Spiritual Principles behind the Traditions

What I learned from St. Francis (and Chesterton)

I’m not a Catholic.

Here’s an analogy:  There are some people who get up on Sundays and wrap themselves in clothes, in black and yellow clothes.  Most of these t-shirts, sweaters, or even scarves have a Steelers logo on them.  These people congegrate in front of the television on Sundays, sometimes alone, sometimes in threes, sometimes in throngs.  These people scream together, groan together, cheer together.  These people, in other words, are Pittsburgh Steelers fans.

I watch the Steelers sometimes.  I even cheer for them.  I don’t, however, wear black and gold clothing while performing the ritual.  Nor do I watch them every week. I don’t even watch them on Sundays (since I’ve been living in Germany, I find it best to record and fast forward through the vast-majority of a football game’s buffer time).  I am ,however, in some small sense, also a Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

I am; though those above described fans, who might imagine their blood a black and gold tint, those same fans who might scream and holler as loud at the idea I’m also a Steelers fan as they do at the referee after a bad call, might disagree.

In that same kind of sense, I’m a Christian.  And I’m about as much a Catholic as a Steelers fan is a Broncos fan.

francis4Arguments aside about if one can really only be a “Football” fanatic without caring first solely for one team within the world, here’s what I can rest certain with: I’m a fan of Spirit.  I love to watch it break through whatever context — be it Native American/shamanism; Eastern/Hindu and Buddhist; American Christianity; even Islamic Sufism –  I love to watch it shine in its transcendence, and give each culture which perceives It’s call to reach for it, to reach for it often with sharpened morality.

I’m much intrigued with the Catholic veneration of Saints.

Beyond the strange morphing of paganism with Catholicism, and how one might argue the old polytheistic gods and powers of nature were subsumed inside the Catholic system of Saints (these saints all have special powers, and one is sometimes advised to pray to their particular “patron” saint), beyond all these intriguing (for me, anyway) intellectual considerations, there is one saint that intrigues me.  And his name is St. Francis.

I think St. Francis might be my Spirit Guide.  (Enough with the academic aesthetic, already!)


 There are several reasons for this.  For one, he offers a pretty beautiful prayer to be modeled, a prayer that is contained within AA’s holy-book, the “Big Book”.  It’s worth repeating, and goes something like this.

 Lord make me an instrument of your peace

Where there is hatred, let me sow love

Where there is doubt…faith

Where there is despair…hope

Where there is darkness…light

Where there is sadness…joy


O Divine Master grant that I may not so much

Seek to be consoled…as to console

To be understood…as to understand

To be loved…as to love


For it is in giving…that we receive

It is in pardoning…that we are pardoned

It is in dying…that we are born to eternal life.

 It’s nice that he shows up in the spiritual path that saved my ass, but there’s other reasons I consider him “special”.  They’re actually numerous; suffice it to say that upon several occasions when I feel most spiritually connected, often on such occasions where I was travelling, there would be a statue of St. Francis somewhere.  And these were in secular places.  St. Francis would show up on my travels, and not just at exotic churches.

And since, for those who may not know, St. Francis is the patron saint of animals, I had no problem with him showing up repeatedly in my life.  He even stood in the middle of a courtyard in one of my favorite downtown venues, watching some quality bands on Saturday nights from his alabaster gaze (a stone bird stretching its wing on his shoulder).

St. Francis showed up again this Christmas.  Wrapped up under the tree, I freed him finally on the 2nd Christmas Day (In Germany, there’s three-count em, three!—Christams days).  It was a book.

Written by one of my favorite authors: G.K. Chesterton.  I know him to be a serious Catholic, not only just a genius, and was aware of both his prejudice and brilliant writing style before I opened the book.  But I wasn’t expecting to be so inspired.

Really, I wasn’t.

Even though Carina had given me a book of “Love poems from God” which St. Francis was a participant in, even though I knew what his words were capable of, I wasn’t expecting to be so…influenced by the recounting of some medieval Italians life.  A case in point: here’s a short poem that’s framed on the wall above where I (currently) write.  This same poem once stood on my office desk (where I taught drug-addicted teenagers on a ranch).  It reads:

 Can true humility and compassion exist in our words and eyes

Unless we know we too are capable of

Any act?



This is not his only gem.  Another case:



Is a person’s faith in God,

So precious;


Never should we harm




He gave birth

To all



 Yes, I knew I could be inspired by the saint’s poetry, but his life?  From what little I knew, he was a man who renounced the world–the medieval, Italian world of the early 1200s – choosing instead of a life of relative comfort one for communion with the birds and the does, owning nothing, sleeping on the ground, and other such eccentricities.  I could appreciate the poetry and vision such a life inspired, but I didn’t think I had much to apply from his life.

Not to mention the Chesterton’s twist of it, a hell-bent argument against paganism and nature-worship as much as a recounting of the famed saint’s life.  (This book, by the way, was purchased by my girlfriend because she’d seen it on the Mumford and Son’s recommended reading list).

And what exactly was Chesterton’s presentation?



 …you will not be able rationally to read the story of a man presented as a Mirror of Christ without understanding his final phase as a Man of Sorrows, and at least artistically appreciating the appropriateness of his receiving, in a cloud of mystery and isolation, inflicted by no human hand, the unhealed everlasting wounds that heal the world.

 Francis is presented, in other words, as a man readily appreciated by the modern mind, however far removed from Italy’s 13th century, but the events of his life are not to be overlooked: he did experience Stigmata, he did converse with birds, he did wail and writhe on the bare ground, he shouted indeed to the spirit of Brother Fox and Brother Fire.  He did all of those things, all while remaining accessible to the soul of modern man.

I had my doubts.

His religion can be regarded as a superstition, but an inevitable superstition, from which not even genius could wholly free itself; in the consideration of which it would be unjust to condemn St. Francis for his self-denial or unduly chide him for his chastity.  It is quite true that even from so detached a standpoint his stature would still appear heroic.  There would still be a great deal to be said about the man who tried to end the Crusades by talking to the Saracens (muslims) or who intereceded with the Emperor for the birds.  The writer might describe…the great Franciscan inspiration that was felt in the painting of Giotto, in the poetry of Dante…he may try to do it…without raising the religious question at all.  In short, he may try to tell the story of a saint without God; which is like being told to write the (life of Santa Claus and forbidden to mention the North Pole).

 I’m not yet done with the book (it’s a fairly quick-albeit-dense, 136 page, read), but it’s been both challenging (to my world-view) and strangely…inspiring.  Let me just quickly summarize St. Francis’ life as it has been retold till now:

  • Francis Bernadone was born in central Italy to the family of a wealthy linen merchant.
  1. He always expressed a temperament of acting quickly and rashly.  When he wanted to do something, he quickly acted on it.
  2. Along this spirit of following his whims, he joined the army of Assissi when it was invaded.  His fellows only succeeded in getting captured.  During capture, young Francis displayed another defining characteristic: egalitarianism.

Francis, we are told, moved among his captive companions with all his characteristic courtesy and even conviviality…and when he came across the mysterious outcast, traitor or coward or whatever he was called, he simply treated him exactly like the rest…with the same unaffected gaiety and good fellowship

            3.Francis treated everyone—even outcasts—with not just respect, but as his  equal.

All those limits in good fellowship and good form, all those landmarks of social life that divide the tolerable and the intolerable, all those social                                   scruples and conventional conditions that are normal and even noble in ordinary men, all those things that hold many decent societies together,                                  could never hold this man at all.

  1. After this, he joined the fervor of the Crusades in his characteristic fashion: boldly and quickly.  Francis had a dream where a voice told him, “You’ve mistaken the meaning of the vision.  Return to your own town.”  He returned to Assisi, assumed a failure and humiliated.  After his return, during his disappointment and doubt, another important event:

He was riding listlessly in some wayside place, apparatnly in the open country, when he saw a figure coming along the road towards him and halted; for he saw it was a leper.  And he knew instantly that his courage was challenged…not the banner and spears of Perugia, from which it never occurred to him to shrink.  Francis Bernardone saw his fear coming up the road towards him; the fear that comes from within and not without.  For once in his the long rush of his life his soul must have stood still.  Then he sprang from his horse, knowing nothing between stillness and swiftness, and rushed on the leper and threw his arms round him.

  1. Francis then worked for his father’s cloth business.  In line with his rash temperament, he got in his head to help repair the church.  To do this, he sold all his father’s cloth, donating all the profits to help restore the church.  This pleased his father little.  He tried his son Francis as a common criminal, and the history is unclear as to whether Francis spent time underground or not.  He was, unequivocally, locked up for a long while.

It seems likely that Francis lost his mind during this time.  But it seems to me it was a Divine Mindness.

If the young fanatic would give back his money to the old fool, the incident would then terminate…He (Francis) stood up before them all and said, “Up to this time I have called Pietro Bernardone father, but now I am the servant of God.  Not only the money but everything that can be called his I will restore to my father, even the very clothes he has given me.”  And he rent off all his garments except one; and they saw that that was a hair-shirt.

  1. True to both his word and rash spirit, Francis then left town, went to live off the land and the charity of others.  He would do this for the remainder of his life.

That is essentially where I’m up to in the narrative.  Now, I know some of the details of the remainder: that he would found a new order of the Catholic Church, inspiring a movement to help those less unfortunate, that he would, in the end, realize his childhood ambition of becoming a world-renowned Poet (however far removed from their original, Troubadour connotations).

Chesterton asserts that this is Genius we’re seeing in Francis, an advanced Spirit that scoffs at all the conventions of its time that only hold back the force of Light and Healing.

As mad as Francis’ actions were (he was an ascetic, and willfully sought out suffering, he talked and sang to the birds, wrote poems for the Sun), there is something within his poetry that lends credence to Chesterton’s claim, that asserts that here is a Soul happy beyond material comfort, that lends weight to the Genius side of the scale of insanity.


No one lives outside the walls of this sacred place, existence.

The holy water, I need it upon my eyes: it is you, dear, you—each form.


What mother would lose her infant—and we are that to God,

Never lost from His gaze are we?  Every cry of the heart

Is attended by light’s own arms.


You cannot wander anywhere that will not aid you.

Anything you can touch—God brought it into

The classroom of your mind.


Differences exist, but not in the city of love.

Thus my vows and yours, I know they are the same.


I have just peeled the skin from the potato

And you are still contemplating its worth,

Sweetheart; indeed there are wonderful nutrients in all,

For God made everything.


You joined our community at birth.

With your Father being who He is, what do the

World’s scales know of your precious value.

The priest and the prostitute—they weigh the same before the Son’s

Immaculate being,

But who can bear that truth and freedom,

So a wise man adulterated the


Every wise man knows this.


My soul’s face has revealed its beauty to me;

Why was it shy so long, didn’t it know how this made me suffer

And weep?


A different game He plays with His close ones.

God tells us truths you would not believe,

For most everyone needs to limit His compassion; concepts of

Right and wrong preserve the golden seed

Until one of God’s friends comes along and tends your body

Like a divine bride.


The Holy sent out a surveryor to find the limits of its compassion

And being.

God knows a divine frustrations whenever He acts like that,

For the Infinite has

No walls.


Why not tease Him about this?

Why not accept the freedom of what it means

For our Lord to see us

As Himself.


So magnificently sovereign is our Lover; never say,

“On the other side of this river a different king rules.”

For how could that be true—for nothing can oppose Infinite strength.


No one lives outside the walls of this sacred place, existence.


The holy water my soul’s brow needs is unity.

Love opened my eye and I was cleansed

By the purity of each





So how does all this far-flung, mystical transcendence apply to my life, here at the cusp of 2013?

One passage from Chesterton stands out in particular:

The man who went into the cave (to prison) was not the man who came out again; in that sense he was almost as different as if he were dead, as if he were a ghost or a blessed spirit…he looked at the world as differently from other man as if he had come out of that dark hole walking on his hands…

 …We cannot follow St. Francis to that final spiritual overturn in which complete humiliation becomes complete holiness or happiness, because we have never been there…

 …If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence.  It would make vivid the Scriptural text which says that God has hanged the world upon nothing.  If St. Francis had seen, in one of his strange dreams, the town of Assisi upside down, it need not have differed in a single detail…

 …The point is this:

 That whereas to the normal eye the large masonry of its walls or the massive foundations of its watchtowers and its high citadel would make it seem safer and more permanent, the moment it was turned over the very same weight would make it seem more helpless and more in peril…

 …instead of being merely proud of his strong city because it could not be moved, he would be thankful to God Almighty that it had not been dropped; he would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars.


This passage, believe it or not, is what actually resonates with me.  And what resonates is dependence.  And what I’m reminded of is my first few weeks in sobriety.  At that time, I was broken, shattered by my own addiction, crawling out of my own created, underground prison.  I was shattered enough—humiliated enough—to finally be humble.  In that humility, I was willing to try spiritual principles: maybe not subscribe to every belief of a religion, but willing enough to try communicating with what I could call God.

It was so raw back then.  I was so dependant back then.  I needed God and my connection so much back then, praying often to maintain my connection, staying close to what helped keep my mind from obsessing with drugs and how to get them.

Back then.

That’s what Francis, and Chesterton, helped me remember: I’m just as dependant on my Connection today as I was back then.  The city is tipped over, just as ready to crash into oblivion, held up only by the Grace of God today just as much as it was “back then”.

It was a blessed reminder, and not in some Jonathan Edwards “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God”, fearful way, but a beautiful song calling me back to that safety of that dependence.

Because this holiday season, for whatever reason (Germany and Germans are at the top of the list), I needed this reminder.  I wasn’t desperate to use, or even considering it all that much, but I did feel the shadow of depression casting over me; I wasn’t necessarily bursting with gratitude.

There were other things I learned from St. Francis; rather, things I hope to learn from St. Francis.  Far from hasty, I now view his tendency to rocket towards his intuition something worthy of copy.

I watched this documentary last week called, “I Am.”

Coincidentally, near the end of it, G.K. Chesterton’s name came up.  The famed, English writer was asked repeatedly to enter an essay contest.  The contest question?  What’s wrong with the world.  After the 11th request, Chesterton finally responded in the form of an entry.  It was a short essay: two words.

“I Am.”

Chesterton’s answer was the name of the documentary.  It was also the point.  While the documentary did a lot of things, one of its main thrusts was to inspire everyone who might view it to do simple things, everyday acts of kindness.  Because, as both the film and I imagine my spirit guide would answer, these simple acts of goodness are everything.

Francis gives the model, invites me to see everyone as my equal, to try and treat others as indeed I might treat myself.  “I Am” does the same thing, preaching a scientific message of all of nature being bounded, being connected.

But Francis inspires me to actually go out and act on these impulses, to not just feel inspired for a few hours after watching a documentary.

…sometimes when Francis was travelling with his brother monks he would pick up a stick and pretend it was a violin bow and his arm a violin, and he would start playing the violin and singing French songs that his mother had taught him as a child.  Francis would leap about and become ecstatic.  It is said of Francis that his love for God at times made him so wild that few understood him.

Francis invites me to be mis-undertsood.

St.  Francis’s life was a great blessing to all.  His spiritual beauty, power, and compassion will always offer us guidance.


At the cusp of 2013, still here somehow after the turn of the Mayan calander, it is certainly true for this recovering addict.

(last two italicized quotes and all poems taken from Daniel Ladinsky, “Love Poems from God”; all other italicized sections taken from “St. Francis of Assisi”, by G.K. Chesterton)


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