Praying Foolish Prayers: a prayer book review

This week, is St. Francis of Assisi’s feast day (October 4th), the Medieval saint and celebrated founder of the Franciscan order. Francis was a holy fool—a self-styled subversive of the wisdom of his age. Drawing inspiration from Jesus, the Apostle Paul (in 1 Corinthians 4:10-13), and the professional fools of the middle ages, Francis, and his early follower, brother Juniper, produced a spirituality that invited ridicule from wise, the rich, and the powerful because it called the values of society into question. In speaking of fools, Jon Sweeney writes:

it was often the hired fool, dressed in motley silliness, juggling and telling stories, who was allowed to make jokes at the expense of the mighty. A common man or woman might not sare to say things that a fool could say with impunity. A fool was one who flouted conventions, poked fun at niceties and got away with it because he was feebleminded (either pretending, or in reality). They were often regarded as medieval prophets who are able to see or understand things that other could not. Francis and Juniper appreciated these fools and emulated them when they became as Francis himself put it, “Jugglers for God” (Introduction, xix).

the-st-francis-holy-fool-prayer-bookJon Sweeney is an independent scholar, publisher and editor. He has written, translated, edited and annotated several volumes about Francis and the early Franciscans, including Francis and Clare: a True StoryFrancis of Assisi in His Own Words: The Essential Writings; Light in the Dark Ages: the Friendship of Francis and Clare; The Road to Assisi (annotated edition of Paul Sabatier’s biography of Francis), and The Complete St. Francis.  The St. Francis Holy Fool Prayer Book is the third of Sweeny’s Franciscan prayer books (along with the St. Francis Prayer Book and the St. Clare Prayer Book). What makes this volume unique is the way it picks up on this holy fool, subversive element in the early Franciscan movement.

This is a pocket-sized prayer book, and the heart of it is a week’s worth of prayers—The Daily Office for Holy Fools(Part 3).  However, before Sweeney gets to the Office, he includes an introduction on the concept of holy fool, a section of inspiration, examining the holy fool theme in the life of Francis and Brother Juniper (part 1), and a section introducing the format for the morning and evening prayers (part 2). Sweeney also includes occasional prayers for fools (part 4), and four stories of Brother Juniper from The Little Flowers (part 5).

The Daily Office for Holy Fools is composed of morning and evening prayers, each beginning with a simple prayer of intention, and incorporating silences, readings from the gospels, psalms, Hebrew prophets and the New Testament, an early Franciscan saying and a spiritual practice, relating to the theme of that day’s prayer(16). The themes and intents for the week include:

  1. Sunday: The wisdom of foolishness
  2. Monday: The strength of powerlessness
  3. Tuesday: There is joy in forgiveness
  4. Wednesday: The humble are blessed
  5. Thursday: The pure in heart are blessed
  6. Friday: Folly is another name for righteousness
  7. Saturday: True Wisdom brings peace and justice

I incorporated this prayer book into my devotional life through last week. I thought the scriptural passages chosen were meaningful and I enjoyed attempting the suggested spiritual practices. I failed at day one (the wisdom of foolishness) when Sweeney suggested:

Today, alone, somewhere outdoors, try preaching to the birds. If it happens to be winter and there are no birds to be found where you are, preach to the squirrels. Begin by speaking silently, if you prefer in your mind. But stand before them and express yourself from your heart. Record how it felt. Do it again tomorrow (29).

For several days I saw nothing creaturely I could practice such foolishness on. No birds, no squirrels, nothing creepy, crawly. Only flies, and I didn’t feel as though I could preach to them with a flyswatter in my hand. Commending them to God before ending their lives seemed more Pulp Fiction than Brother Sun, Sister Moon. 

Another example, here was the spiritual practice commended as part of the Tuesday evening prayer:

Some of us are simply not good at allowing joy to fill us. (I count myself in this camp, much of the time.) Perhaps we were taught to be more circumspect, not  to easily show our feelings. For a few minutes, as long as you are able, stretch your arms wide and hold your palms facing out as if you might catch a huge beach ball that’s about to be thrown your direction. Close your eyes. Then, catch it! (44)

I did this while lying on my bed last Tuesday. My wife walked in the room seeing my arms spread wide. This is the conversation we had:

Her, looking at my arms: Are you trying to block me from getting in bed.

Me: no.

Her: What are you doing? Why are your arms out like that?

Me: I’m catching a giant beach ball.

Her: You are like one of our children. 

And that’s how I knew I did it right.

Other practices were more straightforwardly applicable, though not easy (e.g. laying down defensiveness, forgiving and seeking forgiveness, kneeling for prayer, wearing something ridiculous and not taking ourselves so seriously, giving extravagantly to someone you know in need, and going where God’s love compels us). In general, Sweeney’s holy fool practices emphasize the playful more than the prophetic, though clearly there is a connection between the two.

This is a fun little prayer book. Because it is a week’s worth of prayers, it can be used to either augment or replace your regular devotional practice for a week, or prayed through regularly for a season. What I appreciate about the whole holy fool idea, is the way God works through unexpected people, far from the center of power, to subvert the system and bring about the newness of God’s kingdom. These prayers (and stories) poke at that and press us in the holy, foolish direction of the kingdom of God. Francis and Juniper (and Sweeny) commend us toward a style of life shaped by the Beatitudes and the witness of Christ. May we all be so foolish! I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press for the purposes of an honest review


The Complete Francis: a book review

Paraclete Press has a number of books on Christian Spirituality. Their Paraclete Giants series presents the complete works of various saints. I have several of these. They are affordable editions of Christian classics. The Complete Francis of Assis is an exceptional volume and a great edition to the series.

the-complete-francis-of-assisi-his-life-the-complete-writings-and-the-little-flowers-6Edited, translated and introduced by Jon Sweeney (independent scholar and cultural critic, The Complete Francis of Assisi includes the complete text of Paul Sabatier’s  classic The Life of St. Francis of Assissi (published as The Road to Assisi with Sweeney’s introduction and notes), Sweeney’s edition of Francis’s writings (Previously published as Francis of Assisi In His Own Words: The Essential Writings) and Sweeney’s translation of The Little Flowers of S. Francis by Brother Ugolino.

Of these three shorter works, Sabatier’s biography was the most difficult for me to read.   Sweeney calls Sabatier Francis’s first modern biographer (3). He first published his Life in French in 1894. Sabatier employed the methods of  textual and historical criticism and contemporary psychological insight. Yet it is still a text from a hundred years ago and reads like. Sabatier sought to be a faithful interpreter of Francis. He was a man of his times and is reticent about what legendary material he includes in his history, discounting the most fanciful tales (i.e. appearances of the devil, heavenly virgins, etc.); however he doesn’t complete demythologize him either, he includes an account of Francis’s stigmata.

Francis’s Essential Writings is of the most historical interest to me. Here is Francis in his own words–letters, prayers and monastic rules. These are important documents of the early Franciscan movement. Sweeney’s introductions and comments provide context for each piece of writing.

The Little Flowers is well known and well loved. What sets this edition apart from others (other than Sweeney’s translation) is their arrangement. Sweeney places these stories in what he thinks is their most straightforward chronological rendering (rather than the traditional order.

Anyone interested in Francis and the movement he founded will love this volume. If you do not have any Francis on your shelf, this is a good deal. I give it five stars.

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.


Tolstoy Retold: a book review

The great Russian Novelist, Leo Tolstoy, wrote long complicated novels like War & Peace and Anna Karenina. But Tolstoy was also known for his ideals, and his spirituality, and for preserving and retelling Russian folktales. In a short volume, three of Tolstoy’s tales are retold with notes and an introduction by Jon Sweeney (independent scholar, and author of more than twenty books).  Sweeney’s prose combines with Anna Mitchell’s illustrations to produce Three SImple Men & Other Holy Folktales. 

The stories that Sweeney retells are some favorites. The title story retells the story of the three hermits, who are visited by priests who judge them simple and shallow in their prayer life and try to instruct them. The priests somce to see that these simple monks are deep in communion with God when they see them walking towards their boat on the waves. Next Sweeney retells the Godson (rechristened The Godson Learns to Fight Evil) and   A Spark Neglected Burns the House ( new title: One Neglected Spark May Burn Down a House).

Sweeney’s retellings have some creative license. Tolstoy’s Three Hermits have no individual characteristics (they are simply, three hermits). Sweeney describes them individually as basket maker, a forager for food, and the thinker (3-4). Conversely The Godson learns to Fight Evil simplifies Tolstoy’s account, removing some of its preachiness and its magical elements (57).In One Negelected Spark, Sweeney adds a Tolstoy-esque element, the aging, ailing father streched out on the stove recovering from athsma (59). Despite some poetic license Sweeney is faithful to the plot of Tolstoy’s tales.

I don’t prefer these adaptations to the originals, but I enjoyed them. Moreover, the prose is simple enough that my eight-year-old daughter read them happily. I liked Sweeney’s introduction and his brief notes on each story where we reflects on what Tolstoy was trying to do as a storyteller. I i give this book four stars

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.