Elephants in Laundry Baskets

Studying the life of St. Francis has given me a new appreciation for Jesus. Well, it’s probably a combination of studying the life of St. Francis and developing a heart that is truly alive. Stephen Langton, the thirteenth-century archbishop of Canterbury, apparently said that if you wish to learn, five things are necessary: “purity of life, simplicity of heart, an attentive mind, a humble disposition, and a gentle spirit.” He forgot to mention intellectual brilliance—arguably the most important thing of all!

Yet what I find most striking in studying the lives of St. Francis and Jesus is that neither of them aspired to any sort of intellectual brilliance. Jesus barely ever spoke in words of more than two syllables, yet how many others can claim to have changed the whole face of the world? But the old Jesus, the Jesus I’ve always known and avoided, is dying—Jesus, the long-haired, wispy, levitating, only half-embodied guru whose favorite pastimes were screwing with the Pharisees, occasionally uttering mystical nonsense, and frowning at everyone in Lordly condescension. “If you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?” He was smart, He was cunning, He was only barely there. He was kind of a Gnostic. And He’s finally fading away.

To be replaced with…? I don’t know yet. I suspect there’s a strategy behind my recent fascination with St. Francis and Tom Bombadil. I started reading through the Gospels again, beginning with the Gospel of Matthew, and the two things that strike me the most are how funny He is, and how full of images—virgins with lamps, camels going through the eyes of needles, mountains flying into the sea, carcasses with eagles gathered round them, people being bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness, millstones being hung around necks and the necks being thrown in the sea. It’s all so… over the top. So exaggerated. So arresting. So animated. So lively. So… alive.

And in seeing that, I discovered something else by contrast with myself. I have not been very alive. And I tended to ramble in a dry and incoherent way. A smart man, a dead man, like myself, would say something like, “The problem with a spirit of religion is that you become a stranger to yourself as much as to others, aspiring to do good but never achieving it…”

Jesus would say, “Within you are full of dead men’s bones, and all uncleanness.” Like Shakespeare, like St. Francis, He never used a hundred words where He could use a single image.

And He felt the substance behind it more keenly than anyone else—because the more alive you are, the more the heart paints pictures. Metaphor, as I’ve said, is where the mind of the artist meets the heart of a soul on fire. It’s not a contrivance; it’s a substance. That’s why Tyler, probably the most alive man I know, is also the most picturesque. On one memorable occasion, when I asked him how he was feeling, he shrugged and said, “Oh, you know… I’ve just gotta keep singing. Or the deep, drenched weight of change on my soul will drown me.”

Not coincidentally, Tyler loves it when I read to him from Shakespeare. Recently I was listening to Richard II, one of my favorite plays, and I was impressed (probably for the first time) not by the ornateness of the language, but the fire in the depths of his soul that exploded with volcanic force when pen met parchment. Richard, in prison, is describing how his thoughts contend with one another:

The better sort,

            As thoughts of things divine, are intermix’d

            With scruples, and do set the word itself

            Against the word,

            As thus: ‘Come, little ones’; and then again,

            ‘It is as hard to come as for a camel

            To thread the postern of a small needle’s eye.’

            Thoughts tending to ambition, they do plot

            Unlikely wonders: how these vain, weak nails

            May tear a passage through the flinty ribs

            Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls;

            And, for they cannot, die in their own pride.

            Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves

            That they are not the first of fortune’s slaves

            Nor shall not be the last—like silly beggars

            Who, sitting in the stocks, refuge their shame,

            That many have and others must sit there;

            And in this thought they find a kind of ease,

            Bearing their own misfortunes on the back

            Of such as have before endured the like.

            Thus play I in one person many people,

            And none contented.

 

            You have one group of people just casually lying on top of another, like the popes in hell. I love that. And I love when Tom explains to the hobbits the futility of trying to wake them in time for first breakfast: “Naught wakes hobbit-folk in the early morning!” And I love when St. Francis imagines the mean old miser rushing out of his house with a big knotted stick, shouting, “Aye, ye are no friars! Ye are a bunch of thieving ingrates!” And he rolls them in the snow and bruises every bone in their bodies with that big stick. It reminds me of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, how the Lord says to the man who buried his talent, “You wicked and lazy servant!” and throws him into the outer darkness. True, there’s a very serious point, but if you think about it, it’s all kind of silly. (Why would anyone bury twenty years’ wages? And then blame the man who gave him the money?). Basically, I’m having the experience of the monk in the old story who found out that the sacred scrolls said, “Celebrate!” not, “Celibate!” Lately, when I read the sermons and parables of Jesus, it’s hard not to picture Him using exaggerated gestures—“and the RAIN fell, and the FLOODS came, and the WINDS blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it!”—and speaking in hilarious accents. I mean, if St. Francis really was “the mirror of Christ,” why wouldn’t He have done that? Never did a man speak with more searching substance. But I think what we’ve lost in the stifling sobrieties of translation and religion is a sense of how funny, how warm, how human He could be.

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