A Very Different Francis on a Christmas Long Ago
A Brief Meditation on the Messages of the Crèche and Modernity
(The Remnant, December 15, 2015.)
Catharists were one important branch of the rather large philosophical and theological “family” known as Gnostics. Their most famous twelfth and thirteenth century representatives were the people from southern France whom we call Albigensians, a name taken from the city of Albi, northeast of Toulouse. But Catharists of the High Middle Ages were very, very powerful in Italy as well, including the northern reaches of the provinces of Lazio and Umbria, lands central to the life and labors of the namesake of the current pontiff: St. Francis of Assisi (c.1182—1226).
Like Gnostics of all varieties, the Catharists loathed the physical Creation, which they considered to be intrinsically evil. They considered human bodies to be the most disgusting of nature’s many reprehensible elements, reviling and spitting at the pregnant women that they passed on the street for serving as the vile conduits of such corruption. No wonder, then, that the Catharists figure prominently in the history of the development of birth control methods. And it is even less of a surprise that they could not stomach Christmas.
Still, Catharists were heirs to a long Gnostic tradition of slithering slowly into their victims’ psyche. This meant that they did not like to attack the writings and beliefs of a target people directly, preferring to “deconstruct” the existing order of things and gradually seduce men and women into their detestation of nature. Hence, Catharists tried to promote an understanding of Jesus Christ that encouraged thinking of His body as something that was somehow more apparent then real; something intangibly “spiritual”, “mystical”, and distinctly non-physical. His real birth as a real child with a totally real body would validate not just human flesh but the material Creation that He needed to use in order to live in general.
St. Francis of Assisi knew what they were up to. We possess a number of accounts of his sallies against these heretical haters of mankind, who realized all too well that the Poverello was their mortal and all too effective enemy. (See Malcom Lambert, The Cathars, Blackwell, 1998, pp. 171-174). One of Francis’ initiatives, so successful that I do not know of any open attempt of the Catharists to respond to it, was the restoration in 1223 at Greccio, in northern Lazio, of a long forgotten Christmas symbol: the crèche. The following description of the event, excerpted from chapter fifteen of Frank M. Rega’s St. Francis and the Conversion of the Muslims (Tan, 2008), and relying heavily on contemporary sources, is highly useful to the unfortunate comparison that I will then have to make with the present:
“Less than a month after the papal approval of the Regula Bullata [the Rule for the Order of Friars Minor], Francis arrived at the brothers’ hermitage in the little town of Greccio – a community in the vicinity of Rieti, located about halfway between Assisi and Rome. It was now December, and Francis had long been nurturing a heartfelt desire to celebrate Christmas in a wonderful new manner. He wanted others to share his own inner joy and exaltation at what for him was the most important feast of the year, since our salvation was heralded by the birth of Christ. He conceived of a simple way to awaken everyone’s love and admiration of the Christ Child, especially those who were weak in the Faith.
His plan was to have Christmas Midnight Mass celebrated in the presence of a realistic representation of the humble grotto of Bethlehem, complete with live animals. ‘For I wish to do something that will recall to memory the little Child who was born in Bethlehem and set before our bodily eyes in some way the inconveniences of his infant needs . . .’ According to St. Bonaventure, he even obtained the approval of Pope Honorius, so that he would not be accused of willfully introducing novelty into the sacred ceremonies.
Francis had arranged beforehand to have his friend, the nobleman Giovanni Velita, make the necessary preparations and help spread word of the event. A little manger or crib was set up in the woods near the hermitage, filled with the common, coarse hay that beasts of burden feed upon. An ox and an ass were then led to the place. Some later embellishments of the story maintain that figures of Mary and Joseph were also positioned about the manger. Francis was delighted to see everything ordered as he had wished. To the Poverello, ‘The sight of the crèche [manger scene] in its glorious simplicity was a symbol of the advent of lowliness, the exaltation of poverty, the praise of humility.’
A host of brothers from near and afar descended upon Greccio, arriving from numerous friaries and villages. They joined with the crowds of local residents, field workers, and shepherds; all were drawn towards the manger where Francis knelt. The candles and torches of the onlookers brightened up the crisp night, reflecting their glow upon a light snow that had begun to fall. The sound of hymns echoed in the hollows and woodlands. Men and beasts and even nature itself radiated great joy on that special Christmas Eve – it was truly the feast of hearts. ‘The woods rang with the voices of the crowd and the rocks made answer to their jubilation.’
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was celebrated at midnight with great solemnity, using an altar that had been erected over the manger. Francis, vested in his Deacon’s robes, sang the Gospel in a voice characterized by Celano as sweet, clear, strong and sonorous.
He preached a touching sermon, describing the first Christmas and the humble surroundings of Mary and Joseph at the nativity of Son of God, whom he lovingly referred to as the Child of Bethlehem. During the ceremony, Giovanni Vileta experienced a vision in which he saw a babe lying in the crib, rapt in a slumber so deep that he appeared lifeless. Then he saw St. Francis approach and take the child in his arms, rousing him from his sleep. For his biographer Celano, this vision aptly symbolized the mission of the saint: ‘ . . . for the Child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of many; but, by the working of his grace, he was brought to life again though his servant St. Francis and stamped upon their fervent memory.’
The after-glow from that evening of devotion was manifested throughout the area in the days that followed. Many miraculous healings occurred among the sick, who were prayed over and touched with some of the hay that had lain in the sacred manger. Even infirm animals that were given the stalks of that hallowed grass for their food were restored to health.” (www.thepoverello.com/StFrancisChristmas.htm)
All of this was effectively anti-Catharist because of its Christ-centered focus. Francis emphasized the reality not only of the Savior’s body, but His body in its most helpless, childlike state. He called attention to the Nativity in conjunction with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, indicating priestly ability to transform bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ to provide the food that men and women need to gain eternal life with God, and in their own resurrected bodies. The Poverello presents this teaching in a natural setting so touched by God that the hay of the manger itself became a conduit for divine assistance, and “even infirm animals that were given the stalks of that hallowed grass for their food were restored to health”. No self-respecting Catharist could have anything to do with this crèche and its consequences whatsoever. That was one of the major grounds—if not, perhaps, the chief ground, given the influence of the haters of mankind in the region--- why St. Francis restored its use. The population got the message, and the Gnostic game was up---at least for the moment.
Let us remember that the chief pastoral reason why St. Francis was anti-Catharist was because their heretical insistence upon the complete and intrinsic evil of Creation diverted believers away from the help they desperately needed from the Incarnate Word and the sacraments that the entry of the supernatural into daily life provided. This help was required to deal with the grave flaws and insufficiencies of a nature fallen from its original state due to sin. Nature’s glories had to be celebrated so as to enable men to become conscious both of nature’s loss, as well as the unfathomable possibility, through resort to supernatural truths and grace presented with the aid of nature, to enter into union with the Eternal God. Behind all of Francis’ work is the recognition that nature could only possess---and surpass—the glory the Creator had initially intended for it by submitting itself to an indispensable correction and transformation in a Christ divine as well as human. With the baby who is also the Word of God as his guide, St. Francis’ pilgrimage to Eternity was one wherein nature as a whole accompanied him upwards with “the music of the spheres”.
“Thud” is the only musical tone that accompanies the pastoral approach offered Catholics and the world at large in Christmastide, 2015 under the reign of a pope who took his name from Francis. That “thud” is the sound that emerges from men’s minds and hearts plunging downwards from St. Francis’s effort to understand and celebrate nature by looking at it through the Word made flesh. “Thud” is the sound of the slamming of our minds and hearts into the flesh of a Creation that wants to know nothing of its sinful rejection of God’s original plan for it, or what it is that it can know and do to lift itself out of the pathetic, parochial, debasing, and blinding consequences of the Fall. “Thud, and again I say unto you, thud” is the ultimate pastoral message of a pontificate that wants to go with the flow of the Zeitgeist rather than stand above it. “Restore all things in fallen nature” could readily serve as the official motto of the Roman Catholic Church today. And the “mercy” offered by the ecclesiastical authorities under these circumstances comes at the expense of dumping a thick, wet blanket over all of nature’s healthy characteristics and tendencies---whose cultivation is treated as though it were an arrogant reproach to the poor suffering vices they would uncharitably help to repress.
The consequences of Christmas, 2015’s truly anti-Poverello, pastoral “thud” are legion, but there is only one umbrella-like result that I wish to underline in this brief meditation here and now: its encouragement of the entire mesh of seemingly contradictory---and stark raving mad---errors that have all been in bed with one another in their production of that caricature of a civilization that we call “modernity”. For the earthwards fall of those seeking to “restore all things in fallen nature” has a centuries-long history whose fundamental theme has remained unchangeable under a variety of only superficially different stimuli.
Every one of the stimuli constituting modernity involves some form or another of rejection of nature’s need to learn and work together with the Revelation and Grace brought to us by the baby in the crèche. Some of these stimuli built this rejection out of a tragic overestimation of nature’s autonomous value that itself emerged from the Christian exaltation of the value of all of the “Seeds of the Logos” to be found throughout Creation. Some rejected it out of a tragic underestimation of nature’s ability to bear any connection with things godly after the devastating effects of Original Sin; out of a kind of semi-Catharism. The first set of stimuli moved from the Renaissance through certain forms of the Enlightenment down to the present; the second, from medieval Nominalism through Protestantism and other forms of the Enlightenment into our own times. Both denied that mixing of things supernatural and natural that demands our paying homage to the Christ child and His Kingship over Seeds of the Logos that are as dependent upon His aid as they are intrinsically valuable. And both ultimately leave man with the same guide to daily practical action: his own unchained will and the manifold bizarre pathways down which this can direct him.
Modernity’s Original Sin has been that of viewing man as an isolated individual “freed” from the spell of the crèche; “free” to use his will to obtain a power over the universe that is viewed either positively, as something that will enable him to achieve undreamed of heights, or negatively, as something necessary to cultivate to protect himself from the ravages of the other depraved and willful monsters that surround him. Some men have used this autonomous modern “freedom” ironically, to invent willful machine-like explanations of the universe that enslave him to impersonal forces, and even more inescapably than they ever were enslaved beforehand. Others have used it in more immediately obvious ways, to oppress the weak to the strong, and bind everyman to his most dominant personal material passion---whatever that might be. All, together, have ripped the order of nature to shreds in the name of their “freedom” to think insane thoughts and perform insane actions, indifferent to the dictates of universal laws of Faith and Reason. Everyone demanding “freedom” for his own pet passion has helped the cause of those insisting upon other, perhaps totally conflicting “liberties”. But many who have the word “freedom” constantly on their lips have kept it there precisely because they know that they possess the will, the guile, and the power to manipulate whatever its use might be to their own personal advantage.
Pope Francis’ pastoral concerns in this Christmas, 2015, as during his whole pontificate to date, have been centered on “mercy” for those campaigning for various marital and sexual “freedoms”, on “freedom” for the environment from the ravages of the human hand, and for “freedom” of the poor from the exploitation of the rich. This latter concern has caused many people to label him a communist pure and simple, and for those obsessed with communism to associate his sexual and environmental activism with his general Marxist tendencies.
I categorically reject the idea that the pope is a communist. Moreover, his pastoral program is not flawed because of a concern for “mercy” as such. Quite frankly, I also believe that we are facing a great environmental crisis, and that this is connected with the naturalist Enlightenment and an Industrial Revolution whose wretched environmental consequences Catholics were among the first who were active in lamenting. Moreover, I also am convinced that we have a global, neo-liberal, unchained free market inspired disaster on our hands that is ensuring a massive exploitation of the poor by the rich in the developed lands as well as in the Third World.
The problem with the pope’s message in Christmastide, 2015 is that he is singing the modern song of “thud”. He is calling, in practice, for the need for a “correction” and “transformation” of Catholic doctrine to aid in the “restoration of all things” not in Christ but “in fallen nature”. He is not telling us to pay homage to the child in the crèche and accept His corrective and transforming Social Kingship. He is not speaking in a Christ-centered fashion.
Hence, his “mercy” will ensure carte blanche for marital and sexual chaos; his environmentalism not only favors pagan naturalism and the validation of spiritual, film, and think-tank gurus of a simultaneously most dangerous and painfully lame taste, but also institutions like the World Bank that manipulate it for the profit of the global elite; his “humble” concern for the “poor” ends in a series of pointless gestures that every bureaucratic and capitalist card shark can find a way to dine off of in the future. Sad to say, the lack of the proper crèche-centered focus also simply permits every rabid nationalist, polluter of God’s earth, and libertarian to make it seem that they form the army of St. Athanasius in our own time that Catholics must support or die.
Our crèche-less modern world’s willful message of “don’t tread on me and my uncorrected natural will”---whether it be expressed with reference to the supposedly “Marxist” issues seemingly dear to the heart of the pope, or to those other economic and nationalist idols of the naturalist Enlightenment dear to the hearts of some “conservatives”, “libertarians”, or “American exceptionalists”---is always sung to the same single boring tone of “thud”: the tone produced by the human mind and heart that plunged from its medieval heights on a downward trajectory to a fallen---though not intrinsically evil--earth.
Our only means of fighting the Catharist despair that must come when men realize that the endless clash of free wills that will not accept correction in Christ reveals the universe to be a meaningless entity; our only chance of pointing things into a proper hierarchy of values and hearing the “music of the spheres” is to stand above our Zeitgeist and judge it. And the best first step to that goal comes from turning our eyes away from the lions and tigers and bears that our current Francis shined on St. Peter’s façade and focusing them on the oxen and donkeys led onto the crèche by a different Francis on a Christmas long ago at Greccio.
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