Guest Post: Alan McManus on The Feast of St Francis

The Feast of St Francis is increasingly being marked in the church these days, most obviously by services for the blessing of animals. St Mary’s will be having just such a service on Sunday afternoon at 2.30 pm. However, Francis is about a good deal more than animal blessings. In this guest post, Dr Alan McManus reflects on the challenges that Francis presents to us as we celebrate his legacy on this his feast day. Alan is the author of, Alchemy at the Chalkface: Pirsig, Pedagogy and the Metaphysics of Quality, on www.robertpirsig.org  and, Only Say The Word: Affirming Gay and Lesbian Love, forthcoming from Circle Books. He runs Alchemical Life Coaching and is the animating force behind Tent City Theatre Company, both based in Glasgow. Alan attends St Mary’s Cathedral.

Did you see the news last week about the young Frenchman, the MIT (LSE?) drop-out who publicly kissed a paedophile priest, liberated twenty beagles from an in-vivo tobacco testing lab and then forced his way into the Stock Exchange – was it Wall St? the Bourse? – stripped off his clothes and left them at the feet of his father?

It may have been the son of a Cathar cloth merchant, a leper, a lion with a thorn in its paw and a market square in 12th century Umbria. I’m hazy on the details. Anyway, it was big. Unofficial Church sources say it’s “too politically sensitive to touch” but local people have reacted positively and are putting up bird baths in his honour.

Francesco, the ‘Frenchman’, was nothing if not theatrical. Which is one of the reasons why I love him and possibly one of the reasons why, twenty years ago, I spent a year as a Franciscan ‘postulant’ and novice. Although I didn’t know it at the time. What attracted me then was his simplicity, his spontaneity and his spirituality of identification with the poor.

The poor (like schalmtz) will be with us always. We had that on good authority 2,000 years ago and it’s one prediction that has stood the test of time.

What Jesus taught, and Francis of Assisi dramatised, it that the poor (especially the poor in spirit) don’t always look deserving. The tax collectors which Jesus used as examples were about as popular as the UK employees of the French company ATOS today and it seemed a public duty to vilify them as cold-hearted hypocrites who profit from the oppression of the vulnerable.

It’s much easier to love a disabled person instead of the Paralympics corporate sponsor that is accused of driving disabled people to starvation or suicide by depriving them of welfare benefits. Easier if they’re grateful for being loved and don’t stridently complain about people parking in front of the only piece of pavement (sidewalk) low enough to be accessible to their wheelchair.

It would be easier to love asylum seekers if 100% of cases were genuine (instead of, perhaps, 99%) and if their ethics agreed with our own. It’s disconcerting, to say the least, to discover that someone who has been tortured in their own country for standing up for the poor is also misogynist and homophobic.

Both ATOS and the UK Border Agency are criticised for the unfairness of their evaluation procedures and the devastating effect they have on the lives of others. Justice must be done and be seen to be done and neither body seems to be able to publicly and fully evade the charge that their questionably-legal procedures are inhuman. Asylum-seekers and disabled people seem to quite obviously merit the Biblical title of ‘anawim’ (the poor in spirit/ the poor of God) as do all those crushed by the weight of oppression.

But do we evaluate who is deserving of our love? Is the old man from Gaza whose grandson was shot by a Zionist settler family, two soldiers standing by, while protesting against them cutting down the old man’s olive trees to make way for their new home? What about a lesbian from Tel Aviv whose family accuse her of betraying her religion? And the mother of two strapping lads doing National Service who prays each night for their safe return? Aren’t Ali and Ruth and Rachel anawim? And what about Yofi and Josh?

Would we stop lighting candles for Ali if we found out he would strangle his own daughter if she married a Christian and wholeheartedly agrees with the traditional Islamic capital punishment of those accused of making love with the same sex: burying them up to the neck in sand and toppling a wall on top? Would Ruth slip off our prayer list if we knew she wholeheartedly agreed with her country’s system of apartheid and hated and feared Palestinians for dragging civilisation back into the Dark Ages? Would Rachel? With two sons in the army, is her ignorance of Israeli army brutality going on down the road in Gaza not actually culpable?

Do we have to wait until someone decides to rename Israel, “Israel-Palestine”, or even, “Canaan”, (so that accepting citizenship is even remotely thinkable for Palestinians) and wait for an official pan-Islamic fatwa in favour of female and LGBT rights before we decide that these men and women can be judged as acceptably poor in spirit; that we can see them as alter Christi, as Christ incarnate in others? Do we have to wait until we ourselves meet all our criteria of ethical correctness until we accept the love of God?

Kissing a leper involved no schmaltz. It risked contamination and moral outrage. There are easier PR opportunities. The Feast of St Francis isn’t a frolic in a birdbath, it’s a slap in the face of our complacency. WAKE UP! That’s the message of Jesus to the proud and the pious. That’s the reason why my theatre company staged a play in homage to the Canadian film Jesus de Montreal which includes a scene of the Christ character turning the tables on misogynist media. That’s why I joined the Capuchin Franciscans and spent a year living in silence and simplicity and left to start a quest for an authentic spirituality of identification with the poor.

I don’t regret the decision to leave the Friary, although it has taken me years to understand it. I also don’t regret the decision to join, as I learned valuable lessons there. Silence is a great teacher and as a life coach I recommend to my clients that they turn off ‘the voices’ as often as they can: radio, TV, phones, email, social networking media, all this cacophony of chat dulls the mind and impedes the sustained thought and profound reflection necessary for authentically liberating praxis. The small still voice can only be discerned when we listen. We can only listen when the media storm subsides.

Simplicity works similarly, and favours good work over the neurotic ‘busyness’ which modern life values. The ‘Protestant work ethic’ identified by Max Weber has become non-denominational and its secular adherents include many good people exhausting themselves in various secular and spiritual causes. The poor will be with us always but neither Jesus nor Francis focussed on quantity. To use Robert Pirsig’s terminology, they embodied Dynamic Quality. The iconic moment of St Francis kissing the leper set up a ‘pattern of values’ which found expression in 20th C. liberation theology and caused Lenin on his deathbed to say that with ten people like St Francis of Assisi he could have had a good revolution.

With silence, simplicity and an authentic spirituality of identification with the poor, our spontaneous actions of solidarity will be done in humility, recognising that we may be complicit in the oppression of those we presume to care for: recognising that it is social attitudes that are truly disabling; that people would be less likely to leave their countries if we stopped bombing the hell out of them; that projection of cultural stereotypes precludes the messy personal business of loving imperfect human beings.

Francis was not always understood even by his supporters, and if we are inspired by his example we may leave the party line for good. Good friends and family may see us not as saviours but as traitors to the cause. Franciscan poverty comes from the heart and only when we are truly moved from the heart can we be brave enough to leap off our high horse and kiss a leper. We do not give that kiss of peace as if Christ is present in the other; ubi caritas et amor Deus ibi est (where there is charity and love, God is there). We give the kiss of peace to Christ, really present. And Christ kisses back.
……………………………..

Dr Alan McManus is the author of, Alchemy at the Chalkface: Pirsig, Pedagogy and the Metaphysics of Quality, on www.robertpirsig.org  and, Only Say The Word: Affirming Gay and Lesbian Love, forthcoming from Circle Books. Alchemical Life Coaching is based in Glasgow, as is Tent City Theatre Company, where he attends St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral.

Comments

  1. Whilst the sentiment is worthy, I think you’re being a wee bit naive here Alan. Ruth may be praying for the safe return of her sons, as I will pray for my step son when he is called up for service in the IDF next year. She might also be praying that her sons don’t encounter the devastation of the Katusha rockets fired from Gaza on an almost daily basis and have to deal with dead and maimed Israeli children. They all might pray that they’re not in the bus stations in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem when some poor misguided Arab child with a bomb strapped to their back causes devastation, death and mutilation.
    And Lesbian Rachael may have been ostracised from her family, but she can give thanks that Israel is the ONLY country in the middle east where her rights and equality is protected by law. Of course, if she was a palastinian in Gaza or the west bank, her sexuality would be criminalised.

    Your view of the activity of Israel and its army in my view is one which, if you’ll forgive my directness, is through rose tinted specs. My wife is an ex-IDF officer, and whilst there is most definitely some bad treatment of the Palastinians, it’s usually in response to many of the dangers I’ve outlined in this comment. We should be lighting candles perhaps for the Israeli government and constitution which provides free health care and education for all it’s citizens, be they Arab, Jew, or anything else, including LGBT. These are the real poor in Israel and they are protected. This is not apartheid, and to compare it to the system in South Africa under which my wife grew up is, quite frankly, offensive to most Israelis and many others.

    Sorry if this comment upsets you, but I’m sure Francis would have been apolitical in this. His concern might well have been the poor, but he might have seen that the poor are the misguided people in this world who are too quick to condem Israel from the comfort of their western armchairs…

    Jaye

  2. Alan McManus says

    Well-intentioned but naive isn’t the harshest criticism a post involving this Near-Eastern politicial knife edge could have attracted, so I thank you. My mother’s maiden name is Jewish; I spent some months on a kibbutz in the 80’s; I think I was the worst student of Hebrew that St Mary’s College, St Andrews Uni, ever had; I only avoided being elected president of St Andrews Jewish student society (I was the oldest member) by declaring, “I shouldn’t be the president: I’m goy!”; I think that Eretz Yisrael is a beautiful, fascinating and deeply tragic place and I admire your commitment to primary human realtionships and share your exasperation of uninformed, unbalanced and uninvolved politics-as-entertainment.
    I also have many Muslim friends, some Western, who repeat to me that the root of the problem is the oppression of the Palestinians. Not all are uneducated fanatics.
    The following links, which could not (for technical reasons) be linked to phrases in my original post, may help to contextualise my words. I do not strive for dominance of the discourse but rather to question adherence to party lines and easy answers. You defend those you love, Jaye, as you should, and that love is a candle in a deep deep darkness. But there are other candles, across the barbed wire and beyond no-man’s land.

    http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/whfraintro.htm
    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/08/29/atos-paralympic-sponsors-under-fire-disabled-attitude_n_1838614.html
    http://dmv.ca.gov/pubs/vctop/d11/vc22500.htm
    http://www.asylumaid.org.uk/data/files/publications/46/Still_No_Reason_At_All.pdf
    http://beyondcompromise.com/2012/08/17/everybody-must-get-stoned/
    http://www.no2brandisrael.org/?p=324
    http://www.stophonourkillings.com/index.php?q=taxonomy/term/60
    http://muslimmatters.org/2009/07/16/islamic-jerusalem-%E2%80%9Cwe-will-drive-the-jews-into-the-sea%E2%80%9D-1-of-3/
    http://www.ranker.com/list/7-worst-capital-punishments-for-being-_illegally_-gay/joanne
    http://palestinesolidarityproject.org/2012/03/13/israeli-settlers-cut-down-150-olive-and-grape-trees-in-wad-abu-reesh/
    http://electronicintifada.net/content/demanding-justice-yousef-quiet-boy-killed-israeli-settlers/10865
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/24/opinion/not-all-israeli-citizens-are-equal.html?_r=0
    http://israelisoldiersmother.blogspot.co.uk/
    http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1757
    http://artsandfaith.com/t100/jesusofmontreal.html
    http://liberatingtheology.wordpress.com/2011/10/05/theology-and-liberating-praxis-theology-as-second-act/
    http://robertpirsig.org/Intro.htm
    http://www.robertpirsig.org/
    http://inharmony.yolasite.com/
    https://www.facebook.com/events/240919052672305/#!/tentcitytheatrecompany

  3. Alastair McManus says

    I am resuming religion at age 63. I am Cof E, but now a Buddhist….My olf McM family of Antrim became C of I in around 1670s on.

    Will write more if you could reply.

    AM

    • Hello Alastair,
      forgive my extremely tardy reply! I only looked up this post to get the date as I’ve forgotten how old my beloved dog Ben is and I got him just after writing this post (I remember thinking I should practice what I preached and he needed a home). I don’t get notifications from this site (I have RSI and I can’t keep up) but if you click on my website link there’s a Contact page.
      slán, Alan

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