If you are visiting this page as a way to find out something about me and my work, I need to tell you that I am not often here. I find that I don’t have much time (or, to be honest, make much time) for blogging these days. Please look for me instead through my books (The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation) is the most recent, and was just optioned by HBO, Inc., on Facebook, Twitter, and in the pages of America, Christian Century, and The Tablet where I frequently write and review. Or, visit the About Sweeney page here on this blog and get in touch with me. Peace, Jon
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My wife and I recently moved from a village in Vermont to Evanston, Illinois. We now live in a diverse neighborhood, half a mile north of the Chicago city line, and we’re enjoying it. We deliberately wanted to trade idyllic beauty for the energy and opportunities of a real city.
Here in Evanston, homelessness and poverty are on the street corners. In Vermont, these things exist, to be sure, but they are tucked away and usually fairly quiet.
I have been asked for spare change, directly and indirectly (the poor holding signs at street corners), dozens of times over the last six weeks. The only one that I responded quickly and easily to, was a man named Solomon who rode up on his bike one day as we were walking the dog, and asked if we knew of a nearby shelter. We were new in town. We didn’t. “Can you help me get some food?” Solomon asked. And then, we were all over it. We didn’t hesitate in walking with Solomon to the nearby Subway and buying him a footlong. But that experience was atypical. The encounters are hardly ever that clear, nor the answers that simple.
A decade ago, when my older kids were young, I would hand them each a roll of quarters when we were visiting New York City, instructing them to give to anyone who asked. Of course, I know very well the potential problems with such an approach. I know that some of the poor are working for others almost as indentured servants, and that those quarters don’t end up in their pockets, or translate into food in their stomachs. And I know that some of the homeless are addicts and that their needs are not solved, but are probably exacerbated, by quarters. But I decided to err on the side of unquestioning response to those in need. Nevertheless, to do this now, no longer feels entirely responsible.
Then, this past Saturday, we went to synagogue and a text from Deuteronomy 15 felt like it was speaking directly to me. Here is a condensed version of verses 7-11: “If there is a needy person among you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against him. You must open your hand and lend him whatever he needs. Beware lest you think to yourself, he will find help elsewhere, and give him nothing, for he will cry out to the Lord against you and you will be guilty. Give readily and have no regrets. There will never cease to be needy ones in your land.”
So I posted on Facebook Sunday morning: “We are trying to figure this out: How to respond to the homeless / poor on the street without, on the one hand, handing out cash and coin, and on the other, not shaming them further by taking them by the hand to buy food or ask how they’ll use the money etc. Any suggestions on how to navigate these two extremes are most welcome!”
One friend commented, “Build a house,” and I would love to do that, if I could. I honestly think that I would. But in the meantime, how should I respond to the faces on the street in need that I see every day? The comments poured in.
“Write a letter to your legislators asking them to ensure that the poor get what they need,” frankly wasn’t very helpful.
Another friend wrote, “Volunteer a few hours a week at a neighborhood food or clothing bank,” which is obviously a fine idea but sort of beside the point I was making and the personal problem that I was trying to solve. I am not interested in simply alleviating my guilt for having more than others; I want to know how to give freely and respond ethically, given the complications of doing so in our day and age.
A friend with lots of experience working in religious organizations in Boston wrote this: “When I worked on Beacon Hill and walked up to the office from South Station each day, I gave myself a weekly budget that I would simply give away, no questions asked, no ‘deserving’ required. Then I prayed for a nudge from God about who would get it. Not everybody’s answer, but it was mine.” That was my approach with my older kids, years ago.
“I worked with a homeless organization in Berkeley for awhile, and one thing you can do is look them in the eye and acknowledge that they exist,” was a no-brainer, for sure, and yet, it can be difficult to do that when you are not prepared to follow-up the acknowledgement with an actual gift.
And then I think we got to the crux of it, to solutions that will work.
“Gift cards to local fast food places or convenience stores. A $5 gift card to Subway gets a footlong sandwich. Also, I have a rule that I always give to homeless women,” wrote a friend from Cleveland. This is what we did with Solomon that day on the street.
“I give out gift cards to fast food restaurants and I keep a stack in the car so I am prepared whenever I see the need,” echoed another friend. And then some friends commented that fast food restaurants are part of the problem and perhaps not the best solution. But, again, that seems beside the point.
“Carry small care packages – non-perishables like granola bars, water, toiletries, that you can easily give. And if you give money, give without judgment,” wrote a friend. Yes, but am I really going to carry such things on my bike, which is my usual form of transportation?
For now, as of today, I am walking to Subway and stocking up on gift cards. Our response to Solomon that day on the street seems like the best immediate solution to the problem. The only thing I would do differently, today, is invite Solomon to come around more often. Still, if you have better ideas, I would love to hear them.
As you may know, I love the physical book, but I can’t agree with the New Zealand bishops’ conference, who just told all of their priests that they’re forbidden to celebrate Mass on an iPad because, as they wrote: “the Roman Missal’s physical form is an indicator of its special role in our worship.”
They were not referring to people or priests using or advocating the use of avatars who “virtually” receive the host etc. etc. ugh. This was simply about reading from an iPad instead of a physical Missal.
The story of Pope Celestine V’s life and failed papacy (told in my new book, The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation) warns us of the dangers of religious power: giving us some insight into how to know when it is being inappropriately wielded, and what to do to appropriately diminish it.
The twentieth century Italian novelist, Ignazio Silone, was the first person to suggest as much in the introduction to his book about Celestine, The Story of a Humble Christian. Silone remembers making a remark to a simple Italian peasant he once met along the path toward the Onofrio hermitage on Mount Morrone – a place of pilgrimage to Celestine’s memory. Then, he writes, “When the peasant finally understood the meaning . . . he was overcome with irrepressible hilarity.” He continues: “Afterwards, he said gravely: ‘Then he’s not a saint for us poor people; he’s for the priests.’” Indeed. Perhaps that’s the truest statement of all.
This is surely another sign of the end of the world as we knew it: The Irish Times culture pages — once one of the world’s great places for serious book reviews and culture criticism — now have “Gaming” as a category on a par with “Books.”
This is because, about a decade ago, it became fashionable to describe books in economic terms as simply another form of entertainment, competing with television, film, the Web, and now, I guess, gaming, for our attention. Well…serious books have never been “entertainment.” And to lump them in with these other “diversions” will surely diminish the importance of the written word even more.
Anyway, see for yourself at www.irishtimes.com/culture/.
A Very Franciscan Text
As a young friar in 1523, Osuna was introduced to the essentials of Christian spirituality as enunciated by St. Francis of Assisi, who personally brought Franciscanism to the land of Spain in the year 1213. It was then that Francis, in an attempt to reach the Moors in Morocco, traveled first to Spain, most likely sailing from the western shores of Italy, across the Tyrrhenian Sea, with a few of his closest associates, to Barcelona. (See John Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order from Its Origins to the Year 1517; New York: Oxford University Press, 1967; 27.) It was from that trip that one of the longer stories of The Little Flowers comes: “The haughtiness of Brother Elias.” (See chapter 19 of The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, compiled by Brother Ugolino, edited by Jon M. Sweeney; Orleans, MA: Paraclete Press, 2011.)
In that tale we learn that it was upon visiting the shrine at Compostela, second only to Jerusalem in importance for medieval pilgrims, that “Francis received a revelation showing him that he needed to found many places where Franciscans would reside throughout the world. The Order he’d founded was intended to spread into a great multitude.” Thus began Franciscan life outside of Italy. Spain was the first mission field, three centuries before Osuna.
THE TEXT OF
THE THIRD SPIRITUAL ALPHABET
From the Preface
Consider Adam, who named every one of the creatures God made while remaining focused perfectly on God. “Nevertheless,” St. Bernard tells us, “God sent Adam sleep when he wished him to focus purely on spiritual things, giving him over to a kind of ecstasy, drawing his soul gently apart from his senses. God did not do this so that Adam wouldn’t feel the pain of having a rib removed. He did it so that Adam’s imagination and senses would be made still and Adam would more easily receive the spiritual power of God.” The point is simply this: The more that our souls increase in capacity, widened by love, the more interruptions will be required in order to remove it from its senses. For this reason, when a contemplative is enraptured, it is either because he has a limited capacity or the divine gift is too great—but don’t assume that is always the former. Only the one who receives the gift can make that judgment.
The first two people who ask me about The Pope Who Quit at Wild Goose next week, I’ll give you a free copy.
This is taken from my recently published new edition of The Little Flowers of Saint Francis.
St. Anthony of Padua preaches a sermon that every language can understand
St. Anthony of Padua was the chosen companion of St. Francis whom Francis sometimes called his “bishop.”
On one occasion this vessel of the Holy Spirit was preaching before the pope and his cardinals, who represented many different lands speaking many different tongues: Greek, Latin, French, German, Slavic, and English. On fire with God’s Holy Spirit like one of the first apostles, Anthony preached so effectively and clearly that every man present understood his words as if they’d been spoken in his own language. They were all amazed. It seemed that the original miracle of the Pentecost had just been repeated before their eyes and ears.
“Isn’t he a Spanaird?” one of them asked another.
“How can we possibly hear him in our own Greek, Latin, French, German, Slavic, and English? We are from so many different lands!”
Even the pope was amazed at this, as well as at Anthony’s deep knowledge of holy scripture. “He is the Ark of the Covenant—a treasury of holy scripture!” the pope said.
Such was the nature of those companions of St. Francis who were like soldiers with heavenly weapons, bringing sustenance with the essence of the Holy Spirit, protecting Christ’s flock against traps set by the enemy. [note] Even the Vicar of Christ was one such as these, to the glory of our Lord, Jesus. Amen.
[note – Another instance of multiple authors/editors: three mixed metaphors in one sentence! In the sentence that follows, the reference is to Pope Gregory IX, a friend and follower of St. Francis. Gregory IX became supreme pontiff less than six months after St. Francis’s death. He was Pope from 1227-1241.]
Brief Historical Background
Francisco of Osuna (1497-1541) was a Spaniard Franciscan friar living in the generation that experienced more than any other the religious tumult of that era. This was the time of Spain’s greatest exploration around the world, and it was the height of the Spanish Inquisition at home. The first of the religious orders to be reformed by the Inquisition was Francisco’s Franciscans. We know little of his life except that he was born in the southern Seville town of Osuna, he traveled as a pilgrim to the shrine of St. James in Compostela while a young man, and he made his profession as a Franciscan friar and priest soon thereafter, probably in about 1513. Osuna first published The Third Spiritual Alphabet in 1527 and many of its teachings spring directly from the well that was early Franciscan literature.
It was an assumption of all Christian theology and spirituality in the first nineteen centuries of the faith that a good disciple must practice having a good memory. It was deemed impossible to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ without using memory aids. How, otherwise, could one remember the holy scriptures, recall the teachings of sermons and exhortations of the clergy, or keep holy examples and images in one’s mind, quite literally “before one’s eyes,” as the world assails us with temptations? In this spirit, Francisco Osuna offers this Alphabet – knowing that every serious Christian will desire its proven benefits.
…It is only because we are imperfect that we have come to believe we must withdraw from created things if we are to rise completely to a comprehending God.
Consider, for example, Adam who named every one of the creatures God made while remaining focused perfectly on God. “Nevertheless,” St. Bernard tells us, “God sent Adam sleep when he wished him to focus purely on spiritual things, giving him over to a kind of ecstasy, drawing his soul gently apart from his senses. God did not do this so that Adam wouldn’t feel the pain of having a rib removed. He did it so that Adam’s imagination and senses would be made still and Adam would more easily receive the spiritual power of God.” The point is simply this: The more that our souls increase in capacity, widened by love, the more interruptions will be required in order to remove it from its senses. For this reason, when a contemplative is enraptured, it is either because he has a limited capacity or the divine gift is too great—but don’t assume that is always the former. Only the one who receives the gift can make that judgment.
In heaven there will be no ecstatic experiences. Even here and now they are rare to those who are close to God. For a saint, hearing the divine will and having a fully functioning rational soul usually go easily together. The will of the flesh and the strength of reason do not have to obstruct one another. Grace does not disorder nature, but brings it to perfection. Thus it follows that created things do not, in and of themselves, keep us from contemplation. If we say this is true for us—that the created world keeps us from truly seeing or knowing God—then it is true. But only because we’ve made it true.
There is currently only one other edition of the Third Spiritual Alphabet in print in English translation. The reason for this is, quite simply that the book often makes for difficult reading. Its style can be complex. Much of its imagery and symbolism, obscure to today’s reader. However, as I have discovered, Osuna also often writes in a straightforward manner, particularly when repetition is removed from the original text. This is, in part, what I have done for the reader. I have also added occasional explanatory notes. Osuna takes the reader point by point into the depths of his complicated subject matter, and with some aids along the way, it is entirely possible to benefit greatly from reading Alphabet in the twenty-first century.
Osuna writes, at times, as if he understands the values of our century as much as his own. He tells us, for example, that he advocates a democratic style of government, rather than the monarchy he lived under. He values scientific ways of understanding the natural world. He demonstrates a desire to understand the psyche of a person, not merely his actions, reflecting a depth of psychological insight that was far ahead of his era. And he shows a sensitivity to those accused of heresy, even though as a Franciscan, it was his own order that led the way of the Inquisition in the sixteenth century. (These themes are all mentioned by Laura Calvert in Francisco de Osuna and the Spirit of the Letter; Chapel Hill: North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures, 1973; 11.)
From the book’s preface:
“The sacred humanity of Christ never hindered our God from the most pure prayer of recollection. Our Blessed Mother the Virgin also was never hindered or distracted from an intense focus on God. She always possessed a pure concentration that surpassed that of any other saint. However, it is the nature of humanness to do so.
“It is only because we are imperfect that we have come to believe we must withdraw from created things if we are to rise completely to a comprehending God.”