St Francis Part 1: Sermon for the week of 2 October 2022 from Rev’d Ian Tattum

Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet, started his time with the Jesuits in Roehampton, at what is now Whitelands College. He hated his middle name and never used it himself. He associated it with his father and the Victorian take on masculinity.

He was saved from an existential crisis by the medieval philosopher who gave us the word ‘dunce’. His psychological dilemma was caused by the tension between his intense and passionate love of nature and the teaching he was getting from the church to the effect that such love of material things should be shaken off if he ever wanted to love God, who transcended all existing things and was the source of all spiritual ones. The philosopher/theologian in question was Duns Scotus, who lived in the thirteenth century and was ridiculed by later philosophers who saw him as an obscurantist and mocked him for being slow-thinking – hence a ‘dunce’. All of which is totally unfair and anachronistic.

The reason Duns Scotus was such a help to Gerard Hopkins, as we now know he liked to be called, was that Hopkins didn’t believe that God was outside, holding the universe in being, but inside things too, communicating through the unique character of sentient creatures and inanimate ones. He invented the word ‘inscape’ to help get at this idea. But you only have to read some of his most famous poems to see how his thinking went. The poems are often seen as heroically innovative tumbles of words striving to articulate the beauty of the world; but much more than this, they are hymns rejoicing in a creative God who indwells all things, and gives them meaning and beauty, without reducing their uniqueness or intrinsic value – from tiny pebble to human being.

‘As kingfishers catch fire’ is a perfect example:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Gerard Hopkins, was famously a Jesuit, but Duns Scotus was a Franciscan.

We are remembering St Francis of Assisi today.  And as I was reading about that saint again – while thinking about how Gerard Hopkin’s dilemma was assuaged by Duns Scotus and also observing some of our contemporary environmental and social ills – I was reminded why Francis has always been an attractive and compelling saint.

In case you have forgotten when he lived, he was born in 1181 and died on the 3rd October 1226. He was not a priest and emphatically not a monk either. This is significant. Italy was one of the many places in Europe at the time where economies were growing again after the very lean years that had gone before, and with more commerce there was a greater need for literacy in society as a whole. The scale wasn’t huge, but it meant that more people than before who were not in religious orders could read and write. One consequence of that was that Christianity ran a bit wild. The time was also the great age of heresy, and Francis was himself an outlier in a new-found confidence amongst those who were not priests or monks that the Gospels belonged to them too. It is a terrible oversimplification, but serious religion had so long been associated with the cloister that it had stifled the spiritual imaginations of the majority of people, who worked in the fields or in the industries of the growing cities. Francis was not the first to ask a question that we all have to ask ourselves.

If we read the Gospels and attend to what Jesus says and does what difference will it make, what should we do and how should we live?

By renouncing wealth and possessions, St Francis sought not only to be Christ-like but also to be vulnerable and hyper-ordinary.

You might see how Duns Scotus and, much more recently, Gerard Hopkins were following in St Francis’ footsteps.

Yes, God, could be encountered in the liturgies of the church, which then mainly meant in monasteries, but the divine was not confined to them. And Christianity wasn’t a religion for the spiritual elite but for every person to discover and pursue for themselves.

For St Francis, God in Christ would be met in nature, in the world, and in any traveller who might be met with on the road. The Franciscan tradition of greeting every stranger with a sign of peace, and the shocking behaviour of St Francis himself of kissing people who suffered from leprosy, were both out-workings of this belief.

This is going to be a two-part reflection, as St Francis’ legacy is so rich. I intend to look at some of his own words and the stories told about him next week, but I want to finish with a contrast. St Francis saw the world as ablaze with the glory of God – absolutely all things in existence – and embraced poverty in a way that underlined his need of God and the inter-dependence of people.

Ayn Rand has been in the news lately again because of her influential role in shaping the outlook of some prominent government ministers and figures around Donald Trump. If you don’t know who she was she is worth looking up. A philosopher-cum-novelist who escaped from Russia to Chicago in the early years of the Soviet regime, she advocated free market capitalis – not a de-regulated system but a totally unregulated one. That said, she did condemn what we would now call crony capitalism and believed that you must always tell the truth. But she also brought with her from Russia a thoroughgoing materialism and a devotion to the ideas of Nietzsche.  As a consequence, she rejected any role for God or religion, asserted that only reason mattered, and that reason’s main purpose is to serve the self-interest and acquisitive goals of the individual. Nothing deemed irrational had any usefulness or reality. Faith, hope, love and poetry don’t figure highly in her system.

I find the vision of St Francis and Duns Scotus filtered through Gerard Manley Hopkins so much more compelling, and timely.

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