Sunday, January 17, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week Three ~ St. Francis of Assisi

Back when I was in junior high school in a small town in Arkansas, our chorus director, Mr. Jones, recorded a piece with the high school chorus: “Lord, Make Me an Instrument,” with the subtitle "The Prayer of St. Francis." I don’t remember if someone gave me a copy of the album or if I scraped together the money to buy one, but I listened to it over and over. I had no idea who this St. Francis was, and given my particular Christian upbringing I had qualms about calling him capital-S “Saint,” but I loved the song dearly and was always disappointed that we never sang it during my own three years in the high school chorus.

 In college, thanks to a scholarship and a tuition break due to my dad teaching for the college, I did something that as a young girl from Arkansas whose mom stayed home and dad worked for this small Christian college I had not really even dreamed of – I spent a semester in Florence, Italy, a program our college had only initiated a couple of years earlier. Though I didn't make it to Assisi that spring, I began to realize that the song I'd loved so much in high school had a connection to a man who had lived not far from Florence and whose name and image appeared here and there around town and in other parts of Italy, too. And I began to get used to referring to people and places with the capital-S “Saint” as part of the name.

 After college, another dream I’d never dreamed came true: I returned to Florence to live and work for two years. This led to all kinds of experiences, of course. At one point a Florentine friend couldn't believe some of us had not seen the 1972 Zeffirelli film Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and insisted that we watch it together. That was the first time I began to have at least some idea who this St. Francis of Assisi was, and why his name and influence had spread so far. The hippie style of the movie didn’t exactly appeal to me, but then one Saturday a group of us made a day trip to Assisi, and my casual curiosity turned into something more like awe as I soaked in more of the story of St. Francis, both the history and the legends, and just the beauty of a life that had touched so many lives and continued to hundreds of years later.

 A seemingly unrelated experience from my time there was that at one point I had a medical problem that meant I really needed to see a doctor. I wound up meeting and talking with a young doctor who was friend of my friends, so I called her by her first name, Chiara. I knew that as a word meaning “clear” and also “light,” and I decided then and there that if I were Italian, I would want my name to be Chiara, and that if I ever had reason to use a pseudonym, that would be it! (This was back when I had dreams of further literature study, an MFA, and who knows what else.)

 At some point, my church back home in Arkansas had added a new song to the hymnal, "All Creatures of Our God and King." Being a true Arkansan lover of nature, I loved the song from the first time we sang it, and I realized with joy that this was a translation of the poem I had learned about in language school in Florence.

 And so, when this Georgia-born girl who grew up in Arkansas, married a Croatian man she’d met during her years in Italy, we had both "The Prayer of St. Francis" and "All Creatures of Our God and King" sung in the ceremony. I knew by then that the first had no historical connection to Francis, but the words of the song certainly seemed appropriate to his way of life and expressed what we hoped for in our married life. I was determined to return to Assisi and to learn more about St. Francis. In the 25 years since then, I’ve been able to visit Assisi two or three more times, and while I have certainly not learned all I would like to, both St. Francis and St. Claire have become significant influences in my life. And of course I realized at some point that our English name Claire is actually Chiara, and the name I had fallen in love with belonged to this friend and follower of St Francis.

 We lived the first few years of our marriage in Croatia, and it so happened that those were the years of the war with Serbia, who then also attacked Bosnia. It was my first experience with war “up close and personal,” and also my first time to meet people who had lost literally everything they had. Our church quickly became an outpost for a humanitarian aid organization “Mir na Zemlji” (Peace on Earth.) It was also my first time to meet Muslim people, and despite the horrible war that drug religion into its mess motivated by power-money-and-land, I saw Christians and Muslims live as friends and neighbors, and one dear Muslim woman refugee even became a Christian and joined our ministry of helping the refugees pouring into the city.

 Some years later, when we moved to the States, that experience led both to my own therapy for PTSD and also led to my decision to get a counseling degree, even though my original degree was in English, and I had for years imagined that I might become a college English professor. Instead, a desire grew to use my skills as a therapist to work with the poorest of the poor in our city, leading me to work with an organization which served people on minimal insurance, those who had no insurance, homeless people, and resettled refugees. It was for me a beautiful and challenging time of life, and I was encouraged by various reading I did of St. Francis’ writings.

 It was during that time that I read Daniel Spoto’s Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi, and also during that time that I was able to spend three days in Assisi by myself, staying in a convent
guesthouse, visiting churches, walking up Mt. Subasio, learning from a friar/tour guide and from people who lived in the city. And spending a lot of time alone with the sun, the wind, the ancient olive trees, walking the stony streets that wound around up and down the hilly city, watching the sunrise and the stars from the window in my tiny convent room, and imagining Francis walking these same streets, seeing these trees, and of course praying in the same places. I especially loved the trees up on Mt. Subiaso; they seemed to dance for joy up in that clear air, and I could easily see how this became a place where St. Francis and his brothers loved to be.

Backing up a bit, all of this combined with the fact that three years before this trip, a friend had invited me to a retreat with John Michael Talbot in Eureka Springs, where I learned that he and his community had a strong connection to the Franciscan order. The week I spent on that Arkansas mountain changed my life in ways I’m still realizing, and so the sense of connection to St. Francis, and St. Claire, deepened from literal mountaintop experiences on both sides of the ocean. This Georgia girl who grew up in Arkansas never could have imagined it. And I probably wouldn’t have believed it if anyone had told me that the first album by John Michael that I bought, purely because I loved the image on the cover and the title, would begin with a song whose lyrics came from St. Claire and end with what are believed to be the last words of St. Francis written to St. Claire and her sisters.

 I grew up hearing people express amazement with an incredulous, “Will wonders never cease?!” The
longer I live, the more I am convinced they will not. A few years after my stay in Assisi, who could have predicted that my dad would gift me with a book that would tie all this together. That my dad, a retired English professor, gave me a book was no surprise. That he knew very little of what I’ve just shared (and much that I have not shared) made this book more of a surprise.

 The book was called Sweet River Fool, written by Larry Hunt, the English professor who had inherited my dad’s position when he retired. And the surprise was that this man with a background in Georgia, living in Arkansas, raised in the same church background that didn’t call anyone “Saint” with a capital S, had written a book about how the life of St. Francis connects with and changes the life of a homeless man.

 The entry for “Francis of Assisi” in Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia says that by some estimates more books have been written about Francis of Assisi than about any other man. I haven’t tried to verify that, and I certainly haven’t read very many of them. My friendship with St. Francis has come through just a few writings, a lot of travel and seeing his influence all over Europe and in the U.S., through music, and through a shared love of nature.

 But if I were going to recommend only one book for someone to read about this man—not for scholarly reasons but to understand why his life made such a difference— if it were to be the only book they would ever read, it just might be Hunt’s Sweet River Fool. Because in the course of the story, by means of the main character Snody reading a children’s book about St. Francis, we are given the main stories that form the canon of what most people think of when they think of St. Francis. We learn about his chosen poverty, his love for God, his call, his love of creation, his caring for the needy, his joyful spirit, his life of prayer.

 Early in the book, homeless Snody is passed out “drunk as a skunk” and kindly Officer Lucas comes to him and says, “Wake up, Snody. Wake up.” The story that follows shows how the love of God through the life of St. Francis (even in a children’s book left in a dumpster) can wake up the heart, mind, and spirit of a man who in the eyes of the world has no reason to wake up and in fact would in some ways prefer to just stay asleep and let life pass him by.

 Hunt shares Snody’s adventures, interspersed with short readings from the life of St. Francis that inform and guide Snody along the way. His creativity brings centuries-old stories into everyday life, making the building of a church, the calming of a wolf, the crossing into enemy territory to do good seem not like far-away legendary tales, but here-and-now possibilities. Anyone who grew up in Georgia, Arkansas, or anywhere in the South will feel right at home with these stories and the dialogue--even as they recognize Assisi, Subiaso, Gubio, and other places and other conversations if they are familiar with the stories from St. Francis’ life. It’s impossible for me to know for sure how this book would affect someone unfamiliar with the life of St. Francis, but from the reviews on Amazon, it is clear that I am not the only one who has been brought to tears by its simple, beautiful, and humorous story of the power of love.

Earlier this year, taking a break from graduate studies reading, I read Sweet River Fool through a second time. (Oh, there’s another one of those things this small-town Southern girl could not have imagined, that she’s now in the third year of a DMin degree in spiritual formation.) I had the book with me on a visit to my parents’ house. They don’t live anymore in the country where I mostly grew up, but their house in town has a fairly big yard, and I was sitting on the back porch with Hunt’s book and a glass of cold water, as it was July and already hot by seven in the morning.  Just before my dad left on an errand, twenty-five to thirty birds flew in and began a little routine of taking turns perching on the edge of the roof near the porch, never all settled at once, but always forming a cute little lineup with several in the air, coming and going so that you could never quite count them all.

 I went in the house and pointed them out to my dad, he said they were martins and came from a neighbor's house, where she has several martin houses. He then left, and I stayed at the large dining room window, watching the birds. I'm so glad I did, because in a moment, the back porch area turned into an aerial dance performance.

 The taking turns routine along the gutter of the house was only a warm-up. At some apparent signal they all understood, these amazing creatures began swooping and swaying, circling all over the area in front of the porch, sometimes coming up under the porch's edge, but mostly staying out over the patio where the yellow lantana lines one end and multicolored moss rose stretches toward the sun from its faded black cast iron kettle.  From where I stood at the window, looking outside, it was just amazing. What had been a piece of empty sky had been transformed into a beautiful ballet of harmony and life.

 Children were playing in the neighbor's yard nearby, laughing and talking as they ran around in their own little dance of joy. The martins flew just a few feet in front of and above me, gracefully criss-crossing and managing to soar in a space no larger than an average dining room. If, like spiders, they spun web while doing this dance, I wonder if we would then see an intricate pattern left behind? It seemed so beautifully choreographed, spontaneously exuberant and purposeful at the same time.

 Because I knew the stories of St. Francis and of Snody, and because this was so joyfully beautiful, tears came to my eyes as I felt heaven and earth mingling unexpectedly, mingling even with my own little life.  And then, after a few minutes, they flew away. From what I gather, martins, swallows, and larks are all related and have similar flying patterns. If what I witnessed was anything like watching larks, I can see why someone at some time decided the best way to describe a group of them in flight was with the word "exaltation."

 That moment will remain with me whenever I think of St. Francis, just like the moment years
before when I stood in the centuries-old olive grove in Assisi in my brown sweater with its hood, and the wind blew so strong for so long, I could not shake the sense that the Spirit was in that place and I had better pay attention and listen and learn.

 Larry Hunt’s book brings heaven and earth together. He shows us what it means for a life to be exalted and touched by God’s love, and how that love brings people and other of God’s creatures together as instruments of peace. My own life has been blessed by repeated connections to the life of St. Francis and St. Claire. I love these words from Daniel Spoto’s book, which make sense of that capital-S “Saint” word, and which Hunt’s fictional Snody illustrates well, offering hope for all the real people who would be saints:
How much more credible and moving are the truer accounts of those who endured daily struggles, to remain true to their beliefs--those who constantly had to battle temptations to discouragement and despair; those who suffered physically, emotionally and psychologically; those who felt betrayed and abandoned . . . .holiness is certainly (like conversion) a lifelong process, and genuine saints probably never think about it. Their energies are directed toward God, not toward a consideration of their own merits or excellence. Most of all, their lives proclaim to the world the existence of a reality that transcends it.
Sheila Vamplin is a local friend whom I met quite a while ago in ROFTers meetings, but whom I only got to know well fairly about a year ago through conversations on Facebook, which only goes to show what a strange world we live in. She has her own lovely blog here.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.


  1. This is so interesting, Sheila. Thanks so much for writing it.


  2. Thank you for inviting me to write it! It was really a joyful thing to think back on all of this and see it woven together in one piece. And I'm looking forward to reading each new post that is yet to come.

  3. This is great. The stories about St Francis, and things like the "Make me an instrument..." prayer, are so common that I've gotten to where I don't really notice or appreciate them. This brings his example and influence to life again. Thank you.

    1. I'm so thankful if this writing did that for you. Even though I grew up with that song, the story (and stories) of his life were, clearly, new to me when I encountered them as an adult. Now that I am more familiar with how much has been written about him (and how his name has been co-opted for all kinds of ideas and causes), I can certainly see how one could develop a sort of immunity, so to speak, to his reputation. It's not perhaps only that familiarity breeds contempt but also that overfamiliarity breeds something like a sense of entitlement to define him however various people have wanted to over the years. I heard an interview with Augustine Thompson about his 2012 biography of St. Francis, and I really look forward to reading it for the very reason that he worked hard to "avoid both romantic piety and academic hypercriticism," as one reviewer put it. It looks good.

  4. I'm delighted to have discovered that switching browsers enables me to comment here (I was beginning to think it was something personal!) so I can finally say how much I enjoyed reading this.

  5. Well, I am also delighted. I'm so glad you figured out what to do.