Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Spirituality of Garden Ornaments

"Saint Francis"
- in my meditation garden -

I was at our local nursery buying some new shrubs for our yard and was struck by the volume of backyard garden ornaments for sale that depicted the well-known Saint Francis of Assisi. There were all sorts of plaster statues, garden fountains, flower pots and a variety of bird baths fashioned in the image of the obviously-popular saint with a serene smile as birds rested on his shoulder and creatures gathered at his feet.

In one sense I can see why icons of this universally-known figure might wind up in a back yard garden. After all, Francis was certainly someone who loved the natural world and felt a tender affinity with the creatures of this earth; but seeing all those garden ornaments at that nursery also made me think of how tame and domesticated a figure like Saint Francis has become nowadays.  I also wonder if maybe that’s what has happened to faith, religion and spirituality in our own times – has it all been tamed, turned into something safe and domesticated, something nice to look at from time to time like a bird-bath in the back yard?

On October 4th, Christians remember and celebrate the life of Saint Francis of Assisi and I am reminded of all those "Franciscan" garden ornaments at that nursery. 

When he lived back in the 13th century, Saint Francis was anything but tame.  In fact, he was pretty radical and subversive, someone who was considered to be socially unacceptable, a dangerous figure who posed a threat to the status quo.  Most of the people of his home-town of Assisi considered Francis to be a raving lunatic, a crazy, demented fool who was mocked by his fellow citizens and denounced by the official church.

Francis was the favored son of a highly-respected, wealthy merchant - wealth, power, prestige, social status and respectability were all available to him at his beck and call.  But then one day Francis "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, and 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, the earth his mother, and the birds of the air found a place to rest on his shoulder as the creatures of the earth snuggled at his feet.

According to a popular legend, standing in the center of the city square with all the townspeople looking on, Francis shockingly stripped off all his fancy clothes and stood 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 disowned by his family, denounced by the authorities and condemned by the local bishop who called him "a crazy fool."

And yet when Francis stood there naked in that 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 follow in the path of this crazy fool, caring for the poor and outcast, devoting their lives to establish a more just and compassionate society in which the dignity of every human being would be honored.   Eventually people throughout the whole world would be touched by the life and example of this foolish, subversive revolutionary and 800 years later we still 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. Faith, religion, any type of spiritual “way” is never a safe path, tame and domesticated. 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 wandered from the path. 

In the eyes of a power hungry, self-centered and violent world, the well-known Prayer of Saint Francis sounds like the rantings of a madman, the mumbling of a crazy fool. In truth it is a “credo” 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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