“He Died Singing” – the Transitus of Saint Francis


“He died singing, in the forty-sixth year of his age, and the twenty-fifth of his conversion”.

Today, October 3, we mark the Transitus of Saint Francis. May your Transitus be filled with blessings.

His biographers were keen to show that Saint Francis died happy, and we will repeat this line during the marking of his Transitus tonight. “He died singing.” Joy accompanies the “crossing over” of Saint Francis from this world to eternal life on October 3, 1226.

This cheery approach to dying can be off–putting. A Jesuit admirer of Saint Francis, Gerard Manley Hopkins, was heard whispering throughout the day of his death, June 9, 1889, “I am so happy! I am so happy!” Even my dear friend Father John Wardman with whom I spent hours in the weeks before he died, was inspiring in his eagerness to step into the next page of the adventure God had for him.

For most of us, our own Transitus will not be so uncomplicated. We are circled with images of difficult dying: Will we die lonely in a nursing home? Will we die in pain? Will we die in an instant in a terror attack? These ways of dying are statistically unlikely, but even so it is hard to avoid these negative predictions of the way in which we will die.

But the cheery approach shown by saints to their death also has its problems. My main sadness about my dying is the break that it will mean with my beloved wife, children, grandchildren and others close to me. While I am dying, I am sure the disruption of my loves will cause me much grief. While I am convinced that dying is a door to a wider life than this present one, free from pain and full of praise, it is not unmitigated joyfulness.

The point about the Transitus of Saint Francis, the point about learning from saints how to die, is to restore the balance of our expectations about death. Because we love, we will grieve, but St Francis, poet Hopkins, John Wardman, and all the other happy deaths keep reminding us that we can make a good death.

When I was eight years old, I sang “There’s a friend for little children above the bright blue sky”, and believed that heaven was just above that blue dome. [Or was it just behind the blue altar curtain in St Mary’s, Tambellup?]  Now I think of heaven in more existentialist terms, a state of being in the presence of God eternally, and I look back and see the many ways in which my concept of the afterlife has grown more sophisticated. The sense of mystery about it has also grown. The more complex my conception of it, the more it is shrouded in a sense of unknowing.

StainGlassFranClareSo part of making a good death is constantly interrogating one’s picture of the afterlife and updating it as we update our understanding of God and how completely his love covers our existence.

Practising for a good death includes taking now every opportunity for joy and praise. For me as a musician, singing must be part of my preparation for dying.

Preparing for a good death also includes being conscious of those we love and continuing to work at those relationships, not to increase our grief, but to celebrate the great love which God shares with us.

So while it may be true that I will die in some sadness at leaving behind those I love, I also dare to hope that those with me in those last hours will also be able to say, “He died singing”.

In marking the Transitus of Saint Francis today, we can resolve to turn our attention, however old we are, to preparing to die singing, held by love.

Franciscans in ship-wreck


FRANCISCANS DISCOVER HOPKINS
5. THE WRECK OF THE DEUTSCHLAND

The Deutshland foundered in a severe storm in the North Sea. All on board were drowned. Far away in Wales, Hopkins was deeply moved by this ship-wreck, and began to compose a long poem about it.

Hopkins was particularly saddened by the loss of five Franciscan nuns on their way to mission. In the poem, Hopkins explores the issues of ‘theodicy‘, the problem of a loving God in a world where things goes wrong.

Hopkins asks why God lets bad things happen to people in general, and in particular, he asks why God would call the Franciscan sisters to a mission and then cut their lives off. He describes their death as an instance of the stigmata like their father Francis’.

In this poem, Hopkins has no answers to the questions raised in theodicy, but he affirms God’s huge power and the tragedy of the ship-wreck.

The whole poem is 280 lines long. I have chosen the three stanzas about the Franciscan sisters.

22
Five! the finding & sake
And cipher of suffering Christ.
Mark, the mark is of man’s make
And the word of it Sacrificed.
But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,
Before-time-taken, dearest prizèd & priced —
Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token
For lettering of the lamb’s fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake.

23
Joy fall to thee, father Francis,
Drawn to the life that died;
With the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance, his
Lovescape crucified
And seal of his seraph-arrival! & these thy daughters
And five-livèd & leavèd favour & pride,
Are sisterly sealed in wild waters,
To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.

24
Away in the loveable west,
On a pastoral forehead of Wales,
I was under a roof here, I was at rest,
And they the prey of the gales;
She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails
Was calling “O Christ, Christ, come quickly”:
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wildworst Best.

Priest-poets enrich the Franciscan spirit


2. WHY SHOULD FRANCISCANS BE INTERESTED IN GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS?

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet-priest, that is, he wrote poetry as part of his vocation as priest. His poetry is ministry.

Hopkins is in a long line of priest-poets. George Herbert was one.

Hopkins looked back to the Dominican geniusThomas Aquinas, a serious teacher and writer of theology until five years before his death, when his writing stopped – except for a series of beautiful poems celebrating the Eucharist. The most famous of the Thomas Aquinas poems is Adoro Te Devote .The original Latin as Thomas wrote it is here. Gerard Manley Hopkins translated Adoro Te Devote into a moving poem.

Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
see, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived;
how says trusty hearing? That shall be believed;
what God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true.

On the cross they godhead made no sign to men;
here thy very manhood steals from human ken:
both are my confession, both are my belief,
and I pray the prayer of the dying thief.

I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
but can plainly call thee Lord and God as he:
this faith each deeper be my holding of,
daily make me harder hope and dearer love.

O Thou our reminder of Christ crucified,
Living Bread the life of us for whom he died,
lend this life to me then: feed and feast my mind,
there be thou the sweetness man was meant to find.

Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
some day to gaze on thy face in light,
and be blest for ever with thy glory’s sight.

[Latin original attributed to St Thomas Aquinas, English translation by Gerard Manley Hopkins]

Priest-poets puts their craft at the service of God. Thomas Ken (one of the non-juror bishops) headed every letter and every page of poetry Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam – to God’s Greater Glory, and this is the heart of the priest-poet’s vocation.

Like George Herbert, Australian priest, Elizabeth J. Smith finds that many of her poems work well as hymns, and she is known firstly for her fine hymns.
Words in the hands of the priest-poet become instruments firstly to fathom God’s nature, and then to sing God’s praise.

St Thomas Aquinas: lover of the Eucharistic mysteries
St Thomas Aquinas: lover of the Eucharistic mysteries

Franciscans discover poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins


The next posts in Mind Journeys will be a Franciscan exploration of the 19th Century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

These posts started originally as notes for the Convocation of the West Australian Franciscan Tertiaries last weekend.

Many of the Tertiaries present had encountered Hopkins in school as part of their English classes, but had never had to opportunity to explore his spirituality and the Franciscan influences on him.