I've recently seen ads for a book by James Martin SJ called Between Heaven and Mirth - why joy, humour and laughter are at the heart of the spiritual life. In the accompanying video the author is at great pains to explain that the book isn't just a collection of funny stories, but rather seeks to explore true, deep joy in living for God. Even so, the book cover shows a collection of saints having a good laugh - and I was delighted to see Francis of Assisi, today's saint, among them.
Certainly, Francis is for many of us the saint of joy par excellence. The passionate young man, joyously casting off his wealth and embracing a life of radical poverty; the gentle, cordial friar, "Brother Sun", delighting in all creation, loving simplicity, charming wolves, on fire with the love of God; the sick man, composing his canticle of cosmic praise, sung at his deathbed.
Francis also came up with his own definition of perfect joy, which has always intrigued me. Perfect joy, according to Francis, has nothing to do with success in preaching and converting, achieving great learning, the calibre and quantity of candidates, the holiness of the friars. Instead, Francis describes arriving late at night at the friary, freezing, soaked and starving, and - despite desperate pleas - being unrecognised and turned away into the night by the porter: and if we accept all this with patience, with joy and with charity... this is perfect joy.
I've often puzzled over this. For one thing, would Francis really be so delighted if one of his friars were to behave in such a callous, uncharitable way? But then, thinking about it this morning, I wondered whether the key element wasn't so much the being thrown out of the friary, as the fact that the porter hadn't recognised him.
Francis, whether he liked it or not, had become a local celebrity, a local holy man. He had acquired brothers, and with them responsibilities - and his younger, newer brothers most probably treated him with a certain degree of deference, however friendly Francis might want to be. Even with radical, material poverty, his life now had acquired a certain degree of structure and security he had never wanted, and we know he struggled with this.
Was Francis maybe yearning for a return to those early days, when it was just him and God; when he could walk, unrecognised and unburdened along the highways and byways, begging for his daily needs? Was he fondly recalling the insults and derision of those who had once considered him a madman - and wishing that those same people would stop regarding him as a saint? Was he longing for one more chance to "rough it", to suffer cold and hunger out of pure, unadulterated love of God?
Perhaps those early, primitive, desperately challenging days were a time when, being most deprived of security, status and success he was therefore most dependent on the generous, merciful love of God. Maybe that was the time of Francis's most acute, perfect joy, which, over the years, companions and credibility had somehow softened. And maybe, as so many of us do in middle age, he was simply being nostalgic, fondly recalling the gloriousness of that first, burning passion for God... Nothing wrong with that, especially as I'm sure he was looking back with joy in with the yearning...
Be praised my Lord through all your creatures, especially Brother Sun, who is the day through whom you give us light. He is beautiful and radiant with your splendour; of you, Most High, he bears the likeness...