My school report was so bad that my eldest brother was commissioned with the task of teaching me to read. But when he could not even manage to teach me how to read the Beano, he resigned his commission and commended me to St Jude of hopeless cases. But even St Jude failed. It seems that in those days it was not only in school, but in heaven too, that dyslexia was unheard of. St Anthony was the only real friend that I had. Most people who now know about dyslexia still do not realise how it affects your short term memory. That is where St Anthony came in. He might not have known much about dyslexia, but he was able to find the things that I was always losing. It was through him that I found St Francis of Assisi who may not have been dyslexic, but on his own admission he had little more than an elementary school education.
As so often with people who have little education, they can often see complex truths far more simply than those befuddled with too much knowledge, especially if they have access to the wisdom that is not taught in schools. St. Francis is a case in point; the moment he experienced God’s love reaching out to him as he prayed before the Cross in the little Church of San Damiano, he immediately saw what he must do. If God is full of love and only wishes to give this love to others, then Francis decided to spend the rest of his life trying to receive it and handing it on to others. What else could possibly be more worthwhile? That is why he spent so much time in prayer receiving more and more of God’s love suffusing his own, enabling him to return what he had received in kind. This was how he received profound insights about God and about his plan for us that few had seen in quite the same way before or since.
The Greek philosopher, Plato, said that the world is a prison. Shakespeare said that all the world is a stage, and the men and women merely players, and a President of the United States said that all the world was a market place, and the men and women merely buyers and sellers. But for St Francis of Assisi, all the world was a friary, and everyone and everything within it were therefore brothers and sisters to one another. It is not just Brother Francis and Sister Clare then, but Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Wolf and Sister Lamb, Sister Flower and Brother Tree, Brother Fire and Sister Water, for the whole of creation is a brotherhood and sisterhood with a common Father in whose embrace all were created from the beginning. Pope Saint John Paul II named St. Francis the patron saint “of those who promote ecology” in 1979. After all, if you believe that water is your sister you do not pour petrochemical waste into her. You do not fill her with garbage and effluent either, nor with every conceivable plastic that man has made in the last fifty years or more. If the trees are our brothers, then you do not fell them in their millions for money, making hundreds of thousands homeless, destroying their food and habitat and endangering the ecology of the whole world.
As the story of Francis unfolds further, it is full of his love for his brothers and sisters, the birds, the animals, the trees and the plants and even inanimate things who listened to him and obeyed him, beginning with the birds of Cannara and Bevagna who listened to him preaching when nobody else would! When he tells the swallows to remain silent at Alviano so that his listeners can hear what he is saying, they obey him. When he asks the falcon to wake him in the night for prayer, it does so, and when he orders the man-eating wolf to stop attacking the villagers of Gubbio, it obeys. But most of all it is full of his love for Brother Jesus who emptied himself of everything to enter into the world that was created through him, and in him, just so that he could enter into us.
In the first chapter of St John’s Gospel we are given the world-shaking news that God’s Son, whom he calls The Word, in whom and through whom all things were created in the beginning, is now made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He is now not only Brother Jesus in whom all things were created, but the supreme King of that Creation, who has come to rule over all by releasing into it the love that he experienced from eternity, flowing between him and his Father. Defying gravity that pulls all things down, this love would raise all things up and into Christ the King. Then, through him, back from where he had originally come, to the place where God had originally conceived us, as the place of our final destiny to experience love beyond measure and to all eternity. I used the phrase ‘where God had originally conceived us’ because for Francis and his later followers, the very moment when God conceived his plan to share his inmost life and love with us, was the moment when Mary was conceived. If his Word was to be made flesh to bring this about, then he would need to have a mother. Nor did God conceive that this mother would be anything other than an Immaculate Mother for she was to give birth to and to nurture his Immaculate Son.
The most important of the later followers of St. Francis, who developed his vision in his own unique theology was Blessed John Duns Scotus, who was beatified by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1993. As his name suggests he was a Scotsman whose family originally came from the town of Duns in the Scottish Borders a few decades after St Francis had died. He argued that the very moment God freely decided that the Word would be made flesh, then that very decision included a human mother; how else would he be made flesh? As Scotus put it – If God wills an end he must will the means. This was obviously before creation had taken place in space and time, so his mother would have been conceived perfect in every way, as the mother of the Word to be made flesh, or if you like, Immaculate. She would be totally free from the sin contracted later by human beings. When sin did eventually stain humankind, God made sure that the human Mother of his human Son remained exactly as he had originally intended, as he had originally conceived her, otherwise his plan would be in jeopardy. It was inconceivable for a woman warped by sin and selfishness to give birth to and bring up a perfect man destined to be the King of all creation. And besides, should God’s plan be thwarted or changed because of the sinful behaviours of human beings?
It was for these reasons amongst others, that at the beginning of the fourteenth century Scotus was the greatest champion of the Immaculate Conception. He was furthermore in the minority, sometimes of one, as he defended this doctrine against all comers most particularly against the Thomists. For they had all been brought up to believe that original sin affected all mankind including Our Lady. Many bitter battles were fought over this doctrine until it was finally defined De fide by the Church in 1854. Four years later when a French peasant girl, called Bernadette, asked the beautiful lady who appeared to her, who she was, she replied, “Je suis l’Immaculée Conception.”
Although Scotus was a student at Paris only a few decades after Thomas Aquinas, he differed from him in this. From all eternity, eons before and quite independent of man’s fall from grace, God’s plan was to create all things in the ‘Word’, and then the ‘Word’ would be made flesh as his masterwork, to be the King of Creation – Christ the King. He would rule with a love powerful enough to penetrate everyone and draw them up into his mystical body. There, in, with and though him, they would be caught up into the life and loving that endlessly surges to and fro between the Father and the Son.
There was only one thing that could sabotage this plan. Just as God had freely chosen to love in order to share his life with others, these others would have to be made free to choose to love him in return. However, as their failure was not part of God’s initial plan, it did not stop Christ coming, because he was coming anyway. Unlike his contemporaries then, it was quite unthinkable for Scotus to countenance for a moment that God’s sublime plan conceived for others to share in his own glory, should be scrapped because of the behavior of creatures made from ‘the slime of the earth’. We may well have been taught at school that Christ came because Adam had committed an infinite sin in being disobedient to God, but this is a theory that Scotus rejects. He rejected it because it makes God’s plan dependent on human sinfulness. To St Francis and to John Duns Scotus this idea was quite inconceivable.
Although Scotus developed a whole new theology to explain the simple vision of St Francis, St Francis had something far more important to do. He wanted to show people the love of God in such a way that it could move their hearts and help them to generate the love that could take them up into Christ their King. That is why he built the first Crib at Greccio a little town in the Rieti Valley. It was to move peoples’ hearts and stain their minds and their memories with the incredible truth of just how much God loves us, to come amongst us as a helpless baby in a wooden crib, to fill us with his love and joy that can transform us as it transformed St Francis into the man his contemporaries called, ‘the Second Christ’. It is often forgotten that Christ was a man full of joy, and that is why he said to his disciples at the Last Supper that he wanted to share the joy that filled him, with them (John 15:11-12). While St Francis was preaching at the first Crib, the little statue that he lifted out of the manger came alive and he came alive with an infectious joy that filled the whole congregation, sending them away in a state of ecstatic joy. If only everyday was Christmas day, it could do for us what it did for St Francis and his listeners on that holy night.
It was his inner joy that drew the first disciples to Jesus and then drew others to them as this infectious inner joy won the hearts and minds of a pagan world and turned it into a Christian world. The message of this Christmas and every Christmas, is that, given open and welcoming hearts, we too can all be filled with the joy that animated Jesus, his first disciples and Francis and his followers, to do what they all did in their day. What they did was to proclaim loud and clear, not so much by what they said, but by the joy that radiated out of them, that Christ is not dead, but alive and well in all who would receive him. Then, at last, Christ the King can begin again, through us, to transform our modern pagan world as he once transformed the ancient pagan world, into his Kingdom of love, of joy, and of justice and peace; to become a friary where we can be like, and act like, brothers and sisters to each other in the One who is the All in All, who first chose to become a helpless baby in a wooden crib, in the little town of Bethlehem, two thousand years ago.
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