Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Augustine Thompson's Biography of Francis of Assisi on Francis and Gender Roles: Mother Hens and Chicks, Etc.

In previous postings, I've noted that the saint whose name the current pope has taken, Francis of Assisi, strikes many of us as a saint whose life corrects the heavy emphasis on male supremacy and female subordination that has captured the imagination of many Christians today. From the start of his spiritual journey, Francis repudiated the traditional male role that his father Pietro di Bernardone sought to impose on him. He began his journey by stripping himself and placing his clothes at his father's feet, stating that he no longer had any father except his father in heaven.

As he worked out his spiritual way and as followers began to flock to him, Francis often assumed what would now be seen as female roles within his community. He assumed postures of subordination, particularly as he gave care to his brothers, that would now be seen as feminine postures. He used explicit female imagery to describe these postures, in fact. 

I've written here about Francis's use of the image of a mother hen to describe himself as a spiritual leader (and how this echoes Jesus's own words). And I recently wrote here and here about how Matthew Fox stresses Francis's sensitivity to gender balance and his willingness to cross gender lines in Fox's book Letters to Pope Francis, which he published this year through the CreateSpace Publishing Platform.

As I noted a few days ago, I'm now reading Augustine Thompson's Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2012). As I read, I'm struck by the many passages that reinforce the gender-bending interpretation of Francis's life that I offer above. Here are a few I've read thus far:

[In his "Earlier Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance,"] Francis, however, transforms this conventional medieval piety into a mystical vision. A sinner who takes up the penitent life receives God as his Father and Jesus as his spouse. Impregnated by the Holy Spirit, the penitent gives birth to Christ in the world (p. 35).


[In 1220 as the community he had founded was troubled by divisions about how to fit itself into the institutional life of the church] He dreamt of himself as a little black hen, who was comically unable to shelter her numberless scattering chicks under her wings. For Francis, the dream symbolized his own inability to provide and care for all the friars of this rapidly growing movement. He identified himself as the weak little creature, an identification both self-critical and playful. He took his inspiration from scripture, for Christ used a very similar image when speaking of Jerusalem: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing" (Luke 13:34) (p. 55).

He recounted that he had dreamt he was a small black hen, and under him so many chicks were hatching that he could no longer keep them all under his wings. As that hen desperately tried to cover and protect her brood, her young kept popping out from under her and running away. The meaning was all too clear: Francis could not perform the task of mother hen that God had given him. He had failed (p. 74).
In the "Rule for Hermitages," Francis used a traditional active-contemplative division of labor. One friar was to stay home and pray, while the other was to take care of material needs. But Francis gave this division of roles a novel twist. First, the two brothers were to exchange roles periodically, and more important, the one in charge, the active friar, was to be considered the "mother"--not the "father"--and the other, the contemplative, was to be the "son." Francis was a man of his time in his stereotyped view of mothers as nurturers and fathers as disciplinarians, but he was also capable of startling reversals of traditional roles. In the hermitage, the "superior" was to be feminine, a nurturer, not an authority, much less an authoritarian like Pietro di Bernardone. Oddly, too, given the medieval hierarchical order in which contemplation was higher than action, the "mother" was to be the active friar, not the contemplative. If correction was to happen, it came from the superior displaying good behavior, not by issuing corrections. No role of leadership was to be permanent. Temporary exemplarity was the one form of leadership that Francis could accept with a wholly clear conscience.

Using the traditional image of Mary and Martha as a model for the division of activity and contemplation, he divided the roles as "mother" (Martha) and "son" (Mary), thereby making the active role superior to the contemplative: Mary subordinate to Martha. The "mother" was responsible for dealing with the outside world and protecting the "son" from being disturbed. The use of maternal imagery here reflects Francis's own image of himself as the mother hen trying to protect the brood of chicks that are his friars. It also echoes the parable he told, in reference to his lax admission policies, in which he compared himself to a poor woman whose sons are the products of her union with the great king. Even in the hermitage, the "sons" are to practice the self-abasement of begging. Francis directs that they may break silence and speak to their "mothers" so that "they can beg alms from them as poor little ones for the love of the Lord God." Neither role is permanent: "mothers" and "sons" should take turns and exchange roles "as they have mutually decided" (pp. 99-100; see also pp. 78-9).

And, finally, Thompson notes that, having accepted Clare into his new way of religious life, Francis left Clare and her community fairly much to themselves--for Clare to lead those who followed her, without Francis's male domination of the community of sisters:

Strangely, from this point until his last illness, Clare completely disappears from Francis's life. We understand that they exchanged letters, and that, in his last illness, Francis returned to San Damiano to see the sisters, but there is no evidence of any other visits. Francis had bowed to her request to do penance, professed her as a nun, and given her a rule of life. Then he left, romantic elaborations in modern biographies notwithstanding. Supervising the growth of the Poor Ladies of San Damiano and defending their call to live a life of absolute poverty would become Clare's responsibility alone (p. 48).

I'll keep reporting to you more such finds, as I continue reading Thompson's outstanding biography of Francis. Meanwhile, imagine trying to fit this deeply traditional stream of spirituality, with its free-wheeling willingness to transgress gender lines, with the grim male-dominant understanding of gender complementarity (that is, of men's "right" and obligation to rule women) that prevails in many sectors of Christianity today. 

The two can't be reconciled. And the male-dominant gender-complementarity business is anything but traditional.

No comments: