St Francis In Brooklyn

January 17, 2015

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Given the intellectual and spiritual brutality of the world we have created, given the shocking and devastating success of those who have locked us into a culture in which we are constantly reminded that the most sacrosanct human attribute is efficiency and the loftiest goal is the accumulation of money and power over others; given the logical and inevitable immiseration of the overwhelming percentage of people in an economy designed to move wealth and all decision making power upwards to fewer and fewer hands; given a world in which most of us are economically strangled, all of us politically abandoned, in which surveillance is increasingly a norm and data is divine, given all this, it is extraordinarily easy to fall into depression or despair or something worse, namely surrender.

To be frank, I struggle with to one degree or another with depression and despair just about daily these days. Just as frankly, I don’t trust the judgment of anyone who doesn’t.

The weight and the ways of the world we have created press down on us, invades us, informs us, twists us, and degrades us and our children in ways that would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago, partly because the technology needed to do so had yet to be invented or mass marketed. Party because the world is a far crueler place than it was twenty years ago. We have been changed and not for the better. The rise of the internet and the global triumph and consolidation of far right politics (regardless of the party or fig leaf) is not an accident. The promise of the “information highway” as emancipation has, as yet, proved false if not out right farcical. It has proved highly efficient, however, in sending out the same message — if you are not rich, famous, or powerful, you are as nothing — in an infinite variety of forms.

With all this, when I read about the exhibition relating to St. Francis of Assisi being held in Brooklyn, I knew I had to go. When I was a child a devout aunt read to me from The Book of Saints and no saint (not even my namesake who rid the Emerald Isle of snakes) touched my childhood soul more deeply and hauntingly than St Francis. He was a rich kid who saw past his time into another place, giving away all to dedicate his life to the poor. He was an environmentalist 700 years before the words passed the lips of man, a communist 500 years before Marx moved past Hegel. He was a poet and madman and a spirit.
He was a beautiful and sublime reminder of the presence of the Other, the World Elsewhere, the divine spark.

I went to Brooklyn and I looked and, in glimpses, I saw. There in the silent room, were 12th and 13th century Bibles and breviaries and manuscripts from Assisi. There was a gigantic version of what we would call a songbook. There was a version of Francis’ lovely Canticle of the Sun. Above all, there was in every page a silent rebuke to the radically degenerate and brutal vision of human existence we abide and in which we are incubating our children.

And there was something else: something that the ruthless cunning and vulgarity of the world we have created is constantly threatening to expiate or extinguish. There in those works was a physical reminder of spiritual transcendence.

There in those works were reminders that the same spark, wanted and unwanted, horrific and all comforting, forever calling, forever present forever, that had ignited Francis had ignited Buddha and Rumi and Teresa of Avila and William Blake and Mother Jones and Dorothy Day and Allen Ginsberg and Daniel Berrigan and Abraham Heschel and Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King and compelled and propelled them to do what they did. Each in their way saw past the vulgarity and brutality of the world into a higher reality and acted at whatever cost to bring that higher state into being. Each knew that political change could never occur without spiritual change and that a spiritual change that did not reject a culture of exploitation and domination was a lie. Each knew that one has to be simultaneously transcendent and rooted. Each knew that such is a perpetual struggle, but the only struggle worth struggling for.

I stood in the room with those manuscripts for a long time acknowledging that the same spark lay also in me, equally wanted and unwanted, horrific and all comforting, forever calling, forever present, forever and with it the same choices and responsibilities.

I walked out of that room far into a cold January evening, far, very far, from where I wanted to be, but far more alive then when I had entered. And I knew somehow that the spirit of Francis had reached out across the ages and past my fears and touched me.

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14 Responses to “St Francis In Brooklyn”

  1. Maura Says:

    As a public school teacher and an Irish Catholic, I often feel that you spare me the trouble of blogging because you do such a good job speaking my mind. This piece was an important reminder that all hope is not lost and we are not crazy, despite the fact that we have every right to be. I forwarded this to my mom, my siblings, my daughter and some friends. Thank you for so many days, but especially today.

  2. Sean Crowley Says:

    Thanks for this Paddy. I think we’ve shared plenty of outrage and disdain for a few of the paper tiger radicals we see running loose angling for book deals and spots on Chris Hayes’ show. But Francis is the real thing. I have always been in awe of his example and the way he simply walked away from ease and wealth and waded into the spiritual struggle. Maybe this is who I need to keep in mind when the day comes that I say No I am not administering these tests, I am not grading these tests and I plan to do everything in my power to interfere with your ability to inflict these tests on any of my students. Maybe that day will never come but for what does come and I rather feel I am edging closer to official scrutiny of some of my blogging efforts these days I want to be able to stand in and follow these footsteps. Coming the day before we celebrate MLK’s birthday too. Well done l
    lad. Tiocfaidh ár lá

    • patrickwalsh Says:

      Thank you so much Sean. We all face serious decisions these days and we need as much spiritual strength as we can muster. Abrazo fuerte por todos!


  3. If one is not depressed or alarmed, one has not been paying attention.

  4. Harris L. Says:

    As you know, I’m a Quaker and one of the archaisms we occasionally still use is “friend, you speak my mind.” I’ve been laboring under a sense of dread about many things public (not so much private though all things public eventually affect those things private), particularly those things that we fight for in common but also the war and violence that has always been the curse of humankind but which somehow feels harder to bear as I get older. Finally, the sense that so much is going wrong that I, one person, can not undo and will bequeath to my nephew;s generation with an apology and a blessing to fix or endure.

    I will make the trek to Brooklyn for that moment of calm and introspection which so rarely is allowed us these days. I, at least, am retired, and can shelter myself a bit from the kind of days that you and my friends who still teach face every day. I am very grateful for that. Another archaism that we Quakers use is “I keep you in the light” and that I certainly do.


  5. An extraordinary piece – thank you for sharing your despair (which I share) and your moment of transcendence (which I long for as well.) You have reminded me the divine is in reach, if only I will look up from burdens and despair to touch it.

  6. ellen kealey Says:

    Lovely piece. Is the devout aunt Ellen?

  7. Amy Phillips Says:

    This is the truth! (To quote Edith Stein after she read the autobiography of Teresa of Avila)


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