Tag Archives: Francis of Asissi

You may need a good rebellion from your parents: For sure from Big Brother

The beffroi in Tournai (now Belgium).

Church bells have been ringing since the 7th century to mark the hours for prayer, day by day. In 1188, the leaders of Tournai, Belgium, got permission from the king to build the first belfry designed to use for town business — like calling assemblies and warning of invasion. Before long, like I found out down the road in Bruges, the church and town had a competition for who had the highest tower. If you look at Philadelphia, it is easy to see who won that contest around here. We got our annual shooing at the Comcast Center during Holy Week, as a few of us dared to to bring up Jesus at the foot of the master’s tower.

By 1309, Milan had installed the first mechanical clock in the basilica to chime the secular hours of the day so we could all conform to a machine and get to work on time. So the modern age began. In 1863, Karl Marx wrote to Friedrich Engels to say, “The entire theory of the production of uniform movement was guided by the clock.” What’s more, the clock represented the essence of science: precision. Societal change followed the mechanical clock like a landslide, burying the holy seasons of the church year. Soon the civic year started on January 1 and everyone had a standard calendar. Now the clock’s descendants  define our days — ATMs dispense our money and phones tell us when to get up.

Giotto, c. 1297, Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi

Subverting the first sprouts of capitalism

All this change began in the century of Francis of Assisi. Part of his great inspiration and genius started with instinctively refusing to go along with any of it, starting with his own father. It is hard to follow one’s heavenly father unless you turn from the earthly one — especially if the earthly one is enthusiastically contributing to the town’s bell tower! Bernardo di Quintavalle and Chiara Offreduccio were right in step with Francis, all of them feeling disquiet about what was going on. Capitalism was being born; and they weren’t having it. When the first Franciscans did the opposite of the new capitalists their parents were becoming, they felt joy. They gave away instead of hoarded, they served instead of paying as little as possible to their servants, they looked toward getting less than getting more, they shared instead of competing. They suffered, but they felt a kind of joy they had only dreamed of.

After Francis “stole” a bolt of cloth to pay for repairs he felt commanded to make at the church in San Damiano, he came out of hiding a month later to face the consequences. That’s when he gave back everything he had from his father, including his name, and walked out of Assisi naked. His father cursed him every time he saw him from then on. When Francis went to town, he asked a beggar to go with him. Should his father see him and curse him, the beggar made the sign of the cross over him to provide a fatherly blessing. People thought he was nuts.

On my retreat in Assisi, I realized I had rejected my father’s capitalist dreams for me at about the same age Francis did. He said he would no longer pay for my room and board if I did not get back on course to becoming a lawyer. Instead, I threw it all away to build the church. My father did not curse me, but he certainly thought I was a fool. I felt inexpressible freedom.

Francis was a fool. And even though he is still loved by millions, the Comcast Tower looms over us. Capitalism and science have transformed the world and we are afraid to raise our children to be actual Jesus-followers because it is like sending them into the wilderness. Who will marry a Christian? How will they get food? Will they be happy if they feel guilty for having a Cuisinart while thousands of Africans are about to starve to death this week? If they don’t line up with Eurocentric supremacy, will they be rejected and impoverished?  Don’t they need to get the best schooling so they can keep up with the process of death-defying nanotechnology?

There are many good examples for our rebellion

What do you think? Have you ever rebelled against your parents, who are very likely ancestors of the first capitalists who called Francis (and maybe you) a fool? Jesus needed to rebel against his family, and they wanted to follow God! It says, “The crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind’” (Mark 3:20-21). Much more do we need to rebel against a society that follows Mammon, evaluating every minute as to its profit or loss.

We have many good examples of how to rebel. I think Francis of Assisi is still a great example. But you could just visit Jess and Josh Mints for a lesson on urban farming over in Kensington. Or look at our thrift store directors: Martha Grace for our Circle Thrift stores and Christina Saritsoglou for Philly AIDS Thrift, who work for lower than normal wages to serve their cause. Talk to any number of the social workers and teachers among us. Or investigate the community houses like the Simple Way. Get to know the foster parents. Get to know the Debt Annihilation Team. Befriend an MCC worker. Imagine what it is like to be your pastor working for a relatively low wage, trusting the body to take care of his or her family. These are all rebellious choices against capitalist ancestors. Every time you create community in your cell, use the Share Board and create a Common Fund, you are also creating an alternative.

Your phone might have been beeping your next obligation to Big Brother while you were reading this. We are being watched over by a huge web of technology. But every beep is another opportunity to do the opposite, in some joyful, subversive way in order to freely follow Jesus!

Francis and Jesus will erode your control fantasies for good

    Jesus spoke to Francis from this cross.

Preaching to the birds was miraculous, not cute

A few years after Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) had been quickly canonized (1228), the learned Franciscans who took over the order were already distributing an “authorized” and sanitized biography of him penned by St. Bonaventure. He and his cronies ordered Brother Leo’s collection of stories destroyed (1266). Many of the brothers did not follow the order. When you read the stories his friends told, they present a man who should not have been sentimentalized inThomas Celano’s Little Flowers and turned into a birdbath  or turned into a soulless moral lesson by Bonaventure.

I’m here in Assisi, which is a lovely, spit-shined shrine to Italy’s patron saint. There is plenty or birdbath Francis to be found in the stores lining the pilgrim ways. There is plenty of Bonaventure’s classier Francis  as well . A street sweeper is rumbling outside my window as I write, making sure the dirty 1200’s and Francis’ Lady Poverty loving beggars are not allowed in the city for too long.

Yet Francis and his Jesus do manage to leak through the well-managed 21st century. I met Jesus again on the original San Damiano cross (above) yesterday in Clare’s church. A replica of the one that spoke to Francis is outside the city at the little church where Francis received his life changing call. I heard the message again and, of course, put it on Instagram: “Go and rebuild my church, which, as you can see, is fallen into ruin.”

Statue of Francis and his war horse ready to give up their armor at the entry to the Basilica.

Before there were capitalists, there were butterflies

I first witnessed the scene of Francis’ revelation in Brother Sun Sister Moon, the 70s version of the uncontrollable story . I religiously watch it every October 4. From my first steps of adult faith I felt moved to do my part in the rebuilding. I think we are doing OK, so far. But the church is a bigger wreck than ever in the U.S., preoccupied with sex, trying to control how people deal with reproduction instead of meeting and demonstrating the Alternative: the half-naked Jesus on the cross, speaking more outrageous sermons from his new “mount.” The church not only generally despises voluntary poverty, it persecutes people who don’t get in bed with capitalists and support the huge military it takes to prevent any hint of mutuality. But we keep building.

Yesterday morning, as I began my retreat in earnest, I wondered how many stories from the early days of the Lord’s movement in me, or in Circle of Hope, I have suppressed. Now I have Bonaventure-like credentials, and the financial ability to spit-shine my environment —or at least to buy some more illusion of control, do I present a more socially acceptable version of me and of us? As I wrote that line a chorus of church bells began to ring, announcing 7:30am. My attention was turned to the chorus of birds celebrating  a beautiful Umbrian day.

I suspect the Lord will be able to disrupt me, and you, no matter how many ways we find to subdue his impact. Later at mass at San Damiano, a butterfly flew through the window and fluttered over the priests just as we sang the Gloria. It was not only a fitting tribute to Franco Zeffirelli (RIP), but to the Lord, who asks us to stop trying to control nature and join him in it, tending it together for glory, not just using it for pleasure or profit.

Tagged with “cult”

Ouch. I got tagged with the title “cult” by an indirect shot from one of my relatives. I also heard that quite a few people in the church think other people think our church is a cult! That hurts – at least when I say cult, I don’t mean it in a good way.

“Cult” is not good

Sometimes the label “cult” is just a metaphor, like when you are talking about veneration and devotion cult of elvisdirected toward a particular figure or an object. Like “the cult of Elvis.” But that kind of odd devotion can turn religious too. For instance, my dear St. Francis is credited for starting eucharistic adoration in Italy which is veneration for an object: the “host” for the presence of Jesus. I suspect people thought he was a cult leader.

Most times “cult” is used to label a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister – like “a network of Satan-worshiping cults.” I suppose the relatively small Brethren in Christ, as a whole, is considered strange or sinister by somebody. There are quite a few members of Circle of Hope who would be disappointed if we were not considered strange, but I don’t think they would like to be seen as sinister. In the Roman Empire, Christians in general were sometimes considered a cult because they worshiped Jesus rather than the Roman gods. In South Philly there are a lot of Catholics who think Protestants in general are part of a cult and vice versa.

It’s all about the Kool-Aid

The term “cult” is often used to describe any organization but particularly religious ones in which people (often young people) have a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.  People say, “There is a cult of personality surrounding the leader,” or people are “drinking the Kool-aid.” The label “cult” can hurt people who get tagged by it, for whatever reason, because the term carries so much negative meaning. A woman reported that her sister was accused of being in a cult just because she preferred hanging out with Christian friends rather than going out drinking with other friends. She might have been in with a group of people that was unlike the norm (because they devotedly followed Christ), but she certainly wasn’t following a harmful faith.

Mimi and Eunice on cult habits
Mimi and Eunice on the matter

A  commonly used summary lists the traits of a religious group that could be called a cult:

  1. Exclusive. They may say, “We’re the only ones with the truth; everyone else is wrong” and “If you leave our group your salvation is in danger.”
  2. Secretive. Certain teachings are not available to outsiders or they’re presented only to certain members, sometimes after taking vows of confidentiality.
  3. Restrictive or coercive. A human leader or structure expects total loyalty and unquestioned obedience.
  4. Unorthodox revelations. They distort the Bible or come up with another book as foundational.

Christians, in general, recognize that Jesus has followers in many different denominations and nondenominational congregations, large and small. We have an adaptable and variegated faith. We don’t believe that the truth is available only to a select few—instead, salvation through Jesus is open to everyone and the Lord is our leader above any human leader.

Even though we don’t qualify, we decided we needed to put a tagline of our own on some of our advertising to deter potential taggers: “Circle of Hope: affiliated with the Brethren in Christ – Pennsylvania natives since 1780.” Maybe that might roll back any impressions that we are any weirder than the people who think we are “one of those cults” like the Presbyterians or something (that’s just a joke, Presbyterians are Christians, too).

So what if you get accused?

An accusation is often as good as a conviction these days. People who are falsely accused seem to be filling up the jails. Tales of being falsely accused at work and becoming the subject of an investigation are not that unusual. Circle of Hope has been taken down with false accusations a few times in the newspaper. So excuse me if I seem a little hypervigilant when I hear it through the grapevine that we are being accused of being a cult. Here are some things suggested by Dr. Phil (really, and I am not too fond of Phil) that might help anyone feeling falsely accused:

  • It can be destructive to be accused. A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends (Proverbs 16:28). I need to accept that it happened and deal with it. These things don’t just go away.
  • There is guilt by accusation. People hear something negative and tend to believe it. If you accuse a person unfairly, he/she still has that twinge — just from having the finger pointed at him/her. I feel that. I need to admit it.
  • But it is not THAT big of a deal. I may feel damaged but Jesus is still my Savior. My internal dialogue might need a redirect into more truthful and hopeful territory.
  • Besides, what other people label me is not necessarily who I am. Jesus calls me by name. Am I part of a cult? The answer is no. The other person might be hurting me, but that is their problem.
  • We need to talk about this (thus, this post). Sharing the problem is one thing that could help someone who is weighed down by an accusation or is scared about having a poor reputation with a few people we’d rather did not notice us (mainly because they tell lies about us).
  • Maybe I should try to find the people who actually think we’re a cult and have a face-to-face dialogue. I’ve only heard a rumor; I’ve never talked to anyone who thinks I’m weird in a bad way. But conversation might dispel some questions.
  • I’m mainly going to let it go and let God deal with it. If people say things behind my back, I can wait to react until they say it when I turn around. Until then, there is nothing to feel guilty about. It is possible that people are dive bombing us with their own stuff. Maybe they would like to intimidate because that is their thing. Since I don’t know, I’m not locking myself in the prison of some perverse possibility.

Has something like this ever happened to you, or have you been aware of it happening to us? If it it is just one bit of slander it can spread like poison until the whole body is tainted by it. So chances are, you may have heard this word applied to us, too. It feels bad. Try to be someone and there is likely to be at least one person who will try to get you back into the world as they know it. Try to follow Jesus in the way he is going and the takedown factor doubles.

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