A Sermon Delivered January 1, 2012, by the Reverend Dennis McCarty
At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbus, Indiana
READING: From a Review of The Flowers of St. Francis by Bosley Crowther
[Film Director] Roberto Rossellini’s command of a motion-picture camera is put to serene and frugal use in the Italian film, The Flowers of St Francis. . . . This conspicuously modest little picture is nothing more than a series of legends and anecdotes. . . . It is the inspirational quality of these legends that the distinguished director has tried to capture in this film.
Using only one professional actor. . . in his cast, otherwise made up for the most part of undesignated monks of the Nocere Inferiore Monastery in Italy, Rossellini has centered his attention upon the faces and attitudes of men whose lives in the early thirteenth century were devoted to the humble worship of God and the meager assistance of the poor.
He opens his picture with. . . examples of medieval religious art. . . to illustrate the re-awakening of the religious spirit in St. Francis’ time, and then he continues with vignettes showing the arrival of St. Francis and his monks at Rivo Torto after their visit to Rome, the building of the Chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, the famous sermon of St. Francis to the birds, the visit of a group of sisters to the chapel and the humorous incident of Brother Juniper cutting the foot from a pig.
These little incidents, filmed in the outdoors in the most simple and almost amateurish way, have an innocence and naivete about them that establish, at least, a gentle mood of wonder at such faith and humility. More forceful and dramatic is a simple scene in which St. Francis meets a leper walking across an open field–just a tattered and gruesome creature, with his leper’s bell clanging in the night–but catches a sense of the pathos of the outcasts in medieval times. And an episode in which Brother Juniper, a simple creature, is tormented in a tyrant’s camp where he has gone to preach, has the impact of melodramatics with higher overtones.
The performance of Aldo Fabrizi as the tyrant, who is confused and overwhelmed by the patience and gentleness of the holy man, catches a glint of the penetration of faith in a dark age. The unnamed monk who plays Brother Juniper is excellent in this vignette. . . .
All in all, this Flowers of St. Francis has no form or dramatic theme. But thanks to the simplicity of its filming and the sympathetic musical score. . . it sends one forth from the theatre feeling kindlier towards his fellow man.
SERMON: “On Power, Money, Gratitude, and Humility”
For our movie night this month, we’ll show an Italian film from 1950: director Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis. This is a fiercely gentle, savagely simple movie. Or as film analyst Peter Brunette puts it, “militantly naive.” Take out the Medieval clothing and buildings and it looks like a home movie shot at a family picnic by amateurs, rather than a critically acclaimed classic, filmed by gifted professionals.
It portrays St. Francis of Assissi and his friars with such faith and humility, living so simply, it’s hard to take them seriously at first. Then, about three quarters of the way through, it becomes clear that things are more complex than they seem. A prominent religious journal, Image, calls The Flowers of Saint Francis one of the most spiritually significant films ever made. The Vatican’s Council for Social Communications also has it on their list of notable (and Church-approved) movies.
All of which is doubly interesting because Roberto Rossellini was an avowed atheist. He was, however–or so he said–fascinated by Christian values in general and Roman Catholicism in particular. He said he respected the “power of simplicity,” embodied by the Church’s ethical teachings in an increasingly materialistic world.
But Rossellini’s private life was neither simple nor saintlike. He was a serial philanderer, cheating his way through a string of failed marriages. While shooting The Flowers of St. Francis, he was engaged in an exta-marital affair with legendary–married–actress, Ingred Bergman. They divorced their spouses and married each other. Then Rossellini traveled to India to film a documentary and work with the national film board–and got involved with a married scriptwriter there. That was too much for India’s image-conscious Prime Minister Nehru, who sent Rossellini–and his libido–back home.
This should remind us: it’s easy to say we care about something. But does our behavior show it? Words can proclaim a particular religious or ethical principle, but words are easy. Following those principles with our actions, is more difficult.
I don’t think Roberto Rossellini would argue that point. In fact, I wonder if his interest in the virtues of chastity, temperance, and humility, wasn’t precisely because he found them so difficult to practice in real life. We’ll get back to that.
The Flowers of St. Francis is shot in a style called Italian neo-realism, which rose from the ashes and rubble of Italy’s defeat in the Second World War. This style was very influential in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The movie is filmed in black-and-white, mostly out-of-doors, with very simple sets and scenery, using mostly non-professional actors.
St. Francis and his friars are played by real monks from a monastery in southern Italy. They had no training as actors and in keeping with their vows of humility, they were not listed in the film’s credits. Their manner is so unassuming, they hardly seem to be acting at all. Of course, if you’ve ever tried acting, you know that acting without looking as though you’re acting–is difficult. Whether the monks’ religious training accounts for their believability–or Rossellini’s brilliance as a director–the approach is effective.
But while The Flowers of Saint Francis is neo-realist in style, it’s definitely not real. It’s an adaptation of two Medieval books: The Little Flowers of St Francis and The Life of Brother Juniper; and factual history isn’t the point in either one. They’re what we call hagiographies, stories of saints’ lives meant not to tell what actually happened, but to promote faith and reverence. As such, both are disjointed collections of vignettes about faith, devotion, and miracles–with few facts in either one.
Rossellini ran with that idea. The movie is broken into nine segments, each with its own chapter title. St. Francis is the main character, but several chapters are about Brother Juniper: a devoted follower who at first seems a bit simple minded. But you wind up wondering: is he really that foolish? Or is he actually quite cunning in his faith and guilelessness? You might call him, “militantly naive.”
We first notice him walking into the friars’ camp naked because he has given all his clothing to a beggar. St. Francis gives Brother Juniper his own cloak to keep him warm, but orders him not to give his clothing away again. Soon, Brother Juniper meets another beggar, shivering from the cold, and says, “My master told me I can’t give you my cloak. But I won’t resist you if you take it off me.”
Eventually, this militantly naive friar finds himself in the camp of a marauding warlord, Nicoliao the Tyrant. The tyrant’s warriors are brutal barbarians. They pass time between battles beating one another up, just for fun. If someone gets hurt, they hold a contest to see who can bleed the most.
Excited by a chance to share his faith, Brother Juniper starts to preach. But the barbarians grab him and manhandle him, throwing him about in a bizarre game of catch, then using him as a jump rope. Realizing that he must reach them through his actions, not his words, Brother Juniper does not resist.
Finally, they haul him before Nicolaio the Tyrant himself, who is dressed in a huge, nightmarish suit of armor. Nicolaio has no idea what to make of the little friar. But we gradually see, the tyrant is the real prisoner–trapped by his own wealth and power. He even needs several helpers just to get him out of his own armor–which makes him appear more helpless than dangerous. Despite the abuse Brother Juniper receives, he is really the free one–because of his lack of concern about possessions, respect–even his own life. When Nicolaio’s power and wealth get shown up by Brother Juniper’s meek ways, the tyrant–and his whole army–can only flee in consternation from the little friar’s unnerving humility and simplicity.
Roberto Rossellini, the worldly atheist, later wrote that he was having a “spiritual crisis” while making this movie. And the scene between the friar and the tyrant expresses this well. At no point does anyone actually say that wealth and power are traps, or that real freedom lies in giving up attachments to such things, Then again, great art is always partly hidden–and it keeps the artist partly hidden, as well.
But non-attachment and cosmic oneness, are what the Franciscan Order was about. They are also what Buddhism is about. And what Mahatma Gandhi, whom Rossellini greatly admired, was about. In overturning Nicolaio the Tyrant’s army without raising a finger against them, Brother Juniper duplicates Gandhi’s accomplishment with India’s independence movement. I suspect Rossellini was working all this and more out in his mind while making this movie.
For the record, St. Francis and his followers are not priests. They’re friars: ”brothers;” out in the world, changing peoples’ lives and minds. This is is an important distinction, because that’s the work prophets do, not priests. Brother Juniper’s defeat of Nicolaio the Tyrant is precisely what Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams would call, “prophethood.”
Of course, I don’t agree with St. Francis’ specific religious beliefs any more than Rossollini did. Yet the saint’s oneness with all of life and his non-attachment to ego or material goods–are at the center of other religious traditions, as well, including the Buddhism I studied. Brother Juniper’s prophetic practice lies at the center of the kind of religious liberalism James Luther Adams wrote about. The Flowers of St. Francis is not just about Roman Catholicism. I’m sure Rossellini didn’t intend it to be.
It is worth studying for its ethical insights rather than as entertainment, not least, because it’s not very entertaining. For all its gentleness and simplicity, I found The Flowers of St. Francis to be, at its depths, an unsettling, even spiritually threatening movie, in a hall-of-mirrors sort of way. It’s tempting not to take St. Francis or Brother Juniper seriously. But if you do, they show up the difference between our words and our actions in a way that I personally find uncomfortable. They unnervingly remind me of the gap between my own words and actions. Between Rossellini’s words and his actions. Between our whole culture’s words and our actions.
I think it’s safe to say, we in the United States are addicted to comfort. Maybe everyone is, or at least potentially addicted. But today, we are in a spiritual crisis not unlike the one that plagued Roberto Rossellini. Our sense of ourselves: as the land of equality and opportunity, a light among nations, where people know who we are and how we fit in and everyone has the same chance. American freedom and equality before the law are, we say, ideals the rest of the world should copy. Any person here can be born in a log cabin and grow up to become President, we like to say. Or be the child of immigrants and grow up to be a millionaire. That’s the way we like to think of ourselves. Yet statistically, we actually now find ourselves to be less upwardly mobile than other developed nations! Our reality has become so different from our self-image–no wonder we’re experiencing a spiritual crisis.
This fall’s “Occupy Wall Street” movement is a reflection of the troubling difference between image and reality. Like The Flowers of St. Francis, I think the Occupy Wall Street movement could be called “militantly naive.” Like the movie, it’s viewed as silly by some powerful people–and as frightening by others. Pundit Glenn Beck put it most abjectly–and hysterically–when he claimed the protesters would “drag [the wealthy] out into the streets and kill us.” Which is funny when you consider how much violence has been practiced against the protesters and how little by them. The rich and powerful–of both political parties, really–have expressed reactions ranging from bemusement to dismay to outright fear–precisely like Nicolaio the Tyrant when confronted by Brother Juniper.
I don’t know if Occupy Wall Street will accomplish much in the long run. I’m not convinced they’re organized or focused enough. But the frustration and feeling of injustice they express–are very real. And they’re not the only ones. I believe the frustrations the Tea Party expresses. The two movements together, demonstrate the complexity of our time and two different ways of reacting to it.
Human beings are a hierarchical species. Equality doesn’t come naturally to us. At the same time, we don’t have to be at the top of the ladder of hierarchy to be happy. (Or maybe I should call it a pyramid because there are far more people near the bottom than near the top.) We can be happy halfway down the pyramid–if we know we’re still higher than plenty of other people and if we feel as there’s a real chance of moving up–or at least, for our children to move up.
Few of the powerful ever share power willingly, any time, any place. Through American history, few African Americans or Native Americans, for example, have ever had illusions about what we like to call the “level playing field.” But European Americans did enjoy, as equalizing factors, the continual paradigm shifts due to our westward expansion and the industrial revolution. With a continent yawning before them, lower-and-middle-class pilgrims from England, followed by poor settlers from other European nations, could became landholders and proprietors in ways unimaginable in their lands of origin. In the same way, a few innovators like Eli Whitney or Alexander Graham Bell–or Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in our own time–could use their inventive skills to ride waves of new technology and industry, up from modest origins, to wealth and power.
We have never been totally free of class stress and struggle. Not everyone was upwardly mobile. There were genuinely oppressed groups. But–we had enough movement to generally maintain a feeling of opportunity, at least in the dominant culture. For two hundred years, our self-image was this congenial pyramid. American business practice flooded world markets. Our expansion reached the West Coast. We entered the world stage, were victorious in two world wars–and our self-image of equality, power, expansion–American exceptionalism, if you will–stayed more-or-less comfortable.
But there comes a saturation point. And we may have reached it, with greater competition in every way from other lands, in the midst of a struggling world economy. There are fewer unexploited niches for the poor-but-ambitious; fewer paradigm shifts. The pyramid of wealth, power, prestige and opportunity is becoming less friendly.
On the one hand, previously oppressed groups: blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, women, gay people; have gained increasing legal protection. While on the other, the most entrenched of the powerful use money, lobbying, and media to influence the democratic process, concentrating real wealth more toward the top of the pyramid, reversing American upward mobility, to the point it was at a hundred years ago.
The excuse is that the rich and super-rich are smarter, work harder, and contribute more. That, to me, is pure balderdash. Let me put it this way: I am not three hundred times smarter, nor do I work three hundred times harder, nor do I contribute three hundred times more, than a farmer making fifty cents a day in Nigeria. Nor is a corporate C.E.O.–or Oprah Winfrey–three hundred times smarter, nor do they work three hundred times harder, nor do they contribute three hundred times more–than I do.
The pure and simple fact is, some people are just born with greater advantages, or happen to be that percentage point more talented in a crucial way and in just the right place in the right time with just the right strategy and connections, to be mega-successful. But you cannot convince me that they did something in a past life or somehow, in this life, to earn that much advantage. Just as I did not do three hundred times as much to earn my three-hundred-fold advantage over the Nigerian farmer.
I am, like everyone else in this room, very well off compared to most people in the rest of the whole world. Where I gained that advantage was, of course, by being smart enough to choose the right parents in the right place and the right time, along with the right genetic makeup–which, though I wound up being short–also gave me good intelligence and usable talents. Now–wasn’t that wise of me?
And yes–I’m being facetious. I did not choose my race or class or talent or the place where I was born. And neither did you. And neither did Oprah Winfrey or Warren Buffet or Donald Trump.
Meanwhile–both the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party movement, are responding to discomforting changes in our national hierarchical pyramid. On the one hand, the Tea Party is frightened and angry because they perceive that people who are supposed to be at the bottom of the pyramid, may be moving up. And the Occupy Wall Street movement is angry because they see people at the top of the pyramid, getting too far ahead.
It is easy for us in the American middle class–and even more those of even wealthier station–to look out at the rest of the world as if we were Nicolaio the Tyrant, peering out of his suit of armor at Brother Juniper–as if that suit of armor–the house, car, bank account, and professional prestige we have at the moment–are totally of our own making–which they’re not–and will protect us from the fate every human being faces, rich or poor–which they won’t–namely, grief and death.
Because nothing out of of all we have is going to mean a thing a blink of the cosmic eye from now.
I struggle meet the challenge of the eternal–which, atheist though Roberto Rossellini may have been–is the challenge St. Francis and his meek friars place before us in the movie. What does all this mean against even one rotation of our galaxy?
It’s natural to strive for the best, for ourselves and our families. That’s to be admired, not condemned. But striving should be a right, not a privilege reserved for some and not for others. As we begin the New Year: let us appreciate the good things we have. But let us also be humble about how we got them. Success and status never happen in a vacuum. We are not more comfortable than a farmer in Nigeria just because we are better than a farmer in Nigeria. And Warren Buffet is not more prosperous than us simply because he’s better than us.
Out of this humility, let us be–not just compassionate toward those who have less–but thoughtful and engaged with the world’s inequalities. In this sense, I do have to respect the work the Occupy Wall Street protesters are doing. Yes, I agree, they are naive, even if it is militantly naive. They may not succeed in the long run. But we all need to look out from our suits of armor now and then, and be discomfited. And I do suspect, those with the largest suits of armor–need the most discomfort. Let all have a happy–but thoughtful–and sometimes uncomfortable–New Year. Amen. May it be so.