Alan Henning, St Francis of Assisi and the Quest for Peace

El Greco: St Francis receiving the stigmata

Alan Henning’s murder has shocked and saddened everyone in Britain — everyone, that is, except those who believe the vicarious death of an innocent man is justifiable because of perceived cruelties and injustices perpetrated by the U.K. That fact alone makes it difficult to write about. We are conscious of Mr Henning’s grieving family and the pain they are suffering, yet at the same time we are aware that there are those, even here in Britain, who rejoice at what they see as a great ‘victory’. It is sadly ironic, if that’s the right word, that we are faced with these contradictions on the feast of St Francis of Assisi, one of the best known and best loved saints of the Christian West, whose prayer ‘Lord, make me a channel of your peace’ has become almost a cliché of the quest for peace.

Last year I wrote about the danger of sentimentalising St Francis, illustrating my post with the only known contemporary portrait of the saint. This year I have chosen one of El Greco’s paintings of St Francis receiving the stigmata (the marks of the wounds inflicted on Christ’s hands, feet and side during the crucifixion). The contrast between the beauty of the saint’s hands and the terrible wounds piercing them, the darkness the saint inhabits and the brilliance of the vision before him, above all, the harsh light El Greco throws on his subject’s face, parallel the role of prayer and suffering in Francis’s quest to be a man of peace — moments of peace and tranquillity glimpsed through prayer and long years of  sacrifice in which he was broken open, scooped out, transformed. To be a man of peace meant identifying completely with the Master he followed, snatching victory from apparent defeat.

Mr Henning left home and family to help others in distress. He was clearly a charitable man, prepared to take risks to be of service to others. Francis was also a man of great charity, who lived a life of simplicity and joy. For both of them there was an integrity and courage that bore them through the difficulties they faced. I think we can learn something from each of them. In the end, it is charity and peace that secure the world; but neither peace nor charity is attained without sacrifice.


St Francis of Assisi and the Danger of Sentimentality

St. Francis. Sacro Speco at Subiaco. Fresco. 1224 or 1228.

The above image, taken from the Benedictine Monastery of Sacro Speco at Subiaco, is the only known contemporary portrait of St Francis of Assisi. It shows a young, strong, clear-eyed man who could so easily be a campaigner for social justice or ecological issues today. There is a temptation to see Francis in exactly those terms: as a champion of the poor, the marginalised, a lover of animals and plants, a man who was spectacularly ‘alternative’ in his simplicity and poverty, a thorn in the side of the Establishment. All that is true, but there is another portrait of Francis, done long after his death by El Greco, which shows St Francis receiving the stigmata, and I think it captures the other side of the saint, the one that even today makes us uncomfortable: the man of God whose fierce, all-consuming love of Christ led him to identify with his Master in everything, but especially his suffering and sacrifice.

It is easy to sentimentalise St Francis. We can get a warm, fuzzy glow about Franciscan simplicity (especially when it is lived by other people) but without that intense love of God as motive, every renunciation is essentially hollow. It lacks heart, and St Francis never lacked heart no matter what else he and his first companions did not have. His poverty was embraced tenderly and joyously, so we forget that an iron will was also called into service. Francis was an uncompromising realist. For all his exuberance and light-heartedness, there is a steady determination about his desire to live and die in union with Christ.

Today Pope Francis will journey to Assisi and is scheduled to make six(!) speeches in the course of the day. I shall be very surprised if we do not hear something of that more hidden side of St Francis: the call to union with Christ as the well-spring of every action, of every service of the poor. In the meantime, a very happy feastday to all our Franciscan brothers and sisters!


Some Thoughts on the Feast of St Francis

In my mind’s eye I am looking at a painting of St Francis by El Greco (copyright prevents my including the image here). The saint is marked with the stigmata and looking at a crucifix. Below the crucifix is a skull. Above, there is a fitful gleam of sky and a withered trail of ivy over the cave’s mouth. The colour scheme is sombre: black, brown, dusty blue. It is Francis as he is rarely portrayed: gaunt, dogged, ‘walking by faith, not by sight’. The Francis of popular imagination, joyful in his poverty, surrounded by God’s creatures great and small, is eclipsed for the moment by this other Francis, the man of God who wrestled alone and painfully with the divine will.

There are many this morning who are struggling with the divine will. The search for April Jones continues, but with less hope; the escalation of violence between Syria and Turkey is stirring vague fears of world war; add in the political stand-off between Israel and Iran, the situation in Afghanistan, and the eruption of anger against the west in many predominantly Muslim countries and you have a piquant mix. The skies are as cloudy and stormy as in the El Greco painting.

There is, however, a ray of hope. Just as Francis’s face is illumined with perfect peace and tranquillity in the face of suffering, so there is light for the world, if we look for it. The Lord’s mercies are new every morning. Sometimes we refuse to admit that. We are so determined to cling to old habits, old hatreds, old failures. They are the way we build a barrier for ourselves against feeling more pain. We prefer the goldfishbowl to the ocean because it has a kind of safety. Thinking about St Francis’ life, however, I am reminded that safety was one thing he never bothered about. His radical adoption of poverty meant that there was no barrier for him, no safety-net of property or private ownership. He faced the world throughout life as we must all face it at death.

Today it would be good to spend a few moments in prayer asking for the grace to rely upon God more completely. That doesn’t mean we should lessen our efforts to do whatever we can to meet our own needs and the needs of people around us. It is rather a question of deciding where we are going to set our hearts. Francis was supremely free because his heart was set on God alone. Can we say with equal truth that God is our treasure and that our hearts are set firmly on Him?