The San Damiano Crucifix

This past Christmas, one of the gifts I asked for was the Byzantine crucifix pictured above, which was available at a local Christian book shop. I wanted it because of my interest in Eastern Orthodoxy as well as the aesthetic beauty of it; it now hangs above my desk at home where I can look upon a reminder of the glorious, cosmic event that transformed the world and my own life.

Upon looking at this crucifix, however, it became clear to me that this was not actually a Byzantine crucifix. It looks Byzantine, especially given that Christ is standing in victory, not hanging in agony, but it is not. A big give away, besides the western Mediaeval style of the figures, is the Latin inscription above our Lord’s head:

IHS NAZARE
REX IVDEORV

Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Not only is it in Latin, but it is not what Byzantine crucifixes tend to say. They tend to call him the King of Glory, not of the Jews.

Today I was wasting time on the interwebs, and, feeling like a bit of a fool, I now know where the crucifix is from:

Assisi.

It’s here, in the Basilica of Santa Chiara:

I know I’ve seen images of this crucifix before I asked for the one at Christmas, but somehow it escaped me that they were one and the. The significance of this crucifix is as follows.

Francis of Assisi, when he had recently rejected his father’s wealth and all the rest, was in the old church of San Damiano praying one day. Hanging in the church was the crucifix in question.

Praying before this crucifix, Francis was told by Christ to rebuild His church. Thinking the Lord meant San Damiano, Francis did just that.

Later he learned that the church to be rebuilt was the one made of living stones, and Francis began his mission of evangelisation in earnest.

This crucifix, then, is very famous and holds a special place in the world of Franciscans.

As a work of art, it is interesting, as was pointed out at The National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi. In this article, we are drawn to three elements in this painting of the crucified God. First, we see the crowd of people beside/surrounding Christ, Mary the Virgin and John the Evangelist on one side, Mary the wife of Cleopas, Mary of Magdala, and Longinus the centurion on the other.

At the second level, where Christ’s arms are outstretched embracing the world we see four angels and two men surrounding a black chamber — the empty tomb. The men are Sts. Peter and John, the apostolic witnesses of the empty tomb.

Third, above our Saviour’s head we see Him ascending into Heaven and greeted by angels.

The salvation event is before us here, with the crucified God standing central as a King in control, crucified, resurrected, ascending before our very eyes. Depicted in line and colour is the salvation of the world, the theology of our own lives. Here we see the centrepiece of our faith on the San Damiano crucifix, the crucifix that the Lord used to draw Francis to transform the world.

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Saint of the Week: St. Bonaventure

For Lent and part of Eastertide (all of Eastertide?), I shall be alternating Anglicans and mystics for the saints of the weeks. Last week we had our Anglican in Dorothy L. Sayers, and this week we get a mystic.

St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) is one of the bright lights of the thirteenth-century. He was born five years before the death of St. Francis of Assisi (saint of the week here) and lived to carry on the great Franciscan tradition of mysticism and preaching as a biographer of St. Francis and as minister general of the Order of Friars Minor.

Ewert Cousins writes that “he flourished during that brief period when spirituality and speculation were not yet separated.” (2) This is to say, before dogmatic and mystical theology became separate discourses in the West, a separation never fully achieved in the East, as seen in the brilliance of St. Gregory Palamas (on whose conception of God, see here). Hopefully, by making acquaintance with saints like Bonaventure we can reunite these two aspects of the Christian reality in the West.

Bonaventure was baptised as John (he took the name Bonaventure when he took holy orders) and grew up in Bagnoregio, a small central-Italian town. In Bagnoregio, he is reputed to have received primary education from the Franciscans who had established a friary* there. As well, Bonaventure suffered from a serious illness when a boy from which his mother’s vows to the newly-canonised St. Francis snatched him. His contacts with the Franciscans are early, then.

He studied at the University of Paris in 1234 where he met the active Franciscan intellectual tradition founded by Alexander of Hales at that university. In 1243 Bonaventure became Bonaventure — ie. joined the Franciscan Order — and continued studying theology under Franciscan theologians there, whose combination of learning and intellect with the simplicity of St. Francis was very attractive to Bonaventure. 1248 saw Bonaventure licensed to lecture on the Scriptures, and in 1253-4 he became a master in theology. He took over the Parisian Franciscan school.

In 1257 he was elected minister general of the Order of Friars Minor (aka “Franciscan Order” — except that they have subsequently splintered like all Christian groups). He came to head the Order in large part because he was an antidote to the apocalyptic teachings of Joachim of Fiore (these teachings were so notable that they were denounced at Church Councils later on). He tried to regulate the Order through moderation.

In 1274, as a Cardinal present at the Council of Lyons, he passed from this life.

St. Bonaventure spent his entire career, even amidst the busy-ness of life as minister general, writing. He wrote his lectures at Paris, he wrote scholastic treatises, he wrote of things spiritual. All of these are a part of the whole of who Bonaventure was and what Bonaventure did. We must not divide the scholastic from the mystic, as so many often do. Indeed, the experience of the mystic is what grounds the scholastic — and vice versa.

Nonetheless, I’m around 550 words into this post, so we’ll focus on Bonaventure the mystic.

Bonaventure’s spiritual masterpiece is The Soul’s** Journey Into God, written around 1259. It’s inspiration was St. Francis’ vision of the sing-winged seraph when the Saint received the stigmata. St. Francis’ vision was itself a symbol of the ecstasy of St. Francis’ contemplative life. There are, then, six stages of the soul’s journey, with a seventh chapter of this work focussing on the goal of this journey.

The starting-point of this journey of the soul is Christ crucified, for good Christian mysticism is always focussed on Christ (without Christ we’d all just be Ians, which isn’t so bad, I s’pose…). The starting-point of this journey is not the world of the detached intellectual. No, this is the world of the burning love of the incarnate God who chose death so that we might live. The world of fierce glory that chooses painful suffering to bring others into that glory. Our souls have a place, as does our rational aspect, but mere cognition will not do. Not here.

We enter through the door of the crucified God and find Him through the contemplation of His creation (cf. my thoughts on the “Canticle of Brother Sun”). From contemplation of the created, material order, we move further along the journey into the world of sensation, thence to the spiritual aspect of our soul, and from there into God.

A lot like St. Teresa (saint of the week here), eh? These exact steps are not necessary for the soul, but they are certainly laid out as a typical path by Bonaventure. This is not unsurprising. God has revealed Himself to us everywhere. The Heavens declare the glory of God, after all. Furthermore, we were made in His image. And most of Christian history thought that meant our nous was the bit that looked like God.

How can we not, then, find God within us? The Kingdom of Heaven is, after all. The Kingdom of Heaven is also at hand. Furthermore, Christ is the Logos, the rational, ordering principle that rules and guides the universe. He is to be found in all men in all places.

This is not a plea for universalism. Neither Francis nor Bonaventure was a universalist. This is a call to remember that in hesychia, in quiet, in peace, after we have got beyond the lizards (Teresa), after we have ascended Mt. Carmel (John of the Cross), after we have entered the cloud atop Mt. Sinai (Gregory of Nazianzus), after we have united our heart and our soul (Gregory Palamas), the God who was manifest as Christ will be known to us. And we will discover that it was his grace drawing us to Him all along.

*A friary is like a monastery, only inhabited by Franciscans or Dominicans; these mendicant (“begging”) orders traditionally use the friaries as bases for their operations in the world, whereas Benedictines and other cloistered orders live within the monastery and do not necessarily enter the world for mission purposes (but they have been known to do so).

**Soul = mens = nous = untranslateable into English. That inner part of you that can connect with God.

An Alternative “Toast tae the Lassies”

My more traditional option here.

Robert Burns, the Scots Bard, is well-known for his love of women, a love that got him into trouble at Ayr’s local kirk and produced at least one bastard child.  As a result, it is a tradition common to the dinners held in his honour at the commemoration of his birthday across the world to provide a toast to the “fairer” sex.

Yet might I take a moment to toast not just lassies in general, who are certainly a species of creature worth toasting, but to those lassies most worthy of a toast?  Might I turn our attention from the more carnal taste of Burns to the more spiritual taste of the saints?

Indeed, throughout the history of Christianity, strong women have been a force to be reckoned with.  They have been on the front lines of evangelisation, of work amongst the poor, of medicine and hospitals, of hospitality, of generosity, of pilgrimage, of mysticism.  Yet too often they are forgotten — indeed, even I have failed in over a year of “Weekly Saints” to make a female saint the topic for the week.  Nevertheless, the power of women in Christianity is something not to be forgotten, from the Blessed Virgin our “Champion Leader” to Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Let us toast first, then, the Mother of Our Lord, St. Mary of Nazareth.  She stands out not only as the only person to carry God in her womb, but also as the first person in a series of biblical calls to avoid making excuses and say in response to God’s call, “Let it be unto me according to your will.”  Faith and obedience to God’s call are our lessons from the Supersaint Godbearer.  To Mary!

A toast is also in order to Perpetua, the second-century martyress who stood firm in her faith and faced execution at the hands of Rome boldly, even wrestling with demons while she awaited her death.  Endurance and fortitude in the face of extreme unpleasantness are our lessons from St. Perpetua.  To Perpetua!

Third, I propose a toast to Amma Syncletica the fourth-century Desert Mother of Egypt, if for no other reason than this quotation: “Just as the most bitter medicine drives out poisonous creatures so prayer joined to fasting drives evil thoughts away.”  For encouraging us to pray and to fast in the bitter struggle against our own evil desires, a toast to Syncletica!

Slàinte mhath to St. Hilda of Whitby (my post here), who founded an abbey and used discernment to seek out the talents the Lord hid away in people like Caedmon.  May we all have true insight into the world around us.  To Hilda!

A toast to St. Clare of Assisi (my post here).  This intrepid mystic followed the call of God against the pressures of family and hearth — a difficult task for anyone whose family is Christian (to reject pagans is one thing, but to turn your back on your Christian parents another).  Would that more Christians had the boldness to follow the call of God to difficult places and a life of prayer regardless of what others think of them.  To Clare!

I propose a toast to Lady Julian of Norwich (my page here), the mystic anchorite who has shown so many of us something of the depths of the riches of the love of God Almighty for us.  May we, too, seek God’s face in prayer and spread his message of love to the world around us.  To Julian!

A toast is definitely in order to Susannah Wesley, mother of John and Charles, who, in a household full of loud children, sought the Lord at all times — even if it was just under the kitchen table.  She also has the distinction of having raised two of the eighteenth centuries great men of faith.  To Susannah!

Given the limits of time, let us remember Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who demonstrated heroic virtue in seeking Christ in the lowest of the low and the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, who moved beyond the confines of her nunnery to bring Christ where he was needed.  May we all be willing to go out of our comfort zones as we live for Christ.  To Teresa!

These few women and the many more who have populated Christianity from its earliest days as (allegedly) a faith of women and slaves are worthy of a toast.  May we live up to their examples of obedience to God, of faithfulness, of perseverance in prayer, of discernment, of willingness to go beyond the usual, of visions of God’s love, of the pursuit of God in everyday life, of heroic virtue seeking Christ in all places!

To the lassies of Christ!  Lang may their lum reek!

Saint of the Week: St. Anthony of Padua (for more than lost keys)

St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) has the unenviable position of being the Patron Saint of Lost Things.  This means that he is chiefly remembered when other things are not, that many people know his name but little about him, and that myriad prayers are sent up to him by people with little or no attachment to the church at large, let alone the Church of Rome, whenever they misplace the car keys.

But who was St. Anthony?  What did he do?  Why should we care?

St. Anthony of Padua was noble-born in Lisbon, Portugal, and joined the Order of Austin Canons at a young age.  However, inspired by the martyrdom of Franciscan missionaries in Morocco and joined the Friars Minor in 1220.  He sailed to Africa to engage in missionary activity there, but was forced to return to Europe due to ill health.  In 1221 he was present at the General Chapter of the Order of Friars Minor at Assisi (remember that St. Francis died in 1226).

St. Anthony became a lector in theology at Bologna, Montpellier, and Toulouse, but is best remembered as a preacher.  In good Franciscan fashion, he drew crowds so large they couldn’t fit in churches.  He preached in the marketplaces, targetting the evils of avarice and usury.  Many heard the Gospel call on their lives through the preaching of St. Anthony and came to true faith in Christ and repentance from their old ways of living.

After a few years, St. Anthony moved to Padua, Italy.  Here, rather than split his time between theology and preaching the Gospel, he devoted his entire time to preaching.  He died at the young age of 36.

Wait.  The Patron Saint of Lost Articles was an evangelist?  He wasn’t a detective or something?

David Hugh Farmer, in The Oxford Dictionary of Saints believes he gained his patronage over Lost Things because a novice once borrowed his psalter without permission, then had “a fearful apparition” that drove him to return it.

Men like St. Anthony are a reminder to Protestants that the Middle Ages were not some godless vacuum full of “superstitions”.  Such a view is entirely untenable.  It is true that once being a Christian became fashionable after 312 and practically necessary after 381, the Church has always had a very large population of “pew-warmers.”  She has, at the best of times, been aware of this.  Thus the evangelists of the Middle Ages, men like St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Cuthbert, and St. Anthony of Padua.

St. Anthony was part of the missionary enterprise both at home and abroad.  He sought to bring the life-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Muslims of Africa.  When health issues sent him back to Europe, he devoted the rest of his life to bringing the Gospel to the masses, to the people of Europe who may not have truly heard the salvific story, many of whom had certainly not yet been convicted in their hearts.

He is worth honouring.  So, the next time you lose something, think of St. Anthony of Padua.  And then think of people you know to whom you could bring the life-bringing news of Jesus Christ.  That is, no doubt, how he would best wish to be remembered.

St. Clare’s Laudable Exchange

This past Tuesday we discussed Simplicity in our small group.  St. Clare of Assisi, friend of St. Francis of Assisi and founder of the Poor Clares, had this to say on the topic to Blessed Agnes of Prague:

What a great laudable exchange:
to leave the things of time for those of eternity,
to choose the things of heaven for the goods of earth,
to receive the hundred-fold in place of one,
and to possess a blessed and eternal life.

I first encountered the Laudable Exchange via that modern Franciscan musician and spiritual father, John Michael Talbot on his album Meditations from Solitude.  Being a big John Michael Talbot fan, I was excited to read the words in the original context, actually aware of St. Clare’s authorship.

This Laudable Exchange is the essence of Simplicity, inward and outward.

The things of time: careers, business, worries, fears, hatreds, loathings, lusts, passions.

The things of eternity: Christ, the Heavens, peace, calm, bliss, justice, equanimity.

The things of time: books, CDs, computers, blogs, extra cloaks, fancy foods.

The things of eternity: abundant life, service, glory, the Spirit, the music of the heavens.

Let us all make the Laudable Exchange ourselves.

The Impact of the Desert Fathers

The Desert Fathers and Mothers have a powerful impact, stretching far beyond the deserts of Egypt.  While I was engaged in my research into John Cassian’s demonology, I wanted to organise my comparative demonologies into “Desert” and “Not-Desert”.  I was advised that, while this was a useful exercise for organisation, the boundaries of the Desert are not so easily defined.

For example, one of my “Not-Desert” sources was St. Augustine of Hippo.  As a source for demonology in relation to John Cassian, he shows us that, if Cassian did not draw ideas directly from the Bishop of Hippo Regius, their western locale informed both men’s writings.  However, to say, “St. Augustine of Hippo is not a Desert influence,” is to ignore the fact that St. Augustine had desert influences upon him, both in his Rule and from St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony.  St. Augustine, in fact, cites the Life of St. Antony as being instrumental in his road to conversion.  The Desert has impacted St. Augustine.

Another man impacted by the Desert whose ideas on spirits resonated with John Cassian’s is St. Gregory of Nyssa.  St. Gregory did not himself spend time in Egypt.  However, his elder brother Basil, who confirmed his ordination to the episcopate in 372, did.  Furthermore, when we think of the interconnectedness of the Eastern Church, we realise as well that both St. Gregory and Evagrius Ponticus were present at the Council of Constantinople in 381, and that Evagrius maintained contact with people outside of Egypt after he retired to the monastery at Nitria (Kellia? I forget).  Who knows what words of Evagrius may have made their way to Nyssa?

By the late 300s, anybody who was anybody had some contact with the Desert Fathers, including St. Jerome who had his own monastery in Bethlehem, where some of the Desert ascetics lived as well, and Rufinus who spent time living amongst the Fathers, and Egeria of the bestselling travelogue.

In the West, Athanasius’ biography of St. Antony was translated by the mid-fourth century and circulated widely (thus St. Augustine’s acquaintance with it).  As well, a collection the Apophthegmata Patrum, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, were made available in Latin by the 500s.  They had a wide circulation, not only with the Life of St. Antony but also with the Lausiac History and Rufinus’ translation of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto — all gathered together, these are called the Vitae Patrum.  Monks all over Western Europe would continue to read these works down to the Renaissance, seeking wisdom for how to live.

In wide circulation as well were John Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences.  These two works had a lasting impact on western spirituality in mediating the Desert tradition as well as much of Evagrius Ponticus’ spiritual wisdom.  For more on the legacy and impact of John Cassian, read my post on the topic.

St. Benedict felt the impact of the Desert as he organised his monastery and Rule.  He recommended that his monks read John Cassian.  Thus did John Cassian’s mediation of the Desert pass into the round of monastic reading alongside the Vitae Patrum.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Desert Fathers would make their impact visible in the Franciscans, in the Augustinians, even amongst the Brethren of the Common Life, being cited by Thomas a Kempis as worthy reading.

In the East, the monasticism of Egypt has continued in unbroken ascetic labour to this day.  Its sister monastic movements, inspired and sprung from the soil of Egyptian toil, exist to this day, living by the same desire for detachment and prayer in Mt. Athos and in the monasteries of Cyprus, Russia, Greece, the Middle East, Ukraine, the Americas.

They were enshrined to be required spiritual reading for all eternity in the Philokalia.

In the contemporary world, the Desert Fathers have impacted Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Benedicta Ward, Richard J. Foster, Christopher A. Hall, and me.

Will they impact you?

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.