Reflections on Faith, Culture, and Politics from a Former Darst Staff Member
Over the years, the Darst Center has had the pleasure of having a myriad of people on staff who have been willing to share their gifts with those entrusted to their care. In addition to paid staff, the Center relies on long-term volunteers and interns to facilitate our retreats. Two years ago, we had an intern with us for the year who was completing his Masters of Divinity with Catholic Theological Union. Ed Tverdek, a Franciscan, embodies the Mission of the Darst Center in his pursuit of creating a more just world and educating others on issues of injustice. He recently made a pilgrimage to Assisi and reflected on his time there. We share his thoughts on St. Francis, our current political climate, and more with you below:
On this spot a little more then 790 years ago, St. Francis of Assisi had what was probably the most intense ecstatic experience of his life. He never wrote nor, reportedly, even spoke of it in his few remaining years, but the brothers who witnessed it attest that it affected him deeply. At the time, the place was a level recess among the craggy surfaces of Mt. La Verna – an ideal place for quiet prayer. We’ve since built a chapel around it and covered the specific location in glass and a candle to commemorate the event, and the villa attached to the chapel, along with a sizeable basilica, has become a staple pilgrimage and retreat site for admirers of Francis over the centuries.
Early biographers and hagiographers mark it as the spot where Francis received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. They tell of a winged seraph, possibly with the face of Jesus, inflicting the wounds on Francis’ hands, feet, and torso. Whether the wounds were a miraculous manifestation of Christ’s suffering or the predictable result of ascetic self-abuse (given Francis’ proclivity to live among and minister to lepers, it would be a miracle if he *didn’t* show signs of lesions and protuberances), those brothers who prepared his body once given up to Sister Death note that they remained until the end.
It’s become a little too easy to over-theologize Francis’ life – to romanticize the deprivations he inflicted upon himself and to make his sainthood about some world other than the one he touched and tasted. He no doubt experienced a life-altering event on this spot on La Verna, but it could just as easily have been a matter of coming to terms with his fate as it was a matter of envisioning angels. The simple, small band of penitents he had assembled only fifteen years earlier (and even then only with reluctance) had grown into an unwieldy order of preachers, priests, and scholars, many of whom now resented his ongoing influence in their affairs. Barely forty years old, his numerous crippling ailments had by now surely convinced him that he wouldn’t see fifty (he didn’t). Yet on this spot he was overcome with love, the love of a God that would stoop to take on flesh and suffer with us – a God that, far from the disembodied world of seraphim, once sweated, pissed, and eventually died by our hand so that we too could somehow know that love. Angels or fevered hallucinations, stigmata or leperous sores, the material world touched the divine here on this spot.
In a few days I return to the US, a nation virtually under siege to itself. We’ve created monsters from our wealthier idols, and we’ve looked on bewildered as reality television somehow morphed into daily cable news. Violence abounds, and rancor substitutes where violence would violate decorum. And the best antidote we can muster – our perceived salvation from the grip of photogenic authoritarianism – is a retreat to an even more photogenic expression of wealth and power, a benign elite that can help lull us back into a reassurance that there is no elite pulling the strings.
This is our lot for now. These are the threads we have to work with. We can continue to sew and patch, as Francis did to his habits, or we can form a new fabric from the old. But neither animosity nor complacent self-righteousness can hold it all in at the seams. It has to be something like the love that Francis experienced at this spot, a love fueled not by naiveté but by indignation at injustice and undue privilege.
Without righteous indignation, without revulsion at the fact that we are capable of offering every creature on this planet a decent life but simply choose not to, our efforts continue to amount to a patchwork of charity and self-congratulation. Without a heartfelt distrust of – even contempt for – an unbridled wealth that can purchase influence as easily as it can purchase toothpaste, we merely recreate the desire for riches and bolster the institutions that ensure some will wield power from wealth while others resign in despair.
Yet without love, without a willingness to forgive the contrite and to convert the aggressor – be it the homophobe, the xenophobe, the cop too inclined to shoot or the activist preaching irredeemable hate – even that feeble patchwork must unravel.
These are the very limited threads we have to work with. These are the options before us. But with God, the Nazarene tells us, all things are possible.
You can read more of Ed Tverdek's reflections on his blog "The Narrow Gate: Politics, Faith, Culture" at http://tverdek.blogspot.com/. He has also recently published a book, "The Moral Weight of Ecology" on Lexington Press, 2015.