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 beautiful...like 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|
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.
His order had become so popular by this point that he had to cede control of the community to another friar. According to Ms Acocella, he had
hoped that he could still lead the men by example, but his influence quickly waned. This enraged him. ‘Who are these who have ripped my order and my brothers out of my hands?’ he shouted. Once, when he saw a new building that he thought the community had erected for itself, in disregard of the rule of poverty, he climbed up to the roof and began prying off the tiles and throwing them to the ground. Breaking with his earlier, gentle practice, he cursed people who opposed his ideas.
He withdrew from life and lived in horrible pain.
In the dirt cell that he insisted on occupying, he lay shivering with malaria, vomiting blood, his eyes oozing. Before, he rarely spoke of Hell or sin. He said he wanted people to repent, but that mostly meant loving thy neighbor. Now he scolded and cursed and talked of devils. He added two more stanzas to the ‘Canticle of Brother Sun,’ the final one in praise of Sister Death. He clearly wanted her to come, and, in 1226, when he was forty-four or forty-five, she did.
Of course this was a long time ago and some of this information may be distorted. But Francis was widely considered a saint in his lifetime, so we can assume that people who wrote about him weren’t trying to ruin his reputation with slander.
When we think happiness can only exist in a life without sadness or tragedy we are mistaken. Life is simultaneously tragic and beautiful and if we can hold that truth in our consciousness we can stay balanced no matter what happens.
I recently saw a Jean Renoir film, “The River,” about a British girl coming of age in India in the 1920’s (or so). Her neighbor was also a young woman, half British and half Indian, who was struggling with her identity—am I Indian or British? She was in love with a visiting American, who lost a leg in the war and was also struggling with his identity, but she held back—did she want to leave India behind? At one point the two were in conversation, both of them awkward and discontented as usual, when she burst out: “Consent! You are a one-legged man and I am a…Why do we quarrel with life?”
Most of us do this all of our life. We quarrel with what we have been given. “If only this wasn’t happening to me,” or “if only I were like her,” or “if only I had his talents,” or…What if we said “yes” to life? Yes to the tragedy and the beauty?