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.