St. Francis at the Corner Pub
Approaching the door, you can already
hear his generous laughter.
He stands on the bar upside down for a moment
to get a new perspective on things,
a flash of polka-dotted boxers
as his brown robe cascades over his head,
sandaled toes wiggling in the air in time with
a fiddle playing in the corner.
Rain falls heavily in the deepening darkness
and he orders a round of drinks
despite his vow of poverty and the single silver coin
in his pocket, multiplied by the last Guinness poured.
Nothing like a good glass of wine, he gleefully says,
heavy Italian accent echoing through the room,
he holds it up to the overhead light, pausing for a moment
lost in its crimson splendor, breathes deeply.
At ease among fishmongers and plumbers,
widows and college students, and the
single mother sneaking out for a moment
of freedom from colic, cries, and diapers.
As the wind blows rain sideways, in come the
animals, benvenuti to pigeons, squirrels, seagulls, crows,
and the neighborhood cat balding from mange,
a chorus of yowls, coos, caws, and meows arising,
all huddle around him. No one objects to the growing
menagerie, just glad to be dry and warm.
He clinks glasses all around, no one left out.
—Christine Valters Paintner
Dearest monks, artists, and pilgrims,
Above is my poem inspired by the witness of St. Francis. He has always struck me as one of the most earthy and approachable saints, someone you might run into at a pub and would make you feel like you were old friends.
In my book Illuminating the Way: Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics I explore Francis as an expression of the archetype of the holy fool.
There are many aspects of Francis’ foolishness, from stripping his clothing publicly, appearing naked in the church, renouncing his wealth, befriending all creatures, and calling his community of brothers “fools for Christ” reflecting the words of St. Paul above. He tames a wolf and during the Crusades he walks unarmed across the Egyptian desert into the Sultan’s camp where he had every reason to expect his own death, a foolish act indeed.
We are always being called to new revelation and to see the world from another perspective. The inner Fool is the one who helps us to see things anew and to dismantle the accepted wisdom of our times. Paul also writes “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20b) Productivity, striving, consumption, and speed are some of the false gods of our western culture. A life committed to following the Divine path is one which makes the world’s wisdom seem foolish, but conversely, the world looks upon those with spiritual commitment often as the ones who are “fools.”
This can be a challenging archetype for some of us as we often try to do everything possible so as not to look foolish. However, this archetype is the one which helps to subvert the dominant paradigm of acceptable ways of thinking and living. The author GK Chesterton, in his book about Francis of Assisi, explores the idea of Francis seeing the world upside down, which is really seeing it right side up, because we get a totally new perspective. There is a subversive act of truth-telling through the Fool’s humor and playfulness.
The Fool risks mockery by stepping out of socially acceptable roles and asks where are you willing to look foolish? Through the fool we find vicarious release for much we have repressed in ourselves. If we have always lived according to the “rules” or been overly concerned with how things look, the Fool invites us to break open and play. The Fool encourages us to laugh at ourselves, reminding us that humor and humility have the same root as humus, which means earthiness.
We activate the fool when we do something that others have a hard time understanding or accepting. I remember when John and I first began our move to Europe and we sold off or gave away our possessions, various family members and friends couldn’t understand different things we had let go of – how could we release our library of treasured books? How could I burn years of journals? How could John quit his secure job? To some, our choices appeared “foolish” because they didn’t fit their way of thinking about how you move through life. To others, they seemed liberating precisely because it was a different path chosen.
How does Francis call you to your own path of holy foolishness? What have you been longing to do but afraid of looking “foolish” to others?
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Dancing monk icon by Marcy Hall at Rabbit Room Arts