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California Dreamin’

by Deborah Streeter

 

 

Tuesday
Jan152019

Three Wise Men came from the East and California was Forever Changed

California may seem like a secular unchurched state, but three religious leaders came to California, in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and changed California's landscape, and indeed its "spirit" dramatically.  Second in my 2019 series "California Dreamin'."

1769: Fr. Junipero Serra - Franciscan friar and priest sent by the Catholic Church and Spanish government to convert the native populations of Baja and Alta California (then part of Spain) and promote Spanish influence and power in California, especially against Russians coming from the north.  In 1769 Serra arrived in Alta California on foot from Mexico City, to found a mission in San Diego and later 8 more missions as far north as San Francisco.  Serra died age 71, 1779, and is buried at the Carmel Mission.  He was canonized in 2015 amid much controversy and outcry over his harsh treatment of native people.

1860: Rev. Thomas Starr King- Unitarian minister from Massachusetts answered a call to be minister of the then struggling San Francisco Unitarian church. In four years,1860-64, he rejuvenated the church, built a new building, was active in the SF intellectual scene with Bret Harte, Ina Coolbrith, Jessie Benton Fremont.  He lectured widely and travelled on horseback throughout California advocating for the state to remain a free, not a slave state.  Abraham Lincoln credited him with keeping California in the union, as opposed to the call by some to become an independent republic.  In his travels he also raised over 1.5 million dollars for the US Sanitary Commission, which later became the Red Cross, for Civil War soldiers.  King died suddenly and unexpectedly, road weary, of diphtheria and pneumonia in SF, 1864, age 39.  He is buried at the SF Unitarian Church.

1959:  Shunryu Suzuki Roshi - Soto Zen priest and Zen Master, arrived from Japan in San Francisco to bring Zen Buddhism to America.  He found a small Soto Zen community of elderly Japanese immigrants, and began teaching and leading Zen practice sessions, attracting a large following from Beatniks, the SF Art Institute, Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, etc.  He founded the San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the first Buddhist monastery outside of Asia. Suzuki died in San Francisco in 1971 at age 67.  The popular and influential collection of his teachings, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, was published in 1969. 

These three religious leaders from the east (Spain, Boston, and the so-called Far East) all followed their faith and hope like a guiding star to California.  They each brought their considerable talent and hard work to the Golden State, spending a decade or so enthusiastically and diligently preaching their passions, establishing new institutions, changing the landscape, and dying here from the effects of hard work.

California today is the product of these three men's ministries.  You need only look at the map and all the Spanish names and architecture to feel California's deep Catholic and Spanish heritage, thanks to Junipero Serra and the Spanish Catholics. Until last year all fourth graders in California public schools had to build a model of one of the missions, often out of sugar cubes.  The longstanding “mission project” has been replaced by a more nuanced and inclusive look at the colonial history of California.

We Californians proudly (snootily?) consider ourselves independent minded, intellectual and concerned about justice -  Thomas Starr King personified and advanced those concerns with his lectures and fundraising in his all too short presence in our state.

Unlike much of the US, which looks toward Europe for history and values, we look west across the Pacific, welcoming ideas and immigrants from Asia.  Our many citizens who call themselves new age, or spiritual but not religious, espouse the Buddhist ideas and practices that Suzuki so successfully introduced to these "beginner's mind" Americans.  Most larger communities have a Buddhist worshipping community and a Zen center.

Serra, King and Suzuki have other similarities.  All three were enthusiastic travelers, going the length of the state on foot, horseback, and walking meditation, to preach their messages.  King and Suzuki both succeeded their ordained fathers in their first "pastoral call."   Serra and King both did political work as well as religious, or simply did not make that artificial distinction - Serra's faith included religious imperialism, King's promoted intellect and justice, what he called "A Yosemite of the Soul." 

Serra brought to California an old and traditional religion, but King and Suzuki brought very new ideas. Suzuki found Californians very open to new ideas and he appreciated the "beginners mind" attitude they brought to Zen.  King also left the familiarity and comfort of Boston Unitarianism to more to a practically new country.  "We are unfaithful," he wrote a friend, "in huddling so closely around the cozy stove of civilization in this blessed Boston, and I, for one, am ready to go out into the cold and see if I am good for anything."

For many year, Thomas Starr King and Junipero Serra were our state's two representatives in the Capitol Rotunda in DC, where each state selects two people to symbolize their state.  Surprisingly, California was the only state to have two religious leaders as its representatives.

All that changed in 2006 when California Republicans successfully demoted Starr King and replaced him with Ronald Reagan.  (The bombastic Orange County leaders of this effort said that no one had ever heard of King - tell that to the Confederacy and the Red Cross - and that he wasn't even born in California.  Neither was Reagan.  Or Serra.)   Serra's recent canonization was so controversial that he too might be dethroned. 

Who would replace him in the Capitol Rotunda - Arnold Schwarzenegger, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs?  Who are today's California saints?  What sermons do they preach?  How do they communicate? (hint: It's not on foot or horseback.) Will they work themselves to death for the sake of their gospel/good news?

We've got time to answer those questions.  If the pattern continues our new wisdom teacher won't show up until 2060.  If we are not underwater by then or burned up.  Stay tuned.

Copyright © 2019 Deborah Streeter

Tuesday
Jan082019

San Francisco Songs and Sports

New column theme for the beginning of the new year – “California Dreamin’.” It was 50 years ago, 1969, that I moved to California from the New York area. 

Big changes in the state this year - new SF mayor London Breed (first African American woman), new governor Gavin Newsom, Nancy Pelosi back as speaker of the House, Orange County went from red to blue.  Some hope….

But also - big state, big problems -  poverty, homelessness, fire, earthquake. 

Maybe some of our San Francisco songs and sports can help explain the Golden State.

 

When the San Francisco Giants win a ball game, the fans linger, looking out at the SF Bay from the fabulous AT&T Park and sing along with Tony Bennett, "I Left my Heart in San Francisco," played only after a win.  Down the road in Santa Clara at the new Levi Stadium, fans of the San Francisco 49ers occasionally get to sing their touchdown song as well, "San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gate."  

These two songs are the official songs of the city of San Francisco and beloved in all of California. (Well, at least Northern California. I doubt the LA Rams or the LA Dodgers sing those songs.  California is really two states, northern and southern, and as a northerner, I will probably write more about this, the superior half of the Golden State.)

Here are the lyrics:

 

“I Left My Heart in San Francisco”

The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gray
The glory that was Rome is of another day
I've been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan

I'm going home to my city by the Bay

I left my heart in San Francisco
High on a hill, it calls to me
To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars
The morning fog may chill the air, I don't care

My love waits there in San Francisco
Above the blue and windy sea
When I come home to you, San Francisco
Your golden sun will shine for me

“San Francisco Open Your Golden Gate”

It only takes a tiny corner of 
This great big world to make a place you love
My home up on the hill
I find I love you still
I've been away but now I'm back to tell you

San Francisco 
Open your golden gate
You let no stranger wait outside your door

San Francisco
Here is your wandering one 
Saying I'll wander no more
Other places only make me love you best
Tell me you're the heart of all the golden west

San Francisco
Welcome me home again
I'm coming home To go roaming no more

 

If you know these two songs, and these two ball clubs, you’ll know just about all you need to know about California:

  • We love to sing and make music - rock and roll, Chicano rock, hip hop, surf rock, folk revival, Monterey Pop and Monterey Jazz, movie music.
  • The morning sun will shine on me -we like our beaches and fun in the sun.
  • We have a Mediterranean climate and lots of Mediterraneans, like Italian Tony Benedetto.
  • Whole lotta shaking going on - The 49er's song was first sung in the 1936 film “San Francisco,” by Jeanette MacDonald defiantly standing atop the rubble of the 1906 earthquake and proclaiming a bright future for the devastated city.  It's still sung each year on April 18 at commemorations of that deadly day.
  • Yes, we in California do open our gates.  Few strangers wait outside our doors - we have many sanctuary cities, many immigrants, many folks without papers and incredible diversity.
  • The SF Giants came east from NYC – lots of folks, like me, were enticed to leave the east for a better life, job, stadium, fan base, in California.
  • The Niners are named for the gold rush folks who came here in 1849 and their mascot is a pretty corny prospector, Sourdough Sam.
  • We have more than our share of stupid greedy rich people, and not just the tech entrepreneurs.   The owners of all our football teams, especially the owners of the Niners and the Raiders, have stolen our teams and taken them to foreign lands (Santa Clara, Las Vegas).
  • We also have some pretty cool owners and entrepreneurs, like the Giants’ Larry Baer, under whose leadership the Giants were the first major league sports team to have LGBT Days, and a Grateful Dead Tribute Day.
  • The "San Francisco" Niners play 50 miles away in Santa Clara, also the site of another holy gathering place, the Santa Clara Mission, one of 12 missions founded by Father Junipero Serra.
  • They play in "Levi Stadium" naming rights paid for by the Levi Strauss Company. The first of many California blockbuster clothing companies (Gap, etc), it was founded by gold prospector/entrepreneur Levi Strauss who perfected the blue jean with rivets, another California sign and symbol.  He was one of many Jewish immigrants welcomed through the Golden Gate, in 1853.
  • We are fit and athletic and competitive, but our sports teams these days do not match our competitive spirit.  We are not singing these great winning songs nearly enough.  The glory that was Joe Montana and Willie Mays is of another day.

I might keep writing about California simply from its songbook.  There are hundreds of entries under “California Songs” on Wikipedia, from Al Jolson to the Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchel to Tupac Shakur, Merle Haggard to Pink.  Tune in next week……

Copyright © Deborah Streeter

Thursday
Dec202018

Beyond the Birdbath: Francis and Other Animals

My sixth, and last, reflection on my retreat on St. Francis and St. Clare this fall in Assisi.  Why are there so many stories about Francis and animals - birds, wolves, lambs, ox and ass, etc.  Especially this time of year we’ll hear in many sermons or children’s pageants how Francis, in 1223, was the first person ever to create an outdoor Christmas crèche nativity scene, with live animals.  Are these just cute legends, good theology or something more?

A few years ago, wanting to know more about Francis, I took an online course about the saint from popular, hip Franciscan friar Richard Rohr, called "Beyond the Birdbath." 

For many people all they know about Francis is what they see in garden statuary, a kind (rock) man with his hands outstretched, with maybe a bird on two on his arms, or that same kindly figure slightly wet, perched in a birdbath. 

The origin of this so-called religious art is a popular legend of Francis, that when he preached, usually outside, in the streets and countryside (and rarely in church), even the birds paid attention.  There's a lovely description in the 14th century legend collection, The Little Flowers of St. Francis:

 

And he entered into the field and began to preach to the birds that were on the ground; and soon those that were on the trees flew down to hear him, and all stood still while Saint Francis made an end of his sermon; and even then they departed not until he had given them his blessing.  And according as Friar Masseo and Friar James of Massa thereafter related, Saint Francis went among them, touching them with the hem of his garment, and not one stirred.  And the substance of the sermon Saint Francis preached was this,

“My little sisters the birds, much are ye beholden to God your Creator, and always and in every place ye ought to praise Him for that He hath given you a double and triple vesture; He hath given you freedom to go into every place, and also did preserve the seed of you in the ark of Noah, in order that your kind might not perish from the Earth.  Again, ye are beholden to Him for the element of air which He hath appointed for you; moreover, ye sow not, neither do ye reap, and God feedeth you and giveth you the rivers and the fountains for your drink; He giveth you the mountains and the valleys for your refuge, and the tall trees wherein to build your nests, and forasmuch as ye can neither spin nor sew God clotheth you, you and your children: wherefore your Creator loveth you much, since He hath dealt so bounteously with you; and therefore beware, little sisters mine, of the sin of ingratitude, but ever strive to praise God.”

 

While Saint Francis was uttering these words, all those birds began to open their beaks, and stretch their necks, and spread their wings, and reverently to bow their heads to the ground, showing by their gestures and songs that the holy father’s words gave them greatest joy: and Saint Francis was glad and rejoiced with them, and marveled much at so great a multitude of birds and at their manifold loveliness, and at their attention and familiarity; for which things he devoutly praised the Creator in them... The friars possessing nothing of their own in this world, after the manner of birds, committed their lives wholly to the providence of God.

What a great story!  And there are many other legends of Francis and animals.  That he befriended and tamed a wolf that was attacking the village of Gubbio and extracted a promise from the wolf that he would not attack and that the village would feed the wolf.  Another tale is that he exchanged his cloak for a lamb at a meat seller’s, saving it from slaughter and befriending it. 

And the story told this Christmas time of year.  That Francis created the first living outdoor nativity scene, with real oxen and ass, in the village Greccio, to literally incarnate the Incarnation, to give living flesh to a written story.  It was part of a new popular medieval preaching technique, not just to read the story in Latin, but to act it out.  Same idea as the also new medieval mystery plays, make the story real and show folks visually that a god could be human, simple, vulnerable, born of peasants, surrounded by animals in a barn. 

So Francis seems to have made deep personal connections with animals.  He also liked to use animals to “act out” Bible stories and values (rely on providence of God.)  Jesus did the same thing – he told animal stories all the time (Consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air…) He was born beside animals.  The Holy Spirit visit him in the form of a dove.  Since Francis is often called the person most like Jesus, the purest embodiment of his teachings, then surely we’re going to have some tales of Francis and animals. 

The animal stories, like Francis, teach great lessons: simplicity, kindness, gratitude, getting along. 

So why do we need to go “beyond” these animal stories?  As in my previous reflections on Francis, I am trying not to be too much of an academic or preacher here, to get or give the right answer.  I’m trying more to reflect and to wonder.  Here are some of my wonderings about Francis and the animals.

  • Francis was indeed about simplicity and kindness.  But not about cuteness.  These stories are too cute and have gotten only cuter.  We’ve tenderized him as we have Jesus.  Another interpretation of the story about preaching to the birds is that the early artistic representations show mostly crows and ravens and raptors listening to Francis.  And that in the highly symbolic visual imagery of his time, those were “lower class birds,” not peacocks or finches or doves. Was this a way, almost like Aesop’s Fables, of saying he had special concern for the poor?  Which he did.
  • These are sort of safe stories, just be nice to animals.  But they are a very small part of Francis’ ministry.  In previous columns I have told of Francis outrageously stripping naked in public and forever rejecting his family.  And of his dangerous and unprotected journey into the middle of a war to reach out to the Muslim leader of the enemy, and befriending him.  These are less warm and fuzzy stories, but I would say, more Francis, and more important.
  • His deathbed anthem, the Canticle to the Sun, is a famous, profound statement of his basic theology, that we are all brothers and sisters (Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Sister Mother Earth.)  Its repeated phrase, “Be praised O God through all your creatures” is, in Italian, “Laduate Si,” the title of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on climate change.   It inspired a great hymn, All Creatures of our God and King.  But the “creatures” in all these works are not animals.  No, creatures means the Sun, Moon, Wind, Fire – these are the basics of creation.  Not just cute bunnies, the peaceable kingdom.  Stars, climate – Francis’ creation theology is way beyond little lambs and sister birds.
  • Ultimately (and I learned this from Rohr as well as my visit to Assisi) Francis is remarkable not because he loved animals but because he realized we are all animals, and we are all wind and flame and sun – everything is related, everything is brother and sister.  It’s not about loving the cute animals, it’s about seeing the deep connections between every living and even non-living thing in the universe.  We are all family.
  • Which makes everything holy.  There are no distinctions between secular and sacred, between humans and other animals, even plants (he insisted each vegetable garden have a section for wild flowers to grow free), even climate and planet, all are one and all is holy.
  • Just as Jesus said you have to become like a child to get what he’s talking about, so there is something childlike about Francis, open, innocent, playful.  We tend to highlight that side of him, gentle and mild.  But his life was about so much more than that, radical relationships and radical simplicity, brave travel, extreme self-sacrifice – not always the most childlike characteristics.  Not (just) cute animals and birdbaths, but an a-cute insistence that God loves every single thing. 

OK, that does sound preachy, but I can’t help it.  To live like him and Clare is to go way, way beyond the birdbath.  They continue to bless and challenge us, to change and inspire millions.

In the words Francis, and Franciscans, always use to greet each other, “Peace and all good.”

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter

Wednesday
Dec122018

Fashion Advice from St. Francis

Francis wore fancy silks when he was the playboy son of a thriving cloth merchant in 13th century Assisi.  On his dramatic conversion day, he stripped naked in public.  From then on, his closet had only one item - a simple brown wool robe, symbol of poverty, which he also required as the uniform for the tens of thousands who came to follow him before he died.  (That's a silly joke - his whole point was letting go of ownership. He never had a closet, just that one robe on his back.). Finally at death he asked for his naked body to be laid right `on the ground as he died.  

Born naked, clothed in riches, naked on conversion day,  20 years of a poor scratchy robe, then naked again. 

So what would be Francis' faithful fashion advice?

The sweet saint stories written about Francis of Assisi all include how twenty-something Francis took off all his clothes one day in a public square.  Defiantly he handed his fancy-pants silk robes to his ritzy cloth merchant father, who was demanding repayment of an admitted theft by the rebel son. Francis then declared to the crowd that from now on he would call only God his father. 

Pretty scandalous, not just because this well known local playboy was naked in public, but because his performance art took place in the middle of a trial, an attempt by the local bishop to mediate between Francis and his father.  

Fuck You Dad, is essentially what Francis said, with a nice Italian accent.  Or maybe a song, since Francis called himself a troubadour for Christ. 

This is not the kind of Christian behavior from potential saints that immediately recommends them to the canonization judges, but it's central to who Francis was -  bold, dramatic, rejecting everything about his previous life, down to his underwear. 

Giotto Giotto painted this famous fresco version of the stripping encounter and it hangs in a prominent place in the massive basilica built within a century after his death to honor Francis and house his (naked) body.

RivestitiFrancis' close friend Thomas of Celano wrote that the bishop immediately threw his own "mantle" around Francis, not just to cover him from shame, but to "reclothe him in Christ" in the language of the scriptures.  That's the reference in this sign in a local Assisi church - to follow Francis (and Christ) we too must strip naked from the old and then reclothe ourselves, "revestito" into a new life. 

Francis grew up in a clothes conscious household. He travelled with his father yearly to the big cloth trade shows in France, meeting other cloth merchants there, learning about commerce and multiculturalism.  He probably also figured out, as they all tried to get the best deal, that clothes actually do not make the man - you might look great on the outside, but be a cheating scoundrel underneath.

Even before the piazza strip scene Francis had performed another faithful strip act, in a clothes exchange with a beggar in Rome.  He had not yet finally rejected his family and former life, but he was trying to find himself by taking a do-it-yourself pilgrimage to Rome.  Outside the fancy churches he watched the crowds of faithful rich and poor.  It's another story that's so famous and so outrageous it must be true -  he went up to a beggar and said, let's trade clothes, my fancy smooth silks for your dirty rough wool, thinking, I want to see what it was like to beg.  Quick lesson that in this case, yes, clothes do make a man.  If you don't have the clothes, you beg. 

I'm a Protestant minister, and I bet I'm not the only clergy person to have a recurring dream (nightmare) that I am going up into the pulpit to preach.   And I am naked.  An anxiety dream about being late and unprepared, but also an uncanny statement about the life of faith - we actually are naked before God.  In my dreams I am embarrassed, trying to hid behind the lectern, but I don't run and hide, I stay there and preach.  Naked.

Clothes serve many functions.  They kept us warm, they protect us from unwanted attention, they say something about who we are, how much money we have, whose style we emulate.  Some clothes serve to make us shine, stand out.   Others help us hide, blend in.  Francis chose brown woolen clothes to blend in, I am a nobody.  Most people use their clothes to say, I am somebody.

Clothing verbs and metaphors are interesting - put on, take off, cover, make a man, make a statement, reveal, hide. 

I googled "Francis and cloth" to see what others had to say about this incident, and it led me to threadjustice.org and the Human Thread Campaign.  Like Francis, these folks favor simple clothes, not fancy.  And that's because they advocate for justice for garment workers, and encourage us to chose clothes made with less environmental damage and less worker degradation.  They connect this with Francis because of his wise yet casual attitude toward clothing. They say he should be the patron saint of low impact, local sourced clothes. 

(Facts from their website: It takes 700 gallons of water to make one T-shirt.  Millions of gallons of oil end up each year in your polyester clothes.  Microfiber from washing our fleece and other plastic clothes makes up a huge part of the ocean plastic crisis.)

Would Francis have endorsed the Human Thread Campaign?  He was not a leader of political marches or signer of petitions.  But he knew the human cost of greed and pride, and called them sins for which we should repent.   The wool of his robes killed no workers or animals, their brown had no lethal dye.  I guess, as in so many ways, he was a man before his time. 

He clothed himself in righteousness and humility.  Actually he WAS a fashion plate - for simplicity and solidarity.  I can get behind that kind of fashion craze. 

Copyright © 2018 Deborah Streeter

Wednesday
Dec052018

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