy clothes - naked in the sight of all. He put on beggars' rags and vowed to devote the remainder of his life for the welfare of others, especially the poor, the hungry, the needy and the outcast.

The people of the town laughed him to scorn. His parents were sure their son had lost his mind.  He was denounced by the authorities and condemned by the local bishop who called him "a crazy fool."

And yet something had shifted in that moment when Francis stood there naked in the city square - it wasn't just Francis who had awakened to the truth, he was also waking others up. Gradually more and more people donned those beggars rags and devoted their lives to care for the poor and needy, to set a place of equal dignity at the table of life where everyone might sit.  

Eventually people throughout the whole world were touched by the life and example of this crazy fool, and 800 years later we remember him today.

Francis once told the brothers and sisters in his community:

We have all been called to walk a way of simplicity,
to be a new kind of fool in the world.

On this Saint Francis' Day I am reminded that, in the eyes of the world, any who walk a spiritual journey will appear to be foolish. On a spiritual path we are always called to color outside the lines. The way to deeper peace and greater wisdom inevitably goes against the grain of the popular culture, and if you aren't going against the flow you may have lost your way. 

In the eyes of a power hungry, self-centered and violent world, the well-known Prayer of Saint Francis sounds like the ranting of a madman, the mumbling of a crazy fool. It is a prayer for walking on a spiritual path:

Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon;
where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;

to be loved as to love.

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