Sunday, October 7, 2012

Pietro and Francesco

Years ago I read an interview with Andrew Young, the Civil Rights leader and pastor who also served as Mayor of Atlanta and Ambassador to the United Nations. He told the story about how he and his wife raised their four children to know and to love Jesus, to read the Bible, to live responsible lives, and to be good members of the Church. And they were proud of that. And then one of their daughters traveled on a summer mission trip to Africa. It was literally a life-changing experience for her, so much so that she came home and told her parents that she wanted to become a missionary in Africa.   

I am not quite sure how the story turned out. A quick Google-check revealed to me that Ambassador Young is now eighty. But my memory of his sharing the story is that he was pretty honest about the fact that this was not what he and his wife had in mind for their daughter and they were quite frankly nervous about her going so far away, and they all had to work through it together. Even as a pastor, what he really wanted for his daughter was a kind of Christian inoculation, not that she would actually, literally, choose to follow Jesus. Of at least not follow Jesus that far away! But it turned out that God had other plans for her.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to drive from Siena, Italy, through the lovely hills of Tuscany and into Umbria, to the little town of Assisi—which sits up on a hill. It’s obvious the roads were built long before the automobile, so you park at the bottom of the hill and walk up and as you walk those narrow streets it almost feels like you are going back in time and that you might just run into good old Francis, no longer a statue but a real person in a real time and place. In 1182, as an infant boy he was baptized in the cathedral font of Assisi, one of seven children born to Pietro and Pico di Bernardone. His mother was a religious person who decided to name her son after John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way for Jesus. And so he was sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever: Giovanni.  Giovanni’s father, however, was a cloth trader who traveled regularly on business to France. So he nicknamed his son the “little Frenchman”—Francesco—because of his love for all things French. The scholars think that Francesco probably tagged along with his dad on business trips to Paris during his teenage years; if so, he would have seen the first building phase of a brand new cathedral being built there that would be named for the mother of our Lord, Notre Dame.

By all accounts, Francesco was a spoiled rich kid. It can happen when parents are upwardly mobile and yet not necessarily accepted by the “old money” crowd. Francesco grew up in a privileged home and his father expected him to follow in his path in the family business. Something happened, though—it’s not exactly clear what—that led to a change in his worldview. Some say he came down with an illness that left him bedridden for a long period of time. He ended up in the military, wanting to become a knight.

When someone says “Semper Fi” to you, you know that they are shaped by a whole set of values that define that person as a United States marine. And, once a marine, always a marine. Knights in the Middle Ages were something like that: the equivalent of “Semper Fi” was the medieval notion of chivalry. Two core values for knights were a commitment to largesse (i.e. to be generous) and to always be courteous. Generosity and courtesy permeate the Rule of Francis. I mention these because as profoundly as Francis was eventually shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and clearly these are also both gospel values, they were also military values that left a mark in shaping the person that Francis was becoming.

Francis had a powerful religious awakening in the church in San Damiano. While praying there, he heard Christ calling to him: “Francesco, rebuild my church.” Some might call this a conversion experience, but I think it is more accurate to call experiences like this awakenings. He had already been “claimed and sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever” at that cathedral font. But there it was his parents taking vows on his behalf. In San Damiano he began to confirm those promises and embrace them as his own. He “woke up” to what it meant to be a beloved child of God and to let that identity and that reality dictate above everything else the person he was becoming. So he began to rebuild the church in San Damiano, as well as the little chapel down in the valley called Partiuncula—or “little portion.”

As he embraced the way of the cross as the path to full and abundant life, it brought him into conflict with his father. Among other things, Francesco was becoming very generous with his father’s hard-earned money. Now it would be a mistake to think his father was not religious, but he was religious in that way Andrew Young spoke about: he wanted his child to become inoculated as a Christian, but not enough so that he would really, literally, follow Jesus. So his father called on his personal friend, the bishop, to talk some sense into the boy, hoping he’d give up his foolish ideas and enter into the family business and settle down. So there they were, out on the public square in Assisi with a crowd gathered around them, and Francis took off all his clothes and gave them back to his father, telling him that he had only one Father in heaven. The embarrassed bishop handed Francis something to cover himself up with. 

The fresco shown above is located in the upper church in Assisi; for me it captures the pathos and the sense of shame and betrayal that both father and son must have felt that day when Francis went, shall we say, “al fresco.” For me there is so much humanity in that scene, long before Francis became a statue in the garden. Even if he is an admired saint of the Church, I think we make a mistake if we turn him into the hero of this particular moment and his father into the devil. It is so much more human and complex than that. I imagine his dad as honestly wanting the very best for his son: the problem is that father and son don’t see eye-to-eye on what is best. Their core values clash. Francis chooses to embrace the life that he believes God is calling him to, rather than his father’s dreams. Ultimately I respect and admire him for that. But as a parent I can also feel Pietro’s pain and confusion and even sense of betrayal. In that moment, clearly the old man must have felt rejected and heart-broken. Relationships are complicated and parent-child relationships are no exception.

For Francis, the heart of the gospel was a call to embrace poverty as a way to share in Christ’s suffering. His father simply couldn’t understand that, after all the sacrifices he had made to make life better for his son. I wonder if this is not almost an inverted story of the prodigal son: instead of the father running out to embrace the lost son, Francesco’s father seems to recoil and pull back, even as his son feels “found” by God. It is as if he is asking, “who is this kid, and what has happened to him?” Moments like this one are so difficult and awkward—not just for father and son (and the bishop) but for all of us who are eavesdropping on a private family matter being played out publicly in the town square. So we get this very public rift in a small town. Father and son go their separate ways.

Now all of this happened a long time ago, and both father and son have long since joined the communion of saints. I like to imagine that at the heavenly banquet, Francis and his father have long since bridged the chasm that divided them in this world. I imagine them embracing and sharing the fatted calf together, because it matters less in God’s presence who is right and who is wrong than that we are all broken and that we are all loved more deeply than we can ever grasp. In God’s presence, I believe the fatted calf is killed once more and the table is set and father and son embrace, and all is forgiven.

We see our children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world, and so as parents we pray for patience and for wisdom. But maybe above all else what we need to pray for is the courage to entrust them to the God who made them and calls them by name. 

We raise our children in order for them to become adults who will find their own path to God and their own way in the world. When we baptize a child - whether in medieval Umbria or in the Jim Crowe south - we are publicly stating that we know this: that we entrust our beloveds to God. Francis is quoted as having once said: "What a person is in the sight of God, so much he or she is and no more." At the font we say that each of us is created in God’s own image; that we are God’s own beloved. Nothing more—and nothing less. Not who others want us to be, but who God has made us to be. Those of us who are called to the vocation of parenthood are called to use our gifts to remember this as our children find their own pathway to God. We do not own them. And we cannot make them walk the paths we wish we had taken, or believe they must take to find happiness. 

Parenting, I think, is an ongoing process of learning to let go and let God.It requires a lot of trust.

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