St Francis: Defiant Kindness

St Francis: Defiant Kindness

Glynn Cardy, 3rd October 2021

I first met a Franciscan friar sometime in the late 1970s.  His name was Bruce-Paul (Franciscans forfeit their surnames), and he would become much later the godfather of one of my children.

Anglican Franciscans established a friary here in 1969, and at one time looked after the parish of Glen Innes (where I would later minister).  Friars in their distinctive brown robes take lifelong vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  I would later learn from Bruce-Paul that it was the latter one, obedience, that was the hardest.  They lived in community, and were accountable to their community and the one they chose to lead it. 

Most Franciscans are also gay.  Historically religious orders were safe places for those outside of heterosexual normality.  Relationships of intimacy however contravened the Franciscan celibacy vow.  The commitment to belong was a commitment to live a chaste life in community.

In the late ‘70s the New Zealand Franciscans lived in a church house in Parnell and were engaged in youth work (that’s where I met them) and work with those in poverty.  One brother worked in an accounting firm and his salary funded their daily budget.

They also prayed.  Three services a day.  Simple, dignified, with chants and occasionally incense.  Worship leadership was shared among them.  It was very different from what this Birkenhead boy had known before.  And it was attractive.

What was also attractive was their namesake: St Francis.

Francis was born in 1181 (or ‘82), in Assisi, Italy, the son of a prosperous silk merchant.  Although many biographers remark about his early love of rich friends, clothing, and pleasures, there are also stories of him, from an early age, pushing back against the prejudices relating to poverty.  In one story he was selling his cloth in the marketplace for the family firm when a beggar approached.  Francis left his wares, and gave the man everything he had in his pockets (much to his father’s displeasure).

Time and again in the stories about Francis there is a defiant kindness.

It is not hard to read in the early stories of Francis a father/son struggle about what is of worth in the world, and what careers are worthwhile to pursue.  It is also not hard to empathise at times with his father!  Like when Francis, in a very public manner, stripped off his garments, forswore his inheritance, and left to pursue the life of a beggar.

Last week I was reading an interview in E Tangata with Tommy Wilson[i].  Tommy is from Te Puna, a small town of about 2,000 souls, near Tauranga.  It is, says Tommy, the only French-Māori community on the planet. 

Tommy started his working life washing dishes at the Chateau Tongariro, then progressed up as a steward, then into management.  He took off overseas and worked as a butler for famous and wealthy people in many countries.  Big names, big dollars, big lifestyle.  And he became a part of it.  He saw what money can and can’t do.  As he wrote to his mum as he was about to leave the high life in Zurich: “I’m coming home coz these people who I’ve been working for have everything, yet they’ve got not much.  Back home we’ve got not much, but we have everything.”  Tommy says life is about mana, not money.  And the only way to get mana is by giving.

Tommy’s departure from Europe wasn’t as dramatic as Francis’s but there is a resonance between the stories – experiencing wealth, seeing through its façade, and seeking an authenticity based not on getting but on giving.

Another Francis story about defiant kindness is that of the wolf of Gubbio.  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.  Think ‘Wolf of Wall St’, and use your imagination.

Well, the story goes that Francis came to Gubbio where a monstrous wolf was devouring both humans and animals (and maybe his own soul?).  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 a defiant kindness to humans and animals, 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 Wolfy 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 – though I’m not sure the wolf recognised any fault on his/her part.

The story’s 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.

On the one hand it’s a great SPCA legend: the friendship possible between humanity and our animal cousins.  Animals are just waiting to be loved, cared for, feed, and all that.

On another hand it’s a story about defiant kindness in the face of threat.  My guess is that whether the wolf was a monster or a man, Francis was shaking in his boots.  Francis was defiant, courageous.  His faith, his fortitude, or even maybe his unresolved father issues, pushed him to confront his fears and the symbol of those fears, the wolf.  Francis refused to succumb to the fear within, and 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.  I prefer the phrase 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 health and life, our own or those we love; like the fear of losing the income 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.

When Tommy Wilson came back to Te Puna his commitment to giving, to being kind, met two wolves.  One called illiteracy.  One called poverty.  Both of which are the cause of much suffering in our community of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Tommy has been into writing for a long time.  He’s written some 30-odd books, including the children’s series Kapai the Kiw’.  He’s taught creative writing in 200 schools.  He is a writer ‘because someone believed in the written word and bathed me in it’ (Mr Gatland, his Form One teacher).  He is a writer for those who can read, and those who can’t.  Tommy tells of one girl who told him, ‘When you came by here last time, you gave me a Kapai the Kiwi book and I took it to my dad in jail, and my dad learned to read, and now he reads me stories.’  You never know where the gift that you can give will end up.  From Mr Gatland, to Tommy, to the girl, to her dad.

Tommy’s conclusion after seeing the world and experiencing what he has is “that there is only one way to help the planet, and that’s through the taiaha (weapon) of knowledge.”  Tommy’s belief is that whatever way we shape that taiaha, it has to be in a language that can connect with those who need to read and write and understand.

The other wolf is that of poverty.  He’s part of an organisation called Te Tuinga (which means weaving the community together).  They help about 80 people each week.  They help to take away the fear of homelessness, addiction, gang life, suicide, and now pandemics, by getting good knowledge to the people who need to understand, in a language that they understand.  Tommy’s role?  He’s the CIO – chief imagination officer.

‘Kindness is the korowai (cloak)’, says Tommy, ‘we need to put over this long white cloud.  Random acts of kindness are what we can all do.  Just giving.  Giving is everything.’  Defiant kindness.

The Anglican Franciscan friars left Aotearoa in 2016.  Like most church organisations they are suffering from fewer members.  Yet they left behind a network of what are called Third Order Franciscans who commit themselves to a rule of life that seeks to put into practice the virtues of Francis.  Virtues like finding God and one’s prayer by acts of unrelenting kindness and generosity.  Some of them, when not constrained by lockdowns, gather each Friday at St Luke’s.