The Vicar's Letter (written by Reverend Joy Cousans, Vicar of St Mary's Church in Eaton Bray) has been appearing in the villages Focus magazine since June 2017
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Vicar's Letter

July 2023

Reverend Joy Cousans, vicar of the Church of St Mary The Virgin, Eaton Bray with Edlesborough.

Recently I visited the National Gallery exhibition about St Francis of Assisi. It explores how he has been perceived and represented over the centuries, and how he still remains relevant today. Exhibits include paintings, sculptures, altarpieces, letters and his habit. There is even a Marvel comic book, 'Francis, brother of the universe' released in 1980. Francis was born in Assisi, central Italy in 1182, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. During military service he was captured and imprisoned, a deeply affecting experience. He returned home with new priorities. Francis sold a bale of silk from his father's warehouse to pay for repairs to St Damian's, a semi derelict church. His father was outraged; there was a public confrontation and his father disowned and disinherited him. Legend has it that Francis took off his expensive clothes and walked away naked.

Having rejected his father's wealth, his consuming passion for Jesus led Francis to adopt a life of absolute poverty. Francis lodged with the priest of St Damian's church and scoured nearby fields for stones to make repairs. He worked as a day labourer in return for food. Soon a few companions joined him. He prepared a simple gospel-based rule for them to live by. In 1210 Pope Innocent III approved the Order of Friars Minor, known as the Franciscans. Francis and his companions had no money or property. They helped lepers and shared a life of deep devotion to Jesus through their preaching. Franciscans lived on alms or undertook simple labour in return for food and other essentials. The vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were at the core of the Franciscan way of life.

In 1219, Francis went to the Holy Land to meet soldiers on the fifth crusade. He also met with the Sultan of Egypt, Malek-al-Kamil who was deeply impressed by Francis' commitment to the Christian faith and the courtesy with which he treated Muslims. The result was that the Franciscans were given custody of the Christian shrines in the Holy Land.

On his return to Italy, Francis found the Franciscan order was becoming a victim of its own success. Many people were deeply attracted to Francis and his sense of joy, abandonment and freedom. What they overlooked was that this joyful freedom stemmed from his willingness to give up everything and accept total poverty. That included dirt, cold, hunger, and lepers with sores and a real danger of infection. In 1220 Francis resigned as minister-general of the Order and the rule was modified. The Franciscans eventually split into the Conventual Franciscans, who held a limited amount of property in common, and the Spiritual Franciscans, who had no property.

The order today is called the Society of St Francis (SSF). Following St Francis, they have a commitment to issues of justice, peace and the integrity of creation and they care for the poor and marginalised. When I was studying for the ministry, I had to spend a few days in London. With little money, I couldn't afford anywhere to stay. So a friend invited me to the House of the Divine Compassion in Plaistow, East London. There, the brothers welcomed everyone free of charge. My friend often stayed there in the holidays. But he did warn me that he sometimes came away with fleas!

St Francis is the patron saint of animals and ecology because of his care for creation and his love for all animals. In the exhibition, there are pictures by Giotto (c.1300) and Andrea Buttner (2010) of him preaching to the birds. His hymn 'Canticle of the Sun' is represented in painting and film. Pope Francis wrote in his second encyclical: 'In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us... This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.'

As we enjoy the summer, may we be mindful of our need to care for all creation.

With every blessing,

Joy, Vicar of Eaton Bray with Edlesborough

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About the Vicar's Letter

The Vicar's Letter has been appearing in the villages Focus magazine since August 2002.

The Rev. Peter Graham also used to publish The Vicar's Letter in the parish magazine of 1964. Please see the area for these.