“The truth about living in the universe is elusive, exciting, and mysterious, and it is in the pursuit of mystery that we find all that is worth having, including ourselves” (1)
- Moyra Caldecott Women in Celtic Myth (1992)
Friday was the feast of Saint Francis. Today, as I walked in the woods and experienced the Autumnwood coming to realization, I remembered walking with Francis, imaginatively, as my guide and friend for several years in the late 1980’s, when I was fast approaching the threshold of my Poet’s vocation. Last night I remembered that last December I was reading Murray Bodo’s The Journey and the Dream; a book that I had first received as a gift from a Franciscan sister in 1988, and which I received as a gift again last Fall, again from a Franciscan sister. The more recent giver did not know I had read the book before; she thought it a fit exchange for something I was offering her. But I’d read this book before, and it became one of those fecund guides for my spiritual footsteps for the next three or four years, from the late 1980’s until the early 1990’s.
I’d long been attracted to Francis. I first heard of him when I was in High School in the early 1970’s, but never found out anything much about him, except that he was a ‘Nature Mystic.’ I saw him as loving being out in Nature, with birds flying about him and animals befriending him; just as I saw some of the Pagan gods I admired at that time. Like Augustine, he was someone with whom I related at a deep level. I understood their experience; if primarily intuitively. Through my re-reading of The Journey and the Dream last Yule, I witnessed once again the hermeneutic of conversion in the guise of the mediaeval trope of “rejection of the world,” and found myself moving beyond the symbolism and implied significance of Francis’ story to a more naturalistic understanding of what happened to Francis and to so many people like him—myself included. Today, as I walked familiar woodland paths, inwardly and outwardly, I met Francis again and again at crossroads and down in the vale near the Bridge of Meditation.
When I re-read The Journey and the Dream last December, I was immediately drawn into the narrative – as into the company of an old friend – from the first time I opened it and re-met the old familiar sentences. You know that feeling when you encounter an old friend again, and there is that immediate connection? That is what I felt. When I came to the chapter on Francis’ sojourn in the cave; his experiences there and his struggle to become his truest self—I stopped and fell into a deep and sustained meditation, listening as I descended and rose again to a new disc by Stile Antico called Puer Natus Est. I then realized my affinity for Francis; for in reading this text I was hearing an existential tale—a story of self-discovery and self-realization, and I found myself wanting to read more on caves, as they symbolize the path of descent into the Center of Divine Darkness.
I have actually visited caves and studied their geology since I first read Bodo’s excellent bio of Francis, and I was really ‘in’ the story when he talked of Francis venturing deep into the cave and finding himself lost of light. I was ‘in’ it, experientially; I have memories of being in caves (commercial ones, at least), being alone and having the lights switched off. As I read Francis’ story, I felt as though I had entered a cave myself; my own Internal Nemeton – but from a different entry point than I usually use. I sat still, in a meditative suspension I did not seek, and it was a few minutes before I could go on reading.
Then, when Bodo described Francis’ experience of “falling into a cavern” and being encountered there by his ‘Lady,’ I realized this book was probably one of the sources for my own idea of the “Internal Cavern” and the “Cave of the Heart.” I understood Francis, clearly, as a young man seeking direction in life and coming to a fulcrum of self-realization and personal revelation_ as I had been. There need have been nothing supernatural about his experience at all. The kind of dreams he had are a common phenomenon amongst meditative seekers of wisdom, and the visions and voices he saw and heard could well have been the natural result of light deprivation and perhaps even the inhalation of fumes in the cave. Seeing this, however, does not diminish the import of his experiences; it merely serves to ground it in a non-supernaturalist way.
As I progressed through the text, I found myself reading a highly symbolic testimony to the moment of self-transformation and self-realization that defined the rest of Francis’ short life. That this moment is framed in Christian symbolism is accidental to who he was and where and when he lived; but the psychological process is familiar to anyone who has gone through it_ I recognized every step! This new understanding of the symbolic and psychological nature of the experience was aided by the fact that Bodo – though a devout Franciscan – did not write a ‘pious’ account of Francis—at least in the early chapters it was not (though it became somewhat more so further along). The book read like fantasy fiction!
Francis’ ‘Lady’ was obviously (to me, now) a manifestation of the Transcendent in the Immanent. She was a mirror – like the Moon – of the light of the Higher Self. Francis’ Lady – who comes to be known as Lady Poverty – is a manifestation of his Higher Self coming through into his present existential state. It is a ‘seeing through the veil’ to what he could be. She was not characterized as Mary or the Holy Spirit; and I don’t remember if Francis ever tried to ‘type’ Lady Poverty as an ‘angel’ or some other manifestation of the Triune God. She was, however, clearly ‘coming to him’ as a manifestation of his own psyche.
But alas, as it sometimes goes with old friends who meet again after a long time, dialogue opens each one up to the other, and they find they are perhaps not who they once were, each for the other_
One of the biggest surprises I had in re-reading this touchstone of my spiritual life was that I saw how, at each stage of the journey, Francis’ peace and freedom came from a rejection of his society and its structures and obligations, responsibilities and presuppositions, and that there need have been nothing supernatural in this. It is what would happen to any person when they throw off their society’s ‘impositions;’ they would experience relief and a kind of release from burdens and cares. It was not a ‘true freedom,’ however, in the sense he believed it to be, as he then had to be supported by the Church and by almsgiving, or he would not have survived; he would have starved to death or died of exposure.
The ‘true freedom’ he was seeking – and that his religious worldview gave him reason to expect – is not really possible in the world in which we find ourselves. We are social animals bound to our social constructs, and cannot live outside them in any ultimate sense, though we can find respite, sanctuary and resourcement in this life. We can retreat from the world, we can construct our own spiritual worlds after our own imaginative fashion, but we are already socialized by the point we would make this choice (even as Francis was; he was a teenager when he ‘left the world’), and thus tied, to a greater or lesser degree, to the world. How to be in the world and not of it, is a persistent ethical and spiritual question. Ultimately, only in ‘heaven’ could the freedom and peace Francis sought be truly realized. His proximate experience of it was made possible only by alms and the generosity of the Church.
While realizing this deflated the more naïve understanding I’d had of Francis when I was younger, I still find myself fascinated with Francis and his story. Because he meant so much to me for so long, it is interesting to meet him again, given my current perspective.
After the first few chapters, Francis’ story became less about a young man seeking self-realization and more about trying to live the ancient Christian ideal in a world that was untransformed; at this point it did become a somewhat more pious story about learning conformity to the standards of his society; doing penance and collecting alms as a way of living, getting the seal of authority (the Pope) on his way of life (the book is silent on the fact that the Pope who sanctions Francis’ path was one of Crusade Popes who sanctioned wars in the name of ‘recovering’ he Holy Land from the ‘infidels’!). While I recognized the process of self-realization and the yearning for transcendence in Francis’ story, beyond this his biography gets bogged down in the same kinds of contradictions that often characterize religious life in general. How do you live out ideals in the everyday ordinary world? How do you follow out the ethical and philosophical implications of ideals worth embodying in yourself without becoming a fanatic—or else falling from visionary heights into cynicism and despair?
It strikes me now that the ideals Francis was attempting to follow were dysfunctional on one level; while I still admire them—so far as they go. They pointed to something that was no longer viable; they alluded to a transformation in society that never took place—a transformation toward which early Christianity was directing its aspirations. But then the Jesus Movement became Church; and the ethics of the Movement became the ideals of a select few who could still try and live them out—but only with the economic support of Church and society. An interesting way of life: to live as an icon of an ideal that cannot be realized in the here-and-now. But ultimately the iconic life of Francis too often lends itself to the perpetuation of the status quo; giving rich people a reason to feel good about themselves by giving alms and helong the poor—rather than actually transforming the world into a place where rich and poor are no more.
The ideals of Francis were largely same as those that characterized the 1st century Jesus Movement; poverty, chastity, obedience, aid to the poor, widowed and orphaned—the usual cast of Christian ‘virtues.’ _And these are good ideals to have; so long as poverty and discrimination, hatred greed and selfishness persist. What I came to wonder – through reading Bodo’s book again – was why Christianity never really matured beyond these 1st century ideals? The ethics got frozen into an ideal; an ideal that could not be lived in an untransformed society in true freedom. The ethics of the ideal – taking care of the poor, etc. – are worthwhile, but in a society in which Christianity became the religious status quo, the original ideals of the Jesus Movement were made largely impotent; they became a way of keeping poverty and other problems from becoming too severe, and those who lived the ideals provided icons of what was lost; the ethical vision of transformation that was embodied in the early Jesus Movement.
In the 1st century, these ideals were ‘proleptic’ (to use an old theological term I haven’t used in over 15 years); they were intended to inspire an ethical, religious, social and political revolution in the hearts and minds of those who followed Jesus as their Christ. Once frozen, these ideals continued to inspire adherence, and led to the emergence of monasticism within Christianity. But the ideals of monasticism, while virtuous in themselves and worthy of practice, became an ideal that could never lead to a genuine, permanent change in society. The ideals of the original Jesus Movement became a support mechanism for the status quo. _You can’t sell all you have and give it to the poor unless you have a support network; unless you have someone to support you. Francis could only live the enshrined 1st century Christian ideals because the Church was rich enough to support him.
So for people to ‘go off to live the friars’ life,’ a hierarchical society must exist in which there are rich people and poor. Rich people to support the idealists, and poor people for them to serve and help.
I finished reading The Journey and the Dream at the end of December 2012. I shelved it, and will probably not read it again. Yet my ‘life with Francis’ continues. There is no parting of old friends, here. Though I understand his life; his vision and his conversion and all that followed from it – both positive and negative – in more naturalistic terms now than I did 25 years ago, I still find him a worthy companion. The touchstones we share in common; including our love of silence and solitude as well as our desire for justice, the alleviation of poverty and the end of inequality and discrimination in the world, as well as the defense of the natural world against exploitation and further destruction—all these things tie us together, Francis and I, and I would have it no other way. I walked with him when I was following Christ, when I was a practicing Pagan and a devotee of the Goddess, and now that I am a Poetic Naturalist I walk with him still.
It is rare to find someone you can share the journey and the dream with throughout the span of a human life, and when you recognize who those mentors and friends are, you should cherish them, and not let the bonds be torn asunder.
So mote it be.