Oct. 4, 2009 Michaelmas/St. Francis
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Today is the feast of our patron saints – St. Michael and All Angels. This year it falls on the same day that the church celebrates its most famous deacon, St. Francis of Assisi.
This gives us an opportunity to smash this unlikely pair together and see what new thing emerges. One thing that came out of it here in this room is a fantastic cornucopia of plants, animals, saints, angels, and color.
I’d like to explore a theme that is common to both Michael and Francis. It is a story of struggle. Michael contends against evil; Francis confronts corruption and indifference. But it is also a story of joy. For Michael and Francis, in the midst of struggle, there is victory and transcendent peace.
With Michael, this story is played out in broad, mythic strokes. He and his angels fight against Satan in a war in heaven. Michael is victorious, but the war continues on earth, because the devil is cast down here among us. We must now fight against evil. However, we know that in this battle, too, God will ultimately be victorious. It is a cosmic, eternal story of darkness and light, conflict and resolution.
With Francis, this same story of struggle and joy is played out through the complexity and contradictions of a human life. And it is with his story that I would like to remain awhile.
First, the struggle. Coming out of a wealthy family that was part of the social elite in Assisi, Francis chose to live in poverty and in service to people that society routinely ignored or openly mocked - lepers, the mentally ill, the poor. He lived with them, on the margins of town. And for this, he was ridiculed, rejected, disowned by his father. What happened to our son and friend Francis? Where is our troubadour, our party boy? Why did he turn his back on a very successful family business? The fool!
Francis struggled with his order, too. He was caught up in a high vision: that the religious community he started would become a social movement, transforming medieval Europe and the church of his day. Devoted to a life of prayer, preaching the love of God, and serving the poor, they would be living examples of Christ on earth. They would overcome class division and the corruption and indifference of both church and society. They would turn people’s hearts to love.
But by the end of his life, Francis was convinced that his social movement had failed. In his embrace of poverty, simplicity, and service, he had seen nothing but struggle, and very little to show for it. In spite of the thousands who had flocked to his new order, the poor and the sick were still ignored, the church was as corrupt and divided as ever, savage religious wars went on, and his order became so concerned with authority and security that, in disgust, he resigned as leader.
And Francis was a tortured soul internally, too. To the end, he was haunted by a God he didn’t fully understand. His constant prayer was “Who are you, my dearest God, and what am I, but your useless servant?” God would always remain a mystery to him. He felt that he could never adequately express his faith, that he was an inarticulate bumbler. He was hounded by temptations of lust, anger, self-righteousness, and impatience. Francis wrestled with his faith.
But this is the amazing thing. In the midst of all this struggle, all throughout it, Francis was also a man of joy. Even as he despaired about the church, the world, and his own soul, there was peace and an energetic light that wove its way through him.
Paradoxically, as he renounced a worldly life, he was free to fully enjoy the world. Knowing that he didn’t possess anything or anyone, he possessed everything. Like Jesus, he was at home with hunger and plenty, mourning and dancing, health and disease. He saw all creation as alive, calling it sister moon and brother wind, sister water and brother fire, mother earth and sister death. He was at home in the family of creation.
Francis’ joy spilled over as he drew thousands into his vision of a revitalized life, a renewed church and world. They would not have flocked to him had he not radiated the truth of a transformed life. He was a living saint who showed them that they, too, could be made new, gulping in the abundance of God’s love, and pouring it out freely to others.
And so his life was woven together with struggle and joy, suffering and happiness, conflict and peace. He never reached a permanent state of bliss, and he never was free from human struggle. He embraced the paradox of both at once.
This is hard for us to do. For we usually think in linear terms. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. After A ends, you go to B, which then goes to C and D. Set your goals, overcome obstacles, and achieve results.
But Francis’s life shows us that struggle does not finally end, and then we then reach joy. It is interwoven with it. One hour we live under oppressive, dark skies, and in the next we breathe the open desert air. One day we believe that all shall be well, and the next we are not so sure. At one point we feel God’s presence and a clarity about our purpose, and at another we say “Who are you, God, and what am I?”
We may make progress in our spiritual journey - and I believe we do if we apply ourselves to it - but this journey will never be anything but hills and valleys. We shall never spiritually evolve to the point where we are free from dark moods, frustration, or hardship, and then dwell permanently in peace and happiness.
It isn’t enough, however, just to recognize that life has its ups and downs. Everybody knows that. The question, the spiritual quest, is how to move through both with grace, with some sense of equanimity, with hope, perspective, and patience. The quest, for Francis and for us, is how to find a through-line with God, instead of being a victim of life’s inconstancy.
What Francis and other saints teach us is that this through-line comes as we cultivate a life of faith. I’m not talking about the kind of faith that tries to convince ourselves that everything will work out for us. I’m talking about the kind of faith that learns to trust – to really place our trust - in God, no matter what.
We have some choice in this, you know. When things are going badly for us, we can let ourselves be taken by the drama and unfairness of it all; we can become absorbed in the dark cloud; we can scramble to make it go away as soon as possible.
But we can also choose to trust. We can choose to believe that the Spirit of life is always working, even in this. We can welcome our difficulty as something good, rather than defending ourselves against it as an enemy. We can see God in both brother sun and sister death.
I know that this is much easier for some than for others. Some of us grew up distrusting life for very good reasons, and we have much to overcome. But the issue is the same for everyone – to cultivate trust. Every time we choose this option – and it is always offered to us – our faith becomes a little stronger. Then, when we have the experience of embracing whatever life sends our way, and find that there is good in it, our faith is confirmed.
If we cultivate faith, there will always be a through-line of grace. Our darkness will always be penetrated by light. Struggle will have, underneath it all, a foundation of joy. We come to know peace in the midst of conflict, gratitude in deprivation, and transcendence even as we are fully engaged in the problems of this world.
This is the gift that Francis, by his life of struggle and joy, offers to us. It is the gift that Michaelmas offers, too – that even though there be war in heaven, even though the devil and his angels have been cast down to earth and live among us, the victory is God’s, and joy is ours.