Thursday, February 7, 2013

Simultaneously Tragic and Beautiful

Recently I got an email from a friend who had just spent some time with her ex-husband. She wrote: “That whole energy seems so...odd to me now....and it's simultaneously tragic and life, I guess.” [I didn’t cut anything out; that’s how she writes.]
Simultaneously tragic and beautiful. Yes! Lately I have been seeing how everyone’s life has some tragedy or sadness in it. I’ve met a lot of people in the last six months and everyone seems to have some sad story to tell. Many are recently divorced, another’s foreign wife took his children to her country when the kids were 5 and 7 and he’s never seen them since, a couple others have children in jail or addicted to drugs, another found out the woman she thought was her mother wasn’t…
Most of us operate under the illusion that there are people who don’t suffer. We think there are people who really have their act together and don’t have the problems we do.
The news that Mother Teresa lived with depression for years shocked me, and I imagine, most people. We think someone with that kind of spiritual dedication should be beyond the sufferings of ordinary people like us.
St. Francis of Assisi is one of the best-known saints of the Catholic Church, widely admired today for his humble embrace of poverty and his peaceful attitude towards nature. Statues of St. Francis are ubiquitous in gardens. Here was a golden life, without tragedy, right?
St. Francis with Sultan al-Kamil
Wikimedia Commons
A review of two new biographies of St. Francis of Assisi in the New Yorker reveals the tragedy in the saint’s life. [“Rich Man, Poor Man: The Radical Visions of St. Francis,” by Joan Acocella, New Yorker Jan 14, 2013] Francis was from a wealthy family, and when he was about twenty-one, in 1202, he went to war. His side lost and he spent a year in prison. When he came out he was changed; he was no longer interested in partying with his friends, but spent entire days praying.
By 1206 he had renounced his inheritance and gained two followers. He believed that property aroused envy and conflict and was, Ms. Acocella writes, “the one thing most destructive to peace in the world…To be part of the [Franciscan] group, a man had to sell all his goods, give the money to the poor, and, like Francis, sever all ties with his family.”
In ten years his order of friars became incredibly popular, and grew to number in the thousands. Francis began sending friars to France, Germany, Hungary, Spain, and the Middle East.
St. Francis went to Egypt in 1219 to try and convert the Sultan of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine to Christianity in order to end the Crusades. He returned (the Sultan didn’t convert) with malaria and trachoma, a painful eye infection. He was also vomiting blood. During the last six years of his life he suffered tremendously from the pain of his physical ailments.