Quick review: Reflections on St Francis by John Michael Talbot

Reflections on St. FrancisReflections on St. Francis by John Michael Talbot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I found this slim volume for 5 euros, I snatched it up since I am a fan of both St Francis of Assisi and John Michael Talbot. I assumed at the time of purchase that this book would largely be a recasting of material from Talbot’s early book The Lessons of Saint Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily Life. I was wrong – this an entirely new volume of a different nature from that earlier work. Whereas that earlier work was largely a culling of particular lessons from the saint’s life and work as represented in his biographies, the ‘little flowers’, and his texts, this volume is a collection of brief reflections of three elements of St Francis: the story of his conversion and then two texts, The Rule of 1223 and the Testament from 1226.

The writing style in this book is like St Francis – simple and straightforward. Talbot is not trying to trick us with rhetoric or to be fancy the way a writer like myself would. He writes his thoughts and writes them in quick, simple sentences. He also repeats himself at times, which is actually a helpful tool in bringing home a point and instilling it in the mind. This is all, I believe, part of Br John Michael’s technique, for his other books that I’ve read (besides Lessons, The Music of Creation), his online articles, and his music demonstrate a depth and power that this book hints at. This is good, for it is obvious to me that the whole point of this wee book is, on the one hand, to encourage those new to the Franciscan tradition to wade in the water, and, on the other, to get the rest of us to take ourselves less seriously and rediscover the joyful simplicity of the early thirteenth-century spirituality of St Francis.

The biggest departure from most books on St Francis is Talbot’s treatment of the conversion. Usually, as in Chesterton’s Saint Francis of Assisi or the film Brother Sun, Sister Moon, we are presented with the sudden tale and snap conversion of Francis from young, gallant knight to fraticello in a moment. Br John Michael takes us through the long story, however, showing us the different stages in Francis’ conversion, from capture to Crusade to illness to penitent to hermit, etc. We are reminded that our own story, even if there is a great moment where we turn from our old ways to Christ Who is the Way, is itself a gradual series of turning posts and transformations. We are still being converted.

His reflections on the Rule discuss generally what a Rule is and how it binds the brothers, and how all of us can benefit from our own rules and constitutions. He relates about the rule and constitutions of his own community, the Brothers and Sisters of Charity. Talbot goes through the rule and Testament, highlighting specific passages and ideas for comment, reminding us of St Francis’ commitment to Gospel-centred living, to Jesus Christ, the church, the sacraments. Here we are called again and again to Jesus, to simplicity, and to prayer. Talbot encourages us to live the disciplined life, to pray the Divine Office, and to seek out true charity for our neighbours.

If you want your affection for St Francis renewed, or are looking to introduce St Francis to a friend, I highly recommend this book.

View all my reviews

Saint of the Week: St. Clare of Assisi

Adapted from a post originally situated here.

St. Clare of Assisi was probably St. Francis’ (saint of the week here) best friend. She, like Francis, came from a wealthy family in Assisi, and abandoned it all for the Gospel — which for a woman in thirteenth-century Italy was a lot harder than for a man; she had to run away from home basically and escape out of an arranged marriage.

Having made the Laudable Exchange (blogged here), she joined up with Francis. Since the Church of the Middle Ages did not have a place for women in the wandering, preaching work of mendicants, she and her sistren who also abandoned the world lived the cloistered life. The order she founded is the Poor Sisters of St. Clare, the nuns who are the female counterparts of the Little Brothers.

Now, the thirteenth century was still the Middle Ages, and Sts. Francis & Clare were out to change the Holy Catholic Church from within, not start a hippie commune (as it looks in Brother Sun, Sister Moon) with Donovan leading the Gregorian Chant. The Poor Clares lived separately from the Little Brothers; mediaeval monastics, no matter how counter-cultural, knew well the temptations and lusts of the flesh. Having large quantities of unmarried men and women living in close community is not necessarily conducive to righteous living.

St. Clare is another reason we love Franciscans. St. Francis treated her as an equal, as a friend, as a sister. Many great things there are about the Middle Ages, but the treatment of the average woman by the men around her is not one of them. That Francis and Clare were such good friends is a testament to the power of the Gospel to transform lives. Their friendship is also one of those beautiful spiritual bonds that many of us long for, such as between St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, or St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nazianzus. They would meet and discuss the things of Christ into the wee hours, unconscious of the passage of time. Their conversation and prayers would get caught up into the heavenly realms as these two mystics sought the glorious Trinity together.

So, here’s a collect for St. Clare’s Day, as found over at the Daily Office blog:

Collect of the Day: St. Clare of Assisi, 1253

O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that we, inspired by the devotion of your servant Clare, may serve you with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the age to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

What to do with the “Canticle of Brother Sun”

First, pop on over to this website and read the “Canticle of Brother Sun”.

The first Franciscan text we read last night was the “Canticle of Brother Sun”.  This is one of St. Francis’ most popular writings.  It is especially popular today since St. Francis is the patron saint of ecologists and people can get their pets blessed on his feast day.  According to GK Chesterton, in fact:

It is a supremely characteristic work and much of Saint Francis could be reconstructed from that work alone.

Like all acts of writing, the “Canticle of Brother Sun” is dangerous, risky.  In the hands of an unsympathetic reader, it could be interpreted as heresy, as a form of pantheism, panentheism, or pagan nature-worship.  In the hands of a heretic, it could be used as such.  On the other hand, in the hands of a sympathetic orthodox reader, it becomes the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King.”

St. Francis of Assisi was an orthodox Catholic believer.  His goal was not to start his own hippie church (contra Donovan & Brother Sun, Sister Moon).  His goal was to bring the true faith to the common people of Italy, to bring people to true faith and hearty repentance, to cause the rich to reconsider the value of wealth, to give strength the poor — and all of these things are not done through Brother Sun but through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.  St. Francis was aware of this.  It permeates the majority of his life, the stories of his life, and his writings.

And if we look at the “Canticle of Brother Sun,” we see that it balances all the words about creation with praise of the Creator.  This is the balance that must be found when we discuss eco-theology or the greening of theology or a theology of the environment or creation care.  The centre of our worship must always, ever, and ceaselessly be our Lord God.

So it was for St. Francis.  I disagree with the Chesterton quotation above.  If we are to know St. Francis’ heart, we must look beyond the “Canticle of Brother Sun.”  Elsewhere we see the centrality of Christ in his life.  We must balance this canticle with the rest of the saint’s writings.  Thus, we shall take the “Canticle of Brother Sun” and look at it parallel to chapter 23 of the “Earlier Rule” (for those pressed for time, I have bolded the word therefore; read from that word on for a briefer experience):

All-powerful, most holy, most high and supreme God
Holy and just Father
Lord, King of heaven and earth
we thank You for Yourself
for through Your holy will
and through Your only Son
with the Holy Spirit
You have created all things spiritual and corporal
and, having made us in Your own image and likeness,
You placed us in paradise.
And through our own fault we have fallen.
And we thank You
for as through Your Son You created us
so also through Your holy love, with which You loved us,
You brought about His birth
as true God and true man
by the glorious, ever-virgin, most blessed, holy Mary
and You willed to redeem us captives
through His cross and blood and death.
And we thank You
for Your Son Himself will come again
in the glory of His majesty
to send the wicked ones
who have not done penance and who have not known You
into the eternal fire,
and to say to all those who have known You and have adored You
and have served You in penance:
“Come, you blessed of My Father,
receive the kingdom,
which has been prepared for you
from the beginning of the world.”
And because all of us wretches and sinners
are not worthy to pronounce Your name,
we humbly ask that our Lord Jesus Christ,
Your beloved Son, in whom You were well pleased,
together with the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete,
give You thanks as it pleases You and Him for everything,
[He] Who always satisfies You in everything
through Whom You have done such great things for us.
Alleluia!

[Here follows a list of saints begged to join in thanks.  Then a request for all people, laity and clergy, to serve the Lord.]

Let us all love the Lord God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength [cf. Mark 12:30], with fortitude and with total understanding, with all of our powers, and with every effort, every affection, every emotion, every desire, and every wish.  He has given and gives to each one of us our whole body, our whole soul, and our whole life.  He created and redeemed us, and will save us by His mercy alone.  He did and does every good thing for us who are miserable and wretched, rotten and foul-smelling, ungrateful and evil.

Therefore
let us desire nothing nothing else
let us wish for nothing else
let nothing else please us and cause delight
except our Creator and Redeemer and Saviour,
the one true God,
Who is the fullness of Good
all good, every good, the true and supreme good
Who alone is good
merciful and gentle
delectable and sweet
Who alone is holy
just and true
holy and right
Who alone is kind
innocent
pure
from Whom and through Whom and in Whom is
all pardon
all grace
all glory
of all the penitent and the just
of all the blessed who rejoice together in heaven.
Therefore let nothing hinder us
nothing separate us
or nothing come between us.
Let all of us
wherever we are
in every place
at every hour
at every time of day
everyday and continually
believe truly and humbly
and keep in our hearts and love, honour, adore, serve
praise and bless
glorify and exalt
magnify and give thanks to
the most high and supreme eternal God
Trinity and Unity
the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit
the Creator of all
Saviour of all who believe in Him
and Hope in Him
and love Him
Who is
without beginning and and without end
unchangeable, invisible,
indescribable, ineffable,
incomprehensible, unfathomable,
blessed, worthy of praise,
glorious, exalted on high, sublime,
most high, gentle, lovable,
delectable and totally desirable above all else
forever.
Amen.

This is the heart of Franciscan spirituality.