There is a section in the Dream of Gerontius, and the sublime music to which Elgar sets it, which portrays St Francis of Assisi as the supreme mystic and the one who, above all other saints (apart from Our Lady), most resembled Christ.
Listening to Elgar, I get an almost unbearable sense of longing to be that close to Christ, to touch heaven so nearly in this life, and yet knowing that transformation into Christ, the Everlasting Love, comes only at the cost of being united to His Passion:
There was a mortal, who is now above
In the mid-glory; he, when near to die,
Was given communion with the Crucified, –
Such that the Master’s very wounds were stamped
Upon his flesh; and from the agony
Which thrilled through body and soul in that embrace,
Learn that the flame of the Everlasting Love
Doth burn ere it transform.
Yet, I have a statue of St Francis on my balcony, amid the flower tubs, the sentimental and popular image of him as lover of animals and nature. How to reconcile the two?
Perhaps it comes from seeing how Francis the saint was created from Francis the troubadour, the lover of good things, rich clothing and music. Perhaps the most characteristic trait of Francis the rich young man and Francis the saint is his impetuousness.
He flung himself into enjoying life with his rich young friends, spending freely, infectious in his gaiety.
So it is little wonder that when Christ met him in the form of an outcast, he should fling himself into the arms of the Eternal Love with the same impetuosity and gaiety.
He realised that even the best material things in life were so much rubbish (Phil.8); they couldn’t compare with the richness found in his new Love, which was why he could fling them away with such abandon in order to experience the things that no eye has seen and the human heart cannot conceive, to experience that ‘indescribable and glorious joy’ of 1 Peter 1:8.
He is a reminder to us, when we so often want the next new iphone or gadget, or when clothes catalogues plop through my door with great regularity; I look through the pages and think how nice it would be to have this new dress or that striking new top, but this is not where true fulfilment is to be found.
Francis is at once the most human of saints and therefore one that most resembles Christ, and he reminds me that the only way to enjoy this life is not to cling on to it.
I have the most glorious view from my balcony of the Welsh countryside, and it is a delight to savour it and thank God for its beauty. And yet, there is a digger inching its way down towards part of the valley below, which assuredly will change that bit of it.
Nothing stays the same, except the awesome beauty of God that Francis met on the mountain of La Verna. But I hope the view won’t change too much!