Tuesday, June 16, 2009

O to be a bird!

Because I studied theatre (among other things) in England when I was in college, I always associate England with theatre. But I was in a student's paradise all those years ago, and have never been able to afford to see many plays on return visits to the UK. But while I was in Canterbury last week the brothers got a chance to go to a performance of Dario Fo's "Francis, the Holy Jester." We trooped off to Margate (a small town about 15 miles outside Canterbury, on the sea coast) to the ancient (okay, Eighteenth Century--I am an American after all) Theatre Royal. I was happy to be going to a play, and knew nothing of who Dario Fo was nor much about the play except it was about Francis. I really had a treat! The actor, Mario Pirovano was electric, and supplemented a manic text with pointed asides (i.e. "It is all allegory: the wolf of Gubbio was a rapacious politician!"). Fo aimed to liberate Francis from the birdbath and unleash some of the Good News in contemporary hearts. Here is a passage from the play:

"It is almost sunset and Francis's companions, exhausted as they are, drop to the ground and fall fast asleep. Francis stands under a huge tree--it's enormous, with a lot of branches, full of leavews, and little birds hopping and chirping, flying around looking for a good place to spend the night. Francis looks at them: 'oh, birds, how blissful you are, what a marvel! So light you are, and overflowing with joy, you don't have a care and you fly, flapping y0ur wings in the wind, in the air, so easily and in harmony. In the air which is so close to God that surely it is His very breath...perhaps the breeze itself is God...and the wind...and God raises you with His hands and makes you fly!' While Francis is speaking the words of this prayer, many other birds arrive from all around, birds of all kinds: finches, crows and hawks, even buzzards and eagles from the mountains and birds from the sea and the rivers. The tree fills up with birds--so many that you can't see a single leaf--and they all listen: 'Oh blissful birds, who are free and light, who live without possessions, with no burdens to weigh you down and no power to enslave you! Oh if men too could be so light, without any loads crushing us--men who brag, full of greed, and thirst for possessions, and desire for glory; crazed to the point of overpowering each other, clambering on other people's heads in order to appear bigger and taller than everybody else--lies! Rogueries! Wickedness and lack of love! Oh, if we could free ourselves from this burden, be stripped of this wretched passion, we could be so light as to levitate up into the sky, and the puff of a child would be enough to make us fly!' While still speaking, Francis turns slightly and notices that, on the wide road behind him, a crowd of people are listening to him. There are women crying, men holding their breath, unable to applaud. And Francis looks up at the sky and says: 'How strange this world is! To make people listen to you, you must speak to the birds!'

Francis the Holy Jester has inspired and agitated many people over the years. Here Matthew and Vaughan become novices at Hilfield May 30. During my time at Hilfield I spent some time reading Br. Bernard's autobiography "My God, My All: A friar's journey". I dog eared several pages of the book, impressed how he sometimes sounded a bit like me. Or perhaps how there is something universal in our vocation? At any rate, he wrote about his desire to be a

brother which reminded me of why I wanted to be a brother and perhaps why I loved Fo's play so much: "One afternoon in my third year at Cambridge, standing in the sitting rom of my digs, I quite suddenly felt in my deepest self that God was asking me to become a friar. I had very mixed feelings. Perhaps the first was horror: 'Oh no Lord!' I then moved onto self exploration...I was attracted by the itinerant mission of the brothers, the desire to serve the most needy, and the life of communal prayer and meditation'(page 108). I think my call was something like that. It has been an unfolding adventure, and even required me to do things I'd rather not, like deal with money and help make decisions about things like that, and help extend and maintain buildings which we use to roost in between our travels. At the Central Fund meeting in London after my time in Canterbury, the Solomon Islands province requestd some money to extend their chapel since the current one only seats 80, and so many come to listen to the brothers and share in their worship (inspired by birdsong a brother once told me). But it was a lovely soaring feeling to present their case to the trustees and get the funding. (I just learned today they are taking the Franciscan message to a new place, Vanuatu.)This is a picture of Brother Gerardo, one of our itinerant novices (from Mexico)

A new stop on my UK travels this visit has been the Poor Clares convent in Freeland, outside Oxford. I wonder if Fo knows them? They seem very free, ordering their life to protect their passion for prayer (and jam making, chicken farming, card making) and carrying out radical hospitality. I was surprised by the diversity of folks I met in the space of a few short days, and heard some of the stories of the sisters' ministry. Itinerancy is not always just about moving around physically; it includes a wide open attitude. Spiritual freedom recognizes no barriers, I think.

From Oxford I flew north on the Cross Country railroad to Alnmouth. Here too, the community practices radical hospitality. And I can run along the bluffs, and dip down and skim the tidal flats (some might say lumber like a water buffalo, but it is what I feel inside that counts).

All the brothers at the annual brothers meeting at Hilfield June 2