Finding St. Francis on Broadway
St. Francis? Broadway? Finding the little poor man of Assisi amid the glamour and glitter of the “great white way”? I had an opportunity to enjoy Broadway’s production of The Lion King. I was already quite familiar with the movie, having used it as a wonderful teaching resource for my ninth-grade English classes. So when the opportunity arose to join a bus tour going to see the stage production, I collected the money I had set aside for vacation, boarded the bus, and headed for Broadway. And there I found Francis.
The play, superb in staging, choreography, and musical grandeur, had reached the point where the old King Mufasa was dead, killed by the treachery of his brother Scar. The Pride Lands had become a wasteland under the rule of the nefarious Scar. The hero, Simba, self-exiled as a young cub because he was convinced he had caused his father’s death, was now a young adult lion. Together with his new-found friends, Timon and Pumbaa, Simba enjoyed a life of carefree abandon—no worries, no responsibilities, just “Hakuna Matata,” the “worry-free philosophy.” Left behind was the horror of his father’s death. Unfaced and unanswered were the questions of what was happening to those left behind in the Pride Lands. Beginning to sound familiar? Echoes of the carefree young Francis who partied and sang, seeking to erase the horrors of war and the cry of the beggars in the streets of Assisi? Yes, here again I found Francis.
Simba’s “Hakuna Matata” lifestyle is eventually put to the test when he is reunited with Nala, his childhood playmate. Forced by the stark devastation of the Pride Lands, Nala went to seek help. However, her attempt to convince Simba that he is that help, that he should return as rightful King of the Pride Lands, is met with fierce resistance. Additional encouragement by Rafiki, the ancient baboon-cum-medicine woman/man of the Pride Lands, appears equally futile. Simba is, however, forced to face the cause of his reluctance. In dream-like sequences, he relives one of his last conversations with his father. Mufasa had used the stars to teach his young son about the great leaders of the past and had promised that he would always be with the young Simba. Now, reaching into the depths of his anguish, Simba calls on his father in anger and accuses him of breaking that promise.
What happened next, as I sat in that theater, was somehow a blend of ingenious staging and heart-touching mysticism, creating one of those “Ah Ha!” moments that can only be ascribed to the goodness of a gift-giving God. Dancers swirled and swayed across the stage behind a filmy, backdrop and somehow the rhythmic gestures and swaying images appeared to take on the face of Mufasa. And to the young Simba—and to the old me—the vision spoke: “You have forgotten who you are. You have forgotten me!”
Although I knew the story, in the presence of the live motion on the stage and the magic of theatrical lighting, the message carried new meaning and impact. I actually felt tears welling up in my eyes and streaming down my face as I realized the implications of that statement, implications for me, implications for the Franciscan charism that I have tried to live, implications for the world and the society of which I am a part.
“You have forgotten who you are. You have forgotten me.” And there I found St. Francis!
“You have forgotten who you are. You have forgotten me.” And there I found my God!
If St. Francis knew and believed and lived only one thing, that was it. He knew who he was—the beloved child of a loving God! How often had he asked the question, “Who are You, O God, and who am I?” How often had he reaffirmed—to himself and to his followers—the belief that “what a person is before God, that he is and no more”?
Following Francis’ conversion, it was the living realization of that truth that lay beneath his loving care of beggars and lepers—that they, too, were the beloved children of a loving God. And by extension, they were also his sisters and brothers. It was that same lived awareness of who he was in relation to his God that allowed Francis to stand with ease before the nobles of Assisi, before a Sultan, before bishops, before cardinals, and before the pope and explain what it was that God was calling him to do—to live the Gospel. And it was this awareness and self-knowledge that allowed him to roam from town to town, through the Umbrian hills and valleys, proclaiming “I am the herald of the great King.” You can do that if you really remember—and believe in—who you are and who God is!
And what about Francis’ manner of addressing natural creation as “sister” and “brother”? Was this simply the poetic utterance of a true romantic? Indeed, St. Francis was by nature both poet and romantic. But he was more. He was a man who knew God, who was ever in process of discovering more about and being surprised by that God. And he was a man who knew who he was in relation to his God. It was the overwhelming depth of this realization that enabled him to see Jesus as “brother” and as “first-born of all creation” and to embrace all of creation as “sister” and “brother”—not just “Brother Bishop” or “Brother Leo” or “Sister Clare” but also “Brother Sun” and “Our Sister Mother Earth” and “Sister Water."
What about us today, here, now, in the 21st century? We’re pretty far removed from both the fictional world of the Pride Lands and from the thirteenth century world of Francis of Assisi. Our society has ways of dealing with individuals who might dance through the street singing “Hakuna Matata” or proclaiming “I am the Herald of the Great King.” Most of us don’t see visions or hear voices of deceased ancestors calling us to get our act together. And yet, there is in our society and in our world a desperate need for the kind of conversion experienced by both the fictional Simba and the real Francis. At times in our lives, we all need to be reminded that we have forgotten who we are. When we forget who we are, we then forget who God is in our lives. And it is in this forgetting that our world is torn and strafed by violence and our lives dominated by fear.
It is in forgetting who we are that we resort to war and to terrorism—and the God who is “the Fullness of Good, all good, every good, the true and supreme good” becomes a God in whose name we wreck vengeance and fight “holy wars.”
It is in forgetting who we are that we turn to violence and abuse—and the God who is “merciful and gentle, delectable and sweet” becomes a harsh taskmaster who rules and controls through fear and domination and abuse of power.
It is in forgetting who we are that we violate the natural resources of our Earth—and “Sister Water” is polluted with the filth of industrial waste; “Mother Earth” is scarred with pesticides and landmines; “BrotherWind” carries the toxic silent death emitted by nuclear test sites.
It is in forgetting who we are that we ascribe to corporate greed and to fraud—and the God who is “moderation” and “all our riches” becomes the god of takeovers and tax games, of stock trading and Ponzi schemes.
And on a more personal level? It is in forgetting who I am and who God is that causes me to respond with annoyance when my needs are not always met; that leads me to rationalize that the homeless woman on the corner and the inmate on death row are not as deserving of respect and reverence as our hard-working, law-abiding citizens. It is in forgetting who I am that allows me to dwell in apathy rather than to challenge unjust structures; that makes me hesitate to use the gifts that my loving God has given me because they just might not measure up to someone else’s gifts.
So where do we find our reminders? Francis prayed before the crucifix: “Most High, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me true faith, certain hope, and perfect charity, sense and knowledge, Lord, that I may carry out Your holy and true command.” That same short prayer that asks for so much might serve as both request and reminder. Similarly, we might simply pray Francis’question, “Who are You, O God, and who am I?” And if we listen closely, our hearts will hear the whispered call, “You are the beloved child of a loving God.” And who knows? We might even hear it on Broadway!
Sister Ann Marie Slavin, OSF