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:
(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
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/
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
SERMON FOR PROFESSIONS, NOVICING AND RENEWAL,
Western Australia Region, AD 2011
by Ted Witham tssf
A wonderful word in the New Testament is ‘homologia’, which means ‘profession’. In Hebrews 10:23, we are urged to ‘hold fast to the profession of our hope without wavering, because the One who promised is faithful.’ Earlier in Hebrews in 4:14, ‘Having then a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold tightly to our profession.’
Today some of our number come to make Profession, and others of us will renew our Profession. We note that it is Profession of hope, and that Jesus, the Son of God, empowers us to make this Profession.
In the three centuries following the death and resurrection of Jesus, there was an extraordinary process for new believers who wanted to make the great Profession that they had been filled with the resurrection faith. They underwent a two or three year preparation called the catechumenate, which involved learning about the faith, attending the Eucharist up until the Offertory, and being mentored by another Christian into works of charity. When Easter came after two or three years, the catechumens made their great Profession, their ‘homologia’ during their baptism by immersion in a great ceremony. They went down into the font naked (or dressed in a loin cloth) and were robed in white when they came up out of the waters.
I promise you that the Profession you make does not involve immersion baptism or even near nudity. And of course you have made your great Profession in your baptism and confirmation. Profession as a Tertiary does not replace baptism, but in it you effectively renew your baptismal promises. Listen to the words you will say:
I, N., give myself to our Lord Jesus Christ, to serve him for the rest of my life in company with my brothers and sisters in the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis, seeking to spread the knowledge and love of Christ, to promote the spirit of love and harmony as the family of God and to live joyfully a life of simplicity and humble service after the example of Saint Francis.
A big Profession indeed; a public statement of an earnest and passionate response to a call from God.
Don’t under-estimate the power of this renewal. A friend of ours years ago had a charismatic experience, and he asked his fairly conservative parish priest if he could be baptised again. The priest answered, correctly, ‘No.’ And our friend kept asking. The priest could not give any other answer. Then the parish had its first Easter Vigil including the renewal of baptismal vows. Our friend was ecstatic, “It’s happened, it’s happened!” he shouted excitedly, “I’ve been baptised again.”
I hope that your great Profession this morning captures some of that same excitement.
The preparation for your Profession has been similar to the catechumenate. You have met for two or three years with a mentor. The Novice Counsellor has helped you reflect on this Franciscan way. She or he invited you to find ways of expressing Franciscan spirituality in prayer and action.
The catechumenate has a number of other characteristics worth mentioning. One was that if catechumens were martyred before they were baptised, they were considered to have been baptised in their blood. It is my personal belief (not in the statutes at all!) that Novices who die should be considered full Tertiaries, but in any case, the comparison expresses something that your Profession says about the claim that Christ is making on your life and death and beyond.
Catechumens were also kept from the mysteries of the Eucharist, until the night of their baptism, when they received their First Communion. Then in the months after Easter they continued their learning about the Christian faith. Now it was no longer called the catechumenate, but the mystagogy – the teaching about the mysteries.
You who will be make your great Profession in a few moments will also continue to meet with your Novice Counsellor for another 12 months to reflect more deeply on what it is to be a Franciscan Christian. This will be your mystagogy – although I doubt anyone will actually call it that. There are no secrets to learn, as there were for the catechumens in the Early Church – sorry about that – but it is a reminder that the Franciscan Way is not something to be learned in a few months or a couple of short years. You will continue to discover depths in it as you walk in it.
Rae and I were professed 28 years ago. We were seeking an expression of community in our Christian way, and we began as Franciscans by seeking out people. But our mystagogy has included falling in love with Francis and Clare and many other Franciscan saints. For me in particular, as one who enjoys theology, it has been a joy to discover the Franciscan intellectual tradition from Bonaventure to Duns Scotus to Ilia Delio.
But you will discover different things than I have, maybe new depths in social activism; maybe new courage for evangelism; maybe new springs for community – they are all there to discover following the great Profession.
So remember how the writer encouraged the Hebrews:
• Firstly, to make the great Profession in hope, in Christian hope, in the great hope that there always lies before us more joy, more love, more delight in trusting than we have experienced so far; and
• Secondly, that Jesus, the Son of God, our great High Priest is both the energy and the destination of our Christian life.
Your great Profession is that Jesus will always empower you as you seek to serve him in love, humility and joy.
Francis and the Leper
A Reflection by Brother William SSF
Dear God, What did I do?
What strange desire
What grim disorder of my youthful mind;
What shameful and unnatural inclination;
What evil demon, seeking wayward souls
have I encountered –
Jesus am I mad?
Or did I really see your countenance
disturbingly revealed in this poor beggar?
Perhaps it was not such a blasphemy
to see such beauty in that loathsome thing;
to think that I saw my Heart’s Love in that face …
I think I hear a voice speak to my heart
strong and serene, tender and full of love;
Blessed are you, the poor, despised, neglected;
Blessed are you, the outcast and the scorned,
Blssed are you whose lives are fraught with sorrow;
You are the deepest treasures of my heart.
From Poverello: St Francis of Assisi, A saint for our times.
Before I start criticising the practice of blessing animals, let me confess that I have blessed animals, and would do so again. In fact for a couple of years, Tom Sutton of Subiaco Parish in Perth invited me, along with other Franciscans and other priests to a great outdoor animal blessing.
There is a picture of me blessing a great St Bernard, and it was a delight to make friends with this gentle creature.
This jamboree was stopped only because a certain dog food manufacturer was a sponsor and took advantage of this event. It took it over by emblazoning its name on every object and dog parade and snail race in sight.
Fr Tom rightly believed that such rampant capitalism was at odds with the spirit of animal blessing.
But as a Franciscan I do feel ambivalent about blessing animals. Not that I have any theological problem with asking for God’s blessing on either pets or wild animals. Our blessing simply confirms the reality is that God has already blessed creation. See Genesis 1.
Nor do I mind the chaos that can be caused by creatures great and small in a little church with God’s people trying to celebrate the Eucharist with devotion.
My problem, I think, is twofold. Firstly, blessing animals can become a sentimental act. “Isn’t it nice? Isn’t it lovely?” If an animal blessing is organised only to evoke superficial sentiments, then it is a dangerous waste of time. If an animal blessing is organised only to delight children, then it is a diversion from reality.
Secondly, blessing animals can easily turn companion animals into possessions rather than being seen as God’s gifts to us. The attitude that our pets are simply a convenience can easily lead to neglect and abuse, but even before it gets to that stage, this attitude diminishes us, making us, consumers of animals’ services, rather than their grateful friends. (Click HERE for an RSPCA view of pet ownership.)
What Franciscans can do is to encourage people to think carefully about our relationship with animals. Saint Francis believed that each creature is a Word of God. In our encounter with an animal, St Francis encourages us to allow that animal to disclose its story to us. The animal is not there simply for our unfettered use, but is a fellow-creature put on this earth to share existence with us and to join our praise of the Most High Creator.
Our pets are our companions, not our slaves.
And do we bless the animals that give food, are food for us? Much has been written about the distance between us urban dwellers and the milk and meat that we enjoy. If we bless our pets, then we should equally bless the animals that nurture us. We should be prepared to ask whether the cost of being a meat-eater is too high. Dr Rajendra Pachauri Chair of the IPCC spoke of the positive environmental impact of eating one less meat meal each week. (Click HERE to read his comments).
Wild animals are a blessing, too, although I suspect it’s impossible to catch a blue wren or an Oenpelli python to lay hands on and pronounce a blessing over it!
So my plea is a Franciscan is, if we are to bless animals, then let’s do it with thorough thought and prayer, and not just as a liturgical stunt. But no one would do that, would they?