The Fragile Heart – Tertiary Charles Ringma’s latest book

Book review – A Fragile Hope: Cultivating a Hermitage of the Heart – Charles Ringma tssf
Publisher: Cascade Books
ISBN 9781725287013
Reviewed by Terry Gatfield tssf

Charles Ringma comes as no stranger to the bookshelves of many Christians in Australia and to many in the international community. Whereas most theologians have developed one major field of enquiry Ringma has scanned, explored and developed an extensive range of theological pursuits and avenues of interest. Often these aspects have been expressed through a large range of penned semi-devotional works, amongst them Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, Ellul, Nouwen, Martin Luther King and Merton, as well as scholarly works which include a Commentary on Judges and Hearing the Ancient Wisdom.

To that are added a number of pastorally-related books, such as the Art of Healing Prayer and a number of books on poetry, while he is also the editor of many a collection of Christian-focused articles emanating out of Asia and Australia. His latest book, A Fragile Hope: Cultivating a Hermitage of the Heart, brings the total to twenty-seven publications. His extensive repertoire makes his latest book so interesting.

It is rare for theologians to write in the first person for good and not so good reasons. Generally, that has been a process adopted by Charles. He has the ability to skilfully abstract himself from the subject of his engagement. Self-disclosure is only rarely seen at the margins, if at all, in his previous works. Yet, his latest book is substantively different.


A Fragile Hope takes us on his personal journey of reflection and review following a 6-month sabbatical in a Hermitage. It is a very unusual book that highlights the big theological and social questions of the day though in a very tight and concise format. In particular, these are issues that relate to his life journey and, more specifically, to his struggles and engagement with the dilemmas of the contemporary socio-political-economic and religious western world of a Christian who desires to walk in the footsteps of Christ while maintaining faithfulness to the scriptures. It deals also with the big deep questions of how he must live and the tensions and paradoxes that are disturbing to him. This book is different in that it is about Charles Ringma and his journey though it also echoes the journey of others who have walked that path. He seems to draw from many of the saints of old. It is he who bears his mind, his heart and his soul. But don’t be fooled, this is not a narcissistic exercise in navel gazing; it is a time of listening at the altar of the authors’ confessionals. Charles is a wordsmith who skilfully and subtly takes us on his journey as we are perhaps faced with the same tensions and dichotomies of daily living in the Kingdom of God, especially in a western context. It is insightful, inspirational, challenging and, sometimes, disturbing.

The take-home message that I have personally drawn from this is of an increased hope – a greater and deeper hope to see and live in the Kingdom of God in my daily life, to be in the world but not of it nor conformed to it. To live in the transformational zone. I think a slow daily and deeply reflective reading of the book will assist that process for me, and I think for many of the readers.

I commend this book as not one to simply fill a space on the bookshelf but one to assist reflection and review of the pilgrimage journey for the thinking Christian. It is a very practical and insightful book which is relatively free of theological jargon and it would be an ideal read for individuals seeking a deeper more meaningful Christian faith experience. It is an accessible companion of about one hundred pages and it is broken into twenty-eight chapters, each loaded with nourishment and wisdom. It is incredible value at $25.

November 2021


The Church’s Underbelly

Church.Underbelly

The Church and its “Underbelly”
By Charles Ringma tssf

This heading may strike you as rather strange. You may even think that there is something underhanded or even sinister about this. Or you may think that with the reference to underbelly that I am referring to something like a corrupt cohort of police in a police precinct or the mafia in a society, and that this somehow refers to the church. I have no such thing in mind. But there is something strategic and counter-cultural at play here.

I use the term underbelly, deliberately and provocatively. And this is because with our focus on the institutional nature of the church we often neglect thinking about the laity and their role in the kingdom of God and the goodness they bring to society. They might as well be the underbelly.

Let me get straight to the point. It is evident that more and more the church and its other institutions will have to function under increasing governmental regulations. I am not suggesting that this is bad. It is simply a fact of contemporary life, and these institutions should be safe and accountable entities.

However, there are a number of concerns. 1. Church and its related institutions will need to spend more of its time and resources on governmental compliance issues. 2. This could result in this becoming the “main” game. 3. And as consequence, the main game of being a servant of Christ and a witness to the world could get lost or compromised.

In the light of the above, I wish to suggest that the church and its related institutions should develop more of an underbelly. This underbelly is the laity as the “scattered” faith-community doing its informal activities such as friendship building, caring, practising hospitality, mentoring, praying, and acting into the world. All of this, while under the nurturing care of the church, is beyond any regulation by the state or other entity. No one can stop me from bringing someone home for help, or providing food for a needy neighbour. And above all, no can stop me praying or mentoring a friend or colleague. And building families of safety, nurture, care, and resilience with spiritual values, is thankfully also something one can do without outside regulation.

While the church and its related institutions, particularly as these continue to get government support, will need to be compliant because these are professional and social entities, there is another dimension to the church. This is the members of the church as they live their lives at home, at work, and in the neighbourhood. And these members can do a lot of good both informally, practically, and strategically.

These members of the faith-community constitute the “informal” face of the church – the underbelly. They are the “non-professionals” in the art of loving care.

What I am discussing here is something we see in the general community when there are bushfires or a flood or a drought. Ordinary people in these circumstances do a lot in helping their neighbours and they do so alongside of the governmental and other social-group supports that are provided.

We also see this in the life of the church. There are all sorts of friendship and other informal “groups” that exist in the broader life of the church, and there are many individuals who act on their own to help others.

Historically, when Hong Kong was to be handed back to China, the churches did a lot to form informal care and nurture groups in the life of the church. And in the long history of Christianity groups have been formed alongside of the parish church – including cenobitic communities and groups like the Clapham “Sect” just to name two.

Now it is true that over time informal groups can become institutionalised as was the case with monasticism, just to mention one. But this makes my central concern all the more pressing. And that is that we need to continue to facilitate, train, nurture the informal activities of the “scattered” church in its activities of Monday through to Saturday. And this means the empowerment of the laity. And it also means that members of the church need to gain a new identity – no only longer consumers of religious services by Christian professionals, but full participants in the joy of seeing the seeds of the kingdom of God springing up everywhere.

If this underbelly is not nurtured, then my concern is that the institutional church of the future may become a more and more hampered institution concerned with its own survival and less with its mission in the world.
And who would say that the church as institution only can do more than the combined activities of its members in the art of care and influencing others with the gospel and caring love?

Charles Ringma

SIMPLY CHRISTIAN: gREG sHERIDAN’S NEW BOOK

Greg Sheridan, Christians: The urgent case for Jesus in our world,
Allen and Unwin, 2021.
From $26. Paperback.
Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf

Greg Sheridan introduces his new book on the people of Christianity with his cheerful description of our faith:

‘On the inside, Christianity is full of feast days and family, full of fellowship, full of friendship. And everyone is welcome, surely never more so than at Christmas. It’s full of care for the sick and elderly, and for infants. It’s full of sport and play, hard work and rest. It’s full of good music and laughter, happy rituals and lots and lots of food (it’s very big on food). It is the principle of human solidarity. It’s the search for decency. It’s a conversation with each other and with God. As John Denver might have put it, in Christianity you routinely speak to God and rejoice at the casual reply.’ (Page 11)

Christians is Greg Sheridan’s second book in defence of Christianity. Sheridan writes of a large Christianity, catholic in the widest way. One of his principal arguments, first advanced in his 2018 God is Good for You, is that it is more reasonable to believe in God than not. The first book was mainly a rejoinder to the new atheists. In it, he took on writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and showed how much bigger Christianity is than the caricature Dawkins and Hitchens attack.

In this second book, Sheridan tells stories: the stories of Jesus, Mary and the remarkable Paul. Stories of the faith of Scott Morrison, Alpha’s Nicky Gumbel and the Melbourne Anglican founder of Converge, Jenny George. He tells the story of China’s Christians, and the difference they may make to the future of China. In London, he compares the neighbouring churches of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) and the Brompton Oratory, where traditional and informal liturgies, high classical church music and Matt Redman’s Gospel songs are all quite different and all nourish believers.

Christians compresses Christianity to its simple heart. For a reader like me, Sheridan sometimes makes Christianity seem too simple. But his purpose is to provide an attractive portrayal of Christianity for those who do not share the faith. In that, Christians reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and Christians is a more entertaining read than Lewis.

Greg Sheridan’ s writing is compelling and accessible. He works as foreign editor for the Australian newspaper. In Christians, he is open about his political stance (he describes himself as centre-right). In a throwaway line, he suggests that Christians are likely to be centre-right or centre-left in their politics. Extremes are likely to lack love.

Christians is endorsed by well-known journalists and by church leaders as diverse as Russell Evans from Planetshakers International, Peter Comensoli, Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne and Pastor Samuel Rodriguez, President of the US National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

It is a book that can be shared both with non-Christians and Christians alike. Those unfamiliar with our faith will find an attractive picture of how Christian faith is lived, and Christians will be encouraged that such a positive book will speak to such a challenging time.

[This review first published in Anglican Messenger, Perth, September 2021)

Being priestly, prophetical and kingly

Christ: Prophet, Priest, King: Where Does That Leave the Church?
By Charles Ringma tssf

I believe that it is pretty much a given that Christ has everything to do with the church. In theological jargon, this is expressed as follows: Christology forms and shapes ecclesiology.

This simple phrase has several important dimensions. First, the person and work of Christ is the source and foundation of the faith community. People come to faith in Christ and form a community reflecting Christ. Second, the way of Christ in the world is the way the church is to be as disciples of Christ. If Christ is indeed the Prince of Peace, then the church should be a peace-making community. Third, what the church is, reflects back on Christ. The church as the “body of Christ” is a second “incarnation” of Christ. Thus, the church is to be an embodiment of and witness to Christ. Here the church is called to great fidelity.

In Christology, we speak of Christ as being Prophet, Priest, and King. And we usually spell this out as follows: 1] As prophet, Christ is the voice and reflection of God to humanity. He brings the new word, the new vision, the new way. And as prophet, Christ critiques the old way and its pretentious powers and shows the new way of redemptive suffering and the bliss that is to come in God’s final future. As prophet, Christ is the great disturber, the one who disrupts the status quo. 2] As priest, Christ is the bridge between God and humanity in his healing and restoring activity, and in his intercession for the church and world. As the Great Priest, Christ, agonises into birth the kingdom of God in people’s lives and in the world. 3] As King, Christ is Lord not only of the individual believer, and of the church, but also of the world and the world to come. Here there is the call for a faithful following of the one whose rulership is so different to that of the nations. He is the Servant-King and as the Lamb that was slain, he demonstrates a generative rulership which seeks to bring into being a whole new world.

So, what about all of this in relation to the faith community? What does Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King have to do with the church? Simply put, everything! If its true, as we have said, that Christology impacts ecclesiology then ecclesiology should not impact Christology. In other words, we can’t be reductionistic in making Christ fit our church paradigms. And we can’t favour the one ministry of Christ to the neglect of the other ministries.

Yet, this, seems so often to be the case. Let me illustrate this at a very broad level.

Roman Catholic and the mainline Protestant churches have tended, in their long commitment to the Christendom project, to emphasize the kingly work of the church in forming churches and institutions that seek to have social clout. This approach operates on the notion that the more powerful the church can be in society, the more good it can do. In this model, the church is always seeking political and social “capital” and influence. We have seen this with Evangelicals during the Trump presidency and with the Roman Catholic church in Poland.

Pentecostal and Charismatic churches while increasingly seeming to move in the same direction as described above, have traditionally emphasized the priestly ministry. They have sought to be a healing and restorative presence for people and have outworked in the broader community. In this, they have tended to be more a-political.

The prophetic ministry has tended to be more the domain of fringe groups such as the Anabaptists, Quakers, and para-church groups such as Sojourners, along with many other similar groups. Their orientation has been to question the major dominant paradigms in both the churches and the world, and to call for a new way of being in the world. Rather following the “triumphant” Christ into the world, they have tended to follow the “suffering” or “bitter” Christ into the world.

So, you may want to think about where you fit? Where does your church or organisation fit? And more importantly, where should you and I fit?

In wrestling with this, here are a few thoughts –
1] If Christ is indeed Prophet, Priest, and King, then the faith community should reflect these three “ministries” of Christ.
2] Can these three be held in creative tension?
3] Karl Barth, in formulating a theology that had to do with calling the church to resist the church’s Nazification, made the claim – not surprisingly given his context – that the prophetic work of Christ was primary for the church and the other “ministries” had to be understood in the light of that prophetic work. What do we think of this?
4] Does this mean that in differing settings, a differing ministry need to be the major focus?
5] And finally, how are we to discern in our world what is most pressing regarding the way the church is to be in the world?

Charles Ringma tssf,
Emeritus Prof. Regent College, Vancouver; Research Fellow Trinity College, Queensland; Hon. Assoc. Prof. The University of Queensland; Adjunct Faculty Asian Theological Seminary, Manila.

St Bonaventure’s Itinerarium as a bridge from Francis to the Franciscans

by Evan Pederick tssf, Perth WA, July 2021; evanpederick@gmail.com
Talk given to the Perth Third Order members

Abstract
In this paper I look at the spiritual theology of the 13th-century theologian, St Bonaventure. I suggest that because of the arguments affecting the Franciscan order at the time Bonaventure becomes Minister-General in 1257, his major work of spiritual theology is designed to establish a narrative about the meaning of St Francis’ life that would ensure the long-term future of the Order by allowing for lay participation and more moderate ways of following the Rule. I also suggest Bonaventure’s spiritual theology makes use of the mystical teaching of St Clare which is better suited to a non-itinerant Franciscan lifestyle.

Introduction
It is often observed that St Bonaventure places philosophical and theological structure on the lived spirituality of Francis of Assisi – perhaps some modern Franciscans wonder whether that was such a good thing! In this talk however I want to suggest that it is entirely a good thing, because Bonaventure provides a vital bridge between the early Franciscan radical performative reenactment of the Sermon on the Mount and a lived spirituality accessible to generations of non-itinerant and lay tertiaries.

As an academic theologian Bonaventure must have seemed to many an odd choice as the seventh Minister-General of the Franciscan Order in 1257 – though he had an unimpeachable reputation for zeal and holiness. Brilliant and pious while theologically conservative, Bonaventure was thrust into the leadership in the middle of a fierce debate over the figure of Francis himself, interpretation of his Rule of Life and the possibility of lay participation in the Order.

By mid-13th century the Franciscans had grown beyond all expectation – but seemed about to implode. After Francis’ death in 1226 what had begun as an improvised way of life for his small group of friends had morphed into an international order with thousands of friars, creating massive administrative problems and institutional needs for education and formation. At the same time, Francis’ legacy was hotly contested. The so-called Protospirituals, furious at what they saw as the lax disregard of Francis’ teaching on poverty, latched on to the sensationalist 12th-century apocalyptic vision of Joachim of Fiore to declare Francis the angelic harbinger of a great cosmic conflict, setting aside both Old and New Testaments and ushering in the end of time. Bonaventure’s immediate predecessor, John of Parma, had resigned in disgrace due to his own association with the hotheads.

Bonaventure soon proved himself an able peacemaker. Researching his life of Francis in the year he became Minister-General, Bonaventure visited one of Francis’ original companions, Brother Giles, who asked him suspiciously, ‘Can a simple person love God as much as a learned one?’ ‘Even more so than a master of theology’, Bonaventure responded diplomatically – and in his Life of Francis notes that Giles himself while simplex et ignota (simple and unlearned) ‘lived among people more like an angel than a human being’.

Nevertheless, Bonaventure had a fight on his hands to establish a narrative about Francis that could provide a long-term future for the Order as it continued to grow apart from the radical itinerant lifestyle of its founders. I suggest that an integral part of Bonaventure’s response to the problem is to be found in his works of spiritual theology penned over the first two years following his installation as Minister-General. I will make this argument, firstly, by thinking about the general shape of Bonaventure’s spiritual theology, which marries the time-honoured three-fold neo-Platonic way of ascent pioneered by the 5th century Dionysius with new and distinctly Franciscan thinking. I will then turn to a closer examination of Bonaventure’s major work, the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, or the Soul’s Journey to God, to show how Bonaventure constructs a template for Franciscan spirituality from his interpretation of Francis’ vision on Mt Alverna. Finally, I will suggest how Bonaventure derives his novel elements from Clare of Assisi via his contact with Brother Leo.

The Triple Way
We live in remarkable times. For four dollars you can buy on Kindle and read on your smartphone Bonaventure’s entire Mystical Opuscula , the three works that form the essence of his spiritual theology: the Lignam Vitae (Tree of Life) that anticipates St Ignatius’ way of meditating on the life of Christ in Scripture by four centuries; de Triplica Via (Threefold Way) which insists that love remains even when the intellect is plunged into the darkness of unknowing and that the apotheosis of love is the Crucified Christ; and the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, (Mind’s Journey into God) which is both a pilgrim’s progress through the whole of the created order into identification with the Crucified One and simultaneously a reinterpretation of Francis’ vision on Mt Alverna as a template for contemplation. All three of these works were written between 1259 and 1260.

Firstly a couple of words about the Triple Way, the last of these works and a practical primer for novice friars. In this little work Bonaventure builds on the threefold mystical hierarchy first expressed seven centuries earlier by Dionysius. It consists of three ways and three exercises. The ways are the purgative (ie. the way of moral virtue or asceticism), the illuminative and the perfective or unitive – the first way leading to peace, the second to truth and the third to love. The exercises are meditation (eg. lectio divina), prayer and contemplation (confusingly, what the Western spiritual tradition refers to as contemplation is more often referred to as meditation in our own day). In the classical Neoplatonic pattern, the three stages take us first outward, then inward, then upward – away from the love of creatures, purifying the intellect and volition and into the unknowing of divine darkness. Bonaventure, however, following the love mysticism of the 12th century Hugh of St Victor, reinterprets the drily intellectual Dionysian ‘unknowing’ (apophasis) as the love that alone can persist when knowledge is extinguished, and adds a twist by using the erotic imagery of the Song of Songs to build up a theme of loving desire between the soul as a bride and its divine Spouse. Finally, in the Triple Way, Bonaventure makes another move that neither Dionysius nor Hugh could have imagined – equating the pinnacle of loving desire with devotion to the cross through which the soul’s identification with Christ is made complete. As I will suggest later this identification with the crucified Christ as the epitome of love joins together the lived experience of St Francis with the mystical teachings of St Clare.

The Journey
When in 1259 he sits down to write his most important work of spiritual theology, the Journey of the Mind into God, Bonaventure also uses the three-fold division of Dionysius but this time he has a very important practical problem to address. In this work, written on Mt Alverna where Francis received the stigmata along with the vision of the six-winged seraph in 1224, Bonaventure sets out to establish Francis’ vision as an eschatological event – which is to say an event that draws the Franciscan Order and through it the whole Church into its apotheosis. Like the Protospirituals, Bonaventure has some sympathy with the apocalyptic theology of Joachim of Fiore – unlike the Protospirituals he sees the significance of Francis not as a cataclysmic event that ushers in the end (ie. finish) of the world but rather an event that ushers in a renewed creation and a reformed doxology. Thus, Bonaventure has both a political purpose of importance to the future of the Franciscan movement and a spiritual purpose to reveal in the life of Francis a pattern of growing conformity to the crucified Christ as a template for an accessible Franciscan spirituality. In the Prologue of the Itinerarium Bonaventure reveals that the journey he is about to describe is a mystical journey into the heart of crucified love, based on Francis’ own journey as icon and exemplar.

In this work, Bonaventure again adopts the Dionysian pattern of outwards, inwards and upwards – it should be said that for Bonaventure these are never stages in the chronological sense that you leave one behind to go on to the next – but doubles each of the stages to correspond with the six wings of the seraph in the form of the crucified Christ. Bonaventure achieves this doubling in a way that emphasises that this is a journey from created being to eternal being, considering the divine presence in each stage as Alpha (initial cause) and Omega (final cause).

The first stage corresponds to what Bonaventure calls the Book of Creation – here, God is known in and through the creatures as Alpha and Omega. By this, Bonaventure means that as we study creation we may see the vestigial fingerprints of the Creator – the Alpha – and we may also see the God made known through the creatures as their final cause or Omega – for Bonaventure this means we reflect on how we are drawn to know God through the deep patterning and order of the external world. If you read this as a 21st century Franciscan expecting a lyrical meditation on the ways God’s beauty is reflected in the natural world and its creatures you might be disappointed – there is definitely scope here for an ecotheological updating of the Journey reflecting on the goodness and beauty of the natural world and its eternal valuation! However in his medieval language we see Bonaventure’s use of the Orthodox notion of theosis – the eternal drawing together of all things in Christ in the service of another Franciscan theme: the vocation of all things for praise.

In the second stage Bonaventure invites us to contemplate our own human soul – again, both as an image of God in its creation – Alpha – and in its eternal vocation of praise and union with God through faith, hope and love reformed by grace – which is the Omega. In this section Bonaventure makes full use of the erotic Spousal imagery from the Song of Songs to depict the soul’s yearning for God. He also describes the soul as a mirror illuminated through scripture and reflecting divine Wisdom.

Thus restored to its proper likeness the soul in the final stage can turn toward God, firstly considering God as Being – the One who gives existence to all things (ie. as Alpha) and then considering God as the Good. Bonaventure uses a number of analogies throughout the Itinerarium – for example that of ascending Jacob’s ladder, then in the fourth chapter the entry into the heavenly Jerusalem before introducing at the end of chapter five the metaphor of the soul as the temple of the Holy Spirit. This metaphor dominates chapters five and six, where Bonaventure tells us we have already entered the atrium and the holy places of the temple but now must enter the Holy of Holies. What follows is the description of a sort of mandala, the Holy of Holies inhabited by twin cherubim gazing at the mercy seat between them, that awesome place in the temple in Jerusalem where God’s presence dwelt as a sort of fecund absence. We are meant, I think, to construct a visual image of this, as we contemplate firstly the cherubim who proclaims the name of God as Being: I am that I am – the Alpha of all creaturely existence – and then turn our inner eye to the second cherub on the other side of the mercy seat who proclaims the name of God as the highest Good. This name of God necessarily requires as to think of God as a loving trinity whose own life is characterised as a flow of self-giving love. Goodness, identified as the procession from Being to Being-For or Being-Towards or even Being-Given – draws all things to their true end or Omega in loving union.

At each stage of the journey the mind is drawn from outer to inner and from beginning to end until finally in the seventh chapter the soul is able to follow the gaze of the cherubim and contemplate the mercy seat. This is the empty place above the altar in the Holiest of Holies filled with the invisible presence of God, in the Itinerarium made shockingly visible in the form of the crucified and lifeless Christ. The journey reaches its culmination (which Bonaventure refers to as a Passover) In the soul’s contemplation of the crucified Christ – at this point God remains unknowable but able to be embraced in love.

In his Life of St Francis (Legenda Maiora) Bonaventure had named Francis as the ‘hierarchical man’, who bearing the marks of the stigmata is be identified with the angel ‘having the seal of the living God’ in the apocalyptic vision of Revelation 7.2. And so the Itinerarium begins with the intention expressed by Bonaventure in the Prologue to understand and retrace the journey of Francis, and ends with an image of Francis’s contemplation and embrace of the Crucified made visible for us in the stigmata. It is here that the intellect enters the darkness of unknowing – but following Francis we are able to so identify in love with the crucified Christ that Bonaventure bids us rest with him in the darkness of the tomb.

For Bonaventure, then, Francis represents a sort of icon for our meditation, a window into Christ who is himself an image of the invisible God. The importance of his project in the Itinerarium is to offer a way of imitatio Francisci that does not involve stripping yourself naked before the bishop, renouncing all possessions and undertaking a lifelong performative re-enactment of the Sermon on the Mount. By mid-13th century the life of Francis had already begun to recede into highly contested and even mythologised history. However, Bonaventure suggests that through contemplating the image of Francis stigmatised we ourselves may see Christ – so Francis is both an example of perfect human union with God and a visible icon for our own journey into the heart of Christ.

Clare’s way
Less obvious is that in this project Bonaventure also interprets the penultimate experience of Francis’ life using the techniques passed down from Clare of Assisi. As has become well known, Clare and her sisters lived a life very different to the mendicant performative imitation of Christ lived by Francis and his companions. Enclosed in community and refusing even to work or beg for alms, Clare’s community practised a poverty possibly even more extreme than that of their brothers. Better recognised now, thanks to writers such as Ilia Delio, is the interior poverty and contemplation focussed on two central images developed in Clare’s letters to Agnes of Hungary: Christ as Spouse and as Mirror. The spousal imagery drawn from the Song of Songs and also found in St Paul’s letters and the early Church Fathers, is beautifully drawn in Clare’s first letter to Agnes in which the embrace of poverty becomes a form of union with the “poor Crucified”. As I noted earlier, this imagery is also central to Bonaventure’s spiritual writing.
In her second and third letters Clare combines the spousal imagery with that of the mirror, inviting Agnes to ‘gaze, consider, contemplate, desiring to imitate your Spouse’. This movement from gazing into the mirror of Christ, to considering, contemplating and imitating becomes a sort of interior journey that functions like Francis and his brothers’ literal, performative representation of Christ’s itinerant life. As Jay Hammond notes, although Clare probably first receives the mirror metaphor from earlier Cistercian sources her development in the letters to Agnes is unique and personal because she lacks access to a library in her monastery. In her fourth and final letter to Agnes, Clare provides a deeper reflection on the journey of contemplation, describing the mirror of Christ as giving access to the entire mission of the Incarnate Word as the radical poverty of God giving Godself away in love. Clare in this letter invites Agnes to transform herself into the image by gazing into the mirror which is Christ, in whom we also see the image of ourselves as we are created to be.

In the Itinerarium, Bonaventure notes that his work is based on conversations he had with Brother Leo who was with Francis when he received his vision. There is no record of Bonaventure having personally met Clare, who died in 1253. However, in a letter to the Abbess of the Monastery of St Clare in Assisi written in the same year as he composed the Itinerarium (1259), Bonaventure writes that he has also received news of the sisters from Leo. Using similar terminology to that of Clare’s letters to Agnes Bonaventure in this letter enjoins the Abbess to contemplate the mirror of Christ. The case for Bonaventure having been made aware of Clare’s contemplative imagery through Leo thus seems fairly strong.

In the Itinerarium, Bonaventure integrates the theme of the mirror with that of Francis’ beatific vision, writing that the wings of the Seraph are mirrors through which we can gaze on Christ. By this he refers to the mirrors of creation and of the human soul which reflect their Creator. He writes that these mirrors reflect the light of Christ so that to gaze at creation is to recognise the presence of Christ in all things – though in the Prologue he also cautions that these mirrors must be cleaned and polished before we can see clearly in them! Ultimately in Bonaventure’s vision it is the Crucified Christ himself who is the perfect mirror of God, and the stigmatised Francis who becomes for us a mirror of Christ.

Conclusion
Bonaventure, as one commentator notes, is both more and less than Francis! He leaves us wanting more of the immediacy and freshness of Francis’ perception of reality – while Francis himself maybe leaves us wanting something more suitable for everyday practicality! Bonaventure is primarily writing for the needs of his own mid-13th century community trying to find a settled narrative and a way forward from self-defeating disputation. However in the Itinerarium he also provides a road-map for a Franciscan spirituality that by drawing on the mature spirituality of both Francis and Clare is able to be emulated by future generations.
*** +++ ***

References
Ables, Travis. ‘The Apocalyptic Figure of Francis’s Stigmatized Body: The Politics of Scripture in Bonaventure’s Meditative Treatises’. In Reading Scripture as a Political Act, edited by Daniel McClain and Matthew Tapie. Fortress, 2015. 25/6/2021.
Bonaventure. Itinerarium Mentis in Deum. Edited by Stephen Brown. Translated by Philotheus Boehner. Works of Saint Bonaventure, Translation from the Latin Text of the Quaracchi Ed. Saint Bonaventure, NY: The Franciscan Institute, 1998.
———. Mystical Opuscula. Translated by José Oscar de Vinck. Kindle edn. The Works of Saint Bonaventure: Cardinal, Seraphic Doctor and Saint, vol. 1. Edinburgh: CrossReach Publications, 2017.
———. ‘The Life of St Francis (Legenda Maior)’. In Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God/The Tree of Life/The Life of St Francis, translated by Ewert Cousins, 179–327. The Classics of Western Spirituality. New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1978.
Cousins, Ewert. Bonaventure and the Coincidence of Opposites. Chicago, IL: Franciscan Herald Press, 1978.
Delio, Ilia. Clare of Assisi: A Heart Full of Love. Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2007.
———. Franciscan Prayer. Kindle. Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2004.
Hammond, Jay M. ‘Clare’s Influence on Bonaventure?’ Franciscan Studies 62 (2004): 101–17.
Hayes, Zachary. Bonaventure: Mystical Writings. New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999.
Hughes, Kevin L. ‘Francis, Clare, and Bonaventure’. In The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism, edited by Julia Lamm, 282–96, 2012. www.academia.edu.
McColman, Carl. The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality. Kindle edn. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Pub. Co, 2010.

Christians: The third Race?

A Divided Christendom. Can the Idea of a “Third Race” Help Us?

by Charles Ringma tssf

We seem to be living in a very different time to the 20th century when churches were concerned about the lack of unity of the church and its implications for the witness of the church in society. This concern seems to have disappeared.

Today, the splinterization of Christianity continues with many solo churches coming into being and Christian para-church groups continuing to proliferate. Also, many Christians now prefer to be part of informal “groups” or as alienated from the church while continuing to maintain their Christian faith.

All of this is overlaid with the reality that churches are not only divided along doctrinal, but also along ethnic and economic lines. We have Chinese and Vietnamese churches and churches predominately of the well-to-do.
What all of this indicates is that the concept of church, as the Body of Christ, has become a pragmatic and functional reality with little biblical/theological depth. That being the case, we have freed ourselves to “play church” at will, and our little sense of cooperation has not only led to duplication, but also competition. And with the lack of growth of the church in the West, “branding” has become a dominant operational motif. We have to show how we are different, and move you to join our more desirable form of church.

All of this should be of great concern. While this brief reflection does not provide the space to develop a theology of the faith community, some basic comments can be made.

Being linked to Christ involves the double movement of being “baptized into Christ Jesus” (Romans 6: 3) and being baptized into the faith community: “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into the one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” (1 Corinthians 12: 13). This means that God’s reconciliation in Christ is both vertical and horizontal – we are joined to Christ and linked to one another. Solo Christianity is a postmodern fiction. The heartbeat of our faith is relationality – joined to God, the faith community, and our world.

This Christological community in the Spirit is a community where traditional social categories are overcome through a spiritual unity expressed in a concrete life together: “there is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free…male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28).

This does not mean that these ethnic and social distinctives disappear in the faith community, but that they are no longer determinative. Christ is the new centre. And as such Christians are a corporate identity and are called “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2: 9).

It is therefore appropriate to ask the question whether in Christ a new “race” has come into being. Are Christians, as distinct from Jews and Gentiles, to be regarded as a Third Race?

The writer of the Epistle to Diognetus seems to think so. The writer speaks of Christians as “this new race or way of life” that has come into the world. The author continues: while they “follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time, they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship.” They live in countries as “non-residents,” and “every foreign country is their fatherland and every fatherland is foreign.”

What we may draw from the above biblical passages and from this epistle is the following –
1. Christians are a distinct spiritual and social entity in society.
2. Their identity in Christ is not limited to their particular church.
3. Their identity is also national and global.

Let me draw some possible implications from these most basic points. First of all, Christians need to think about commonalities and sharing across denominations in their particular localities. Secondly, churches should exercise common concerns for the nation as a whole in which they find themselves. And thirdly, and most fundamentally and controversially, Christians need to find commonality with other Christians across the world.

Majoring on this last point, I believe that we need to rethink our order of priorities. If Christians are indeed a Third Race as a spiritual/social entity in Christ, then my priorities cannot be Australia first, the USA first, or China first, and then my commitment to Christ. Instead, the priority is Christ first, and then my commitment to local, national, and global Christian communities.

This means that I need to question what my country is doing in its policies towards other countries which will also affect my Christian brothers and sisters in that country. Put in the starkest terms I may need to become an “enemy” of my country if my country’s actions hurt another country and its faith community.

While this may all sound far too grandiose or abstract, let me make a simple point. If a church community in Australia forms a link with a church, in say Timor Leste, then the Australian church would have to take an interest in Australian Government policy towards that country and the church may well need to raise its voice in prophetic protest and work hard in expressing caring and practical solidarity.

And moving in the other direction, our solidarity with a faith community in Myanmar or Nigeria or Bolivia could open our eyes to things we are not properly seeing because of our cultural blinkers and arrogance.

All of this does not in any way suggest that we neglect responding to our neighbours and institutions in the general community. Love of God involves love of neighbour. But love of neighbour does not cancel out love of brothers and sisters in the faith in other parts of the world for with them we have a Christo-centric common identity. Paul’s words ring loud and clear: “So then, whenever we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family faith” (Galatians 6: 10).

What could it look like if the local cooperation of faith communities could propel us out of our myopic perspectives and liberate us to embrace a global concern of Christians as a Third Race?

Charles Ringma, tssf,
Emeritus Professor Regent College, Vancouver; Honorary Research Fellow Trinity College Queensland; and Professor in the PhD program in contextual theology at Asian Theological Seminary, Metro Manila.

Mary and her place in scripture

Mary and Her Place in Scripture
by Pirrial Clift tssf
I have barely touched on Mary’s Place in Scripture, the topic of this second part in a series about Mary of Nazareth. I chose to attempt to unpick just a few words in Luke’s Gospel. Not being a theologian myself, I have leaned on D.W. Allen and Max Thurian’s work.

Before the Enlightenment common life and language understood softer boundaries between spiritual and physical realities: the liminal qualities of human existence were acknowledged. Metaphor, allegory, myth, poetry, mystery and hidden implications, spiritual powers, heavenly beings, dreams and visions, instinct and bodily knowing; all were considered valid vehicles of God’s revelations.

The woof and warp of salvation history is a tapestry rich in people who heard God’s voice, responded to dreams, entertained angels, conveyed God’s words to others and performed wonders and miracles: some followed stars or heard voices from a burning bush… a donkey… a cloud… Powerful myths containing kernels of essential knowledge were woven into history, preserving tradition and God’s laws through the spoken word; whilst poetry, running through scripture like a golden thread, opened hearts and souls to truths not easily expressed. Parables – and many other parts of Scripture – present truths packaged like Russian Babushka dolls, inviting the hearer to venture ever deeper into their veiled meanings. It need not surprise us then, that Mary’s place in scripture is woven with similar threads.

Mary’s place is central to the Biblical narrative of salvation history. Abraham, who appeared at the beginning of salvation history, held God’s promise that through him every nation would be blessed. Israel repeatedly failed to be receptive to God’s words. D.W. Allen posits Mary as fulfilling Israel’s supreme vocation when she received the living Word, enabling the birth of the long-awaited Messiah. Isaiah’s prophecy ’Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called Immanuel [God-with –us]’ was fulfilled in her.

Luke’s Gospel posits her as the link between the old and new covenants. To him she embodies Israel’s vocation, co-operating with the Creator in carrying the Living Word to full term; bringing God-in-Jesus among us for the salvation of all peoples.

Hail
At the Annunciation the Angel Gabriel speaks: ‘Hail (or Rejoice), favoured one’.

‘Hail’’ appears in the NRSV as ‘Greetings’, which does not adequately convey the original meaning, according to Max Thurian, who refers to OT references including Zephaniah 3.14-18 and Zechariah 2.10. ‘Hail’ is used specifically to address the ‘Daughter of Zion’ a female metaphor personifying Israel. He says: ‘the Daughter of Zion is … mystical in that it concerns the union of the Virgin, the Daughter of Zion, with the Lord, her husband: and also eschatological in the sense that it represents the motherhood of the Daughter of Zion and her painful deliverance of the Messianic Hope, or deliverance of the people of God by the coming of the Messiah’. Mary herself, and Luke’s first readers, would have been cognisant of the hidden layers of meaning in that single word of greeting in a way that escapes contemporary readers.

Allen again: ‘Actually at this moment Mary is herself mysteriously Jerusalem and the Temple, the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant’. He echoes St Francis’ Salutation to the Virgin Mary: ‘Hail, his Palace! Hail his Tabernacle! Hail his Dwelling! Hail his Robe! Hail his Servant! Hail, his Mother!’ Mary, wherein dwelt the King, the Holy One of Israel; covered him with her body, then later became mother and servant to him.

Full of Grace
The particular word meaning full of grace (sometimes translated favour) addressed to Mary, is found in Ephesians [1.6] to describe the abundance of grace poured out through Christ to all the members of his Body, the church. Mary however, is addressed as ‘the’ full of grace; the type or exemplar, of grace.

The Lord is with you
The Lord was with Moses in the ‘thick cloud’ on the mountain when he received the Law of the Covenant and with his people in the OT in the heart of the covenant community, When the Ark of the Covenant was set in the tabernacle, ‘the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.’ Now Mary stands as the new Temple – having been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, the Presence of God dwelt deep in her body. She is the new Ark, the new dwelling place of God on earth. Jesus, the promised Messiah, is the personification of the New Covenant. As the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle, so Jesus, the Incarnation of God’s glory, filled Mary.

Both Jews and Christians being accustomed to being described as ‘children of Abraham’ i.e. inheritor’s of Abraham’s renowned faith. Mary realised God’s promise to Abraham by giving birth to the promised Messiah, whose sacrificial love delivered the promised blessing to all nations.

Mary’s inspirational faith and trust in God are marked by Elizabeth’s prophetic greeting to her in the hill country: “…blessèd is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary ‘treasured all these things’ – the prophetic utterances experienced in angelic visitations, Elizabeth’s prophetic greeting, Simeon and Anna’s’ prophecies and Jesus’ only recorded childhood utterance – ‘in her heart’. God’s word spoken and written and God’s Word become incarnate in her womb were treasured by Mary.

In Mary’s, faith and grace, she is blessèd indeed. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Pirrial Clift. tssf

Blessed are Christians through the Pandemic

Irene Alexander and Christopher Brown (editors),
To Whom Shall We Go? Faith responses in a time of crisis,
Cascade 2021
Paperback ISBN 9781725289550
Hardback ISBN 9781725289567
eBook ISBN 9781725289574
Available from the publishers, Koorong, or from the authors at holyscribblers.blogspot.com
Hardback $40, eBook and Paperback $25

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Part of us wants to pretend the Coronavirus pandemic has not happened, and that the Church can go back to its old ways after the worst of this is over. I have no doubt, however, that there will be enduring changes, not least in the way Church organisations use technology.

The collective of Christian writers behind To Whom Shall We Go, who call themselves the “Holy Scribblers”, are also convinced of permanent change. Their interest, as shown in this series of eleven essays, is in changes to our spiritual lives more than technology.

The book is loosely structured around the Beatitudes and this structure gives the book an optimistic feel: we Christians will be stronger and our faith will be deeper – we will be more blessed – because of living through this moment. Their grounds for optimism are historical. We have before lived through past pandemics and challenges and emerged changed and stronger.

The authors are an eclectic mix of academics and thinkers who are looking for thoughtful Christian readers, clergy and lay. Two Franciscan Tertiaries, Terry Gatfield and Charles Ringma, are among the contributors. As is always the case with essays from diverse authors, individual readers will find some essays stronger than others. For example, Chris Mercer’s explorations of Desert Father Evagrius’ “eight deadly thoughts” (gluttony and lack of thankfulness for food, sexual lust, sadness, boredom and apathy, vainglory and pride) resonate for me.

I have some quibbles with the structure of the book. Each section gave rise to prayers and questions for reflection. The reflection questions were at the very end of the book. In the eBook format, especially without hyperlinks, this rendered the questions almost useless.

The prayers were crafted along quite traditional lines, so some could be used or adapted, for example, for intercessions at the Eucharist. I found them a bit too stolid, with none of the creativity of the stunningly beautiful prayers of another Australian, Craig Mitchell, in his recent Deeper Water (Mediacom).

To Whom Shall We Go is a timely book and will stimulate lively thinking about where God is now leading God’s Church.

Learning from the Desert

2021 Day of Penitence, St. Francis College, Milton, 13th March “Transformation within the desert” in this time of the pandemic.

Talk 3 – Learning from the desert by Ray Clifton tssf

Introduction

When I was in Formation at St. Francis College, I would have a personal retreat in the summer break at the Old Friary at Brookfield. On one occasion I joined Midday prayers in the Chapel. During Prayers, I was surprised when I saw Brother Noel Thomas pray the Cross Prayer with arms outstretched. That day, I learnt something about trusting God and the need to let go of my false humility. Even though I had heard a call to be a Tertiary, I thought I wasn’t good enough to follow Jesus in the company of Francis. I saw in this action, the vocation to desire to be shaped by the cross and Divine Compassion, not for my sake but for a call to live the Gospel and embody it (however imperfectly).

What are we noticing as we emerge from Pandemic? In this talk, I would like to reflect on our shared experience over the last year and the call to witness to a life of Penitence and shaped by Divine Compassion.

During the Pandemic we saw rapid the uptake of technology to fill the void for relationships, communities, education, and business. Churches challenged by closures and finding ways to provide support and worship, adapted to technology where possible. This adaption brought forward the long forestalled virtual, connection to a wider group of people for worship groups, communication, and support.

In May last year, while working from home, I was pulled up short by the change to sounds in our garden. Because of border closures and restrictions on travel there was little noise from traffic and no roar from jets overhead or in the distance from the airport. For the first time it was possible to hear more birds in the garden than the usual crow, magpie, kookaburra, or noisy minor bird.

The Environment benefited with cleaner air and lack of noise pollution. Last year, Earth Overshoot day was later than 2019 because of less emissions. It was held on August 22 three weeks later than 2019 because of decreases calculated in CO2 emissions. Many were hopeful that these things would open an opportunity for change and point to a different future.

The Pandemic has shone a light on the precarious nature too of employment, under-employment, and unemployment; especially as the numbers of people with little or no work swelled through the pandemic. Concern has emerged too over proposed Industrial Relations Law changes and their flow on to vulnerable workers. The imminent withdrawal of financial support for business and workers has been highlighted as an opportunity to reassess support for the vulnerable as well as fairness in the workplace.

The Younger Son – What does this change

. 17But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’”

The younger son stranded in a foreign place, after spending his share of inheritance is destitute and isolated. Forced to accept degradation as a swine herder he is humiliated and willing to shamefully accept his status of being culturally and legally dead to his father because of his insult. The son is prepared to be treated as a slave and not a son. He is prepared to do the work of a slave on his father’s property just to have shelter, purposeful work, culturally appropriate food, and fair treatment. Perhaps even be near his father.

The younger son’s desert brings him to himself and a longing for the familiar even if on different terms. The son’s realisation, while filled with shame, begins to turn him to desire change. He realises that there is no right to any claim on his father. However, he hopes for mercy and nothing more. The son’s road to new hope starts with confession of the pain and insult caused to his father and trusting in mercy.

The wisdom of the insulted father

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

We are told the father runs to greet his son when he is still far off. In the joy of this time, with the memory of the pain he bore, the father’s action is vindicated. The extravagance of his love shown in the trust and freedom offered to the son finds its fulfilment.

The father shows the depth of longing and love which greet his son when he says, ‘24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

The father brings from his desert experience of aching for his son, wisdom. The wisdom of risking trust on a son turned in on himself and his desires. The wisdom of allowing the son to make his own mistakes and respond to the consequences.

The father’s words reveal the presence of grace and unconditional love in response to the humbled son. It’s worth asking though of the son, what next? What are you going to do now that you know what you know and are sorry for the things you did?

Learning from this desert time leaves us with the same question. Now we know what we know from this experience, what will we do to show we are penitent and have a desire to live the Gospel in a new way?

Francis and Penitence

St. Francis would often pray with arm’s outstretched and as Brother Bernard discovered, would pray, ‘My Lord and my God.’ The Divine compassion was so important to Francis. It’s as if he embodied the cross to remind himself of God’s extravagant love.

Francis’ response to Divine Compassion in the cross is not just recognition of need for God’s grace but also the ways in which our lives obscure God’s image in us. God’s Love calling us to repentance, calls us to live lives of abundant love in newness of life.

For Francis, to live fully was to live the Gospel in ways which reveal that God is present and active in the world. Francis sought to cooperate with God’s action and to be more and more moulded into the image of God in him. He knew that there was a need to acknowledge those things which obscure or distort that image.

The way to living the Gospel wholly, was through a life of prayer and penitence. Not penitence in the sense of self-punishment or self-loathing but turning to God in humility and trusting in love and mercy.

Penitence then is an active thing. For Francis, living a penitent life included humility and joyful thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness. The Fruit of which is a life overflowing Love.

This Love, the Divine compassion, Francis met and responded to in his relationships with the Creation and in solidarity and care of the poor and vulnerable. Whether singing the praises of God, preaching to the birds, speaking to the wolf of Gubbio or sitting and begging with the poor, Francis embodied God’s Love and responded to it around him.

Penitence was not passive for Francis. Penitence was visible in renewed living as a disciple of Christ. Living humbly from what he learnt from the Gospel and his own mistakes.

Conclusion

This Pandemic time has shocked us. Settling into the challenges of the Pandemic has pared back our lives. We have learnt from the characters of the story of the Prodigal Son about love and mercy meeting us in that vulnerable space.

Francis gives us the pattern to live penitent lives, humbly and generously. Being conformed to the cross and shaped by Divine compassion we are called to serve God and in solidarity with others.

* Where is God inviting you to know the welcome of mercy and love?
* Where are you called to be open to the cross and Divine Compassion and be shaped or deepened in your response to others and witness to God’s love?

Exploring the Strange Land

2021 Day of Penitence, St. Francis College, Milton, 13th March “Transformation within the desert” in this time of the pandemic.

Talk 2 – Exploring the strange land, by Ray CLifton tssf

Introduction

“Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at a hospital in the city (of Wuhan), became one of the most visible figures in the early days of the outbreak when he tried to warn the world, but was reprimanded by police for ‘spreading rumours.’

The 34-year-old’s death from the virus on February 7, 2020 led to an outpouring of public mourning and rare expressions of anger online.

Days later he was hailed a ‘hero of China’ by renowned epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan.

But when President Xi Jinping honoured the ‘heroes’ of the ‘people’s war’ against the virus in September, there was no mention of Li’s contribution.” (Quote from MSN News 6/2/21)

This one quote, a year after Dr. Li’s death, shows up the myopathy of power against the courage self-sacrifice and concern for others. The compassionate and professional actions of an individual against the narrow control of a regime.

Settling into this desert space meets us each differently. In the midst of settling are the currents of self-centeredness and openness. These currents run through our Gospel story too.

Settling into the Pandemic

As the Pandemic spread last year, everyone, including Governments with their political ideologies, had to find their own way of settling in this strange land. There were many challenges and discoveries each with their shocks and surprises.

One of the first shocks was the strange but necessary intervention of ‘physical distancing’ and ‘quarantine’. Each brought levels of distress and discomfort. The human need for connection and physical contact were missing as we knew it. Gradually as people settled and technology was picked up some solutions became available to keep people in touch. Yet isolation is still a large experience for many in the world. The scars and hunger of isolation will be present for a long time.

In lockdowns and under various restrictions, we saw varying responses. From denial, fear, and panic to slowing down, giving with generous hearts, and taking risks, people started to feel the effects of this new place.

The focus of the everyday with all its commitments was narrowed. With this came the contradictions of panic buying and the generosity of Communities supporting the vulnerable. Friends and strangers volunteered to check on older neighbours. The contradictions of the fear of missing out and mistrust of others at the same time as open hearts and mutual responsibility.

With life being limited to the home, people made the rediscovery of simplicity. There was time to bake sourdough bread, spend time with children and less in the diary. This was accompanied by a re-evaluation of the quality of life lived and its purpose in face of mortality and seeing what is essential.

Individually and as a community we were sometimes overwhelmed by the high death and infection rates. We were shocked too by the size of the economic collapse and unheard-of unemployment. Although Government stimulus and support was provided, the effects on individuals and families and businesses will go on for a lot longer than the pandemic.

Alongside protests about the perception of government limitation of liberty, we witnessed in this city and around the world, the dedication, self-sacrifice and professionalism of frontline health and emergency service workers risking their own lives for the sake of others.

Two views of the land

The younger son

The son’s decision propelled him on an adventure to a faraway land with the cash to enjoy it. Severing his ties with his family, without regard for the insult caused, this son set his sights on his dreams. Home and thinking about others were a long way away. It wasn’t until his cash ran out and all his new friends disappeared that the reality and isolation of his actions set in.

The isolation was acute. He found himself feeding pigs and eating their food. In these circumstances, poor and destitute, the son felt the depths of the consequences of his selfishness and decisions. To add to his predicament, the son suffered the indignity and offence as a Jewish person of living with pigs.
His myopia led to degradation and being religious defiled.

The Father

When confronted by his younger son, the father had every right to banish him from the family without the inheritance he asked for. The son’s action was as good as wishing his father was dead. The son had religiously and culturally offended his father in the worst way imaginable. Perhaps everyone in the family and in the community were waiting to see if the father would do what was demanded by honour.

Everyone was shocked at the father’s reaction. The father gave the younger son what he had asked for. Some may have been puzzled and even angry with the father’s action. Others may have thought him weak and unable to say no. Still others would have expected the father to disown his son and consider him dead.

It is always dangerous to project something onto a character in scripture. However, given the father’s response later in the story, there is an extravagance in the father’s love which defies understanding and honour, but invites the gaze to something else.

We are invited to look past the insult and the money to the relationship between a father and a son and the way the father offers the son space and the freedom to choose. The choice for the father is painful. However, the pain is carried with hope for the son. Hope that the son will find himself and return to Love.

The father had to trust his choice to allow his son to go his own way and above all trust in Love.

What looks foolish and extravagant in the eyes of the world was Love. Love freely given without expectation of anything in return.

Francis

Story of Francis and the brother hungry in the night

One night Francis and was woken from his sleep by one of the Friars. The man was crying out, “I’m dying, I’m dying.”
Francis called for a lamp to be lit and then asked him in a kind voice, “What is the matter my brother? Why do you think you are dying?”
“I am dying of hunger,” the weeping man said.
Francis immediately asked for a meal to be prepared. And so, the hungry brother wouldn’t have to eat alone or be ashamed that he was so hungry, Francis asked all the Friars to eat too.
Afterwards he said to them, “Everybody is different and has different needs. Some people need to eat more than others.” He then went on to say, “I want you to allow your bodies what they need in order that you may serve God to the best of your ability. God wants kindness and mercy and not sacrifice.”2

Francis was committed to living the Gospel. At times the passion for this met with the different abilities of other people to follow with the same passion or capacity. When the brother cried out there was a choice between two ways; highlight the brother’s frailty or have compassion. It’s easy to become preoccupied with the fear of our own need not being met or a passion for a practice or belief. Sometimes we are reminded of what happens when we impose these things on others or without regard for them.

Francis chose compassion and community. He listened to the brother and responded with the generosity of something to meet his need as well as the solidarity of a community.

Conclusion

The father and Francis point to a way of being in the strange land of the desert. The father bore his own pain and disappointment and yet offered freedom and choice to his son. While Francis’ actions for his brother provided for a need and connection to a community.

This time presents us with choices in challenging circumstances.
* When have you noticed the struggle to choose love of others over desire or gain?
* What thanksgiving can you offer for the gifts God has given in this time?

Bear