The Fellowship of Life
From the former British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection journal AV Times (October 1972):
On October 4 every year, anti-vivisectionists together with all other manner of animal welfare workers celebrate the Feast of St Francis, the rich Umbrian merchant's son, born toward the end of the reign of our own William the Conqueror, at a time when his native town of Assisi was under the domination of a foreign regime.
Comparisons will forever be drawn between Jesus of Nazareth and the Poverello, both are men at whose memory all living creatures can warm themselves. If Jesus's subsequent deification somewhat inhibits comfortable familiarity, no such impediment is experienced through the raising of Francis to sainthood - in fact to many it brings him closer as an intermediary to the top brass up yonder.
It has been written of St Francis that "after Jesus he was the only perfect Christian." Like Jesus - although the saint was never put to the test of martyrdom - Francis's teachings, preachings and practices were mangled by those who perforce could not leave well alone and who, to the ultimate cost of Christianity today, killed the lilly in two top coats of glossy gilt.
For Francis of Assisi, like Jesus, the understanding of temptation, the experience of anger, familiarity with everyday frustration and, above all, persistent, abundant and constant tolerance and love make him for us a man to whom we can all turn for a measure of sympathy and a degree of self-identification.
Francis may perhaps with his young man's dream of knightly chivalry and his somewhat more elevated status at birth have had the edge over Jesus, the artisan's eldest son, but in common they held an uncompromising ideal, that of equality in the sight of God and, most certainly so in the case of Francis, that equality extended throughout Creation.
Where Jesus serves in un-natural and incomprehensible deific splendour as one pinnacle of a curious triple spiritual peak, Francis, with his beggar's cloak with the chalked-on, blazoned cross across his narrow shoulders, represents all that mankind can hope to become without running into the sinful error that too proud or too close an emulation of Jesus's way of life might invite.
The Early Church which, to use a modern idiom with no intentional disrespect, kicked Jesus upstairs into one or another of His Father's Many Mansions, thereby escaped neatly enough the responsibility of taking his simple teachings too uncomfortably literally. Who can in all humility try to equal an aspect of God?
Francis, who suspected - and rightly too, as again did Jesus - empty scholarship, and who sought to preach by example rather than via academic theory, failed to escape partial martyrdom by a section of his own particular breed of adherent. One suspects that this is because it is always more comfortable to pontificate than to go about the practical side of God's (or gods', if it comes to that) work barefoot, in rags and with no comfortably gained pressure of subcutaneous fat under the clerical belt.
Where sanctity and an outward show (intentional or otherwise) of piety are the only operating criteria whereby the appointment of saints are determined, plus of course the odd spontaneous miracle or two, it is surprising in a way to find Francis among that heavenly if man-made company. Of course, it might even be argued that had He not taken an even more tortuous route to an even higher estate, Jesus might have had difficulty squeezing past the earthly selection committee.
So, to return to October 4, here this year we should all try to remember the sheer joyfulness, even the delight and the glee with which the newly-converted Francis embraced poverty. How, following in the footsteps of Jesus, whom so clearly he understood in spirit better than in the letter of his Church, he so gladly and sometimes so shockingly gavorted once free of the encumbrance of his social position, his military ambitions and the overbearing presence of his far from divine, earthly father.
If we are of the praying kind, how swiftly and how naturally we can throw out a thought from time to time to Francis, together with a plea to attain toward his great love of all that surrounds us here on this planet.
If Jesus, with his treatment of money-lenders, his blasting of the fruitless fig-tree and his disregard for the Establishments of His day is everyman's benevolent Big Brother, but is somewhat mummified and in some kind of a soundproof glass cage as a prisoner of Churchianity to many of us, then Francis is somehow a freer-moving agent of Jesus, His private secretary perhaps who still holds a key that we can all share to the door that separates this earthly realm from the somewhat cold, uninviting and awesome Kingdom of God to which, so paradoxically, so many of us poor sinners still aspire.
Saint Peter it may well be who holds the two front door keys to the Golden Gate, but on reflection, how wise it was of the men who set about naming the New World when this same symbolic name was given also to the sea entry to the first settlement which, so fortuitously, was named after St Francis.
Those among us who to the point of disgust are unimpressed by the earthly pomp, hypocrisy, the easy habit of conventional religious belief will see no disrespect in the suggestion that Saint Francis is - or at least could fittingly be regarded, as the keeper of the back door or even the beggar's gate to the next world. It would be no insult to Francis, the Little Poor One.
And through it there would always be access to all our Brothers, the animals.
Reproduced with thanks.
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