A reflection on St Francis' version of courage.
I recently reconnected with an old friend; someone who I hadn’t seen in fourteen years.
I happened upon her facebook profile which triggered a memory bank of laughter, singing and storytelling by firelight, during training weekends with a youth ministry team. I always enjoyed her company. This is the kind of woman whose intelligence triggered my imagination, whose honesty tickled my sense of humour and whose brokenness always gave blinding glory to God’s work in her life.
I shot her a message and invited her to an event that I thought just might be of interest to her.
She responded immediately, “Yes!” But she didn’t come and I forgot about it.
Maybe three weeks later, she contacted me again and let me know that she would be able to make it to my next gathering, and she did.
Later that evening we went for a walk, grabbed some takeaway, sat in a park and talked til midnight. I’d happened to have one of the hardest weeks of my life, which included the death of a dear friend. I was sitting in a well of grief, so I was so glad for her sparkling company, which reignited as if no time had passed at all. She still lights her next cigarette as the previous is simultaneously extinguished underfoot; she still talks at 100-mile an hour; she’s still funny and kind and deeply in touch with God’s Spirit, and within a few minutes we were into the soul-baring kind of talk that happens between two sisters who both like to get to the point.
“Heather”, she said, “I need to tell you something.”
“When you first contacted me, I was really angry and I’ve been freaking out. I even talked to my counsellor about it. I just thought, ‘I can’t see her again!’”
“Why?” I asked, bewildered, with my usual smile under raised eyebrows.
“Because … (she takes a drag) … because I am so jealous of you!!!”
“Whaaat? Oh my gosh, why? No, no, no, listen, I’m a mess, believe me! Just because my life looks good on facebook, or just because I have a beautiful family and I’m skinny and look happy in all the photos you’ve seen … I mean, God has blessed me in so many ways, but trust me, I’m just a normal, struggling mess some weeks.”
“Oh no, she says. It’s not that. It’s not about your family or anything, it’s … “
I interrupt … “Oh, so you’re still not so keen on marriage then? Whatever happened to becoming a nun by the way?” (I remembered that was on the cards at one stage)
She took a breath, “Well, ok, that’s a story I’ll tell, but first, let me get back to why I’m jealous of you ….”
“Ok.” I’m laughing at this point.
She pauses to flick her cigarette, turn her gaze to the stars and select the right words. “It’s because I’m so proud of you!! You have been so courageous. Look at what you’ve done since we were in our twenties!”
Suddenly I was air-lifted out of my bad week, into a birds-eye view of the past, present and future. Oh gosh! I’d forgotten.
Female envy is an insidious, pestful thing that dribbles its way into our dreams and sucks the motivation out of us. Envy at all, for men too I imagine, is a far bigger problem than we might think; maybe one of the deadliest sins of our times.
It was only a couple of weeks before this conversation with my old friend that I was talking with my Ministry Coach about how I find myself unable to shake an envy I feel towards women who have a different kind of life to me. She was in stitches of laughter on the other side of the Skype call, as I honestly described to her that, at the end of the day, I often fantasise about living a completely different life: one where I have four children and a house with a picket fence and I bake cakes for the school fete, and in this fantasy, everyone approves of my choices and I am celebrated for being the kind of woman that I am. I would never lose a friend, or a brother or sister, for the sake of the Kingdom, in this lovely life. I would just make cakes. Baking and no more sermonising: that’s the life for me!
My Coach could barely look up as she intermittently apologised for laughing at me during a coaching session. Way to hear my confession! “And have you ever asked these women who live this life, what it’s really like for them?” She said. “I think you’d find the grass isn’t greener on the other side.”
Francis of Assisi has long been my hero in the faith. I’m studying his life for my doctoral thesis: the one which is the reason why I almost never bake these days. Francis was so driven to encounter intimacy with Christ that he lived a life of unmatched discipline in forsaking the temporary pleasures of this world, and embraced a life of poverty, chastity and humble service. He too, battled with envy; this insidious lie that a fantasy life, other than the one he was called to, would somehow provide a surer salvation. He famously immersed his naked body in the snow in an attempt to ‘sober up’ to the temptation to quit his calling, and while he was at it, he created snowmen to represent the wife and family he could otherwise have.
This is, admittedly, one of the stranger stories from his life …
“Showing [the snow mounds] to himself he spoke as if to another person: “Here, the larger one is your wife; these four over there are your two sons and two daughters; the other two are a servant and a maid who are needed to serve them. Hurry, then, and get them some clothes because they are freezing to death! But if the complicated care of them is annoying, then take care to serve one Master!” (Bonaventure’s Major Legend, V)
One way to deal with the devil is to mock him and poke fun at his lies. The ‘other’ life, the ‘other’ woman who has it ‘better’; who doesn’t really exist, is as real as a melting snowman. I’m guessing there’s a modern equivalent in psychoanalysis.
The point is, that as my reacquainted friend plated before me the courage that she saw in my life, I glimpsed the very key to envy reversal. It was true! I had been courageous.
This wasn’t a moment to reflect false humility, but to remember … ‘that’s right’!!! I remembered life in my early twenties, when the calling on my life was like the wick that wouldn’t smoulder, sitting under a bowl of fear. I was terrified of public speaking. I’d almost forgotten how God transitioned me from paralysing fear, to freedom to teach and preach, and yes, this is my greatest joy, and my calling!
My friend remembered the anxious twenty-year old me and she was honestly asking, ‘How did it get here, to this bold freedom?’
But it was a miraculous process. The old self is so dead I barely remember her, and yet, for years it was a case of just stepping out of the boat and reaching out to hold Jesus by the hand and begging Him not to let me drown in a sea of panic, as I stepped up to the metaphorical pulpit.
I got pretty splashed on at times, but He never let me drown. And it’s true; walking on water has become my new norm.
The antidote to the cake-making fantasy, that may as well be a strawman or a snowman, as the case may be … is courage.
Perhaps when we compare, when we covet, all we are really doing is distracting ourselves from the fear of stepping into our God-given dreams. We see the wind and the waves and we temporarily forget how beautiful His burning eyes, just waiting for us to turn and look at Him again.
Envy might be nothing more than our courage turned lazy; or our eyes averting His more marvellous light.
When Francis of Assisi’s God-given vision first rested on him, he was joined by a mere three brothers, which gradually built to twelve. They were a laughingstock to most and delinquent madmen in the eyes of many. By the time he died, the movement had spread to England, the Holy Land and across Europe and the brothers numbered over 10,000. Today they number close to 40,000, not including women and lay Franciscans. All of this was possible because Francis didn’t choose the snowman.
I am starting to understand that the moments that make history aren’t only the inspiring speeches and great acts of mercy, but the secret moments, where secret grief is poured out to the Heavenly Father as a quiet and nervous “yes” to God’s plan. With it, the alternative life, like a masquerading ghost, defeatedly leaves the room, and a peace begins to settle on the heart. Envy screams her last. Peace becomes the bedrock of our greatest and most courageous work, gifted to us, by the One who stops at nothing, to set us free.
By Heather Cetrangolo,
28 September 2020