In case you are still wondering, today is not Halloween. I am not wearing a costume of Friar Tuck. This is called a habit, the habit of a Franciscan friar. I received this 12 years ago when I entered the Order of Friars Minor.
Today we celebrate the Feast of St Francis. St John the Divine Episcopalian Cathedral in Manhattan usually has an extravagant ceremony of blessing of the animals. When we were planning today's worship, I casually suggested perhaps we could have an animal blessing also. Someone burst out in laughter saying , “ don't you think there are enough animals in the chapel already? ”
Indeed, a s the patron saint of ecology, St Francis is well known for his love for the creation. However that does not make all Franciscans vegetarian. Can you imagine a lean Friar Tuck ? To some Franciscans, including myself, vegetarianism is an expression of the Franciscan spirit. But to many, it is not. So what is the Franciscan spirit then? Believe it or not, we Franciscans actually have been fighting about it for the past 800 years, and that's why there are many different kinds of Franciscans, as identified by our various colors of habits: mine is brown, the Capuchins have creamy brown – yes the color of the coffee, Conventuals wear black, and the ecumenical friars wear gray. I suppose it is just like the multitude of Christian traditions: we all strive hard to discern and to define what that true original spirit is. Many people think it is the love for nature, some people think it is peace-making, some think it is prayer and penance (as this black and white copy of Caravaggio's St Francis shows). I can only share with you the version which I have received.
The selection of the scriptures point towards what I think are the two main themes in the Franciscan tradition: minority and fraternity. Minority is closely tied to being poor. Voluntary poverty is one of the three religious vows that we take. The second psalm that we just sang, Ps.16, beautifully expresses a theological reason why poverty is possible. “God, my allotted portion and my cup, you have made my destiny secure.” Not being American, my experience in this country for more than a year now has given me further insights about what it means to be minority. The idea that God is my portion has sustained me every time when I am overwhelmed by the poverty of familiarity and control.
Regarding fraternity, St Francis shares Christ's dream of brotherhood and sisterhood, which is rooted in identifying God as parent. Grounded in God's parenthood, a new family is possible. That's the Gospel message of Christ and that's the inspiration that captures Francis. It is such vision that moves Francis to be able to call all creation brothers and sisters. The opening hymn we sang a while ago is a rendition of that famous Canticle of the Sun that Francis wrote. In the original version, the sun, the moon, and even wind, fire, water, mother earth and even bodily death have all become brothers and sisters. Unfortunately the musical version we had this morning does not seem to express this brotherliness and sisterliness of creation. Francis is not your average romantic poet. Calling creation brother and sister is not a romantic spur of a moment but a fundamentally Christian act.
Besides the Canticle of the Sun, St Francis wrote the Rule in 1224 by which friars of the so-called First Order had to follow. The little prayer card that you received when you came in is a graphic representation of that Rule. The Rule is divided into 12 chapters, and the 12 friars shown represent an aspect of the rule. From the left hand side, the first friar is receiving a cord underneath the cross. The cord has three knots, represent the vows of obedience, poverty and chastity by which one follows Christ. Note that the cord is underneath the cross, symbolizing these religious vows are a way to imitate the same obedient, poor and chaste Christ . The second friar represents the minister who receive the novices into the fraternity. The third chapter is about prayer – represented by the singing friar. Singing is praying twice. Prayer is the soul of fraternity. With prayer, one finds strength to meet the challenges of life. But to tell the truth, celebrating together everyday several times a day is not as easy as it sounds, especially there are all sorts of personalities living together under the same roof .
The fourth friar donning an apron represents Chapter 4 of the rule which talks about work. The fifth friar who is naked hiding strategically at the back represents Chapter 5, which is on poverty. As a community, we own everything in common and we support each other by engaging in work. It is communism but it is voluntary.
The next three friars are shown here arm in arm to represent the next three chapters which are about different aspects of fraternal living , like taking care of the sick brothers and electing the minister . The ninth chapter is on preaching, hence the ninth friar is shown with his mouth wide open and arms outstretched. However, w e do believe fratern al living itself can itself be preaching, even stronger than preaching with words. The tenth friar, that's the one who looks shorter than average, actually he is kneeling down. The kneeling position with arms outstretched, head lowered is a sign of humility. Chapter ten in the rule of St Francis is about an instance often occurs in community living: i.e. fraternal correction. Indeed it requires great humility both on the part of the one who gives and the one who receives fraternal correction. The penultimate friar, the second one on the right hand side, has his arms crossed. This is a sign of chastity. The final friar holds a globe in his hand because the last chapter in the Rule of St Francis speaks about missions to the world. Indeed, the Franciscan ideal is the building of fraternity among humankind, if not among all creatures. Hence the importance of peace making. Although the so-called St Francis Peace Prayer is not written by him, it does capture that his vision of peace which is only possible with the spirit of fraternity.
This card was painted last year when I first came to YDS. Being far away from my community in Hong Kong , I felt miserably lonely. Making this card was a way for me to express my yearning for fraternity. I would never have expected that I could miss the friars whom I constantly quarrel and fight with! As I ache for not being able to with my own friars, I have learnt to be brotherly to those around me.
Fraternity is a kind of family but it is not a normal family. A family starts with a romantic love between two persons. I can assure you – with my 12 years of experience as a friar, t here is absolutely no love of any roman tic sort a mong the friars . Ironically, the fraternity is b ased on our love for Christ. So after all our fighting and quarreling, we talk things over, we try to understand and we forgive. My favourite line in the rule goes like this: “W hen friars are together, let them show they are members of the same family. ” I think St Francis got this idea fro St Paul : As we heard from the reading today: we are members of the same household. As Christians, aren't we all members of the same household? We may not be members of the same order, but we are members of the same household. If Franciscans or Christians cannot be members of the same household, any animal blessing would not only create a mess in the chapel but also betray the Gospel.