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Saints and Sinners

by Deborah Streeter




Is Francis the Saint of Peace?

Here is the fifth of seven weekly reflections I’m writing about St. Francis and St. Clare from my time in Assisi this fall.  Coming up in next two weeks – “Going Naked for Christ” (as Francis did) and “The Friendly Beasts – Francis and the First Public Nativity Scene.”  Today – the Saint of Peace.  (These reflections are unapologetically Christian, my spiritual tradition.)

The “Prayer of St. Francis” is beloved, profound, countercultural.  Adopted and affirmed by people of all religions and no religion, it is sung in churches, calligraphed on cards, prominent in self-help groups.  Dorothy Day prayed it daily.  Bill Wilson put it in the AA literature. 

20th century peace movements made this prayer their anthem, and they dubbed it “The Peace Prayer.”


     Lord make me an instrument of your peace.
     Where there is hatred let me sow love.
     Where there is injury, pardon.
     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.
     And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


Only problem is -  Francis of Assisi did not write this prayer.  It only first appeared in print, in French, in 1913.  Nothing close to these words are found in his writings or legends.  But by 1930 this prayer had been translated, published, adopted, memorized and sung, over and over, all around the world.  And ascribed to Francis, who had been dead for 700 years.

That’s what saints do, my teacher in Assisi told us on our fall retreat there, they are “generative,” their lives are gifts that keep on giving, even after they die.  What they “really” did or said while alive is important, otherwise we would not know of them.  But what makes them saints is that their lives and legacies keep on inspiring and magnifying. 

Both Francis and his colleague Clare have been described as “mirrors” of Christ, meaning they reflect and reveal and shine the life and teachings of Christ for generations to come. 

But I would add that they are not just mirrors, but also magnifying glasses; the pretty simple, and sometimes very difficult lives of folks we call saints shine larger and brighter and deeper as time passes and as folks in different locations are inspired by them.

In a fascinating book, “St. Francis of America” Patricia Applebaum chronicles how each generation of Americans has appropriated or magnified a particular aspect of Francis’ life and teachings, depending on the issues and needs of the time.  In the 60’s hippies portrayed Francis as a barefoot groovy guy.  More recently environmentalists have canonized him as the patron saint of ecology.  Earlier, 50’s landscape architects created the first Francis birdbath to bring a friendly gentle guy into New England formal gardens.

And in the first half of the 20th century, Americans (and Europeans) disillusioned that the “war to end all wars” did no such thing, and despairing that the Depression was further squeezing life out of people’s bodies and souls, found in the anonymous words of the so-called Prayer of St. Francis some hope, some powerful encouragement to be instruments of peace.  Religious writers and peace activists like Quaker Rufus Jones cited the prayer over and over.

And recently, in the 21st century, authors and peace activists have appropriated Francis in a new way as an advocate for interreligious dialogue – they praise him for a heretofore less known but well documented story, that in 1219 Francis travelled to Egypt to meet with a prominent Muslim leader, preaching reconciliation not only in Christian Italy, but in the entire multicultural, multi-religious Mediterranean and Near East.  How cool and worldly is this simple small-town guy?

Icon of Francis and the Sultan is by Brother Robert Lentz, OFMBack to the so-called “Prayer of St. Francis” - does it matter that Francis didn’t “actually” write it?    Francis left very few written words of his own – he was actually sort of anti-intellectual and a very reluctant codifier of faithful behavior.  What little we know of him is augmented by collections of legends and biographies by followers and authorized Papal accounts.   In none of these collections and lives of Francis does he say anything like this prayer, or even, remarkably, say one word about being “peacemakers.”  His main message was that to follow Christ meant radical poverty, owning nothing.  Also humility.  And joy. 

But it should be noted that many of the Francis legends are about reconciliation (town of Gubbio and the wolf) or forgiveness (many stories of how the friars should get along) or how owning things inevitably leads to violence (he said friars should not have their own prayer book because they would just fight over who had a better book and want more and more books.)  So although he never said, “We should be peacemakers,” he was all about the prerequisites or practices or marks of peacemaking – reconciliation, forgiveness, sharing. 

But in the war torn 20th century, people were crying out more and more for peace, and Francis seemed like their guy.  His generative spirit inspired anti-Vietnam war sentiments, hippie churches, international peace conferences, writers from Tolstoy to Chesterton.

And now, in the 21st century, Francis’ peacemaking is taking on an even more expansive, global form – interreligious dialogue, in the rediscovery of the story of his remarkable trip to Egypt in 1219 to meet with the Muslim leader there, in an attempt to bring to an end the horribly destructive Fifth Crusade.  Two recent books – “St. Francis and the Sultan,” and “The Saint and Sultan” have promoted the idea that Francis undertook this dangerous journey across the sea, with no protection or weapons or advance team, not, as tradition told it, to try to convert the Sultan to Christianity, but, in this century’s retelling, to engage, one spiritual leader with another, in their common shared love of God and neighbor.  And their sacred call to peacemaking.  Whatever happened in that month of conversations, we know for sure that the Sultan surprisingly welcomed this barefoot crazy wanderer from the enemy camp as an equal, and a friendship grew.

The last day of our retreat, after a week of visiting 13th century churches and piazzas and homes, we visited the recently built Museum of Memory, commemorating the righteous citizens of Assisi who resisted the Germans in 1945, who on their retreat north out of Italy were slaughtering Jews and destroying ancient cities.  Thousands of Italian Jews, many of whose families had lived in Italy for centuries, streamed to Assisi, convinced that certainly the city of Francis and Clare, peacemakers, would welcome and shelter them.  As many local citizens as there were already in Assisi, 3-4000, the population was doubled by these refugees.  The local bishop, mayor, nuns, priests, simple citizens who worked in government and had printing presses to make fake documents, all worked together to hide and save thousands of Italian Jews.  The bishop even befriended the German commander assigned to Assisi, a Christian doctor from the same southern German town that later birthed Pope Benedict, and convinced him to look the other way, to hold off those intent on bombing the sacred places, to deter those searching for hiding Jews.  After the war this German was honored as a righteous Gentile.  Such is the generative power of Francis. 

That night at dinner we asked ourselves, in 2018, when they come to get us or others, where would be the safe places we could hope to be hidden and saved?

Was Francis a peacemaker?  Surely as any faithful follower of Jesus must love enemy and turn the other cheek and welcome all as children of God, yes, he was a peacemaker.  As one who saw how property and envy and fear turn us into competitors not lovers, yes, he called for reconciliation.  There is even a legend about him taking up a stick and pretending it was a violin bow and “playing” a song of joy to God.

So yes, he knew all about how we should all be “instruments” for God’s peace.  Even traveling to feared and foreign lands to learn new songs, songs of peace.  Let’s learn more about saints of the past.  And look for saints in our present, in our midst.

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter


Who Are My Family?

Still reflecting on my retreat last month on St. Francis and St. Clare.  Today I remember our conversation the day we hiked up Mt. Subasio.  When we set out on a journey, what must we leave behind?

"You know how Francis publicly rejected his father in the town square, announced to the crowd that from then on his only father was God?  How there is not one word in the written records, legends or canonization testimony about Francis ever again relating to his birth family, his mother or father or siblings? 

“Would you do that, if you sensed that God’s call to you meant you had to leave family behind completely?  Put another way, might it be that there are times or situations in our faith or life journey when we are just done with our family, just never need or want to see them again?”

That’s a question I asked my fellow hikers as we walked out of Assisi and 4 miles up the slopes of Mt. Subasio to the isolated forest caves where Francis and his first followers spent many days in solitude and prayer.  Like Jesus, they sometimes felt the need to escape the city and the crowds for some quiet and intense time with God.  Assisi is not a big city, but it has every city’s bustle and buildings and markets and obligations.  On that hike day, this privileged 21st century retreatant, like 13th century Francis, was quite happy to escape the city for several hours.   

All through our 8-day retreat last month in Assisi I tried to walk in Francis' and Clare's shoes.  What could I learn from their lives of faith and the choices they made?  That wandering homeless outrageous "troubadour for Christ" (Francis called himself) or the strong willed, 40-year cloistered, community-building abbess (Clare) - any relevance for my life? 

Easy answer is no, so drastic are the differences and settings.  But I too am a follower of Christ.  And as an ordained minister, I am in some sense called to model my life on him and other holy ones.  At least give it a second thought?

Both Francis and Clare were rebels (see my first column of this series, For all the Saints) and defied their parents’ expectations of what a good son or daughter should do and be.  Carry on the father’s business – rejected.  Be a wife and mother – no way.  When Clare first ran away from home her family ran after her and physically tried to drag her back home.  But eventually Clare’s chosen life of faith drew even her own sister and mother into her community.  She was still the abbess, they simple members, but at least they all lived in the same place, related in some way.  Clare was affirmed in her choice, if she needed that (probably not) – Mom and Sis chose the same path.

But Francis was a man of the streets, not just Assisi, but into the whole world, as far as Spain and Egypt he travelled, he had no constraints, unlike Clare, on where he could or would go.  But he never went back home.  There are enough sweet probably apocryphal legends of his deep personal relationships with lambs and flowers and strangers to suggest that if his advocates had wanted to paint him as a prodigal son, returning at some point to the love and affirmation of his parents, they could have easily added that happy plot line to the official saint biographies the Pope commissioned. 

But no, not one word about Mom and Dad from the day he rejected them.  Many of the embellished tales of Francis are designed to point out the so-called uncanny similarities with Jesus’s life – born in a stable, 12 followers, rejected, despised, acquainted with grief.  But even Jesus spoke with his mother, ate with her, so did his brothers. She was there when he died.  By all accounts Francis’ mother was on his side before the public separation, hid him, defended his strange behavior, covered for him from his angry, bewildered father.  Not even a nice word for Mom?

As we hiked up the steady steep mountainside we shared the stories of our call to ministry and what our parents and spouses thought about it.  We are among the first or second generation of a large wave of women going into ministry, so our parents might have been as surprised as were Francis’ at our career choice, even if we did keep our clothes on (Francis stripped and handed his father the fancy clothes he had as a cloth merchant’s son) and went to work in a nice local church.  Surely all our parents were proud we were doing good work, encouraging people to be loving and help others. 

No, said one of our group, her mother actively discouraged her, said she would be lonely and rejected by friends if she became a minister, and never much supported her.  Slightly different from Francis and Clare – they were the children, taking the initiative to reject their parents.  But still the estrangement, the conflicting visions, parent and child, of what kind of life we are called to live.  A very changed family relationship, if any relationship at all.

Sometimes walking it is easier to share such a sad tale, not looking each other in the eye.  I listened in silence, and then felt a little outraged, sorry for my new friend.  But it was done, choices had been made.  I counted my own blessings. 

Church built over caves where Francis prayed on Mt. SubasioBut the woman who told this tale did not seem devastated by it, she had followed her call, made a good life for herself, found other close companions on the journey. 

We were panting a bit as it got steeper, and we wondered if Francis and his first followers, when they came up this mountain walked at a slow pace as we were, were silent and prayerful, or did they scramble straight up creek beds laughing with joy and singing in praise.  Probably the latter.  And probably with not much thought of all they had left behind.  Each had promised to sell all they had, give it to the poor, before they could follow in Francis’ way. They had left a lot behind, not just family.  Their life might seem hard to us, but in fact their burden was much lighter than ours, they carried much less.

I am sure there are scholarly articles on the question of why the Francis story has him rejecting family even more drastically than Jesus did.  I’m resisting the temptation to do some research and get the official right answer to this question.  I’ll just make some prayerful suggestions:

  • Francis was very clear he was not a priest or a monk.  But he was choosing a life more like them than that of, say, a cloth merchant.  He was following the gospel call to leave your old life behind and follow Jesus.
  • Francis was nothing if not extreme in all he did.  He ate very little, hardly slept, etc etc.  So leaving meant Really Leaving, rejecting everything from the past.  Done.
  • And he actually did have a family for the rest of his (short) life.   “When the Lord gave me brothers” is how he describes the beginning of his ministry (he wouldn’t call it “ministry,” maybe “life of joy.”)  He did not lose family, he built a new one. He called his group friars, brothers.
  • Many people are estranged for various reasons from their birth families and quite happily and healthily build new families.  Maybe my wondering and sadness about poor motherless Francis is just a “Leave It to Beaver” pipe dream, he goes home for a good meal every night.  That’s not who he was.
  • Our retreat teachers said that Clare didn’t so much reject her family as just want with all her heart to be left alone, to live a life devoted to one thing – God.  Again, many people chose this kind of life, happy solitude and devotion.  She had more of a cultural context for her life than Francis, that’s what nuns did and do, they must cut off family ties.  She was blessed at least to have some connection still with mother and sister.  (There, I’m still at it, romanticizing that, maybe she wished they’d go live somewhere else!)

Francis and his brothers, his family, would spend days in those forest caves praying.  And at night they would go out and look at the stars – there’s a great set of sculptures of three of them up there pointing to the beauty of the heavens.  That’s the kind of crazy thing you do with brothers more than parents, your new family. 

As Francis would say whenever he greeted anyone, “Peace and all good.”

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter


Deathbeds, Tombs, Relics: Venerating Saints

More on my pilgrimage to Assisi.  Not only did I walk where Francis and Clare walked, I visited the rooms where they died, and their tombs.  Why are those places so special?  Also a word about Matthew Shepard and his final resting place.

When our beloveds die, we don’t want to let them go.  So we keep some of their precious possessions, like their clothes.  And we visit their grave and other special places we associate with them.

When beloved saints die, their devotees do the same thing - hold onto their precious possessions, and visit their special places.  But since the saint’s things and locations seem imbued with the power and presence they had while alive, there’s an added intensity, and many more visitors.

In Assisi it was easy and not crowded to visit places where Francis and Clare lived and worked; their homes, streets and paths and piazzas they frequented, churches where they were baptized and preached.  But we had to wait in line to see the exact locations where each of them died, simple rooms in a convent and a chapel, now enshrined.  To visit the burial crypts deep in their vast basilicas where their bodies now lie, those lines were even longer.  In both lines, all were silent.

A couple days after leaving Assisi, now in Rome, a big windy hailstorm woke me up and I couldn’t get back to sleep.  So I watched on YouTube the worship service that had taken place a few days earlier at the National Cathedral in Washington DC of the internment of Matthew Shepard’s ashes.  The solemn formal ceremony, with a moving sermon by Bishop Gene Washington, culminated in the placement, 20 years after his death, of Shepherd’s ashes in a private area in the crypt columbarium. 

Just as I have pictures in my head now of the simple rooms where Francis and Clare actually died, (and the deathbeds of other loved ones for that matter) I can never get out of my head the image of the Wyoming windswept road and barbed wire fence where Matthew Shepard was beaten and left clinging to life, killed because he was gay.  His funeral was picketed by more haters, so-called Christian ones this time.  His parents feared that his gravesite would be vandalized and desecrated, so they held on to his ashes.

But now the National Cathedral had offered such a safe place.  Shepherd had been an active church member and now he too has a sacred resting place where his loved ones and admirers can visit and honor him.  His remains are in a protected spot, closed to the public, but there will be a plaque and the knowledge that a big old beautiful building is keeping his ashes and his memory safe.

Clare and Francis’ bodies are also in big old beautiful safe buildings, in their cases basilicas built within just a few years of their deaths specifically to house their remains.  There was also some concern around the safety of their placement, especially Francis’, not so much for possible hate filled desecration, but that someone might steal his body or relics to honor (or sell) them elsewhere.  In any case, his body was hidden for centuries, only recovered 200 years ago and rehoused in a massive marble sarcophagus beneath the equally massive and ornate basilica.  I imagine Francis would have designed himself a much simple grave.  We do know he asked that his dying body be carried outside and laid on the bare earth, to close the circle of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” and as a reconnection to his beloved Mother Earth. 

Clare’s body is housed in her basilica inside a sort of shell sculpture of herself - you can practically see the body itself.  In the same crypt area is a moving display of the kinds of precious possessions we keep after a loved one dies – her clothes, hair, her written rule.  I’m usually sort of cynical about relics, arm bones and teeth with supposed healing power.  But these undyed robes and even the curly blond hair were moving in their personal simplicity.

I’ll keep writing here about Clare and Francis, and saints in general, for some more weeks. In previous columns I’ve expressed my ambivalence about the whole idea of saints -  are they better than other people, do they have special powers, who decides who is a saint – typical modern Protestant doubts. 

But there was something inspiring about seeing those pilgrims from all over the world lined up to honor the memories and the bodies of Francis and Clare, even to pray to them for strength and healing. 

I got a similar feeling seeing that packed National Cathedral, those folks lined up to honor Matthew Shepard and preserve his memory. 

There are all kinds of ways to honor remarkable people who live and die with some kind of special integrity.  Doing good works in their name, writing about them (!) – all good.  But it also honors them simply to stand with others in the actual presence of the precious one’s bodily remains.  Beautiful holy buildings serve many functions, but especially after seeing the National Cathedral service, I appreciate their role in keeping the bodies of holy ones safe and their memories alive.

In the Christian tradition we have just celebrated All Souls and All Saints Days.  Feels like a good time of year to honor these three holy ones, Clare, Francis, Matthew.

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter


Francis, Clare and the Big Fat Wet Nipple

Last month I spent 8 days on retreat in Assisi with 10 other progressive clergywomen, visiting many places associated with St. Clare and St. Francis.  Here’s my second weekly reflection on that time, and on what saints might mean to us today.

Chiara Offreducio, (we know her as St. Clare) was the oldest daughter of a rich noble family in 13th century Assisi.  Her father the Count had built his house right next door to the prominent local church where Clare had been baptized and where her family worshipped regularly, the Church of San Rufino.  Clare’s family expected her to be a good faithful Christian, and to marry well and produce more good faithful Christians.

But two visions of fecund nursing breasts changed everything for Clare.   Every day out her window she saw this sculpture on her church’s façade of Jesus’ mother Mary nursing the baby Jesus.  This was no modest disguised nursing mother, but a bold big fat wet nipple, feeding God himself. 

Then some years later in life Clare had a profound vision of breasts.  Her family and friends, soon after her death, were asked to testify why she should be canonized as a saint. They recounted that Clare had told them of a vision she had had in which her friend St. Francis had actually nursed her from his breasts and it was “sweet and delightful….so clear and gold it was like a mirror.” 

I’m curious today to wonder about these two nursing visions and what effect they had on Clare’s decision to reject her family’s expectations of her and to follow God’s call to a very different life.  To leave behind one set of usual expectations for a woman about nursing new life, and to take on another. 

Like all women of her time and place, Clare was quite restricted about when and where she could go out; it was hard to meet others.  But she was able to look out the window of her house. That view helped her decide to reject her family’s expectations of her and choose instead her unusual religious calling, 40 years of cloistered life as abbess of a women’s religious community.

Out that window she saw not only Mary’s breasts, but she also saw and heard a notorious strange local guy, Francesco di Bernardone (we call him St. Francis.)  He was from the slightly lower merchant class, and for years he had been preaching all over the place, in town and in the countryside.  Many days he spoke right out her window, in the church piazza, calling people to leave behind, as he had done, the trappings of money and prestige, to reject family, and follow God, whom he called our one Father.  Francis was 15 years older than Clare, and of a different class, but she could easily run into him in that piazza, and in the San Rufino, church, where he too had been baptized.  Clare quickly hungered after his type of faithful life. 

On a fateful Palm Sunday night in 1212 she ran away from home, something many a teenager has done to reject her parents.  But Chiara never came back.  She ran to Francis at a monastery two miles down the hill from town.  There he accepted her as his first woman follower, cut off her hair as a sign of her dedication to monastic life, and helped her establish the first Franciscan woman’s religious community and the first women’s community ever in which a woman, Clare, wrote the community rule.  Clare’s family pursued her that night, tried to drag her out of the church and take her back home.

But nevertheless, she persisted.

There is so much to say about Clare.  For today, just this question: how was she able to escape the conventions and expectations of her family and instead chose a life of devotion to God away from home and comfort?  

Clare’s house overlooking St. Rufino piazza and sculpture of nursing MaryOn my visit to Assisi I was struck by how close that piazza in front of the church was to her house right next door.   Perhaps that daily vision of Mary and her nipple, and that frequent preaching by this crazy unusual young man Francis inspired and empowered Clare to choose a very different life.

Clare never nursed a baby at her own breast.  But for 40 years she was a nurturing mother of many women, forming a community of first a dozen, then hundreds of local women, including eventually her own sister and mother, and then tens of thousands of women world-wide even before she died, to follow God in their life and devotion. 

As I travelled around Umbria last month I kept seeing sculptures and paintings of Mary with a big boob jutting out from her dress, the baby Jesus clinging to that nipple.  In my culture we women are scorned and sometimes even arrested for nursing our babies in public.  But in this medieval culture Mary as nursing mom was a symbol and sign that God and the church were actually nourishing and nurturing.  And that religious leaders, even men, like Francis, could be praised for nursing love and compassion from their own breasts.

Within months of Clare’s death the church quickly began collecting testimonies of her life and faith, in support of an effort to declare her a saint, to canonize her.  It’s a historian’s and faithful person’s boon that we have contemporary accounts from Clare’s friends and family about what kind of person she was and the life she led.  In these accounts is the story of her nursing at the breast of her beloved friend and inspiration, Francis. 

“Lady Clare also related how once, in a vision, it seemed to her she brought a bowl of hot water to Saint Francis along with a towel for drying his hands. She was climbing a very high stairway, but was going very quickly, almost as though she were going on level ground.When she reached Saint Francis, the saint bared his breast and said to the Lady Clare: “Come, take, and drink.” After she had sucked from it, the saint admonished her to imbibe once again. After she did so what she had tasted was so sweet and delightful she in no way could describe it. After she had imbibed, that nipple or opening of the breast from which the milk comes remained between the lips of blessed Clare. After she took what remained in her mouth in her hands, it seemed to her it was gold so clear and bright that everything was seen in it as in a mirror.”

Some nursing reflections on Clare and this vision:

  • Clare was a beloved leader, called Mother of her community.  She nurtured them as a mother nurtures her infants.  Mary inspired that vision of mammary leadership.  What does it mean to nurse a community?
  • Until Clare ran away to follow him, Francis had only male followers.  Then Clare called together and led a profound women’s community of followers.  Certainly she had heard read Paul’s words that “In Christ there is neither male nor female.”  Did those words open her up to receive a vision of Francis nursing her, not the opposite?
  • What are we to make of the strange juxtaposition, indeed contradiction about exposure and covering?  Religious women had to cover themselves up completely, hiding from society in cloisters.  And yet the most beloved woman, Mary, boldly exposed her naked breast for all to see.
  • Much has been written of the medieval vision of Mary the nurturer as a symbol of the church, as opposed to images of male, hierarchical, doctrine enforcers.  Francis and Clare’s community were pretty open, tolerant, forgiving – was that because every day they saw Mary and her big fat wet nipple?
  • Francis as mother, nurturing and nursing.  Jesus compared himself once to a mother hen trying to gather and protect his young chicks.  But we rarely image even these two cool metrosexual guys as nurturing mothers.  Can we find this image anywhere in today’s church? 

OK, some milky food for thought and prayer!!!

More next week on these two remarkable saints.  Probably something about how saints are curious, peculiar, different from the rest of us.  Or are they?  Who are your saints?

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter


For All The Saints

I’m just back from an 8-day study retreat in Assisi, Italy with 10 other clergywomen on St. Francis and St. Clare, their history and meaning today.  I’ll spend the next few weeks reflecting on the trip and on saints.

Now we call them saints, St. Francis and St. Clare, admirable and gentle, holy, special, set apart. 

But they were just kids, rich kids, in the small city of Assisi in the 13th century.  Francesco Bernardone’s father was a rising star of the new merchant class, trading fabric all over Europe. His son Francis was a seeker, first of fame and fortune through partying and then the military, but with no satisfaction.  Until one day he dramatically stripped off his rich kid clothes in the public square, and naked, he declared God to be his only father from then on.  

Chiara Offreduccio’s family was even richer, noble, and they had been trying to marry her off strategically since she was 15, for over 3 years.  But she kept refusing matches, devoting herself to the poor and listening to Francis’ crazy sermons in the public square by her house.  Until she too rejected her parents and destiny.   

Both of them rebelled, dramatically leaving their families and choosing instead to live simple intense lives of devotion only to Jesus Christ.  Francis became a wandering friar, never spoke to his family again.  By his death at age 42, tens of thousands of men were following him and his way of life. Clare, his friend and follower, 12 years younger, ran away from home one night to follow Francis’ life of poverty, simplicity and devotion, and soon became the abbess of a group of cloistered women and leader of a new movement for faithful women. 

Both of these crazy young people were loved and venerated far and wide during their lifetimes,  and within just a few years of their deaths, both were canonized, declared saints.  Their orders and influence grew dramatically in numbers and impact even before their deaths, and now, 800 years later, both groups still influence and challenge not just the Catholic church, but the whole world.  

Fun facts about these two ancient but very contemporary role models.   You think Francis was basically a kind animal loving guy?  That Clare was a compliant obedient sheltered woman?

-Francis hated war and despised the Crusades so much that he undertook a dangerous trip to Egypt and talked his way into spending a month sharing ideas with a leading Muslim sultan, maybe hoping to convert him to Christianity, at least to engage him, faithful man to man about peace.  He came home unsuccessful in this peace mission, but he changed his own order’s rule to be more tolerant of other religions. 

-Clare was glad to be set apart from society, but she still related to the dangerous outside world.  When the Emperor’s troops sought to overrun and control the whole region, including her San Damiano convent, she simply met the military men in her cloister, held up her monstrance, a precious container of the real presence of Jesus in the bread, and told them strongly (yelling is how it is described, this gentle sheltered woman), yelled at them to leave.  They did.  Every year the citizens of Assisi process down the hill to San Damiano to recall and thank Clare for saving their city from these imperial troops. 

All this to say, Francis and Clare were not wimps;  these were some mighty, powerful saints. 

When we say someone is a “saint” we often mean:

  • They are/were holier and better people than most of us.
  • They have special powers and if we pray to them, they can heal us, change God’s mind, even change history.
  • They choose to live unusual lives, very different from the rest of us.
  • They usually deny themselves in some way and their simple, self-sacrificing lives are often cut short.

I find many of these statements about saints really hard to believe.  And I think there is truth in all of them.

The leaders of our study retreat were two church historians, Rev. Dr. Mary Luti and Rev. Dr. Ann Minton.  Both women were for many years members of Catholic religious orders and now are respectively ordained clergy and scholars in the United Church of Christ and The Episcopal Church. 

Catholics and Protestants tend to think very differently about what it means to be a saint.  Put simply, Catholics believe saints act as mediators between us and God, and that praying to the saints can effect personal healing and life changes.  Catholics also insist that saints are special, holier people than the rest of us.  Protestant tend to believe the opposite; there are not two classes of holiness.  Indeed the Bible refers to every faithful person as a saint, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4)    Protestants believe that while so-called saints can inspire us with their exemplary lives, they do not have special access to God, nor should we pray to them. 

I am a lifelong Protestant, so I have tended to disparage the Catholic view of saints, which feels to me like blind and magical adoration of people who often lived pretty extreme and self denying lives.  At the same time I can’t help but admire many of these so-called saints for the ways they lived faithful lives, and how they have inspired so many other good works.  This past month I was inspired and impressed when Pope Francis declared Archbishop Oscar Romero to be a saint – his was surely a life and sacrifice worth emulating.  What a saint!

Ann and Mary, because of their experience in both Catholic and Protestant traditions, and their deep historical understandings, were able to help us learn and think, feel and pray in a very nuanced way about many different understandings of Francis’ and Clare’s lives and legacy.  In particular, they reminded us of how medieval folks, like Francis and Clare, understood what it meant to follow Christ, and to be a saint, very different from our time. 

One idea I got from Mary that intrigued and inspired me is that in the Middles Ages saints were not seen as exemplars or models for living.  They were not called saints because their lives were perfect, indeed it was often the opposite.  So that our response should not necessarily be to try to imitate their lives literally, but relate to them as inspirations.  As an open window inspires us – GO OUTSIDE!

For Medieval folks, saints point the way, they were gateways or windows to God, and the work they do and lives they lead are “generative” – they inspire and motivate, they give birth to more faithfulness, more good work.  An example she gave is that the Mayo Clinic was started by Franciscans, a legacy of the healing ministry of both Francis and Clare. A saint is someone whose life is a gift that keeps on giving.

More next week on how Francis and Clare continue to inspire and, yes, change us.  And maybe some thoughts about Clare’s vision of Francis nursing her with his bare breasts.  And reactions to all the nude nursing renditions I saw in Italian sculpture and art of Mary’s breast.  That should keep you interested to read next week!  Thanks Francis and Clare.

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter