St Francis Day: Love or Fear

St Francis Day: Love or Fear

Sun 04 Oct

The story of Ferdinand[i] is a story that pivots around fear.  Ferdinand was a bull who didn’t want to be aggressive and fight.  He wanted to be different.  And Munro Leaf’s book is a testament to those who are different, staying true to their values.

Bullfighting has long been contentious, and it is only in recent years that there has been a ban in Catalonia – a ban that other provinces in Spain would like to see revoked.  It’s contentious because the bull suffers.  It’s a blood sport.  First a picador sticks the bull with his long lance in the neck muscles, in order to lower the bull’s head.  Then the banderillos stick their banderillas [colourfully decorated barbed sticks] into the neck or shoulders of the bull in order to inflict pain and further anger the bull.  Lastly the matador delivers the killing thrust with a sword, the estocada, which often takes numerous attempts.  The debate regarding its abolition is between those who argue for the continuance of cultural and historical cruelty and those who argue for resistance to such cruelty.

A bull has long been a symbol, not only of tenacity, but of fear.  And bullfighting is a ritualized confronting of, and attempting to overcome, fear.  There is a primal instinct encouraged in this ritual – namely to hurt what we fear.  So, bullfighting is about inflicting pain as a way of conquering fear.  Not dissimilar to the thinking of capital and corporal punishment advocates who think inflicting pain will prevent crime.

Those who confront, hurt, and kill the bull, liturgically act out the human need to overcome and conquer fear.  But, I would suggest, rather than overcoming fear, it is fear itself that has gained control of those in the ring, those watching, and the culture that supports it.  For fear is not alleviated by violence, but fed by it.

I grew up with a healthy respect for bulls.  Many times in my childhood I have leapt a fence at speed.  Although I can’t remember the bulls ever really charging at me, in my imagination they were.  Fear, in its rational form, is a helpful emotion.  In urges us to protect and safeguard ourselves and those we are with.  It’s about keeping the risks in mind when embarking on an activity, and then trying to minimize them.

However fear, like some other emotions, can get out of hand.  Fear can begin to control us so that our world shrinks to a very safe, even stifling, size.  There are people afraid of animals, heights, the dark, motorways, spiders, etc.  Having these fear, depending on an individual’s experiences, may well be rational.  Being controlled by them is not.

It’s like the child with scary dreams of monsters.  Telling the child mummy or daddy will deal with the monsters may give the child some temporary assurance.  But it also makes the monster big – bigger than the child.  It makes the monster into something that only ‘big people’ like mummies and daddies can deal with.  The empowering option is to help the child gain control over the fear, to help the child shrink their monster to a manageable size.

One of the legendary stories about St Francis is when he meets a leper.  The leper was a man.  The leprosy was seen as a monster.  Leprosy was considered contagious.  Many of our fears involve loss.  To touch a leper was to risk the loss of life and limb.

An understanding of medical history and anthropology is important when reading the stories of Jesus and lepers.  The translation of the Greek word ‘lepra’ in the text from Mark today [Mark 1:40-44] is not what we would call leprosy.  It’s not mycobacterium leprae – which was discovered in 1868.  Mycobacterium leprae, what we today call leprosy, was known in New Testament times, but called elephantiasis.  Ancient lepra was rather a term that covered a number of diseases, all of which involved scaly or flaking skin conditions for example psoriasis, eczema, or any fungus infection of the skin.

In Jesus’ culture, a culture [Palestinian-Jewish] intensely concerned about being absorbed by a more powerful culture [Greco-Roman], an emphasis on social boundary protection was symbolized by an emphasis on bodily boundary protection.  In ancient times, for example, tiny Israel, constantly overpowered by imperial absorption on the political and military level and constantly withstanding imperial absorption on the cultural and religious level, had developed a massive amount of priestly legislation concerning bodily boundaries.  These bodily boundaries were especially concerned concern with orifices – would should and shouldn’t enter or exit from the body’s standard openings.  Thus Leviticus 11 legislates about food going in, and Leviticus 12, about food coming out. 

But Leviticus 13-14 on leprosy raises an even more dangerous boundary problem.  When would-be orifices start to appear where no orifices are meant to be, then, unable to tell orifice from surface, the entire system breaks down.  That is why biblical leprosy applies not only to skin but to clothes and house walls – it renders each surface ritually unclean – that is socially inappropriate.  The leprous person is not a social threat because of being allegedly medically contagious, but because of symbolic contamination – threatening in microcosm the very identity, integrity and security of society at large.

Regarding the healing of the leper, Dom Crossan points out the anthropological difference between curing a disease [a disease being “between me, my doctor, and a bug”[ii]] and healing an illness [which is a social construct].  It is the latter that Jesus engages with by refusing to ostracise the sufferers, empathizing with their anguish, and by enveloping their sufferings with both respect and love.  Curing the disease, for example through medical intervention, is generally an apolitical action.  Healing an illness, for example through society accepting those it used to reject, is very political.

Jesus’ courage in refusing to accept the disease’s ritual uncleanness and social ostracization forced others to either reject him from their community or to accept the leper within it.  And of course that act of acceptance by Jesus quite deliberately impugned upon the rights of society’s boundary keepers and controllers.  Jesus wasn’t a doctor – he didn’t cure diseases.  He was though a spiritual/political change agent who sought to heal illnesses.  In doing so Jesus acted an alternate boundary keeper in a way subversive to the religious and societal status quo. 

Francis, never to do things by half, embraced the man with leprosy.  In that hug he embraced what his society, and he too, feared.  He embraced the monster called illness.  To be ruled by fear would be to avoid lepers, or even to harm them.  To be ruled by compassion though – which for Francis was to be true to his calling – was to embrace what one feared.  Not that the fear disappear – it didn’t.  It just became non-dominant.

Probably the most well-known story about fear and St Francis is the Wolf of Gubbio.  We don’t know the historical basis, if any, of this legend.  Gubbio is a beautiful little Umbrian town.  Some posit that it may have been ruled by a ruthless tyrant, who in the telling of the legend became a wolf.

Well, the story goes that Francis came to Gubbio where a monstrous wolf was devouring both humans and animals.  The townsfolk armed themselves but still did not conquer the wolf or their fears.  The situation became so bad that no one dared leave the city.

Francis, motivated by compassion, decided to venture out alone beyond the city walls and meet this wolf.  Francis approached the wolf and politely [as one does with wolves] talked with him [Francis could speak wolverine].  He told the wolf about the suffering he had caused, and listened to the wolf’s perspective.  He then struck a deal with the wolf: if he committed no more offences then he would no longer be under threat from the townsfolk.  This is called an amnesty deal.  Furthermore, the townsfolk would feed him.  This is called a good deal.  Paw and hand shook on it.  Francis and the wolf walked back to Gubbio, publicly reiterated the understanding reached, and were both embraced by the grateful townsfolk.  Francis would have made a great Restorative Justice facilitator!

The postscript tells us “[that ‘Brother Wolf’ from then on] lived in the city …and was fed by the people …and never a dog barked at him, and the citizens grieved… at his death from old age”– well, those that hadn’t been eaten earlier that is.

It’s an SPCA legend: the friendship possible between humanity and our animal cousins.  Yet it’s a story that invites us to consider the issue of fear.  My guess is that whether the wolf was a monster or a man, Francis was shaking in his boots.  The fear of pain and death was not absent from Francis.  Yet Francis undertook risky, courageous behaviour.  His faith, his understanding and experience of God, pushed him to confront his fears and the symbol of those fears [the wolf].  Francis refused to succumb to the fear within, the whisper that said ‘killing will solve the problem.’  He brokered a deal that was of mutual benefit to both the wolf and the townsfolk, and built a lasting connection between them.

Some people talk of befriending our fears.  ‘Befriending’ can sometimes be a bit too strong for me.  Rather I think of ‘living with our fears’ – having them in the right proportion and balance in our lives.  There are lots of things to be afraid of – like the fear of losing life and health, our own or those we love; like the fear of losing the money and influence that enables us to do and be what we want; and like the fear of losing the love and trust of those we care about.  Living with such fears is about acknowledging their presence but not letting them gain control over us.

There was of course another solution available to the citizens of Gubbio: hire a hunter to kill the wolf.  Time and again this has been what humans have done.  Rather than learning to live with our fears we have killed that which has threatened us.  It has led to the depletion and extinction of many animal species.  It has led to many wars and generations weaned on hatred.  The story of the Wolf of Gubbio, on the other hand, invites us into building relationships of trust and mutuality with those we fear.

There are other Francis stories about fear – like when he met with the ‘religious enemy’ – the Islamic Sultan of Babylon.  Each of these stories is about Francis being pushed by his faith beyond the limits of safety to embrace humans or animals others were frightened of and wished to exclude or destroy.

Our actions towards animals, or towards those who are seen as different, or towards those of other religions or none – be they bulls, wolves, lepers or Sultans… is the measure of our faith.  Our actions indicate whether love or fear is in control of our lives.  This is not an easy or comfortable faith.  By siding with outsiders we often become outsiders ourselves.  

[i] Munro Leaf The Story of Ferdinand London: Hamish Hamilton, 1967.

[ii] Dom Crossan, Jesus: A revolutionary biography San Francisco: Harper 1994, p. 81.