At a Franciscan Enquiry Day [September 2, 2017], I introduced some of the colourful personalities who were the founders of the Third Order using this presentation:
Isabelle of France used her position as a royal princess, and sister to King Louis IX, to realise a specifically Franciscan vision by establishing a house for women at Longchamp near Paris.
The Lady Isabelle lived from 1225 to 1270. She most probably remained a laywoman until her death, but resided in a house on the grounds of Longchamp as the foundress and lay patron of the convent.
Like her brother Louis, she was always a devout person. Both Louis and one of her ladies-in-waiting tell of her as a child deep in her devotions under the bedclothes and being gathered up with the laundry.
As king, Louis surrounded himself with a mixture of mendicants and Cistercians. His confessor was a Dominican. Isabelle, on the other hand, was thoroughly Franciscan. Her advisers were Franciscans, and included Bonaventure, the Brothers’ seventh Minister-General.
She gathered Bonaventure and other worthy Franciscans to help plan Longchamp and to assist in writing its Rule. The official name of the house was The Humility of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Isabelle wanted the sisters to be called “Lesser Sisters” (Sorores Minores), to parallel the Lesser Brothers (Fratres Minores), but the Vatican had banned this terminology. Isabelle successfully used her political skill not only to gain the title for her Sisters in the second revision of the Rule, but also to have her Rule approved for other houses.
The Longchamp model of Lesser Sisters spread through France, Belgium, Italy, Spain and England, and were the most numerous of the Franciscan houses for women, being destroyed in France only by the Revolution and in England by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
As well as her active political work in founding Longchamp, Isabelle was a model of Christian faith and devotion. Like her brother King Louis, she was told to moderate her discipline, and by our standards her prayer-regime was extreme. Her contemporaries, however, came to see her as a healer and miracle-worker.
No doubt she organised her life so that Longchamp would become a place of pilgrimage with her body as a locus of power and healing, but there are no reasons to doubt her sincerity that this was God’s will for her and the House she founded.
As a Franciscan, her central insight into Francis was that the key to Christianity is the way of littleness. Humility, not poverty is the foundation on which to build Franciscan spirituality. Whether you are born to the highest station in the land or the least, serving God is putting the Other – and others – before self.
Her adviser, Brother Gilbert of Tournai OFM, taught her that desire for God would bring a “burning desire carrying one into the loved one, entering and penetrating and going over into the loved one itself.” Losing oneself in God is part of the way of littleness leading to ultimate recognition that all creation is a path back to God.
Isabelle of France may not have joined other Franciscan women Elizabeth of Hungary or Agnes of Prague, or even her brother Louis IX, as a Saint of the Church, but she is blessed because she enabled many others to find the way of littleness that lead them to God.
Questions for mulling over or discussion:
Isabelle’s story is told in Sean L. Field, Isabelle of France: Capetian Sanctity and Franciscan Identity in the Thirteenth Century, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. [Capet was the family name of Isabelle and Louis, hence ‘Capetian Sanctity’.]
(Unauthorised) Proper Preface for the Feast of St Clare of Assisi
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
All glory and honour to you, O Christ,
for in your face we see mirrored the Father,
and in your love we are embraced by the Creator of all.
You are the Word sent forth by the Father to make stars and planets,
atoms and diatoms, quokkas and humans,
and all the wonderful diversity of life.
We thank you for Saint Clare who focuses our hearts in quiet gratitude.
We thank you, Christ, for your obedience to the Father, obedience to death, even death on a cross.
In the life of Clare also, we trace the grace of obedience and enduring love.
And so with all the mysterious beings of heaven, with angels and archangels, with saints in heaven and saints on earth,
with Clare and her holy Sisters,
with men and women gathered around your altar with us,
we praise you and we glorify you, saying,
Holy, holy, holy, Lord…
Brother Clark Berge SSF, The Vows Book: Anglican Teaching on the Vows of Obedience, Poverty and Chastity, CreateSpace 2014, 142 pages. (from $AUD 18.20 online)
Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf
[Published in Anglican Messenger April 2014]
The late Abbot of New Norcia Dom Placid Spearritt OSB once claimed that Franciscans invented the idea of ‘vows’: Benedictines, he said, only had ‘promises’. I don’t know enough history or canon law to evaluate Abbot Placid’s statement, but as a Franciscan, I take the point that we should treat our promises with the least complication we can. Let our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no”. (see Mt 5:37)
Brother Clark Berge, currently Minister General of the Society of Saint Francis, explores what it means to be a vowed person. All of us are vowed persons, as promises were made in our baptisms, and The Vows Book speaks to all Christians about the discipline and constraints inherent in following Christ. ‘The vows protect in us deep down the courage and strength to live for God,’ Br Clark writes, ‘to help God create a world we want to live in, a world of love.’
Vowed persons are counter-cultural. We have promised to make the world a different place than it is now. For those called to ‘give their lives to God in a special way’ as brothers and sisters in religious orders, the vows of obedience, poverty and chastity structure their lives to have the freedom to tell out the Good News.
Obedience means listening – listening to the Scriptures, to the Founders, to each other, to one’s inner voice and to nature. It means living as a responsible adult. Poverty is a free choice to follow Christ in a sharing lifestyle clarifying one’s social vision and helping those who are poor not through choice.
For members of religious orders like SSF chastity implies celibacy, which sets brothers and sisters free to love in new ways without the ties of family. Brother Clark is brutally honest about the difficulties of celibacy and gives practical advice on what to do with ‘sexy thoughts’.
Br Clark has printed his book in long thin columns. Each line of text has three or four words only in the style of the Catholic Workers’ Peter Maurin’s Easy Essays, making his ideas accessible to all members of the Society who have a very wide range of educational levels.
Br Clark’s ideas are also profitable for Tertiaries, as we too are vowed people, promising obedience, poverty and chastity as appropriate for our life-situation. He challenges us to use our promises as a framework to follow Jesus more closely, to find more joy in our life in Christ and to find more freedom in telling the Good News. These Franciscan values are ours too, and while our life-situations are not the same as the brothers and sisters of the First Order, our call to be Christ-like is.
It is challenging to be reminded to be responsible adults in listening to the wisdom of those around us and so learning to be more mature in our obedience. When we have so much materially our vow of poverty should cause us difficulty, and Br Clark asks us to re-consider if we are serious about sharing our resources with the whole community. Do I have the purity of heart I promised in my vow of chastity and what impact does that purity have on my ability to love as Christ would have me love?
Br Clark’s teaching about the vows may have started from his life-situation as a brother, but his wisdom, simplicity and depth is for all of us.
The Vows Book has a Foreword by Archbishop Roger Herft AM, Bishop Protector General of the Society of St Francis and the cover is graced by one of Br Clark’s own paintings, a reflection inspired by the words of Ephrem the Syrian on baptism. Br Clark’s book will help us say our ‘Yes’ with greater conviction and with joy and simplicity. It will help us bring our promises to life.
Jacopone da Tode
Lauda LX – Holy Poverty and the Third Heaven
Love of poverty, realm of peace!
Poverty, secure life with no grief, no rancour,
with no fear from robbers nor from storms!
Poverty dies in peace, makes no will,
leaves the world as clean as an arrow,
and leaves people in harmony.
It needs no judge nor notary
owes no fees to court,
laughs at the greedy man
who stands in so much anxiety.
Poverty, high wisdom, subject to nothing,
despises possessing, yet possesses
every created thing.
Those who despise possessions
possess without offense to themselves,
nothing a trap for their foot
as they face their days.
Those who are possessed by self
have sold themselves to that which they love:
if they think they have gained,
they have gained damaged goods.
So pernicious courage can enter into slavery,
the image of God, its grace, sullied by emptiness.
God does not dwell in narrow hearts,
the larger the heart
the greater the desire for God –
poverty has such a great heart
that Deity dwells there.
Poverty is hidden by heaven
from those darkened on earth;
those who have entered the third heaven
hear the mysterious deeps.
The first heaven is the sky,
stripped of every honour,
offers the great obstacle
in finding security.
To make honour die in you,
you must abandon riches,
and flee reputation of holiness.
Riches rob you of time,
Knowledge is blown away in the wind,
Reputation breeds hypocrisy
and sticks with every deposition.
Steady in the starry sky
are those who are stripped of all three.
Look – another heaven behind the veil,
clear and sturdy.
Four winds stir the sea
and disturb the mind –
fear and hope,
grief and joy.
These four strip away
more than riches, reputation or learning.
So I say, contradicting
those without spiritual capacity.
You need not have fear of hell
nor hope for heaven,
nothing should make you rejoice
or make you grieve for adversity.
Righteousness does not come through these,
since these hold you outside of it;
Completely cloaked righteousness holds you
and heals your failings.
If righteousness is without covering,
and vices are clothed,
mortal blows are given
and wounded on earth you will stay.
When the vices are dead,
and righteousness restored,
you will be strengthened in God’s company,
in every way protected.
The third heaven is the highest,
it has no bounds or measures,
all fantasy terminated.
All good has been stripped from you,
divested of all righteousness,
treasure the bargain
of your own shame.
This heaven is built strong,
founded on a nothing,
where purified love
lives in truth.
Since what appears to be the case to you is not,
because it is so much higher than it is,
pride in this heaven
damns itself to humility.
Between righteousness and action
many are mocked as “mad”,
as long as they think they are well served
they remain on earth separated from God.
This heaven has no name,
the tongue tries to say
where love is in prison
and light is in darkness.
All light is darkness,
and all darkness is day,
the new philosophy
has consumed the old wineskins.
There where Christ is grafted,
and the old wood is pruned,
one is transformed into the other
in wondrous unity.
Love lives without desire
and wisdom without intellect,
the will, chosen by God
to do his will.
I live and yet not I,
and my being is not my being,
this is so cross-wise,
that it cannot be circumscribed.
Poverty has nothing
and can desire nothing;
and yet possesses everything
in the spirit of liberty.
– Translation Ted Witham 2013
It is clear from the New Testament that Jesus valued animals. He commended animal-owners for pulling their oxen out of a well even on the Sabbath. He noticed dogs playing around the table of the foreign woman. The story below comes from the Coptic tradition. It is historically true? Probably not. But it does encourage us to see Jesus as concerned for all of the Father’s Creation.
Jesus and the Mule
They came across a man with a pack-mule. But the animal had fallen because its load was too heavy, and the owner beat it so much it started bleeding. So Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, why are you beating your animal? Can’t you see that it is not strong enough for its load, and don’t you know that it feels pain?’
But the man replied, ‘What is that to you? I can beat it as much as I want to, because it is my property and I paid a lot of money for it.’ …
But the Lord said, ‘Can’t you see it bleeding? Can’t you hear its cries of pain? ‘
But he said, ‘No. Can’t hear a thing.’
And the Lord was sad and exclaimed, ‘That’s bad news, that you can’t hear it complaining to its Creator in heaven, and crying to you for mercy. Very bad news for those it complains about in its distress.’ And the Lord touched the animal. It got up – its wounds healed!
Jesus then said to its owner, ‘Now carry on your way and don’t beat the animal anymore, so that you too will find mercy.’
– Roderic Dunkerley, Beyond the Gospels, London: Pelican, 1957, 143-144 (Quoted in Hobgood-Oster, The Friends We Keep, 108-109, and rendered into modern English by Ted Witham
On the Day of Penitence 2013, I asked the question again, “Why did Francis of Assisi call us The Brothers and Sisters of Penance/Penitence?” In St Francis’ mind, what is penance, and how do we live up to the name? Aren’t we, as Franciscans, living a life of joy? Does penance have anything to do with joy – and humility and love?
I tried to answer these questions in the slide presentation here: Penance – both ways
As she lay dying, St Clare of Assisi spoke to herself:
“Go securely and in peace, my blessed soul. The One who created you and made you holy has always loved you tenderly as a mother her dear child. And you, Lord, are blessed because You have created me.”
Legend of St Clare in Regis J. Armstrong, Clare of Assisi – The Lady: Early Documents, New City Press, 2006, 46.
Re-posted from Mind Journeys at https://tedwitham.wordpress.com/2013/01/18/the-last-words-of-clare-of-assisi/
A petition organized by the Australian Christian Lobby can be found at www.australianmarriage.org.
The view on that website is clearly against legislating for gay marriage, and this view point is presented by some homosexual Christians as well as a broad range of (presumably) heterosexual Christians.
The Australian Marriage website does not present the argument for gay marriage. There are, however, Christians who support gay marriage and equally deserve a voice. I know Franciscan Tertiaries whose children are married to same sex partners. I know Tertiaries who wish they could marry their same sex partner. I know also that for some Tertiaries, mine will be a challenging viewpoint: let’s argue the case with respect and love!
If you wish to send a message to the ALP delegates in favour of gay marriage, you may wish to make use of the points below. Send your letter to your local ALP branch, to your local member if she or he is ALP, or to the ALP Senators in your State or Territory.
Some thoughts on gay marriage from a Christian perspective
Christians who support gay marriage agree with the secular arguments that to oppose gay marriage is discriminatory and that all civil rights should be extended to people who are not heterosexual.
However, as Christians, they also argue from Genesis 2 for gay marriage. It is clear in Genesis 2 that the man (Adam) is seeking intimacy and companionship and finds that with the woman who is created from him. Heterosexual marriages are normal and usual! But it is not then necessary to assume that gays are excluded from marriage as Genesis 2 describes it. A woman can find intimacy and companionship with another woman in ‘flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone’ relationship, and surely find it blessed by God.
St Paul in Galatians 3:28 makes a strong case that ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ Quite clearly, Paul does not mean that in Christ the distinctions are meaningless; there continue to be Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, and males and females. The point he is stressing is that these categories are not important ‘in Christ’: at some levels, it doesn’t matter to Christ whether you are male or female. This is a radical teaching, asking us not to be so accepting of socially constructed roles that we stop seeing the basic humanity of people. In a relationship, it is not your sex that counts. It is your ability to give and receive love. It doesn’t matter in Christ whether your partner is male or female.
In Ephesians 5:24-30, Paul carefully outlines the connection between marriage – the love of spouse for spouse – and the love of Christ for the Church; Christ as bridegroom, Church as bride. In the Anglican prayer book tradition this is given as the first reason for marriage . It has a sacramental import. The first aspect is that the love Christ has for the Church empowers the married couple. Their love derives from His. The second aspect is that marriage then becomes a picture of Christ’s love for the Church. When you look at a married couple, you see Christ’s love illustrated plain.
In real life, we see gay marriages which are strong and tender and are pictures of Christ’s love for the Church. It is difficult to argue that the love expressed in these gay marriages is not provided by Christ. Where else would such love come from? Why are these relationships less illustrative of God’s love than some fragile heterosexual marriage?
For these and other reasons, I as a Christian support gay marriage.
Eugene Rogers’s Christian Century article is helpful in exploring these arguments.
My heart in my mouth I set off to meet Wolf.
He filled me with fear. He was Other.
I walked dark into the forest, so deeply looking
That at first I failed to see this Brother.
He appeared to be slinking around a tree.
In shadow, he looked all grey and black.
His eyes though lighted were lifeless,
And I froze, my feet bare on the mountain track.
I stared at the terrible empty eyes.
Brother Wolf still as a stone about to slide.
My eyes entered his and the space between melted.
We became one: my eyes and heart in Wolf’s inside.
He swallowed me whole. Yet I possessed him too.
Confused our hunger for love and humanity.
Crossed our praise of power in life and death.
Gubbio lay below in its simple vulnerability.
We stayed like that for time and a time,
Then slowly, gently in two came apart;
The same, yet different than before.
I burning with hunger and he humbled in heart.
I led him back like a lamb to the village.
Aflame, I rebuked him with voice and with prod.
“Share, show respect, live in harmony.”
The villagers rejoiced. I devoured God.
Ted Witham © 1996
I wrote this poem in 1996, but lately I have been thinking again about the paradoxes of redemption: wolves and food, need and encounter come to mind again in this telling of the story of the events near Gubbio.
Published in Assisi, New York, Fall 2011, Spring 2012