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

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El Greco: St Francis and St John the Evangelist

I’ve had this draft sitting here in WordPress for three years with the above title, the content consisting solely of a link to this painting:

8452a8a4b4be891When I saw this painting in the Uffizi, there were some British visitors in the room. One in a wheelchair gestured at the painting, ‘What is that one?’

The pusher of the chair, who had been telling her comrade in wheels about the art, said merely, ‘It’s some man with a cup with a dragon in it.’

And moved on.

Although she did have more to say about a still life somewhere nearby.

She could at least have read the label, which confirmed what I had suspected: St John the Evangelist and St Francis of Assisi, by El Greco.

St John is identifiable by his cup with the dragon in it. The story goes that someone one tried to poison St John, and when the saint blessed his cup before drinking, it cracked and a dragon leapt out. If memory serves correctly, the same thing happened to St Benedict.

Dragons, by the biblical imagery, are representative of the Devil, the demons, and all manner of evil and mischief. So it makes a lot of sense as an image when someone is trying to murder someone else. Also, dragons are originally drakones, which are just big snakes. And snakes in biblical and western imagery and symbolism are tricksy and twisty and not to be trusted. Fitting for someone so wriggly as to murder by poison rather than face-to-face.

I first encountered the St-John-with-his-dragon-in-a-cup image in South Queensferry at the Priory Church:

My photo
My photo

And St Francis is your typical El Greco Franciscan. I do love an El Greco Franciscan. That pictured below was my first, sent to me in a postcard by my friend Emily:

1504grec

I realise that each of us has his/her own pieces that attract us more than others in a gallery, and I shouldn’t be a snob, anyway. But I wished I could have informed my fellow visitors, without being a jerk. But I’m too much of a jerk for that, so I decided to write a blog.

Because I like this painting, and maybe you, gentle reader, will like it, too.

Readily available mediaeval mystics

Angelic Choir by St Hildegard

Carl Trueman, back in 2008, penned a little piece about why evangelicals should read the mediaeval mystics. One of the reasons put forward is the fact that our friends who aren’t Christian but with an interest in spirituality are likely to be probing the mystics who are readily available from publishers such as Penguin as opposed to some obscure or pricey Christian publishing house.

The question arises: Which mystics can you or your friends easily get a hold of without breaking the bank or darkening the door of a theological bookshop? Here are a few, drawing from Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics series. I admit to my knowledge being incomplete; perhaps other popular translations exist!

In chronological order:

The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. Benedicta Ward, published by Penguin. More Late Antique in origin and ascetic in focus, this text is nonetheless one of the streams out of which mediaeval mystical theology and monastic thought flow, although a dense and difficult one.

The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion published by Penguin. When I read St Anselm’s 11th-century meditations, I can’t help but feel there is some element of the mystical to his devotional writings.

The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, published by Penguin. This anthology keeps tantalising me; from it, I have read some of St Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on Song of Songs, one of the most influential texts of mediaeval mysticism that made St Bernard Dante’s guide to the uncreated light and who was regarded by Thomas Merton as the last of the Fathers. Note there is also the volume Selected Works of Bernard of Clairvaux from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics.

Selected Writings of Hildegard von Bingen, published by Penguin. (12th c.) St Hildegard was almost the foundress of mediaeval women mystics in the 1100s, experiencing visions from an early age, and becoming abbess of a Benedictine nunnery. Her Scivias are commentaries upon the visions she had, but she also composed sermons, letters to important men, music, and art.

The Life of Christina of Markyate, published by Oxford. This is the story of a 12th-century woman who maintains her virginity in the face of incredible odds and goes on to become a prioress and have visions from God.

Francis & Clare of Assisi: Selected Writings from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Works from the 13th-century mystic founders of the Franciscan movement, some ascetic, some poetic, some mystical.

The Life of St. Francis by St Bonaventure, from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Bonaventure was himself a mystical theologian, and it is in the stories about St Francis of Assisi that we see the great saint’s life as a mystic most clearly.

Selected Writings of Meister Eckhart, published by Penguin. Meister Eckhart was a 13th/14th-century German mystic who has been recommended to me but of whose work I have read none. I understand that he is deeply profound but some of his ideas were condemned by the Church.

The Cloud of Unknowing, published by Penguin; also available in the series HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. This anonymous English work of the later 14th century is one of the many frequently-cited mystical books I’ve never read but want to …

Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, published by Penguin; also available from Oxford World’s Classics. Julian (14th-15th c) is another major figure amongst women mystics of the Middle Ages of whom I’ve written here before. This book is a mature reflection of a visionary experience Lady Julian experienced in the 1300s.

The Book of Margery Kempe, published by Penguin. Also available from Oxford. Kempe travelled all over Christendom to pilgrimage sites and had some ecstatic visions and dreams in the 14th/15th centuries. Full disclosure: Some people find her annoying.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, published by Penguin. This 15h-century treatise is not, strictly speaking, a mystical work. However, it is one of the most popular works of mediaeval spirituality ever written, and its ascetic bent is an essential pairing to the mystical enterprise.

Of course, many other mediaeval mystics and spiritual theologians have been translated into English, available in series such as The Classics of Western Spirituality or Cistercian Studies, but these are the ones I’ve found from popular publishers at affordable prices available at normal bookshops…

Franciscan devotional art — Where is YOUR focus in life?

Whilst in Rome I took the opportunity to visit Santa Maria della Concezione. This church is famous for its artfully-arranged crypt full of bones — but I’ll get to that later. What was really worth the money and which I greatly appreciated was the Capuchin Museum connected to the church, since Santa Maria della Concezione is, in fact, the Mother House of the entire order of the Cappuccini.

In the Capuchin museum, you learn about the origins of the order and its habit and its mission as well as some famous Capuchin saints. They are called Cappuccini because of their distinctive, pointed hoods, which they believe was precisely how St Francis of Assisi wanted the friars to wear their hoods, capucci. This sort of extreme Franciscanism is precisely where the origins of the Capuchins lie in the 16th century; they wanted to get back to the centre of Francis’ Rule and the dual, beating heart of Franciscan life — the living dichotomy of the hermit who ministers to the poor and sick. Thus, in 1520, this order within the wider Franciscan family was founded.

Amongst the various artefacts within the museum as well as in the church itself were paintings of different Capuchin saints as well St Francis himself — one of them possibly by Caravaggio, certainly influenced by Caravaggio if not his own. What struck me that day as I sat praying in the church (this church — especially the sanctuary — is not on the main tourist trail so it’s actually a quiet place to retreat for a moment or two) was the focus of the saints in the artwork.

Certainly, the focus of the art is the saint. But the saints upon whom these artists focussed were not focussing on themselves. They were not focussing on other saints. Franciscans in artwork are usually focussing upon Christ. Here is the Caravaggio of Saint Francis in prayer:

The saint is placing a skull at the foot of the Cross. This is not a memento mori (on which later) but, rather, a meditation upon the cross of our Lord where our salvation was wrought, where Christ trampled down death by death. I am given to understand that it also somehow signifies the stigmata, although I do not recall how.

I couldn’t find any that I saw at the church, but below is a painting depicting the story of how once, St Felix of Cantalice was at prayer and the BVM handed him Baby Jesus to play with. A bit odd. Possibly silly even — appropriate for successors to the jongleur de Dieu, then. And the focus is still Jesus, who played with St Felix’s beard.

St Felix also spent a lot of time in the traditional Franciscan vocation of preaching, railing against corrupt politicians and calling young men to repentance and to turn away from dissolute lives. But that sort of thing doesn’t make for cute devotional art.

Very often, as in this painting of St Bernard of Corleone below, Capuchins are depicted praying before a crucifix, meditating upon the salvation wrought for us by Christ the God-Man when he died upon the Tree.

Or they are depicted with a rosary. Here, St Seraphin of Montegranaro has a crucifix, a rosary and a skull, so he’s well equipped:

I’m not goint to get into the details of what the Roman Church actually teaches on the rosary, but I will make a few observations. First, it has a crucifix on it. Crucifix = Jesus = Christocentric piety, as we’ve been discussing. Second, as one recites the Hail Mary’s, one is meant to meditate on the Mysteries of Christ’s life. Mysteries = Jesus = Christocentric piety. Third, every ten Hail Marys get a Lord’s Prayer. Lord’s Prayer comes from Jesus, is directed from the Father is Christocentric if not Trinitarian piety. Fourth, and this is why I’ve never used my rosary ‘properly’, since Mary is only esteemed because of her Son, the Hail Mary is itself an act of devotion to Christ. My brain can’t make that transition, but there you have it.

In sum: rosaries = Christocentric piety.

I finish with one final painting from the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione itself. I took this with my phone, so no guarantees of awesomeness here:

2014-05-22 16.03.24

Here we have St Francis being held up by an angel whilst in ecstasy. The emphasis is on meditation, perhaps on mortality, perhaps Christ’s death (hence the skull) — the saint has been transported beyond this world in the spirit, so his body is kept safe by one of the Almighty’s angels. The focus of all Christian meditation is ultimately the Holy Trinity, usually by focussing upon the words, acts, and salvation of Jesus.

What do you focus on? I admit that I am challenged by these paintings. I focus on Anglican controversy. I focus on being clever and solving riddles. I focus on me and what makes me happy or comfortable. The Franciscans challenge us to a better way. Focus instead on the Crucified.

Some other Franciscan stuff on this blog:

Saint of the Week: St Francis of Assisi

St. Francis and Why You Like Him

St Francis of Assisi – with links to various Francis-things I’ve written

St Francis and the monastic impulse

Saint of the Week: St Clare of Assisi

Saint of the Week: St Bonaventure

Saint of the Week: Ramon Llull

The San Damiano Crucifix

Do ‘rules’ and ‘order’ stifle the Spirit?

St Ignatius of Antioch

For my two tutorials this week, the assigned texts for one were about the earliest evidence for church orders, ie. bishops, priests, deacons (and apostles and prophets). The other was about St. Francis of Assisi. Reading these, I’ve been thinking about rules and order and whether they are as stifling as some people say.

For example, the Didache (ca. 90-100) teaches about how to go about baptising people and the Eucharist, and talks about receiving apostles and prophets. Clearly the latter group has some sort of charisma from the Spirit; the point of rules here is to help people discern between false and true prophets. I do not believe this is a way of stifling the Spirit but, rather, practical guidance for people in real situations.

By St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. 117), the ecstatic, charismatic role of the prophet seems to have melded with that of the local bishop — at least in Ignatius’ case. He asserts his authority through stating he has been given certain knowledge in a vision. This prophetic episcopal role will persist, as visible in St. Cyprian of Carthage’s statements regarding his own visions and dreams from the Spirit in the mid-200s. The Spirit has chosen to work with the people in the episcopal hierarchy — this is an observation regardless of whether or not episcopal hierarchy is the best way to run a church. The Spirit will blow wherever he pleases.

The bishop, the hierarchy, seem to be taking on the role of mediating the gifts of the Spirit to the people. Unfortunately, the only evidence I know of for this period of lay charisma is Montanism (discussed here), which the hierarchy branded as heretical. So perhaps the hierarchy was stifling the Spirit somewhat — although, if we take Cyprian and Ignatius at their word, the Spirit seems to have got around the issue and is still communiting the Divine Will to the Church through the members of the hierarchy.

And just when we think this state of affairs may solidify in the fourth century, the monastic movement begins — lay people outside of the official hierarchy of the Church claim direct access to God and special knowledge and mystical experiences. This potentially unstable element does not start to be tamed until the Early Middle Ages, after Benedict, and in the Carolingian age when Benedict’s Rule (discussed here) is used to regularise Western European monasticism.

And so we have entered that long, large, and largely passed-over middle half of Christian history. Did the mediaeval hierarchy with its various developments, its liturgies, its monasteries, its canon law — in all their various manifestations throughout the centuries and places of Western Europe — stifle the movement and action of the Holy Spirit? St. Hildegard, St. Bernard, readers of Dionysius, Lady Julian, St. Catherine of Siena, the miracle-workers of visionaries of insular Christianity (vs. the tendentious romance of ‘Celtic Christianity’), seem to say to me no.

Let us look at St. Francis of Assisi.

Talk about someone with rules. Rules about what you eat and when, what you pray and when, how you get your food, how you deal with money (don’t), about preaching and working and so on and so forth.

But look at the sheer whimsy of the man. Running off to become a hermit. Rebuilding San Damiano and Santa Maria di Portincula because of a vision. Singing songs of love to God in the streets. Abruptly preaching to birds, leaving his companions on the roadside. Abruptly leaving his companions on the road when he went to pray on an island for 40 days. Jumping off the dock to catch a boat to Syria. Climbing Assisi’s church steeple to ring the bell so the Assisians could enjoy the beauty of Sister Moon.

Blown by the Spirit, indeed.

But Francis respected the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the Pope, the priests, the Eucharist, all of that sort of thing. His was not an anti-clerical revolution. His charisma and openness to the the movement of the Spirit was not in opposition to how things were meant to be ordered — although undoubtedly opposed to how things often operated.

We must not mistake anti-clericalism for ‘openness to the Spirit’ and a desire for order for ‘stifling the Spirit.’ If the Third Person of the Trinity truly blows where (s)he wills, then it is not a matter of how we order our churches but a matter of our hearts. Are we open for the next adventure, even if that adventure is the mundane task of growing vegetables in the monastery garden? Or if the adventure is cleaning a leper? Or if the adventure is preaching yet another sermon on the magnificent love of God to a congregation who couldn’t care less? Or if the adventure is running off to be a missionary in Morocco?

If God pervades everything, our openness to his Spirit is not dependent upon our Church structures — be they allegedly anarchist or congregationalist or episcopal or presbyterian — but upon our hearts and those of our leaders. Same goes for Sunday morning worship.

St Francis and the Monastic Impulse

St Francis and Brother Rufus, by El Greco

Today is the feast of St Francis of Assisi. I have been a fan of St Francis since ever I learned of him, and have read The Little Flowers of St Francis, G K Chesterton’s St Francis of Assisi, John Michael Talbot’s The Lessons of St Francis, and Ian Morgan Cron’s Chasing Francis (my wee review here).*

Last night after Bible study, I was talking about my tutorial for tomorrow with one of the guys, a tutorial about the Desert Father St Antony of Egypt (saint of the week here). Like many evangelicals, my friend sees no appeal in monasticism, rightly (I believe) criticising the all-too-frequent tendency in monastic or eremitic circles to cut oneself off from the rest of the world that the commandments of Christ to make disciples cannot be fulfilled.

I, however, tend to find the monastic call somewhat appealing — certainly the ascetic/mystical call. When we look at St Francis (as at Antony), we see someone who took up the ascetic life out of a desire to live in radical obedience to Jesus. He gave away his very clothes so as not to be beholden to his earthly father, declaring to his local bishop that he now had only God for his Father!

And what does Francis do? He goes and rebuilds a local church. And then he gathers a band of fellow jongleurs de Dieu. And what do they do? They go around getting into all sorts of trouble and preaching the Good News of Christ.

This is the monastic impulse as it should be, I think. The single-minded devotion to Christ that we find in ascetics from Antony of Egypt to Benedict of Nursia (saint of the week here and here) to Bernard of Clairvaux (saint of the week here) is present in St Francis of Assisi. He abandons the life of a warrior or of a middle-class merchant with wealth. Rather than giving the regulated, required tithe to the poor, he gives all to the poor and joins their ranks, out of obedience to Christ’s call to give all your possessions to the poor.

St Francis spent hours and days and months in prayer, once going off to an island spontaneously and spending all of Lent on it praying. This is the monastic impulse at work. But St Francis takes this single-mindedness and turns it outward to the suffering world around him.

Francis doesn’t shut himself away in a cave or the thick walls of an Italian monastery. He goes out into the world, preaching the Gospel of Christ, working to save souls. This is the monastic impulse as it should be directed, I think. He engages in the usual ascetic practices of dietary restriction, prayer, and poverty, but he spends his days in the marketplaces of Italy, telling people the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, calling them to repentance.

The Franciscan friary — their equivalent of a monastery — is meant to be a stop along the way, a place for refreshment both physical and spiritual before going back out into the hostile world and engaging in the true mission of Francis: winning souls for Christ.

It all sounds terribly evangelical, doesn’t it?

*Also, I’ve written these blog posts: St Francis and Why You Like Him; The San Damiano Crucifix; Saint of the Week: St Francis; St. Francis of Assisi; What to Do with the Canticle of Brother Sun; and St Clare’s Laudable Exchange.

Chasing Francis

Re-post from elsewhere in 2008

I just finished reading Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron (as in, within the past hour). It is sending me back into my intense fire for St. Francis (I affectionately call him “Frank”), and with Francis, seeking to fall madly in love with Jesus himself.

I recommend this book. Cron is a first-time novelist; his main job is serving as an Anglican priest in the USA. And while this book may not be one of those masterpieces of English literature with phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that stun you with their beauty or that you want to read aloud as they trickle into your brain, inundating your senses, overwhelming your universe, it has a profundity of a different sort. One of the impressive aspects of the book was when it read as though it were a real pilgrim telling the tale.

But I don’t think Cron was trying to write the Great Twenty-first-Century Novel. He wanted to introduce people to St. Francis, and why God’s Jester (Jongleur de Dieu) is as important and cool and relevant to us in our situation today as he was in the 1200′s.

And Frank is cool.

This is the guy who danced when he met the pope, he was so excited. This is a man who was so serious about peacemaking that he walked into a Muslim city besieged by Crusaders to gain an audience with the Caliph! A bit extreme, but real, genuine, powerful.

When St. Frank preached, he didn’t want merely to produce scholasticism and dry knowledge, dead to lie dormant in the crypt of the mind. He want to blazon the Living Reality of Jesus forth into peoples lives, into their hearts. So he put on the world’s first-ever living Nativity scene. His friars would do crazy, silly stuff, like spit coins out of their mouths into animal dung. If discourse failed, then he would sing. Indeed, this jongleur would take up sticks and pretend he was playing the viol as he danced through the streets singing the songs of the extravagant love of God for a fallen yet beautiful world.

The Canticle of Brother Sun, a version of which I posted as a weekly poem here, is the first recorded poem in the Italian vernacular. The arts remind us of Beauty and the grace of the One who created Beauty, Who transcends all and imbues it with His life, love, and power. The arts can draw us into a world of mystery and mysticism that Lee Strobel never can.

And God, despite the fact that He has chosen to reveal Himself to us, is a vast, beautiful, intensely powerful Mystery. He invites us to enter into the Mystery of Him (this is what mysteries are to be done with), to join in the intimate, ecstatic dance of the Three-in-One, as Father, Son, and Spirit sing the universe into existence.

The world of mystery with a God of power who is also love and holiness and justice and who gives us peace and calls us to care for His good creation — this is an exciting place to live.

And St. Francis wants to draw us into it.

As someone who is part of a church on the verge of explosion, rupture, disintegration, conflagration, and institutional ruin, Francis is calling.

And when I hear his call, there is inevitably another Call, and it is sometimes louder, sometimes gentler than Frank’s.

Listen God is calling,
Through the Word inviting,
Offering forgiveness, comfort, and joy.
An African praise song we sing at Graduate Christian Fellowship