Tag Archives: monasticism

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)

francis assisi

October 4th is the Feast of Francis of Assisi.  A large statue of  Francis  with arms outstretched stands facing the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. If you face the the basilica from behind the statue, you might think the saint was holding up the church in his arms. And that’s what he did: Francis raised up a church that was falling down

We need to see saints in the light of their times as they met the needs of their day. Chesterton called saints “God’s antidotes for the poison of their world”.

What was poisoning Francis’ world? Twelfth century Italy’s economy was booming when Francis was born. His family was among its new rich merchant class. As a young man he had everything money could buy, but then, as now, money could be a poison.

Italy’s cities, often at war, fiercely competed with one another, fighting for power.. It was the time of the crusades and everything was settled through force of arms.

It was a time too when the church had become weak and in need of reform. Before Francis, saints like Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and popes like Gregory VII (1015-1085) and Innocent III (1160-1216) sought renewal and change. The church was looking for a saint.

And so when Francis of Assisi came with twelve disciples to see the pope in Rome about reforming the church in the summer of 1220, he came at the right time. They say that the pope had a dream the night before that St. John Lateran, the mother church of Christendom, was falling down and a young man resembling the 28 year old Francis came to hold its walls up.

The pope asked Francis what would he do and Francis replied with three verses of scripture. The first was from the gospel of Matthew in which Jesus says to the young man ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’(19,21)  The second from Luke’s gospel in which Jesus sends his disciples out saying “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.”( 9,3) The third from Matthew: Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross.” (16,24)

The pope was a good judge of people and, sensing the grace of God in Francis,  told him to live those gospel teachings, sending  him on his way. Francis and his companions started a movement that spread like fire throughout Europe.

Francis made Jesus’ teachings his own. He embraced poverty, not just renouncing the rich lifestyle that he was born into, but  renouncing any way that led to power. For example, he never became a priest or a bishop or a pope, because they were positions of power fought for and sometimes paid for in his day.

He did not want a monastery or a religious order as a base of power. Saints like St. Bernard and St Norbert before him thought monasticism was the way to bring about church reform, but Francis wanted a life style where you had nothing, “no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.” He distanced himself and his movement from the religious institutions of his day, because he feared them becoming places of power.

He took the gospel teachings literally and lived them literally. His renunciation of power became an antidote to the poisonous attraction to power that crippled his world and his church. He imitated the “Son of Man” a poor man who said to his followers the “foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

Like the Son of Man, who suffered and died on a cross and rose again, Francis experienced the mystery of the cross and was blessed by it.

Remembering him, we might pray: God send us saints to deal with the poison of our time.


“Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future.”      

T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”

St. Gregory the Great, September 3



Gregory the Great

September 3rd is  the feast of St. Gregory the Great, many say the greatest of the popes. I’m sure he never thought of himself as great, he was too absorbed in the troubled times he lived in. Usually saints are recalled on the day of their death or martyrdom, but Gregory’s remembered the day he became pope, September 3, 590. That was a day of martyrdom for him.

Years ago, I lived across the street from Gregory’s home on the Celian Hill in Rome. On my way to school, I would peek through the ancient doors of the library of Pope Agapitus, a relative of Gregory’s, where archeologists were trying to learn about what was once the largest Christian library in Rome. Barbarian tribes later plundered the place on their regular sweeps through the city.

Those were bad times. Gregory was called from his monastery here on the Celian to become pope, but also to take charge of  a city under siege. He never was a healthy man and he never had much support. Most of Rome’s leading families fled to safer parts; the imperial government relocated in Milan. The burden of the city and the church fell on him.

Called to a job he didn’t want, Gregory drew wisdom and strength from the scriptures, especially from figures like Job and Paul the Apostle, who taught him that strength can come to weak “earthen vessels” like himself.

In his Commentary on Ezechiel, which we read in the Office of Readings, Gregory describes what he went through. Like Ezechiel, he was appointed a watchmen in the city, supposed to go up to the heights and see what’s coming, but “I’m not doing this very well, ” Gregory said.

“I do not preach as well as I should nor does my life follow the principles I preach so inadequately.
“I don’t deny my guilt, I get tired and negligent. Maybe by recognizing my failure I’ll win pardon from a sympathetic judge. When I lived in the monastery I was able to keep my tongue from idle topics and give my mind almost continually to prayer, but since taking on my shoulders the burden of pastoral care, I’m unable to keep recollected, with my mind on so many things.

“I have to consider questions affecting churches and monasteries and often I have to judge the lives and actions of individuals; I’m forced to take part in certain civil affairs, then I have to worry about barbarians attacking and wolves menacing the flock in my care; I have to do my political duty to support those who uphold the law; I have to put up patiently with thieves and then I have to confront them, in all charity.

“My mind is torn by all the things I have to think about. Then I have to put my mind on preaching. How can I do justice to this sacred ministry?

“Because of who I am I have to associate with all kinds of people and sometimes I say too much. But if I don’t talk to them the weaker kind of people wont come near me, and then we wont have them when we need them. So I have to listen to a lot of aimless chatter.

“But I’m also weak myself and I can get drawn into gossiping and then find myself saying the same things I didn’t care to listen to before.

“Who am I — what kind of watchman am I? I’m not standing on the heights, I’m in the depths of weakness. And yet the creator and redeemer of all can give me, unworthy though I am, the grace to see life as it is and power to speak effectively of it. It’s for love of him that I do not spare myself in preaching him.”

We have to admire Gregory, don’t we? He feels weak, but he’s a watchman looking out for his city and his church. Weakness doesn’t prevent him from serving or being far-sighted. From the Celian Hill Gregory sent monks to England, to the ends of the world, to found the church there. On his tomb in the Vatican is the simple inscription that describes him so well. “Servant of the servants of God.”

Today, Mother Theresa’s community lives on the land where Gregory’s home once was, on the Celian Hill, next to the ancient church of Saints John and Paul. They say Gregory took in 12 poor people for a meal almost every day. The poor are still taken care of where he once lived.

I hope to visit there in a few weeks.

The Consecrated Life

This year we’re remembering the Consecrated Life in the Catholic Church.  Pope Francis asked religious and religious communities this year to remember their past with gratitude, to live in the present with passion and to embrace the future with hope.

The other day I was on the internet browsing through iTunes University, where you can get courses–most for free– from various universities on all kinds of subjects. I noticed a course from Yale, given by Professor Paul Freedman on monasticism and early religious life. I have an interest in that period, so I thought I’d see what the historian said to his students about monks in monasteries and hermits in the desert.

Freedman knows a lot about early monasticism and its history, people like Benedict , Augustine, Anthony, Martin of Tours. He offers some interesting insights, as you would expect from a Yale professor, but after listening to his lecture I’m not sure he really appreciates or understands what religious life is all about.

For him monks and the hermits were people who turned their back on the world to pursue a life of prayer. They gave up everything to be with God and separated themselves from everyday life. Because they did that, other people sought them out as intercessors. Ordinary people looked up to them because they’re above them, as it were. They’re holy people who intercede before God for you.

Certainly religious have that intercessory role. But the Epistle to the Hebrew, which we’re reading these days at Mass, reminds us that the one who intercedes must know and experience human life and its weakness. Jesus did that. He is a compassionate high priest, not because he turned his back on human life but because he embraced it. A compassionate high priest, he embraced the cross of human experience.

I’m not sure Professor Freedman appreciates that element of the consecrated life. Anthony in the desert and Martin of Tours in Gaul were wise teachers to whom others came, not just to ask for prayers, but because they knew the human heart. Freedman gives the example of Simon Stylites, the Syrian who lived on top of a pillar for years. People came from all over and built ladders to reach him and ask for prayers, Freedman says.

They weren’t only asking for his prayers; they wanted Simon’s advice, because from his high pillar Simon saw more clearly into their busy lives than they themselves did.

Indeed, the consecrated life goes beyond intercession and wisdom. Over the centuries, religious communities blazed trails into the future for the church and the world. They created new forms of life and culture, they provided missionaries who drew distant peoples together and thinkers who saw beyond the present. They saw what had to be done and did it. Christopher Dawson shows us the reach of religious life and monasticism in the period Freedman covers in his classic The Making of Europe.

It’s important to reflect on the consecrated life this year. It can be unappreciated. Even people in the consecrated life can get it wrong and miss its dimensions, so let’s do what the pope asks:   remember our past with gratitude,  live the present with passion and embrace the future with hope.



On to the Rhine


I’m going with a group on a cruise of the Rhine River leaving Wednesday. Here are a few notes about the trip for those on the cruise and those who may wish to follow us.

The Rhine River is a living history book as it winds its way 820 miles from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea.

Look for signs of Roman forts along the way. The ancient Romans tried to make the Rhine a kind of “Iron Curtain” to contain the barbarian tribes that wanted to enter the empire. They also found the fertile lands near the river good for growing grapes and other crops, so some of the forts became centers of trade, like Mainz.

After the Peace of Constantine (312 AD), Christianity brought the gospel to the lands along the Rhine. St. Boniface is an important figure. (c. 675 – 5 June 754 AD) A missionary from England he preached to the various Germanic tribes, became bishop of Mainz, and established monastic settlements along the river to fulfill his mission.


Should he be our patron for the trip? “In her voyage across the ocean of this world the church is like a ship pounded by the waves of life’s different stresses. Our duty is not to abandon ship, but to keep her on course…Let us stand fast for what is right and prepare our souls for trial…Let us be neither like dogs that do not bark nor silent onlookers nor servants who run away before the wolf.”

In the 12th century with the growth of cities majestic cathedrals, like those in Strasbourg and Cologne, were built. Castles and buildings of local rulers line the river’s banks as defenses against invaders and symbols of power.

In the 14th century, the shrines and churches of the Franciscans and the mendicant orders appear. The 16th century brought the Reformation. We hope to sample some cathedrals and churches along the river.

The Rhine was a battleground through the centuries; the last two world wars have left their mark on the lands along the river.

We land in Basel, where John Calvin wrote his “Institutes” in 1536, a defense of Protestantism which he sent to Francis 1 of France. Francis kept France Catholic, however, and Calvin fled to Geneva and made it into a key Protestant center that had influence worldwide.

I hope to reflect particularly during our trip on the Reformation and the relationship of Protestants and Catholics today. Much has changed since the stormy beginnings in the 16th century. Pope Francis recently remarked to a group of European bishops that “Speaking about God has become more and more marginal” in Europe. The pope, a strong advocate of ecumenism, hopes all Christians will come together to face the challenge.

We will see many churches and signs of its Christian past on our trip down the Rhine from Basel to Amsterdam, but I don’t think we’ll hear much about God or see many signs of Christian practice. Europe is increasingly secularized.

Some books that I’ll bring along on the trip.

“A Brief History of Spirituality” by Philip Sheldrake, Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Sheldrake has a wonderful gift for summarizing spiritual movements like monasticism and relating them to the world in which they take place.

“The World of Catholic Renewal 1540-1770” by R. Po-Chia Hsia, Cambridge University Press. The Catholic Church responds to the Reformation. A good study in social history.

“Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church” E.A. Livingstone, Oxford 1977 Just what it says: a lot of concise information about the Christian Church.

I also mentioned the Rhine trip in a previous blog: