Earlier this week I recorded a film from 1961, Francis of Assisi, directed by the great Michael Curtiz and starring Bradford Dillman as Francis, along with Franco Zeffirelli’s 1972 “hippie” version of the St. Francis story, Brother Sun Sister Moon with music by Donovan. Last night on PBS I watched a documentary about Francis traveling to Egypt where he met with the Sultan of Egypt while trying to bring peace to the Crusades. I guess you might call it a St. Francis binge.
Sunday night, TCM Imports aired The Flowers of St. Francis, a 1950 effort by Roberto Rossellini. The script was a collaboration between Rossellini and Federico Fellini based on “The Little Flowers of St. Francis,” a text from the 14th century. The cast was made up of real Franciscan monks, including the man who played the future saint.
There is a scene where Brother Francis and Brother Leone are walking through the countryside. Francis tells his companion of the many things that do not bring perfect happiness, such as restoring sight to the blind, healing the crippled, casting out demons, converting heretics…
Frustrated, Brother Leone stops and says, “Please, Brother, where does perfect happiness reside?” But Francis does not answer him. Instead, he leads Brother Leone to a house and they ask the man who lives there for alms. He refuses. The friars persist and the man beats them with a club. When the incident is over, Francis turns to Brother Leone and says,
“O Brother Leone, lamb of our good Lord, now that we’ve borne all this for the love of our blessed Christ, know that in this resides perfect happiness. Because above all the gifts Christ bestows on his servants is the gift of triumphing over ourselves and bearing every evil deed out of love for him. In this alone lies perfect happiness.”
For St. Francis, personal transformation is a gift. The present of happiness that we have always had but never opened. Winning over our faults, our weaknesses, bad habits, prejudices, fears – making better people out of ourselves, the opportunity is a very precious gift.
Bearing every evil deed doesn’t mean to go out and search for them, but to willingly bear suffering when it comes. Francis thought like this out of his love for God but he also loved nature and its creatures and he loved people. He taught that we are all brothers and sisters, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon and Brother Wind, all together in the unity of existence. He practiced poverty, giving away all material possession, and spiritual poverty in that he surrendered his entire life to God. Gave over everything so that all he had in life was his robe and his relationship with the Lord. In living simply and altruistically like this, Francis reminds me of the bodhisattva and the Taoist sage.
Religion doesn’t matter. This message is universal. We should engrave it on our hearts, as we open our hearts to compassion to all.
This is the Way.
There is no other.