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St. Francis, Women Mystics & the Question of Suffering

Holy Fast, Holy FeastToday as I was finishing up my sculpture, I started thinking about how we choose to serve humankind and the Divine. It seemed very clear to me that it is a choice. The choice that I have lived with most of my life is to serve through suffering. But this is not the choice I make now. I’ll explain using the example of medieval women mystics.

The wonderful scholar, Caroline Walker Bynum, has written extensively on medieval women mystics. Her books Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics)
and Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Ucla)
changed my life because they helped me identify the path that I had been unconsciously taking. Bynum talks of medieval religious women who cultivated suffering. They rolled in glass and starved themselves to name just a couple of the physical punishments indulged in. It was part of the mystical path of Imitatio Christi. In the medieval period life was extremely hard. There wasn’t much you could do to mitigate suffering. So these mystics embraced suffering and gave it meaning. As Christ suffered on the cross to redeem and heal humanity, so the women would inflict pain and suffering upon themselves believing that through their own suffering humanity would be healed.

I think, however, here is a major difference between what Jesus underwent, and what these women mystics underwent. His suffering was God-given. He did not seek it out; he only followed the path that had been laid for him. The medieval mystics, on the other hand put their own will into the matter. They constructed the idea of Imitatio Christi. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I adore these women and their writings. I only wonder how God might have appeared and how they might have served without exercising their will. St. Francis is interesting because he also practiced Imitatio Christi. He cultivated suffering, but he also accepted God-given suffering in his early illness and through receiving the stigmata later in life.St. Francis receives the Stigmata

I realized while I was sculpting today is that for along time I carried this idea that I had to suffer to serve God. I am not just talking physically either. I was not comfortable with joy and at ease with the calm passage of time. Some how it felt selfish and wrong to be happy when there was so much work to be done to heal the world. But now, this seems incredible hubris to me. I realized that I have released the need to suffer and I chose to serve God and humanity through light rather than through the darkness of suffering. Sculpting today I felt the light and was grateful.

You can have an illness and not suffer. For me this is one of the main lessons of St. Francis’ life. His stigmata smelled of roses.

Jewish Mysticism & The Veil of Pain

Man is too weak to accept or absorb divine love, which is absolute. For that reason, and that reason alone, does God cover it with the veil that is pain. – Rebbe Zusia (pg. 113)

I’ve been continuing my rereading of Lex Hixon’s writings. This quote is from an essay entitled The Landscape that Laughsin Coming Home: The Experience of Enlightenment in Sacred Traditions by Lex Hixon
about 18th century Jewish mystics. It’s wonderful if you ever have chance to read it.

The concept of pain as a veil to God’s light is extraordinary. The whole world is veil to shield us from the intensity of God’s light, but in this essay Hixon explain something amazing:

Zusia speaks of our suffering or pain as a Divine veil but suffering also removes the human veils by which we have obscured the Divine Life living through us. The soul master accepts suffering to unveil the intrinsic freedom of the soul. (p. 114)

There are two actions working here: humans protecting themselves from the Divine and the Divine protection of humans. Humanity resists Divinity out of fear. We refuse to follow Divine guidance; we act without honor; we choose smallness over change. Those actions are the veils we create to resist the chaos of Divine Reason. Hixon explains through Rebbe Zusia that the painful experiences in our lives act in a two fold way to clear away our internal blocks to God while still protecting us from complete annihilation in the brilliance of the God Head.

I see the beauty and truth in his point. In my own life pain has transformed me, made me softer, more open, more able to love & to create art. But I do quarrel with his terminology here. He uses pain & suffering almost interchangeably. To me, these are quite different terms. Pain is the nature of the human condition. I do not believe suffering is, suffering can be transcended through acceptance of pain. It is resistance which causes suffering. Suffering is a human veil. Pain is a Divine veil.

What St. Francis Tells the Artist

There is a 14th century manuscript included in Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (The Classics of Western Spirituality), which describe what St. Francis considers “perfect joy”. I can’t tell you how much this story has helped me. I’ve paraphrased it here:

Brother Leo asks St. Francis, “What is perfect joy?” St. Francis replies listing the things that would logically bring him great happiness: If all the masters in Paris join my order, it would not be perfect joy. Or if all the masters in Europe, and the King of France joined the order, that would not be perfect joy. And if all the non-believers in the world were converted and I had the grace from God to heal all sickness, that would not be true joy.

(Okay, so what would it be? Get ready!)

“I return from Perugia and arrive here in the dead of the night and it is winter time, muddy and so cold that icicles have formed on the edges of my habit and keep striking my legs, and blood flows from the wounds. And all covered with mud and cold, I come to the gate and after I have knocked and called for some time, a brother comes and asks: “Who are you?” I answer: “Brother Francis.” And he says: “Go away; this is not a proper hour for going about; you may not come in.” And when I insist, he answers: “Go away, you are a simple and a stupid person; we are so many and we have no need of you. You are certainly not coming to us at this hour!” And I stand again at the door and say: “For the love of God, take me in tonight!” And he answers: “I will not. Go to the Croisers’ place and ask there.” I tell you this: If I had patience and did not become upset, there would be true joy in this…” (p.165-6)

It is this passage that inspired me to make an altar of St Francis’ feet. How can seeming misery be joy? Illness and wounds, whether physical or metaphorical, can bring enormous suffering. Our experiences of pain are mirrored for us by St. Francis’ stigmata. On my altar I planted the aloe vera plants in his stigmata to show that our wounds can bring healing to our lives. But this, St. Francis counsels us, is only possible through acceptance not struggle. It is struggle that produces suffering, and acceptance which produces joy. There are, in fact, things that happen in each life that can not be changed and which seem completely unacceptable, things like severe illness, disfiguration or scars, & the death of a loved one to name a few. St. Francis shows us that there can be happiness, even joy in the face of these terrible events and from that healing. Pain & joy are not mutually exclusive emotions and healing depends on the coexistence of the two.

I mention this only because it is so easy to be thrown by the events of life and to forgo making art. But art is life blood to an artist and we must learn not to be crippled in the face of great obstacles rather we must create.