The Readings for the Memorial of Francis of Assisi
Thursday in the 26th Week of Ordinary Time (B2)
Ite : ecce ego mitto vos sicut agnos inter lupos. Nolite portare sacculum, neque peram, neque calceamenta.
Go: Behold I send you as lambs among wolves. Carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes.
Mister Bilbo Baggins ran out of his house one fine Spring morning with no hat, no stick, no coat, not even a pocket handkerchief! How can one survive? He asked. He had been roused from his sleepy life by a Sorcier Provocateur and ran off to rescue some treasure on behalf of 13 dwarves he had just met. Yes, there was a promise of reward, and sure, there was the treat of death. But at heart was a new
…love of beautiful things.
To go and see the great mountains…
…and hear the pine trees
To wear a sword instead of a walking stick.
A chapter later, standing in rain trying to pick the pockets of a troll, the formerly staid and middle class Mr Baggins realizes he’s come a far way from home, indeed, although he’s only a week or two’s journey out.
And then, only a few pages later, standing in the dark, talking to someone he cannot see, he says,
I’ve lost my dwarves, my wizard, and my way.
It may seem odd to consider this children’s story on the Feast of St Francis, but I’m familiar with both stories – from about the exact same time in my life – and I think they run a sharp parallel. About the time I fell in love with the Hobbit, I met for the first time my cousin, Greg, who was a novice in the Conventual Franciscan Order. I remember reading my first book about the Life of St Francis just after that. This is 1977. Yet, only in my most recent read through The Hobbit (just a month ago did I notice: the Hobbit takes the light half of the year, beginning in mid-April and ending with the Battle of Five Armies in late November of that same year. (The main story arc for the sequel, The Lord of the Rings, begins in Late September and ends in March of the following Spring, thereby covering the dark half of the year.) In the course of the Summer, the Hobbit “dies” to his old self, then slays the dragon, and returns home loaded with riches, returning to find even his home looted and all his goods sold off.
The Hobbit, written by a pious Catholic, is not allegory not at all. But it is a very solid building built of very Catholic bricks. Bilbo travels the Via Negativa, giving up his staid life and becoming a hero. It’s the sort of story that Francis, with his love of Trouveres and Troubadours, would have greatly enjoyed.
And so Francis, reading the passage we have today, where Christ sent them out with neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes takes it all quite literally and strips himself bare in front of his father and the entire village, saying “Henceforth I will have God as my Father and the Church as my Mother.” And he, too, set out on a strange journey, giving up everything he had, slays the dragon of sin, and wins the riches of Christ. He has no home to return to, since he has given it all away.
A Jungian or a follower of Joseph Campbell might read The Hobbit and find himself saying “We must all take this journey.” Francis, I think, would agree. But the modern, secular, mythologist or therapist would not care what we lost and what we gained. Francis would care that we lost everything and gained Christ.
That is the message Francis give us in reality – which Tolkien only does in sign.
To find Christ is our own goal. He is as near as our neighbor. As near as the leper we won’t touch, as near as the woman smelling of urine on the bus.
But we must let go of everything that stands between us and Christ. We must drop the middle class crap, the idea of class and snobbery, we must kill the dragon of pride and greed, we must in the end, give up even our sight, our defense, our certainty. There, in the dark we will will find Christ – who has been waiting, searching, longing for us.
St Francis, at the end of his life found Christ coming to him, to make the hidden marks upon his soul to wound his flesh visibly. And the very type of Christ that he had become inwardly was now seen beyond.
And as we, too, are conformed to Christ, here, or later, we will see him.
The Prophet St Job assures us:
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then from my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
Process that: when my skin is destroyed, even then, in my very flesh I shall see God. The Flesh may die, but I shall stand in my flesh before God, my Redeemer.
That’s the greatest adventure: to go through all the trials and loves, the losses and victories of this world to die and then, in my flesh, to see God face to face.