St. Francis and the Romance of Orthodoxy
Lawrence Summers, former Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton and Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, recently wrote a brief, but pointed, comment about the ills of the modern age:
“There is some social phenomenon which I suspect explains non-work, non-marriage, deaths of despair, general alienation and, I suspect, the rise of reactionary populism. It should be a major task of social science to understand it.”
One is tempted to make a wry comment that, rather than consult the social scientists, Summers might do better to consult a solid Catholic theologian who would have little trouble explaining the causes for social and individual dysfunction in our modern world.
The modern sense of ennui, boredom, and hopelessness in our modern world is hardly new. One cannot help but think of the French existentialists of the mid-20th century who generally held life to be without any meaning, value, or purpose. Jean Paul Sartre spoke of what he called the “nausea” of existence. Albert Camus, his contemporary, suggested, in apparent seriousness, that the only serious philosophical question was whether or not one ought to commit suicide. Further back, one might look to the nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose nihilistic philosophy convinced him that with the death of God, we would have to become gods ourselves.
Modern hopelessness is merely the successor of these thinkers. Despair, alienation, failure to marry, raise a family or work, all attest to the unhappiness of modern man. One sees hopelessness manifest in other ways as well: increasing drug usage and abuse, the push to legalize marijuana and rebrand it (falsely) as harmless, the push to legalize prostitution and assisted suicide, and countless other social ills. What is so stunning is that all these signs of hopelessness and despair come at a time when we consider our modern world to be the most prosperous era in history, with comforts, conveniences, and cures, of which our ancestors (and even other societies today) could have scarcely dreamed.
Mother Teresa stunned many when she called America the poorest country she had ever seen, but she was right. And it doesn’t take a social scientist or theologian to see it.
The contrast between the isolation, loneliness, ennui, and despair of a wealthy, modern, comfortable world and the utter joy, romance, poverty, and self-denial of St. Francis of Assisi is striking. The modern world is so in love with the false St. Francis of its own imagination–the nature worshiping hippy–that it often forgets the real St. Francis. The modern world is so deluded by its own false ideas of happiness that it cannot perceive the truth, the joy, the romance in the humble, materially poor life that St. Francis lived.
The real St. Francis of Assisi gives the lie to our modern world. To a world that insists it always needs the latest product, a new iPhone every year, St. Francis gives the example of a man who rejected ordinary material comforts of life to live as a beggar. His father was a wealthy merchant, but Francis wanted no part of that wealth or comfort. To a world that sees life as boredom, St. Francis retained a childlike wonder at the world, at what he called Brother Sun, Sister moon, Sister Wind and Brother Fire. How could they not be his siblings? Did they not have the same creator? Even death, the death of which modern man seems so terrified, was to Francis a sister.
Where modern man sees life as a dreary, boring, slog, and desperately searches for distractions, drugs, and entertainments, St. Francis saw life as an adventure and a quest. He wished to travel all over the world, throughout Europe, to the Muslims, calling men to share in his joy and his faith.
Life to St. Francis was a romance; G.K. Chesterton would later call that romance “the romance of orthodoxy”,, for it was the romance of the true faith. What is more, Francis found that quest and adventure and romance precisely in the things that the modern world shuns. He found it in penance, extreme poverty and self-mortification, the rejection of comfort, and the joyful acceptance of the Cross.
Against a world that desperately tries to avoid suffering, even suffering brief moments of boredom, St. Francis describes true joy as extreme suffering for the love of Christ.
He was not alone: large numbers of brothers joined him on his quest throughout Europe. They chose the life of poverty and preaching, calling all men to penance and to a life of virtue. The poverty of the Franciscans left them richer than all the wealth of the modern world. All the wealth of the modern world leaves us poorer than the extreme poverty of St. Francis, who sought treasures divine rather than temporal. For the latter has not made us happy.
Summers was wrong. We don’t need a social scientist to explain modern ennui and despair. St. Francis himself could have told us. He still can if only we let him. He found his joy in the Gospel, in following a God Who had become man and Who infused the whole universe with meaning, value, and purpose. How could one be bored at the world? For him, the world itself was a sign of the very love of God. How could one not choose hope over despair? One followed a Captain who himself faced the worst that evil could do, hung on the cross, and passed through death for the salvation of man.
St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us.
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