The Tenderness of Infinity: Looking at All Things Through the Eyes of St Francis

The character of a culture is largely defined by its treatment of the most helpless human beings and animals. It is defined by it absolutely leaving no room for exceptions.
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The medieval world was utterly unsentimental. It was violent, perilous and stoic. Yet with imagination it produced immortal love stories: Dante and Beatrice, Abelard and Heloise, and Tristan and Ysolt after whom I named my two big English mastiffs. It is also the age of Francis of Assisi and his passionate love of animals, nature, the poor and God.

Gently as a whisper, on bare feet, Francis began to change his world. He did it one heart at a time in a manner that still inspires us. His timeless legacy resides less in a teachable doctrine than in the way he looked at all things. When he looked at the sun setting over the hills of Umbria , the birds coloring the sky , the stars guiding the night , the breath of a freezing wolf , the hands of a beggar he saw the Absolute Other in a form that was tenderly familiar. He encountered a reality at once infinite and intimate, perfectly sacred yet entirely ordinary. In the natural world, he loved everything he saw. It filled him with gratitude for the Creator. In an age of brutal and fleeting conquests he conquered hearts lastingly with love and gratitude. Force is powerless over our hearts.

Francis had a profound influence on the visual arts. Artists such as Cimabue and Giotto and generations of others started looking and seeing through Francis' eyes. The human faces and bodies and the animals they painted were transformed. The figures were no longer ideal or iconic they were real. On Giotto's greatly admired frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, you see people and animals brightened with real joy, trembling with real fear, crushed with real pain. Francis inspired an art of compassionate realism that nurtures humanity to this day. The more imperfect and vulnerable the portrayed subjects the more love they inspired. It is art as reverence.

The character of a culture is largely defined by its treatment of the most helpless human beings and animals. It is defined by it absolutely leaving no room for exceptions. Similarly, during my years in the restaurant business, I could form a reliable opinion of guests and employees simply by observing their treatment of bussers and dishwashers. Respect that is exclusive is no longer respect.

In the latest Real Clear Politics average of polls, only 26.4 % believes that the United States are on the right path. This leaves a very substantial majority convinced that a change of direction is necessary. The persistence of this strong opinion suggests that we may have become powerless, incapable of achieving real change. To quote Ingmar Bergman, a giant of cinema: "we walk in circles, so limited by our own anxieties that we can no longer distinguish between true and false ". It is difficult to see how you can change anything, the treatment of anyone for which there is no gratitude and towards which little tenderness.

A good place to start is to recapture the lost sense of wonder of this planet and its life.

My dogs and I live in Butte, Montana. On the majestic range above the historic mining town and just west of the continental divide, I discovered a mountain path teeming with all kinds of life except of the human variety. Several times a week, unless access is blocked by snow, I follow the bare footprints of Francis. It is more a search than a walk. At least one of my dogs is always with me. We search for the Cathedrals and chapels, the synagogues and temples of nature. The mountain is covered with these sacred, natural refuges. It is a contemplative landscape where life flows serenely - a supreme gift. In summer we walk from the moonlight to the rose fingers of the hopeful dawn. To the elk, the mountain grouse, the spider, the deer, the wild flower, the pine tree, we are pilgrims briefly passing through.

To live vibrantly, love first. To protect effectively, love first. It is a gentle and counter-intuitive approach shocking to our culture. It is clearly an entirely different path but that has always been precisely the point of St Francis' vision of whispers that unleash mighty transformations.

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