From The Ecstasies of St. Francis
In the morning Brother Pacificus was caught up in ecstasy and saw a host of thrones in the sky; one, higher than all the others, was radiant with the glory and brilliance of all kinds of precious stones. Admiring its splendor, he wondered what this throne was and for whom it was prepared. Suddenly he heard a voice say to him: “This was Lucifer’s throne. Blessed Francis will occupy it in his stead.”
Pretending that nothing had happened, for he did not want to reveal his vision, he asked blessed Francis: “Brother, what do you think of yourself?” “I think,” he answered, “that I am the greatest of sinners.” Immediately Brother Pacificus heard the voice in his heart saying to him: “By this sign you will recognize the truth of your vision: just as Lucifer was hurled from his throne because of pride, so will blessed Francis deserve to be exalted because of his humility and take his place.” (Perugia)
By the time he had been laid out naked on the ground to die, God’s Simpleton had suffered some major complications. Although nothing seemed more straightforward than the choice of poverty, difficulties had begun at once. Giving things away brought him face-to-face with narcissism. Reversing the values of the material world required an internal reversal. What made him feel grand poisoned his spirit, and what brought shame transfigured it. He set out to serve a loving and generous God, the antithesis of his driven, upwardly mobile father, but found a tormentor of body and mind. Francis the Simpleton saw his body as the enemy of mystical practice, but Francis the Stigmatic learned that the sadhana [the practice of meditation] itself had become his greatest obstacle. For although the body tends to anchor us in the profane world through its love of comfort, anchors are everywhere. Francis found himself anchored to his sadhana, the method of spiritual experimentation he had refined enough to render transmissible.
His Great Temptation was his tormented response to a fait accompli: poverty as a sadhana was to be buried, while poverty as a pious affectation would survive. It was an insult to everything he stood for. But worse than that, it was a religious, spiritual, and political disaster; for the passageway to God he had discovered would remain a secret; the world would not be changed; and to complete the deal, God required his acquiescence. Was it possible God wished to remain inaccessible or that the constabulary God had a sadistic streak? If Francis learned anything from his two years of struggle and if the stigmata represented genuine transcendence and not a “conversion symptom” of neurotic escape, he must have realized this last test was not so different from the ones that had gone before. For although the sadhana of poverty selected trading downward as its characteristic focus, we have seen repeatedly that what truly counted in Francis’s mystical practice was attending to his awareness. Every move in the strategy of poverty stirred up reactions in his body and mind that constituted the real spiritual challenge. Every choice he made, every action he took, reopened old issues and required new conquests of himself. Each moment-by-moment battle pared down his life and left it simpler. In the end there was nothing left but the method itself and his conviction that it was the royal road to the Kingdom of Heaven as a mode of seeing and a way of life.
To illustrate what this might mean for us, we can conduct a “thought experiment” employing some of the principles we have learned from the inner life of Francis. Imagine a contemporary man, perhaps a computer programmer with a small family, who is convinced there has to be more to life than his contemporaries seem to assume. He happens on the story of Francis of Assisi and concludes, as we have, that the sadhana of poverty is but one form of spiritual life one might take. Because trading downward would be unfair to his wife and children, he casts about for another discipline, one that will be less obvious to the outer world. Although such a plan would seem to diminish the narcissistic issue of shame in the eyes of his contemporaries that was so important in Francis’s initiation, Brother Ass and the anchor of bodily comfort will still play an important role. Perhaps he notes that he has already become somewhat thick in the waist and takes it as an indication that there are some strong attachments in the area of food.
Pursuing a sadhana of fasting, however, is not the same as going on a diet. Indeed, there is something deeply conflictual in the very choice of this sadhana. For if he is successful in reducing his food intake, his ego will surely be gratified to imagine and possibly eventually to have a trim, new figure. Our programmer’s narcissistic need for admiration will threaten to turn his spiritual aspirations inside out and employ them to solidify the habitual concerns of the conventional world. If there is a way out of this predicament, he will have to discover it on his own in the course of his battle with himself.
There is another drawback to the sadhana of fasting. Our spiritual experimenter will be determined not to disregard his health, lest he compromise his family responsibilities. Furthermore, Francis’s early follies have shown quite clearly that the abuse of Brother Ass was a mistake. Our man’s eating practices, therefore, can have nothing absolute about them – nothing as simple as Francis’s finding beggars more poorly clad than himself with whom he could trade garments. The programmer will have no external measure by which to judge his progress. If he is to practice fasting while maintaining the vigorous health of his body, it will not be possible to measure each day’s food ration, for instance, to ensure that it does not exceed yesterday’s. For what makes an exercise a sadhana is not a rigid plan of asceticism but rather the attention it directs back upon our own awareness. No rational program of steps can be designed in advance to assure the practitioner he is on the right track. He has to navigate, rather, by attending to disturbances in his body and mind. He will learn to discriminate a wide array of types and degrees of hunger as well as the various ways of feeling satisfied.
What we usually associate with fasting and dieting overrides the protests of body and mind while perhaps seeking to induce altered states of consciousness by maintaining an empty stomach. In a sadhana of fasting, however, there will be no counting of calories and no favored or restricted types of food. Our would-be mystic will eat what is put before him or choose from the list of possibilities in the restaurant menu. If his dinner partners are aware of his practice, he may imitate Francis in designating one of them as his temporary “superior” to make the menu decision for him. The purpose of a sadhana is to dislodge the ego from the director’s chair, to accept as much as possible what the world provides, to resemble Francis’s birds of the air and lilies of the field. A sadhana of fasting, in fact, will not array itself against the body as though this lump of flesh were an enemy of spirituality. Rather it will embrace the body as a partner in the quest.
The body’s hunger, satiety, and energy level will all figure in a moment’s judgment about laying down the fork or asking that the carrots be passed. It is not a matter of denying oneself treats but of discerning which impulses belong to the body as its essential needs and which are passing whims that serve primarily to distract one from one’s sadhana. By sharpening his consciousness of bodily and emotional states, our proto-mystic will enter a field of concern that is no longer part of the conventional world. Paying attention to his consciousness is a radical act, a withdrawal from the everyday but not yet an entry into an alternate cosmos. In the beginning his efforts will have to be devoted almost exclusively to staying in this transitional space, where dialogue between observing ego and the awareness of body and mind is conducted. The pure enjoyment of tasting, chewing, and swallowing always threatens to overwhelm his attention, draw it away from his sadhana, and reestablish mindless eating as the “default” state of consciousness.
If our spiritual novice is determined, patient, and returns again and again to mindful eating despite all the failures and distractions, he may find after a few months of diligence that the shift in his attention has become more easy to sustain. This will be his first real “breakthrough,” the first time he can feel that his sadhana is beginning to take on a life of its own. Indeed, Francis has made it clear through his biographers that as long as we are straining with ego-directed effort we have not found the “perfect joy” that marks the path of a genuine sadhana. We know we are on that path only when we find that it is no longer we who do the work but that we are carried along by a larger current of interest – something like Francis’s erotic involvement with Lady Poverty.
With this breakthrough, however, everything becomes possible. For now our attention can direct itself as readily to awareness of our body and mind as it can to an altercation that has just flared up in the street outside our window. Consequently, the practitioner of joyful fasting will find himself entering that transitional space of body and mind awareness even when he is not sitting down to eat, and even when he does not intend to do so. While driving his car, dandling his daughter, or making love to his wife, our proto-mystic will become momentarily aware of what it is doing, the body and mind which is the real agent of his life. The illusion of the ego’s control is finally being undermined, and the ego-membrane thinned out. At first he will experience only flashes of this alternate perspective, perhaps once every week or two. Gradually, however, these moments will become more frequent; and as they do, the taken-for-granted nature of the conventional world will be as radically undermined as the ego. Portals to an ecstatic world may be found, and if the evidence of Francis’s life does not lead us astray, we can expect encounters with the narcissistic emotions to become more frequent.
Portals to an alternate cosmos will surely emerge once the conventional world and habitual ego have been undermined. But we have imagined no shape for that world and no exercises by which our proto-mystic might assist his entry into what corresponds to Francis’s Kingdom of Heaven. Francis employed the Bible rather aggressively in preparing his consciousness for the sacred cosmos. He repeated favorite verses, composed canticles, and above all designed for himself an intensive all-day meditation on the passion and death of Christ. Our computer programmer may not be capable of this sort of relationship with the Bible. He may have to attend to his own unconscious moments when the conventional world begins to break up or fade out, in order to find the mythic foundations of his own life. Perhaps, like Francis, he will devote years to composing and refining phrases to repeat and images to contemplate. Furthermore, he might try a form of dharma preaching, even if he has no community in which to do so. He can, for instance, speak spontaneously of the other world, aloud, while driving alone in his car. If he does so, he will attend to how readily the words come and whether they seem to be generated from somewhere other than his ego.
Paralleling the story of Francis’s life, our “thought experiment” employs the Poverello’s discovery that each moment of the day and night provides an opportunity either to reassert the conventional world-construction of our habitual ego-attitude or to open ourselves to an unpredictable rearrangement of the world. The latter alternative may be too frightening for most of us to consider – or even to entertain as an abstract possibility – for if we do embark on such a course, we are in for a radical rearrangement of ourselves. Every step along the way takes the form of an insult to our ego’s pride of accomplishment and mastery. It makes no difference what practice we take up to get us started – trading downward, eating mindfully, or something entirely different – its essence will always come down to finding and overturning the ever more subtle ways by which our habits reassert themselves. The work always takes us to the narcissistic sector of our body and mind where the ego stands on shaky ground. Again and again, we have to relinquish our preconceptions and open ourselves to reality as it is rather than what we want it to be and habitually construe it. Every step is a letting-go of a formerly unconscious attachment and a stepping-down from an inadvertent pretense.
This is why Brother Pacificus’s vision of the Throne of Lucifer is so apt. According to tradition, Lucifer, the “Light Bearer,” was once the loftiest of the angels but had to be expelled from Heaven for his pride. He is, therefore, the model of an overconfident ego and represents the antithesis of trading downward. Every “enthroned” ego is necessarily excluded from the ecstatic world, for ecstasy is precisely leaving the throne and standing outside one’s habitual self. Ecstasy supervenes only when the ego has been moved out of the driver’s seat and becomes an observer of realities generated elsewhere. When Francis vacated that seat, he found himself to be “the greatest of sinners.” He was thinking of how ungrateful he was in view of all the favors the director of his ecstasies had shown him; how easily he was distracted and forgot to observe his awareness of body and mind; and how ready he was to take up the cudgels for an idea or practice he believed in so fiercely that he had become attached to it. His sinfulness was a good deal more subtle than ours, but he was no less burdened by it. When Francis called himself a sinner, he was referring to what he had learned in his bouts with the narcissistic emotions.
The claim that Lucifer’s throne has been reserved for Francis signifies not merely the glorification of the Poverello’s saintly life but commends his methods as well. For his techniques of ecstasy always involved standing aside and standing down. His employment of the narcissistic emotions deliberately challenged the ego and “unseated” it so as to open the way for the wholly unanticipated to enter consciousness. In the end, the Throne of Lucifer stands for the narcissistic extremes of grandiosity and shame. Lucifer clung pig-headedly to his grandiose throne and was hurled sprawling into the shameful depths. Francis willingly chose to enter the domain of his shameful shadow, rolled in it like a pig, and thereby lighted up his body and mind from within. The throne belongs to him because he knows his grandiose impulses better than anyone, and how to convert them into light.