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04 October 2011

Feast Day of St. Francis, God's Fool

When one fine Saturday in June I went downtown to practice the organ at "German St. Paul's" (I substitute for fellow organists during the summer), I groaned about the heat as soon as I got there. It gets hot up in the organ loft, especially on humid days like this one turned out to be, but the heat was nothing compared to what I experienced that day.

Everything started off as usual. I opened the door, entered and went upstairs to the organ loft. I opened the key box, switched on the motor, put on my organ shoes, got my music ready and sat down on the organ bench. When I started playing, I mumbled something about not being able to focus when sweat runs down your face like you are taking a shower. Then, I heard a noise. Somewhere left of me, something was hopping around. First I wondered whether it was a burglar, but the noise was too small for that. I thought the noise might be from a rabbit or a squirrel. Since I couldn't see anything from the organ bench, I got off the bench and took a look. Well, there was no rabbit and no squirrel – but a small little sparrow. He quietly looked at me as he hopped back and forth.

I thought, “The poor bird has gotten caught and wants to get out.” I went and opened the windows on both sides, so that the sparrow could have his freedom back. But the sparrow didn't move from where he sat. I got up and shook my head, saying to myself, “Well, let me start playing, perhaps he will find his way to freedom if I leave him alone.” Then I realized that I couldn't “just” start playing, because the sparrow had sat down on the pedal keys; when my feet came close to him, he just hopped over one or two keys. When I began playing with both feet, he flew into the air and sat down – but of all places, he sat down next to me on the organ bench.

Even though I was somewhat speechless in the midst of all this, I felt honored somehow by the fact that the sparrow had decided to stay rather than to fly away. It was a remarkable situation. I tried playing, but was distracted by my unexpected audience of one bird. I thought: birds aren't usually this trusting, unless they are tamed or ill somehow. I looked to my right, and the sparrow as still sitting right next to me on the bench. I looked into the little eyes of my guest and mumbled, “I will never play the way you birds can sing.” But his eyes seemed encouraging, as if to say, “Come on, play for me, I've come to listen to you.” So I took out the hymnal and opened it to one of the hymns I had come to practice. Then I began playing and focused, and the sparrow flew up and disappeared somewhere in the nave of the church. But he kept on coming back, almost as though he was truly tame and used to human beings. He'd sit on my music for a while, then on the organ bench, then on the pedal keys, then on my ballcap.

As I completely forgot about the humidity and the heat, I discovered that his presence “gave wings” to me and my playing.  At first the sparrow had made me speechless, but now that I played like I hadn't in a long while, it seemed as though he helped me find a new language. My playing that afternoon was full of jubilant joy. When after an hour I couldn't take the heat any more and began packing up, the sparrow was still there.

That night I was overjoyed and had trouble containing myself. The experience with “my” sparrow flooded me with joy and abandon, and also with awe – this little sparrow had chosen to spend an hour with me! When I began telling the story of my winged audience to my friends and family, there was great variety in the responses.

There were those who said this was important and it would behoove me to pursue its meaning further. Then there were people like my Dad, who said, “Well, there are things between heaven and earth that cannot be explained by our wisdom”. Finally there were those who were very skeptical, above all one of the psychiatrists I work with in Child Psychiatry. When I was done talking, she looked at me and said with a frown, “This is not how birds behave; you should have called a vet”. The way she said these words made me think that somehow she had wanted to add, “And since you are at it, get some help for yourself".

That child psychiatrist who angrily wanted to refer me to a vet, because she was unable to explain my encounter with the sparrow, reminded me of that “Wisdom of the Wise” the Apostle Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 1:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, surrounded by God's wisdom, the world didn't recognize God by its own wisdom God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.
St. Paul distinguishes between the Wisdom of the Wise and the Wisdom of God.  Opposite the Wisdom of the Wise is the Wisdom of God, symbolized by the Message about the Cross, personified in Jesus Christ, and described as something that “surrounds” the world, like oceans surround Planet Earth. St. Paul is very serious about the Cross. He writes to the Galatians, "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me"; to the Philippians he writes:

Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.
Now that we don't live for ourselves any more, but Christ in us, his journey must become ours. During the journey to his cross he left everything behind which separated him from his heavenly home: his human body, his name, all the future plans his disciples had made for him, and his whole story on earth. The same experience is available to us. It is, thus, no wonder that the people around us think the Message about the Cross is “folly”. In their eyes we are nothing by fools. 

If we truly want to belong to the Man of the Cross, we must quit our contract with the lords of this world. “Names”, so we say in a proverb, “are sound and smoke”, but so are all the other things so prized in this world: our titles, houses, cars, bank accounts, clothes, our reputation, our achievements and our plans – it's all sound and smoke when it comes to preparing for eternal life. 

As we learn to let go of the things that others still cling to, we will become lighter and lighter, until almost nothing weighs us down any more. And once we give up the idea that we live as individuals separated from everything else, we can truly say and mean it: “I live, but not I, but Christ in me”. Then we belong to that Wisdom of God which surrounds the whole world. At the point where our earthly encumberments and obligations become less and less important, there is often a powerful moment of silence. Then we experience what St. Paul means in Verse 18: "But to us who are being saved it is the power of God". Different traditions have different names for this moment. Buddhists call the moment of quiet sunyata, a “complete emptiness” which contains everything. It is when everything has been said and words mean nothing any more, where we melt into Life itself. The mystic Meister Eckhart describes that moment by saying, “When I get there, my image of God will break into a thousand pieces.”

The Cross of Christ crosses out everything that makes sense in this world ... and therefore, our less informed contemporaries think: Those People of Faith are not behaving like us; they must be fools!  We have learned from the Gospel of John how to be in the world but not of the world. We know that this world is no permanent home, and we know that we are completely wrong the moment we try to get comfortable in this life.

There is an “office” (or a role if you want) that is directly derived from our text; it's the “Fool for Christ“, and the most famous Fool for Christ was Francis of Assisi, whose Feast Day is Ocober 4. There had always been fools at the courts of emperors – every king and prince who wanted to count in the world had at least one fool at their court. In the world of politics with its intricate web of relationships there are so many lies that you need at least one person who can be honest with the emperor without losing his life for doing so. This was the office of fool.

Soon after Francis had experienced his call from God, he began calling himself “God's Fool”. And since a fool is useful to his Prince, Francis thought he might be similarly useful for his Prince in Rome. The history books tell the story of what happened when Francis visited the Pope. The Pope's advisers had already told him, “This man is crazy; he just is not well”. The Pope was smart and calculating – only a good politician can became Pope! -- and he listened to his advisers.

Before Francis arrived, the Pope had already decided to see him without taking in a single word of what he had to say. When Francis had his audience with the Pope, the Pope mumbled, “My God, I haven't met such dumb fool for a long time”.

But the trees and the birds and the fish thought differently about Francis. Thousands of people witnessed this phenomenon -- millions of fish would jump simultaneously; the whole river would be lost in jumping fish. Saint Francis had come and the fish were happy. And wherever he would go birds would follow; they would come and sit on his legs, his head, and in his lap. They understood God's Fool when the Pope did not. Even trees that had become dry and were going to die would become green and blossom again if Saint Francis came near. These trees understood well that this fool was no ordinary fool -- he was God's own fool.

Rainer Maria Rilke (who admired St. Francis for not turning his back to the world like many other saints, and for choosing to be a brother to all of God's creation instead), had this advice for God's fools:  "Make your ego porous. Will is of little importance, complaining is nothing, fame is nothing. Openness, patience, receptivity, solitude is everything." Rilke's advice seems to echo the words by St. Paul:  It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me! Living by those words will surely get us on the journey of becoming God's fools.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

(Second picture: St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Chelsea; third picture: Giotto di Bondone, St. Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds).


Since October 4, 2011 is not only the Feast Day of St. Francis, but also the first anniversary of my blog, I want to thank all my readers for their willingness to read and engage and come back for more.  Blogger's own count says that as of this minute, the blog has been accessed 5,632 times. Thanks.  It's a joy to write "about God and the world" (almost) every week,  and to know that you, my readers, will look for it.

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