Like most Zen Buddhists in America today, I was neither born into a Buddhist family, nor did I begin practice at an early age. I was 32 before I read the first line of a Buddhist sutra, and I was 35 before I set foot in a practice center or temple. Like many Zen Buddhists in America today, I have a Christian history. Mine is a Roman Catholic history, and the expression of that Catholicism is Franciscan.
Tonight the daughters and sons of Francis of Assisi gather to mark his death. To my knowledge he is if not the only then certainly one of the very few non-martyred Christian saints whose actual process of dying is the focus of sustained remembrance. And why? Francis did not preach resurrection; he lived the gateway to resurrection, the emptying and death of the self. So great was his lowering of the mast of the self that he is said to have borne in his body the signs of the highest expression of selflessness Christianity has to offer: the marks of the crucifixion, or stigmata. As he was dying he asked to be placed naked on the bare earth. He knew the gateway, and he went straight through, holding on to nothing.
I grew up in a Franciscan parish and attended five years of Franciscan seminary as a youth. I don’t know how many times I read and reread Francis’ writings and life long into adulthood. I have absolutely no doubt that Francis’ kissing a leper in a great moment of tossing aside all picking and choosing, his bald act of stripping off his clothes and identity before his family, bishop and fellow citizens thus walking unarmored into the world, his candid and unglossed following of the injunction to “sell everything you have,” his patient blessing of the cauterer’s iron that would probably do more to seal him in his blindness than cure it – all of this and more played a major role in opening me up to the path I follow today.
To my brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters of Francis and Clare: peace and all good!