Saturday, October 8, 2011

Lamentations 3, Martyrdom, and the Certainty of Hope

“The favors of the LORD are not exhausted,
his mercies are not spent;
They are renewed each morning,
so great is his faithfulness.
My portion is the LORD, says my soul;
Therefore will I hope in him.”

This passage, taken from Lamentations 3:22-24 and made famous by the hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness, comes surprisingly from the book of Lamentations. In this book, the poets cry out to God for liberation from their Babylonian captors who have brought Jewish women even to the point of infanticide and cannibalism. While the poet in Lamentations 3 accepts the Babylonian captivity as God-willed, he has hope that God’s anger will not last forever. The poet, a personification of Israel, pours out his anguish and suffering to the LORD. “He has broken my teeth with gravel,/ pressed my face in the dust” (3:16). The poet lists the many different ways that God has punished him and permitted suffering in his life, and yet he still hopes that God will have mercy on Israel. This hope is not a superficial hope but one grounded in a certainty based on faith. When the poet says, “therefore will I hope in him(v.24), the poet is not expressing a wish but a conviction that God will not abandon him. We use the word “hope” so casually in everyday conversations that the poet’s words are not so easily understood today. From the rest of Lamentations 3, however, it is clear that when the poet says that he has “hope” he means that he has faith in God’s promise. “For the Lord’s rejection/does not last forever;/ Though he punishes, he takes pity,/ in the abundance of his mercies” (vs.31-32). The poet’s praise of the LORD in vs. 22-24 must be read in the context of the captivity. When Israel’s existence as a nation is threatened, when it seems as if God has rejected the Jews, the poet has hope that God will have mercy on His chosen people. In other words, the poet trusts in God’s promise to Israel (has hope in the LORD) even when it seems as if God has abandoned Israel. The poet has hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. This hope, grounded in faith, helps the poet continue living in the midst of such suffering without either losing faith in God or in life. The Jewish poet does not have hope just in a heavenly promise but also has hope that God will free Israel in his lifetime.

The poet of Lamentations 3 is a man of great faith – a man who trusts in God when it seems the most absurd to do so. Is not this man like all Christian martyrs throughout history? I have thought often about these martyrs and their faith. Even when faced with the “cross”, the martyrs still trusted in God; they still had hope. But it would be wrong to argue that all the martyrs gave up hope in this life and only focused on heaven. Certainly, they definitely had hope in the heavenly promise, but they also had a desire to continue living. One must never forget that martyrs were not suicidal people who wanted to escape from the world but people who loved God and the gift of life. Instead of giving up on life, their words were those of Jesus: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42)

The next time you find yourself singing Great is Thy Faithfulness think of the poet in Lamentations 3, think of the Christian martyrs. Hope is not a wish but a certainty. God will keep His promise - even in this life.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Saint Francis of Assisi - the Man Behind the Legend

I found this interesting article in the most recent (October) edition of Commonweal Magazine.

A Suffering Servant: Francis of Assisi's Shadow Side
Paul Moses

The fact that Francis of Assisi hated to be put on a pedestal does not stop us from doing so as his annual feast arrives today. He is fondly remembered for his love of animals and nature, and for his generous spirit -- all of which deserve to be honored. But, as is often the case with saints, we would do well to take Francis down from his pedestal and get to know him as the man he was rather than through his pious image. Before I began researching a book about Francis, I’d had the idea that, given his powerful sense of God’s presence, he was always carefree and happy.
The truth is more complicated: Francis’s life was encumbered by dark shadows, to the point that he experienced long periods of anguishing separation from God.
His psychological trauma began with his military service in Assisi’s war against its more powerful neighbor, Perugia. He saw men he knew since childhood torn limb from limb in a devastating battle, and was taken prisoner for a year, thrown in a dark, damp hole in the ground.
This left Francis a broken man. His earliest biographer, Thomas of Celano, indicates as much when he recounts that Francis, after his release, felt nothing when he looked at fields and mountains that once thrilled him. We can’t expect Celano to put this in modern psychological terms, but from what we now know, Francis was traumatized. He was a physical and emotional wreck, too ill and depressed to go out of the house. Some experts believe he had contracted malaria, which would return periodically for the rest of his life. 
Francis tried once more to go to war, this time to help Pope Innocent III defend papal lands in southern Italy against imperial forces. Beset with the memory of his gruesome experience on the battlefield, Francis turned back, laid down his arms and, after a period of solitary prayer, began his transition to a life of voluntary poverty. This offered Francis a path to healing but a close reading of the medieval texts shows that the dark shadows in his life never disappeared completely.
For example, the Assisi Compilation, a collection of anecdotes compiled by the Franciscan order in the 1240s, quotes Francis on the “demons” that gave him sleepless nights: “If the brothers knew how many trials the demons caused me, there would not be one of them who would not have great piety and compassion for me,” he said. The account continues: “As a result, as he often said to his companions, he was unable by himself to satisfy the brothers or sometimes to show them the friendliness which the brothers desired.” 
One senses that Francis felt isolated in his role as leader of a growing order -- that he felt he couldn’t be the man the other brothers wanted him to be. Clearly, he had to have been a great inspiration for the order to grow so swiftly in those years, but Francis in such moments was down on himself. 
Celano recounts a prolonged spiritual depression that occurred later in Francis’s life: “At one time, a very serious temptation of spirit came upon the holy father, surely to embellish his crown. Because of it he was filled with anguish and sorrow; he afflicted and chastised his body, he prayed and wept bitterly. He was under attack in this way for several years."
Francis was filled with anguish and sorrow for several years before he could finally find tranquility. It is surprising that Thomas of Celano would write about that. The hagiographer’s task was to burnish Francis’s reputation as a saint, but such prolonged spiritual anguish would hint, at least in the medieval era, at the sin of acedia. This is one of the seven deadly sins, also called sloth.
According to Thomas of Celano, Francis put great emphasis on avoiding this sin. “The devil is most delighted when he can steal the joy of spirit from a servant of God,” he quoted Francis. “He carries dust which he tries to throw into the tiniest openings of the conscience, to dirty a clear mind and a clean life.” Celano adds: “He avoided very carefully the dangerous disease of acedia, so that when he felt even a little of it slipping into his heart, he quickly rushed to prayer. For he used to say, 'When a servant of God gets disturbed about something, as often happens, he must get up at once to pray and remain before the most High Father until he gives back to him the joy of his salvation. But if he delays, staying in sadness, that Babylonian sickness will grow and, unless scrubbed with tears, it will produce in the heart permanent rust.'"
In our enthusiasm for Francis, there is a tendency to almost divinize him. Pope Pius XI wrote in 1926, marking the seven hundredth anniversary of Francis’s death, that “there has never been anyone in whom the image of Jesus Christ...shone forth more lifelike and strikingly than in St. Francis.”
I don’t dispute that shining portrayal of Francis, but his all-too-human darkness deepens my appreciation for him and makes him all the more a model for the Christian life. From his brokenness, Francis found the insights that led him to oppose warfare, promote an alternative to the greed rampant in the church, and to identify with the poor, lepers, and other outcasts -- all those “scrubbed with tears.” 
Art: St. Francis of Assisi Contemplating a Skull, by Francisco de Zurbaran