In my post, "Why Journeys to Assisi", I mentioned that questions of attachment (material or otherwise) are very alive for me, as they were for St. Francis. Let us begin with an illustration from his life.
This scene is one of a series of frescoes adorning the upper church of the Basilica of St Francis, in Assisi, a highlight of our retreat. The frescoes are generally attributed to Giotto and represent stories from the life of Francis. You may see the entire fresco series here:
Depicted in this particular panel is the confrontation between Francis' father, Pietro Bernadone (pictured on the left in golden robes) and Francis, on the right, draped in the Bishop's cloak. Why is Francis naked? Because, in a dramatic display, he cast aside his clothes, and his filial relationship to his father, to renounce his former life and fully embrace his spiritual journey.
Later, having "married" Lady Poverty, Francis would gladly possess nothing, and would insist that his order shun ownership of property. Having witnessed the mercenary attitudes of the rising merchant class (of which his father was a prominent member), and the violence that they and the nobility would inflict on each other to preserve their respective privileges, Francis may have discerned that poverty could be a pathway to peace.
Said simply, whatever we own may eventually own us. And, when we are beholden, we donate our time and energy in fealty. We attempt to preserve, protect and defend. To maintain the status quo. Why is that problematic? For me, the answer is because life is not static; it is essentially about transition and transformation.
If I am to become a compassionate presence in the world, I could not do that as a self-hating gay man in a heterosexual marriage. And, yet I defended that role for years. If I am to accept responsibility for my actions and make amends for damage done, I cannot do that while pretending to be the victim. And, yet, my drinking allowed me to create and sustain the illusion of being wronged.
My fierce attachments to such mental constructs and destructive behaviors stunted my spiritual growth, and every other aspect of my life. Only when this became clear and untenable, could I stand naked in front of myself and surrender aspects of my former life. Only then could I come out and then, later, get sober.
This is an ongoing process for me. Seeing my attachments for what they are, and being willing to release them, is an exercise in courage and trust. Which is why I need the help and inspiration of others on this journey.
In 2010, during my second solo trip to Assisi, I was speaking with a small group who had gathered for fellowship. When asked, "Why are you here?", I could only say "because St. Francis won't leave me alone."
I had rented an apartment in town because I could not stay away. I didn't know what that meant, or what I was to do about it. Except, to show up.
A significant part of my spiritual journey has been to accept and express my unique embodiment of that energy which infuses all things. Some might call this my "soul print" or purpose. To respect that means, at least for me, to explore the things that call to me. To, as Rilke exhorted, "live the questions." Why Francis? Why me?
So, it came to me one night at dinner (yes, cliché, but nonetheless true), that I would create opportunities for others to join me in Assisi and live into their own questions. Thus, Journeys to Assisi was born.
And, Francis? His life, I found, illustrates many choices, struggles and questions that, though specific to his life and times, reflect universal themes that we explore together during this immersion retreat. And, since a wise friend reflected that you can't have Francis without Clare, her life is woven into our explorations.
Now, years later - having led 4 group retreats in Assisi, with the 5th this September - what have I learned? That my path is enlightened by the lives of Francis and Clare. That questions of attachment (material or otherwise) are very alive for me.
How is the question of attachment part of the stories of Francis and Clare? How is it part of my own? More in the next post...
How often have you heard in the rooms of recovery, "what you resist, persists"? Or, "If you spot it, you got it!"
No surprise, here. We often fight against the very things that we need to embrace in ourselves. Or, we project wildly onto others those aspects of ourselves that we would rather not acknowledge.
Here is where the wisdom of the 12-steps and that of St. Francis converge, once again, for me. When we see these aspects of self as dark, or hold them separate from our HP, healing is hard to come by.
When we invite HP in, through step work and prayer, it is possible to begin to embrace these aspects of ourselves. Then healing can begin.
“This is our vocation: to heal wounds, to bind what is broken, to bring home those who are lost.”
Pictured here, in this stunning mosaic, is Francis with a leper. Did he literally heal leprosy? His early followers testified to at least one such case. Whether fact or fancy, no doubt Francis’ presence and service to those who had been cast out from society may have healed their keen sense of separateness, unworthiness, shame.
Healing rarely happens in isolation. In fact, those of us in recovery know how crucial it is to move out of our own isolation and into the fellowship of others. It is here, from our first day, that we begin to heal. Through service to others, we help them do the same. Through our focus on others we lose our inordinate self-concern, which is healing of another kind.
So often, through fellowship, we find the “home” we need, and perhaps always wanted. And, from our new home, we reach out a hand to others who have lost their way, as we once had.
Talk about a realistic view of oneself. St. Francis never lost sight of his past, but that didn’t determine his future. His humility was rooted in the miracle of his transformation. And, we might say his transformation was facilitated by his humility.
His was a life marked by peeling away all that did not serve. And he served all along his way, not waiting to reach some perfect state.
For those in recovery, we know all too well where we’ve come from, which helps keep us suitably humble and teachable. We know how our past can serve as fruitful ground for our own transformation. And, we know that even on Day 1, something we say or do can be of service to others. “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.”
“Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
Attributed to St. Francis, who lived into the early 13th century, this quote may resonate quite deeply for 21st century people in recovery. How so?
Before entering recovery, our priorities steered clear from self-care, healthy relationships and keeping obligations – all the things that a rational person finds quite necessary. Instead, we drove headlong into unmanageable and self-indulgent behavior, abusing ourselves and others, leaving the road behind us strewn with wreckage.
Hence, especially in early recovery, the emphasis on putting ”first things first”. We get sober. We attend meetings, and work with a sponsor. We nurture ourselves back to physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. Some of us start seeing a doctor regularly, others begin a regular spiritual practice or learn to prepare healthy meals.
Once we do what is necessary to become healthy again, much more becomes possible. And, I dare say from my own experience, and from what I hear in the rooms, what we once declared “impossible” is somehow within our grasp.
“If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through…”
If you're interested in the Recovery Retreat in Assisi, next May 2019, please send me a private message. Thank you, Paul Kimmerling.
(This statue of a meditating St Francis is near the San Damiano convent, in Assisi. This historic complex is on our retreat itinerary.)