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Fr Algy Robertson SSF: died November 23, 1955 November 22, 2014

Posted by Ted Witham in : Franciscan, Story Telling , add a comment

Fr Algy and Brother Douglas are often credited as the founders of the Society of Saint Francis; certainly these two early members of the Society represent the two poles of our charism – order and serving the poor.

Brother Douglas Downes, who earned the name ‘Apostle to the Wayfarers’ died on September 7, 1957. He was a priest and Oxford professor of economics. Thousands of men were thrown out of work in the Great Depression and made homeless and moved from shelter to shelter around the English countryside. Brother Douglas put on a pair of overalls painted with a large cross and joined them for two summers before setting up Hilfield Farm as a community to minister to the wayfarers.

All Franciscans recognise this kind of ministry as typically Franciscan, expected of both Brothers and Third Order members. Brother Douglas inspires us to serve the poor where we meet them.

Father Algy’s skills were very different and sometimes overlooked. He had a sound knowledge of the religious life, and he was originally invited to help train SSF novices. Algy had an intuitive understanding of the kind of man who should join the fledgling SSF and a detailed plan for its organisation. In her history of the European Province of SSF, This Poor Sort, Petà Dunstan refers to Algy’s reputation as co-founder of both First Order and the Second Order, the Community of St Clare.

There is no doubt that Fr Algy’s eccentricities, and his reluctance to relinquish all his personal wealth, especially his car, caused friction in the Order as it grew. He was a human being and no claim has been made that he was a saint. However, his gift for organisation continues to shape the First Order and to remind the Third Order that you need structure to stay together.

The Third Order also acknowledges another priest, Jack Winslow, the writer of our Principles, for his role in our founding. His attention to the configuration of the Third Order continues to provide the glue for Tertiaries to live together in loving service.

But on this day, November 23, we thank God for Father Algy SSF and his gift of order to the Society of St Francis, the gift that facilitates our Orders to fulfil our calling to loving service.

Saint Louis – one of our patron saints? September 11, 2013

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We tertiaries have inherited from the Secular Franciscans the notion that Saint Louis is a patron saint of the Third Order. I was excited to learn that the great French scholar of Francis and Clare, Jacques LeGoff had undertaken a 10-year study of Saint Louis and published it. I managed to obtain a copy of the 1,000-page tome for $15 (it’s usually about $80) anxious to read what Saint Louis could teach me about living as a Franciscan.

Saint Louis is worth the effort. The book is beautifully written and smoothly translated by Gareth Evan Gollrad. It has three parts: the first outlines the life of Saint Louis based on the best evidence available; the second goes more deeply into aspects of the evidence to explore how much we can really know about a personality from 800 years ago (quite a lot, it turns out), and Part III contains family trees, maps, charts, notes an bibliographies.

I have written a more detailed review at http://wp.me/p1E0m7-3n

King Louis IX, like his brother-in-law Henry III in England, surrounded himself with Franciscans and Dominicans. The new Orders were in royal flavour. And Louis’ life was strongly influenced by the mendicants and the Carthusians. He made justice and peace the main values of his kingdom. When he went on Crusade, like Saint Francis, he tried to convert the Muslim leaders. He cultivated humility and poverty. He toned down his dress and personal style.

As I read, I was reminded often of Queen Elizabeth II and her commitment to serve the people of her kingdoms and the Commonwealth as a Christian vocation. Likewise, King Louis, crowned as a “most Christian king” aimed to live that out in every aspect of his life.

Saint Louis, as it turns out, was not a member of the Third Order. Jacques LeGoff, however, draws a sympathetic picture of a charismatic man conscientiously living out his vocation. Saint Louis is not a plaster saint, nor is he some kind of tribal Franciscan hero: he is a human being and a Christian from whom we can learn.

Franciscans helping Jews in the England of Henry III July 21, 2013

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The Martyrdom of Little St Hugh

Little St Hugh – Lincoln Cathedral

Franciscans arrived in England five years before the death of St Francis in Italy. By 1224, there were Franciscans in Oxford and Cambridge, helping to establish those two places of theological learning. King Henry III, known by some as Henry the Pious, was impressed by the Franciscans and their friendly rivals, the Dominicans. In 1226, the King gave to the Franciscans in Cambridge half of a stone house which had belonged to Benjamin the Jew.

The Jews were tolerated in England, mainly as money-lenders to the aristocracy. Henry borrowed staggering sums, and was unable to repay them. He then devised heavy taxes on Jews as a way of getting out of debt. He had, for example, passed a law aimed at the wealthy Jews that gave him the right to huge taxes or fines from any man convicted of capital crimes.

The Franciscans were missionaries: they had a strong desire to convert the Jews, so they took a special interest in the Jewish community. Friars took the trouble to learn about their customs and literature, and follow the politics of the place of Jews in the English community. Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon, the famous intellectual, was given special responsibility for the converts from Judaism.

On 27th August 1225, the body of nine-year-old Hugh was found at the bottom of a well in Lincoln. A friar, sadly, was the first to accuse the Jews of kidnapping little Hugh and ritually executing him, using his blood to make matzos for Passover. Emotions flared all over England and Henry saw a chance. He thought he would ride public opinion and have ninety Jews convicted for the double crime of kidnap and murder. He arrested them, had them tortured and locked up in the Tower of London.

18 of the Jews hanged themselves rather than risk the anger of a Christian court-room.

Many Franciscans refused to be caught up in the angry outcry against the Jews. Risking their friendship with the volatile King, they pleaded in court for the release of the remaining Jews.

The crimes alleged, the Franciscans said, could not possibly have been committed by Jews. Eating blood in any form is comprehensively prohibited for Jews, and Passover takes place, not in August, but in March/April.

The pleas of the Franciscan friars did not succeed in gaining the Jews’ release. However, they were not hanged but kept imprisoned for many months while the Jewish community all over England gathered together a massive ransom payment for their freedom.

The Feast of the martyr Little St Hugh is July 27, a day on which we Franciscans can both repent the history of maltreatment and misunderstanding of Jews and recognise three Franciscan traits: firstly, the desire to understand people and respect every human being as made in God’s image. Secondly, as our Principles put it, the desire of Franciscans to ‘make our Lord known and loved everywhere’, and thirdly, even when faced with spectacular failure, the willingness to stand up for justice, particularly to take up the cause of those falsely accused.

***
If you’re interested in Little St Hugh and want to know more, read Robin R. Mundil, The King’s Jews: Money, Massacre and Exodus in Medieval England, London: Continuum Books, 2010, or, for Franciscan beginnings in England, relevant chapters in Maurice Carmody OFM, The Franciscan Story, London: Athena Press 2008.

Brother Duck – the latest biographer of St Francis July 5, 2013

Posted by Ted Witham in : Franciscan, Story Telling , 2comments

Jay Stoeckl SFO, Saint Francis and Brother Duck, Paraclete Press 2013, from $US 16.38 online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

French clergyman Paul Sabatier published his Life of St Francis of Assisi in 1893. Since then, there have been hundreds of lives of St Francis. Sabatier’s Life has had a powerful influence on those who followed him, but ironically it was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books because of its unreliable telling of the story.

Jay Stoeckl, a Secular Franciscan from the United States has produced a life of St Francis in part aimed at children. The only invented character in the story is Brother Duck, a drily humorous fellow who followed St Francis after he saved him from the cruelty of soldiers. Brother Duck brings a wry and innocent voice which enables us to hear the thoughts of St Francis as he makes decisions to follow Christ more closely, and to choose Assisi and humility over Rome and glory.

Saint Francis and Brother Duck is a graphic novel, a comic book. It is not the first graphic novel about saint Francis: in the early 1980s, Marvel Comics teamed up with Fr Roy Gasnick OFM to produce the first telling of the story in this style. Jay Stoeckl’s new graphic novel is full colour making the experience of reading the story immediate and bright.

The challenge for those who tell the story of St Francis to children is make sense of the motivations that drove St Francis to defy his parents and to defy the normal pathways of marriage and work. Stoeckl makes good use of the graphic novel genre to make Francis accessible to children. After the scene in front of the cathedral where Francis returns everything of his father including his clothes, Jay Stoeckl shows Francis asking for forgiveness for the hurt that he had done to his family. While there is no evidence of the attitude to his father that Francis held from then on, this invention does help ground St Francis for children.

This would be an appropriate book to put in the hands of any child 8 years and upward, or in the library of any Primary School. While it does not claim to bring new insights to the story of St Francis, it has a high level of detail, making it suitable as a comprehensive introduction to the Saint’s life.

Compating Jay Stoeckl's stigmta scene (left) with that of Roy Gasnick

Comparing Jay Stoeckl’s nativity scene (left) with the stigmata scene of Roy Gasnick

Remembering St Francis of Assisi September 30, 2011

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On the night of October 3, 1226, Francis of Assisi was dying. He asked to be laid naked on the bare earth near the little chapel of Portiuncula, down the hill from Assisi, the place he had made his base for his peripatetic ministry.

He was only 44 but nearly blind, in constant pain from an illness in his stomach, worn out from the lack of care he had given his body. It is true that he once apologised to Brother Ass, as he called his body, for the abuse he had inflicted on It, but there is no evidence that he heeded his own health message!

He died singing, and the legend says that at the moment of his death, larks flew singing into the sky.

Why do I find such a man such an attractive model of the Christian faith?

In a nutshell because he was passionate about God. He could be spectacularly wrong, as he was with the treatment of Brother Ass, but even that is a result of his never-ending enthusiasm to spread the message of Christ.

And in St Francis’ life, and on St Francis’ lips, what a message that was.

God, he said, is love. Well, we all know that. But for St Francis, God is love that never comes to an end. You’ve heard of Médecins sans Frontières, Doctors without Borders, well, St Francis proclaimed that God was Amour sans Frontières, love without boundaries. God loves every creature infinitely and equally.

Francis’ energy was spent in going about telling everyone this transforming message. If you really let God’s love take hold of you, you will never experience the end of it: it will always be there, always supporting, holding, delighting in you. Knowing that love, you can then pass it on. And because it is amour sans frontières, as you give love away, the supply never runs out.

That’s the whole message of the Cross, the whole meaning of the life of Jesus, the whole purpose of God. And I thank God for sending Francis of Assisi to refresh that message in me.

Immerse yourself in the infinity of Divine Love – love without boundaries!

Ted Witham
Minister Provincial

Happy Feast Day August 11, 2011

Posted by Ted Witham in : Franciscan, Provincial Chapter, Resources , add a comment

Dear sisters and brothers,

Today, the Feast of St Clare, is a joyful day in our calendar. I invite you to rejoice in this humble and enduring saint of Assisi, who took the vision of St Francis and made it concrete in her situation.

St Clare inspires to live more generously, to love more unconstrainedly, to sing God’s praises more warmly, and to walk bravely with Christ.

To mark today’s feast, I offer this hymn for you to use as you wish in celebrating St Clare. The hymn is here: http://wp.me/pI7Dl-1L

Peace, joy and love,

Ted Witham.
Minister Provincial

The Provincial Minister Reports – on French Knitting! May 29, 2011

Posted by Ted Witham in : Franciscan, News, Provincial Chapter , 7comments

ENQUIRIES

When I was a child, I remember fads for French knitting, sometimes started in the Witham household and sometimes from Tambellup School. If you don’t know this craft, you take a wooden cotton reel, hammer four thumb tacks around the central hole, then loop woollen thread around the tacks and feed the leading threads through the long hole. If you have threaded correctly, a woven woollen rope appears at the bottom hole and grows and grows. This rope is then used to make pot holders and dressing gown girdles, and pot holders and … well; actually the dressing gown girdles are not much good, because they stretch out of shape quickly.

But French knitting is the sort of craft that keeps you occupied for hours. It whiled away the long 90 minute school bus ride. You could pick it up after tea and keep going for hours. I was always fascinated with the process, watching these four thin threads go in the top and re-appear as a beautiful woven lanyard.

Let me liken this process of French knitting to the way in which we reach out for new members. At the top are enquirers, each of them a single life, usually seeking something more in the Christian journey. At the bottom are the newly-professed, beautiful woven as new Franciscans and ready to be put to work in an appropriate ministry.

For the moment we don’t see the important work that happens between the top and the bottom, but I will come back to that. At the time of your Reports, most Regions in Australia report regularly that they have four or five enquirers. Let’s take the upper figure, because you may not be reporting the enquirers earlier in the year. There are seven Regions, so 35 Enquirers a year. I have been fielding about one Internet enquirer a month, so each year nearly 50 enquirers come to us.

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Flooded by grace January 27, 2011

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There’s a dark conversation going around Australia at the moment. People are imaginatively measuring their homes for flood. In Busselton, for example, we live on the ‘delta’ of the Vasse River, so despite the drained, reclaimed land and the channels taking excess water out to sea, we are still vulnerable to flood. And, speaking of the sea, because we are only centimetres above the sea level, a tsunami would crash its way kilometres ashore.

We keep these conversations dark because our focus shouldn’t really be on ourselves but on the plight of those whose homes, livelihoods and lives have been affected by the real floods – not the ones in our imaginations.

As concerned Christians and Franciscans, we should be looking for ways to be better informed, generous in praying and giving money and offering practical help where possible (all expressions of love). (The best appeal I can find is the Premier’s Appeal at www.qld.gov.au/floods. If you specifically want to help Anglican parishes get back onto their feet, give to the Australian Anglican Primate’s Appeal. You can give electronically to: Arch­bishop’s Emergency Relief Fund; A/C BSB: 704-901; A/C No.: 00014858.)

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Saint Elizabeth of Hungary and W.A. November 17, 2010

Posted by Ted Witham in : Franciscan, Spirituality , add a comment

Here in Western Australia, we hold St Elizabeth of Hungary in special love and esteem, because of the presence here from 1928-1957 of the Anglican Sisters of St Elizabeth who worked in the south-west of this State.

Tertiary George Harvey grew up near their mother house in Bunbury and recalls the huge influence the Sisters had on him: as a server, he was particularly conscious of their devotion to worship. We would probably now regard their style of worship as old-fashioned Anglo-Catholic, but for George and the Sisters then, this worship was rich and redolent of God’s presence. That atmosphere still permeates the little chapel dedicated to St Elizabeth and pictured below.

The Chapel of St Elizabeth, Bunbury, Western Australia


Alongside their rich life of devotion, the Sisters devoted themselves to the care of the Group Settlers, English people who were brought to Western Australia to open up dairy farms and populate the forest country south of Bunbury. The Sisters lived in the same struggling pioneer communities in Busselton, Margaret River and elsewhere.

Those of us who live in this region know that behind the picturesque vineyards and glorious beaches lies a history of hardship, as newcomers came without farming skills to an environment that can be quite harsh and unforgiving. Huge karri and jarrah trees had to be cut down, or killed by ring-barking, thus delaying any income that the pioneers might derive from the land. And even when the land was ready for cattle, prosperity was still not to be found. It is only in recent years that better ways of living in this country are being found, as the harvesting of old-growth forests has been slowed, and tourism established as the main industry.

Back in the 1930s, the group settlement farms were isolated from one another and their communities. Families lived first in primitive shacks, and then in basic cottages, so everyday living was a struggle. The Sisters gave themselves to ministering in this poverty and remoteness and in the process wore themselves out.

Their story is told eloquently in Merle Bignells’ 1992 The Little Grey Sparrows.

The contrast between the poverty of the Sisters’ external lives and the wealth of their internal lives strikes me as one authentic way to be Franciscans: being poor, we discover ourselves, like St Francis, to have inherited the enormous wealth of creation.

In St Elizabeth’s life this contrast also shone forth: she who was a princess became poor to help the poor. But, like St Francis and her other mentor St Clare, Elizabeth did not give up the wealth she had inherited – not the wealth of her husband’s dominions (which she did forego), but the wealth of worship, the wealth of intelligent ministry to the poor, the wealth of creation and people.

For the Tertiaries of Western Australia, the plucky “little grey sparrows” have become part of the richness of our life, and we give thanks for their sacrificial service in this place. We gladly share this story with the wider Franciscan family.

Ted Witham
Minister Provincial

Feast of St Elizabeth AD 2010

A prayer on the feast of St Clare August 11, 2010

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“Wait in silence for God, my soul,
for from Him comes my hope.”

We might take as a theme song for the next few days Psalm 62, set for Morning Prayer for the feast of St Clare.

The heart of the Psalmist’s spirituality, his “soul”, has three parts: waiting, deep silence, out of which grow an expectation that God will make known to us the divine presence.

Wait in silence for God, my soul.

We human beings are not good at waiting. People today scoff at the idea of waiting. We want it all, and we want it now. This impatient greed throws our common life out of kilter. Those who insist that they should have a new, four-bedroom house, with LCD TV screens – you know the scenario – skew the market so that housing in our country is further out of the reach of the poor. There are too few simpler, cheaper houses.

If, in our life with God, we cannot bear to wait, we will cheapen our prayer-life, and cheat our souls of growth. If, in our life with God, we cannot bear to wait, the strength that comes from bring rooted in community will simply pass us by.

St Clare in Assisi placed waiting at the heart of her life: she knew that there is a right time when we receive God’s gifts. She waited, presumably for quite a time, until it was right for her to leave her home on Palm Sunday 1212 to present herself to Francis as a potential member of his community.

Wait in silence for God, my soul.

Silence is also counter-cultural. In a world of continuous entertainment through our different screens and the sound-track of our MP3 players, we have forgotten to nurture silence. It was obvious to our forebears that silence is the language of prayer, and we have crowded it out. Silence always has its coming out: as with light, the silence speaks into the noise, and the noise does not overwhelm us.

Quite.

Quiet.

St Clare would have preferred a more “active” life than the one allowed her by Francis and by the Pope. However, the secluded cloister at San Damiano resounded to a nurturing and empowering silence. Clare made silence her friend, and her sisters in the Poor Clares, and in the Anglican Community of Saint Clare, have continued to make space for God in their choice for silence.

Wait in silence for God, my soul.

Waiting, silence, God: three elements of a spirituality. They continue to resound in my soul. In them are my hope and my salvation.

Let the Lady of Assisi sing in your heart over the coming days.

Wait in silence for God, my soul.

Bear