Tag Archives: Saint Francis of Assisi

Beggars I Have Met

by Pirrial Clift tssf

St Francis’ famous encounter with a leprous beggar was transformative. My dear friend and onetime parish priest Val Rogers said the only way the rich will get into heaven is if the poor come out and lead us in by the hand. If this is true, I imagine St Francis will be carried jubilantly through the pearly gates on the shoulders of a great crowd of poor people.

Val’s words are sobering, especially when I consider beggars I have not dealt kindly with. That woman on my Moscow hotel steps in ’98 at 1 am, persistent and shrill in her pleas for help for her 3 children. Another woman walking beside me, repeatedly demanding assistance in Derby St. Newcastle…. I gave nothing to either of them, but they are permanently ingrained in my memory. Sometimes I am caught unawares – my coping mechanisms don’t seem to be in place – and I just want to close the beggar out. This happened again in Beijing as I left St Joseph’s Church. A man pushed forwards and thrust his two stumps – where once there had been forearms and hands – right in my face: I recoiled in horror and walked away. Just walked away.

In St Mark’s Square Venice I gave a woman something, and was immediately confronted by another woman, beautifully dressed and groomed. She scolded me for my gift. They’re employed by the Mafia, she said. They’re all rogues and Gypsies. They’re frauds and liars: you are wasting your money, she said. I pondered this afterwards; what motivated a wealthy woman to accost a complete stranger with warnings about wasting money on beggars? In the Square people were enjoying enormous gelatos – they could be said to be wasting money on those gelati, but my ‘friend’ saw no need to reprimand them. In Istanbul a shopkeeper left her shop unattended to cross the street and utter similar warnings after I gave to a ragged Syrian boy whose shoes barely hung together, flapping as he walked away.

Of course there are tricksters and frauds amongst beggars, as there are amongst every social group; one memorable example was the woman with the horribly twisted and deformed leg outside St Peter’s in Rome. I just happened to be around when she folded up her fake leg and popped it in a bag, stretching out the whole limb she’d had tucked under her skirt before rising from the dirt and walking away. C’est la vie I said ruefully to myself, thinking of the money I and others had parted with. Still, she’d certainly worked hard for it, sitting there in the hot sun all day with one leg cramped up beneath her!

The thing is, I can’t tell the genuinely needy person from the others. After being duped and conned a few times at the Rectory door I surrendered to cynicism. The next fellow who knocked received a cool welcome, although I scrounged up some food and brought it out. That poor man stood right where he was and ate and ate – he was so hungry. Since then I find it better to obey the Lord’s command to give to everyone who asks of you; at least when I have my wits about me.

Ten weeks in Canterbury, UK brought me into contact with beggars regularly, on St Peter’s St, which was lined with stalls, buskers and beggars. I loved the buskers: some were accomplished musicians, others scratched out doleful melodies on un-tuned instruments or sang tonelessly with one eye on their hat, upturned in hopes of a few coins. How can I forget the girl who appeared to have got dressed in the dark out of the rag bag, with her hair stuck out in all directions and her baby in a pusher, singing ‘I’m getting married in the morning….’ on one note?

It seemed de rigueur to have a hat of some kind to collect money; a beanie, a sunhat; any piece of headgear. My favourite beggar had an old cap. He made no effort to entertain the passer-by, just sat in the same place night after night huddled against the wall, his head drooping disconsolately, shoulders hunched.

One night when I dropped a few coins they missed his cap. I stood appalled as he scrabbled in the dirt to pick them up, a hot feeling of shame flooding me. What was I doing, throwing money at him like scraps to a dog? I am so sorry, I said. That’s alright, he responded as he tucked his coins away. Thank you, and God bless you. Oh my! Here was I, the priest, being blessed by the beggar. I had not offered him a blessing, but he was blessing me. Like the drunk and Mother Teresa in Noel Rowe’s poem And so he says to her, our roles had reversed, the beggar was ministering to me. He taught me a lasting lesson about our common humanity. I resolved never to drop money like that again; and whenever it is possible to put the money into the person’s hand, and look them in the eye, offering God’s blessing. And maybe there’s time for a few words about the weather or the state of the nation.

Outside the Forbidden City in Beijing a long line of beggars sat in the baking sun without shade all day. It was like running the gauntlet of human suffering. Ancient ones clothed in rags, barely able to stand; someone accompanying an adult suffering Downs Syndrome doing pathetic little tricks for a bit of change; people with all manner of deformities. One young man haunts me; his horrific burn scars, and that missing arm that seems to have been ripped out of its socket – dear God! How can it be that he must beg for his food? What’s to become of him?

Another sight never to be forgotten was a tiny girl of about 5 sitting quite alone against a long stretch of the old city wall in Istanbul, a scrap of cardboard on the pavement asking for donations. Probably a Syrian refugee like many we encountered, the first being another lonely child – a boy of about 13 huddled into a corner of a building, crouched there, head low, a picture of abject misery. How long would it be before these children fell into the hands of predators? We passed them in the comfort of modern transport, in the safety and security that is ours by chance.

As Luther famously said, we are all beggars before God. Everything we have is given to us; the very breath in our lungs, our Sister Mother Earth with her fruits and grains and her tender and sometimes rugged beauty which opens our spirits to the presence of God. Our innate talents, we call ‘gifts’ – teaching perhaps, or painting, or organising – who but God is the Giver? Everything good in us, every rising hope or wave of generosity is God’s work in us; each spark of Life, be it temporal or eternal. If God turned away from us, we would cease to exist. Personally, I am always begging God for something.

St Francis said the only thing that is ours are our sins. Everything else is for sharing. Beggars are often on my mind. So many meetings – was one of them Christ? Did I turn away from him?

Following the Followers of Saint Francis – Sister Helen Julian’s new book

Helen Julian CSF, Franciscan Footprints: Following Christ in the ways of Francis and Clare,
Bible Reading Fellowship 2020

Paperback, 144 pages.
From $23 online, Kindle edition $11.99

Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf

Franciscan Footprints, like much of Franciscan spirituality, is deceptively simple. In this helpful and engaging book, Sister Helen Julian, Minister General of the Anglican Community of St Francis, tells the story of about 100 Franciscans over the last 800 years – from Saints Francis and Clare in the 12th Century to Padre Pio and Algy Robertson SSF in the 20th Century.

The stories of mainly individuals and some organisations are presented in nine thematic chapters. The first two chapters tell the stories of the original founders, the two Assisi saints (Francis and Clare), and the founders of the Anglican Franciscans, including Sister Rosina Mary CSF, who founded the Community of Saint Francis in 1905.

The titles of further chapters, ‘Thinkers and Writers’, ‘Mystics and Spiritual Writers’, ‘Social Care, Social Justice’, ‘Martyrs’, ‘Missionaries and Preachers’, ‘Pastors’ and ‘Simply Living’, display the breadth of the Franciscan way of life. Placing each of her characters into these themes allows Sister Helen to ‘follow the followers’ and explore the many paths along which Franciscans follow Jesus.

The Franciscan intellectual tradition is represented strongly by the 13th Century Bonaventure and the 21st Century Sister Ilia Delio.

Many of these Franciscans are new to me. Felix of Cantalice (born 1515) was a ploughman who became a lay Franciscan friar. He begged for the friars in Rome for many years, and was known as Brother Deo Gratias, because he exclaimed, ‘Thanks be to God’ (Deo Gratias) for every gift. He sang simple songs in the street and was beloved of children and the poor. His story is told under ‘Simply Living’: his life was seemingly uneventful, but by faithfully being who he was attracted many.

It was good to see the United Nations NGO Franciscans International in its context as an expression of the Franciscan family’s social care and social justice.

I commend Franciscan Footprints warmly. It is a good book to share within the Franciscan family and beyond.

At his death, Saint Francis said, ‘I have done what is mine to do. May Christ teach you what is yours.’ Helen Julian’s book will help both long-term Franciscans and the curious to learn what Christ is teaching them what their life might be. The characters in her book have made their Franciscan footprints. Readers will find much in this book to help them make their own Franciscan Footprints.

We all like sheep are gone astray

John 10:1-10

One of the tragedies of our times is the war on animals, the war we have been waging for two or three centuries, seizing their territory and subjecting them to ever more inhumane conditions.

Human activity was one of the causes of this year’s bush-fires in the Eastern States which took away from koalas much of their habitat. Iconic species such as the Bengali tiger and the white rhinoceros are on the brink of extinction. Presumably the thylacine (the Tasmanian tiger) and the dodo would still be thriving in Tasmania and Mauritius if human beings had not ravaged their living space.

Only a few wild animals thrive under the relentless expansion of human activity. Mobs of kangaroos near my town relish in the green pasture and endless water supplies human beings have created.

We clobber our domestic animals too. In the past decades, more and more cattle have been squeezed into feed-lots, unable to exercise and terrified by their imprisonment. Battery hens are confined to less than a square metre and never see the sky or scratch in the fresh air.

We use horses and dogs for sport. Not only do they strain to entertain us, but our society allows some of their keepers to inflict on them excruciating pain when they are away from public view.

Our treatment of animals shames us human beings. We are given no licence by Scripture to dominate the environment and crush our fellow-creatures. There is no Biblical excuse for setting ourselves up as gods destroying whatever we will.

We consider ourselves superior to other creatures, but the evidence shows that we do not make a good shepherd. We are cruel and despotic in our treatment of the environment.

In today’s Gospel, John teaches us two things about animals and salvation. The first is that Jesus is the good shepherd. No creature, including us human beings, can put ourselves above other creatures. Jesus is our shepherd, caring for us, and he is the shepherd of all creation, restoring all things, not only the human world.

Secondly, we are called to be part of the community of creatures, living together with animals and ecosystems as our brothers and sisters. This is the great vision of Saint Francis of Assisi: to live in harmony with all life as part of the community of creation.

The Good Shepherd proclaims to us that God will draw into a community all his creation and that we will live in harmony with death adders and scorpions, both of them wild animals Jesus ‘was with in the wilderness’ (Mark 1:13a), as we will with cats, horses, and especially dogs, the animals who have co-evolved with us and who are our familiars.

There are many signs of new life. Most farmers I know are concerned about any animal cruelty and do all in their power to care for their animals. WWF and other organisations keep on reminding us of the plight of the non-human world and establish programs to restore habitat and rescue species. More and more middle-class people express real care for pets. Our Jack Russell Lottie is our little sister, a member of our family. There are new ways of feeding the hungry that do not exploit animals, so I have hope that lifting the poor out of poverty will be done ethically.

– Ted Witham tssf

[‘We have like sheep gone astray.’ (Isaiah 53:6). Quoted in I Peter 2:25, and in the Introduction to Evening Prayer in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer]