St Francis Day: Listening to The Little

St Francis Day: Listening to The Little

Glynn Cardy 2nd October 2022

In the small print of the getting a dog process is the ‘t’ word.  ‘T’ for training.  It’s a word that you know or will shortly learn is a necessity to having a happy future life with dog.  It’s also a word that is going to cost you in terms of time, classes, and socks.  And the small print rarely tells you training is lifelong.

And most of us who have or have had dogs in our lives know that we will have mixed success in the training business but hope the worst excesses of exuberance and playfulness will be moderated before too many Ugg boots are eaten, holes dug in the lawn, or visitors jumped upon. 

There are some dogs though who are really hard work, and after I wipe that relieved smile off my face (relieved that it’s not my dog), I give thanks for the loving tenacity of their humans.  For we know in life that loving another when everything is going well is one thing, loving another when everything is going south is something else.  It takes commitment plus plus.

In the end most of us find a dog to human equilibrium, a truce maybe, where both dog and human can live their lives relatively peacefully happily together.

Cats on the other hand…  Cats train you.  Or like to think they do.

But cats, like dogs, like humans, need loving affection in order to thrive.  Indeed, if we have anything to teach each other its that loving affection is not an accessory to life, but the reason for it.  Loving affection in all its different shapes, sizes, and constellations, makes our worlds go round.  Loving affection is the axis on which we spin.

But surprisingly, we can undervalue it, or be deaf to it.  Or just seem to miss it.

I read this week Emily Garrett’s book for children called “Too Much Stuff!” about two loving parents, Meg and Ash.  Who were also magpies.  And built a nest and laid four eggs.  Then they decided, as parents often do, that they needed to equip their children for the life they were about to break into.  So, Meg and Ash went collecting stuff.  Lots of stuff.

And before we dismiss Meg and Ash as just typical of magpies, we need to pause and consider what we humans stuff children’s lives with today.  Like things and more things.  Like activities and more activities.  Like pre-school, school, and after-school.  Kids are scheduled.  It’s the way we roll in our central Auckland neighbourhoods.

And then there’s the expectations we load on.  Expectations for children to do, and achieve, and succeed.  Parents often don’t have to say very much, it just comes with the talk at the dinner table, the degrees hanging on the walls, and the wins celebrated.  It comes with the aspirational talk of principals, the books read, the magazines browsed, and the movies watched.  Expectations like ‘reaching for the stars’, ‘making a difference’, ‘achieving your goals’.  ‘You can do it!’  ‘Go for it!’

All good stuff.  Great stuff.  Great big important stuff.  But stuff nonetheless.

Francis of Assisi aka Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone (1181-1226) was born into, and acquired through his privileged position in society, lots of stuff.  He was said to have been handsome, witty, gallant, and delighted in fine clothes (the family business was importing silk).  He had money and he spent it lavishly.  He was schooled in business and in the military.  He was on an upward trajectory into the world of wealth and influence, with all its expectations. 

Although church writers like the idea of sudden conversions – seeing a vision, hearing a voice, or whatever – such a radical turning as Francis did was the result of many conversions (little peeps into something more) over a considerable period of time.  There was for example the time when the beggar stopped by the family clothing shop, and Francis (a little belatedly) responded not with his head but his heart.  There was for example the time when as a prisoner in Collestrada he fell ill and, like others before and since, realized through illness that his lifestyle to that date was not making him happy.  There was also, at other times, visions and voices.  And, of course, the dramatic incident of renouncing his privilege and patrimony in front of the bishop and his father by stripping himself naked.

Francis, in a way that did not come easy for anyone, was taking off the stuff – the acquisitions and expectations – of his past because they were deafening him to the deeper truths of what is of value in life and what makes for deep and lasting happiness.  Stuff was getting in the way.

Of course, as Francis’ life moved on other stuff came along.  To form a community requires some support (patronage), somewhere to live, and some discipline and order.  New expectations arise.

But Francis back in his 20s had done a hearing readjustment.  He began to listen to the little things.  Not the shrill, insistent, and powerful voices that said ‘success is like this’, or ‘this is how the world goes round’.  But the quiet voices of the little.  Of those who aren’t usually heard.  Like those who are destitute.  Like those of animals and other creatures.

It’s like that story of a Native American and his friend walking in Times Square, New York City, where the streets were busy, noisy, and filled with people.  The sounds of the city were almost deafening.  Suddenly, the Native American said, “I hear a cricket.”  His friend said, “What?  You must be crazy.  You couldn’t possibly hear a cricket in all of this noise!”  “No, I’m sure of it,” the Native American said, “I heard a cricket.”  “That’s just crazy,” said the friend.

The Native American listened carefully for a moment, and then walked across the street to a big cement planter where some shrubs were growing.  He looked into the bushes, beneath the branches, and sure enough, he located a small cricket.  In utter amazement, the friend said, “That’s incredible!  You must have superhuman ears.”  “No,” said the Native American. “My ears are no different from yours.  It just depends on what you’re listening for.”  The friend replied, “There is just no way.  I could never hear a cricket in this noise.”  But the Native American simply replied, “It depends on what is really important to you.  Here, let me show you.”

He reached into his pocket, pulled out a few coins, and discreetly dropped them on the sidewalk.  Even with all the noise of the crowded street blaring in their ears, nearly every person within twenty feet noticed the sound of the coins and turned to look and see if the money that hit the pavement was theirs.  “See what I mean?” said the Native American. “It all just depends on what’s important to you.”

If loving affection is what is really important to us, more than moneys, success, and other talismans, then we will need a hearing readjustment.  It might be that cuddling that cat, playing with that dog, or reading to that child, does more for your soul, your head and your heart, than all the giddy achievements that society celebrates.  We might come to understand cuddling, playing, and reading to others as prayers, as expressions of the divine love language.

Francis in his life and ministry offered loving affection to all manner of people, particularly those who were seen as expendable, or commodities, or of little account.  Indeed, you could say he listened to and for the little.  Stories tell of him listening and talking to birds, and a wolf.  They like the sun and moon were his brothers and sisters – that is to say there was a filial connection between himself and all creation, a connection of loving affection.

The challenge for us now is developing practices of listening to the little.  Giving the time to it.  Stopping all the other stuff for a while.  Putting aside stuff, even good stuff, and its ever-demanding expectations, and to listen to the little things – the wee pets, the children, the outsiders – to show affection and support, and learn the pathway to God they offer.