I am embarrassed on two counts today: 1) I have not written in a timely way; and 2) the subject of my blog is rather Catholic than Jewish. The reason is that though I feel that in my heart and soul I am a Jew, I was raised a Christian, and some of my beliefs are holdovers from that period of my life. One such belief–I believe I have written about it–is a belief in what Christians call “charity” or “love,” the act of loving another human being without getting anything in exchange. I have always believed this transcendent love is the highest form of humanity, that it even transcends something about humanity. I believe it represents the love of God. Anyway, another such belief is my admiration of certain Catholic saints–without worshipping them–like St. Francis. So it is that I am reading The Complete Francis of Assisi: His Life, The Complete Writings, and The Little Flowers including a famous modern biography by Paul Sabatier.
I have not finished the book, but one portion on Friday (I have read more since then) was particular noteworthy when I went to bed on Erev Shabbat. It was the reference of “the interior transformation that was going on in him was as yet the fruit of his intuition,” that led from his being a kind but frivolous youth who through both fighting in battle and going through terrible illness developed the love of God for which he is known. It worked in various stages from becoming a man of great generosity to a man who owned nothing himself but took care of others.
I suppose I lack St. Francis’ ability to live for God in poverty voluntarily, yet I cannot help being drawn to his story. Saints have that quality: I have read a biography of Mahatma Gandhi and the biography of Mother Teresa Something Beautiful for God. There is always a sense of enlightenment in such books, but there is also a sense of shame, because for the ordinary person we know that giving up things like electricity would be a terrible burden. Of course, I do not have great wealth–but why does that matter? For where they lived, Mother Teresa and Gandhi did not come from riches. More, St. Francis though his father was a wealthy merchant was not–I don’t believe–a member of the aristocracy in Italy. Yet there is something so compelling about them, something that transcends our worldly ideas of “success.”
There is a Talmudic teaching, “What does it mean to be wise? To be happy with what one has.” Yet a person always wants more, it seems. Not, perhaps, in terms of things–I have plenty of things–yet in terms of the spirit, there is always a sense of what Buddhists call “dis-ease,” not a physical illness but an uncertainty about life which they believe is caused by a craving for physical things or even spiritual ends which are “useless” like what Hindu ascetism can be when it does nothing save for the “saint” him or herself. It is true of “sainthood” whether that of the martyred Akiba who taught others from his knowledge or the “poor man” St. Francis who lived a life of poverty, that it is always a life lived for others. St. Francis took up the poverty of the masses so that he could bring them comfort as well as live like his lord, Jesus. St. Clare, his spiritual sister, lived her life with her sisters for St. Francis and his monks as well as for spiritual fulfillment.
In fact, I believe that this living for others, is what separates St. Francis from the spiritual panaceas of today. Though I have trouble seeing St. Francis as a political figure, he never would have mistaken the materialism and race-baiting of Donald Trump for a True Savior for America. This is because he was a man of deeper values who knew that love is what God wants and not greed or hate. After all, Donald Trump is a transactional thinker at best (somebody who gives for something in exchange only) and St. Francis knew how to give. That is why even somebody on the left (I admit to being a little purple) should be able to see the insight of a St. Francis and his God. That is why even a Jew–like me–can read about him and see the profundity of St. Francis’ love of God and other people.