Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Reflections from the Monastery Pews


There is something archetypal about St. Francis, something that rises from deep within us when we meet him, something we find in Assisi itself. It walks the streets unseen, it comes invisibly around corners wearing a fiery cloak that fans the air like the wings of seraphs hot with God. 

What is this something, and why do so many feel it rising within them as they pass through the gates of a medieval mountain town whose very name is a variation of the old Italian word “ascesi,” which means, “I have risen”? Dante says it is Francis himself, who, like the sun, rose upon the earth and was still a mere dawn when we began to feel the warmth and light his rising brought us: 

Therefore, whoever seeks to name this place

Should not say, “Assisi.” That would not do it.

Rather say, “The Rising,” to name what happened there.

For the sun wasn’t long in its rising

When he began to warm and lighten the earth

With the comfort of his great power.  

People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. They will practice Indian yoga and all its exercises, observe a strict regimen of diet, learn theosophy by heart, or mechanically repeat mystic texts from literature of the whole world – all because they cannot get on with themselves and have not the slightest faith that anything useful could ever come out of their own souls. Thus the soul has gradually been turned into a Nazareth from which nothing good can come.... 

But something good does come from Nazareth, and so I close my eyes and lips and pray in that secret place called soul, waiting for him to come who is Son, and for him to raise me up who is Father. And therein begins all mystic experience in me, instead of doing frantically all sorts of things to “make “ him love me. I keep trying to prove I’m good by doing, giving, thereby pre-empting God, not letting him come to me first, not receiving. And I do this because I am afraid he really does not love me as the beautiful work of his own loins, but only if I win his love. 

The so-called Peace Prayer of St. Francis has the line, “It is in giving that we receive,” but that can only be prayed well by one who knows that it is only “in receiving that we give.” For God has first loved us, and given himself to us, and that is what we learn from the mystics like St. Francis, who are brave enough to close their eyes and lips and listen. Then what begins to rise in us is that which has been lifted up by him who comes in love, and what he lifts up is the heart itself, rising from within to meet the Love descending to embrace it. 

This is what I’ve learned in Assisi, in the unhurried land of Umbria, from St. Francis, who in summer gave of himself in compassion to others on the road, but in winter returned to the mountaintop and entered the cave with closed eyes and lips, and waited. Had he remained on the road, his giving would only have been to prove to himself that he was as good as his good works proclaimed he was. Had he remained always in the cave, blind and silent, he would only have proved his own self- absorption instead of that meeting with him who raises up and draws out the heart to follow him down the mountain where he summers in those his embrace has led us to embrace. 

This, too, then I have learned. And these pages are the words of him who taught it to me, of him who learned the lesson and the words by closing his eyes and lips and waiting. These are the words St. Francis spoke after that prayer which is a closing of the eyes and lips to pray to one’s Father in secret. These are the words I’ve heard wherever or whenever I read the words of Francis with my own eyes and my own lips sealed.
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