This post is long, long overdue. Regular readers of DatingGod.org will know that the last six weeks have been a rather challenging time with the deaths of two grandparents and a brother Franciscan friar, the holiday season and a lot of travel all coming together to make ordinary activity just that much more difficult. Luckily, things are now calming down in the New Year and I have finally been able to return to that ever-growing stack of books that I am sent to review for the blog or for popular magazines and academic journals. I received Jamie Arpin-Ricci, CJ’s latest book, The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis and Life in the Kingdom (IVP 2011), in late Fall and have enjoyed it immensely (and not just because Arpin-Ricci so kindly interviewed me on his excellent blog last year, see his “Dating God – Dan P. Horan, OFM” post of last January). It is an unusually creative, insightful and challenging book that helps bring the Beatitudes into today’s troubled world in a new way, while focusing on issues related to the Christian quest for social justice. All this is done with a constant reference to St. Francis of Assisi.
Arpin-Ricci is a member of a lay Franciscan community rooted in the Anglican tradition and a pastor of a community in Winnipeg, Canada known as “Little Flowers Community,” which is in part inspired by the Mennonite tradition. He has dedicated much of his life to the service of the church and of the poor and marginalized in the communities in which he finds himself. His book, The Cost of Community, contains a great mixture of scriptural interpretation, personal reflection, Franciscan and Christian history and stories from his experiences in ministry that help illustrate the complexities, challenges and joys of the vita evangelica.
One of the first things I do whenever I pick up a new book is check out the bibliography. In Arpin-Ricci’s book one finds a hefty, although not exhaustive, selection of recommended texts organized by the headings “Sermon on the Mount,” “The Beatitudes,” “The Lord’s Prayer,” and the category I was most interested to examine, “St. Francis and the Franciscans.” As a Franciscan friar and someone who, if not a ‘Franciscan scholar as such’ plays one on TV, I tend to be very critical of texts that come out bearing the categorization “Franciscan” or about “St. Francis” that are too often fluffy, unsound or errant. Oftentimes few sound sources are used in researching the most popular Saint of all time and the spiritual and theological movement he unwittingly inaugurated.
While Arpin-Ricci’s endnotes and recommended reading in the category of “St. Francis and the Franciscans” is not without its notable absences, it is refreshingly composed of some of the more significant texts in that area, with, it would seem, particular priority given to the most accessible books (you’re not going to find the latest Italian or German scholarly tomes or articles here, but you wouldn’t expect to anyway). He includes Lawrence Cunningham’s masterful work as well as Bill Short’s now classic Poverty and Joy as well as some classics including Bonaventure. Noticeably absent, however, are the writings of St. Francis himself.
What is perhaps most pleasing to me, a fellow member of the worldwide and ecumenical Franciscan family to which Arpin-Ricci belongs by virtue of his commitment to the Anglican tradition’s Third Order, is how well he seems to understand and present Francis to his readers. Take for example this paragraph:
To view St. Francis as an environmentalist is to miss the point, though he is certainly well-positioned as creation’s patron saint. His love for creation is inseparably linked to his commitment to peace, and his radical generosity to and fraternity with the poor. Francis was enraptured by the image of the kingdom of God that was bringing the all-encompassing shalom that we are called to cocreate as the community of the Beatitudes. Blessed are the peacemakers. In this way, when we pray these lines we are declaring our commitment to the gospel of hope that is both immediate and future, concerned with both justice for all and our ultimate justification. They are indivisibly one in the singular, perfect will of God to which we uncompromisingly submit. That is a tall order (153).
Like this passage, Arpin-Ricci continually weaves the example and vision of Francis of Assisi and his followers into the lived experience of the reader so as to challenge and edify Christians who seek life in the Kingdom today.
The narrative that Arpin-Ricci shares with us throughout his reflections are at times heart-wrenching and illustrative to the greatest degree. I often think about the story he tells in the beginning of Chapter 2 (“Blessed are the Poor in Spirit”) in which we read about Arpin-Ricci’s witness of the very public suicide of a man who was the brother of a member of the Little Flowers community and lived down the street from Arpin-Ricci. He jumped to his death, a troubled man with untreated mental illness, in the presence of his sister and neighbors. After recounting the emotional story, Arpin-Ricci writes:
Blessed are those who mourn…When faced with the stark reality of such unimaginable suffering, our carefully articulated theology, our quick spiritual platitudes and our easy assurances of salvation seem to crumble. And it was into this reality that God began to open our hearts and minds and lives to the powerful and unrelenting truth of the Beatitudes. How, in light of such tangible loss and suffering, can we ever call ourselves blessed? (35)
Arpin-Ricci is a talented writer whose prose and ability to tell a story help make The Cost of Community wonderfully accessible and a joy to read. It’s a book that, although not exclusively centered on the Franciscan tradition as such, certainly led this Franciscan friar to appreciate how manifold the tradition really is and inspirational the example and wisdom of the 800-year-old tradition is for so many people throughout the world. Arpin-Ricci does an excellent job making both the Beatitudes and the broader Sermon on the Mount, as well as the Franciscan inspiration at the heart of his own experience, relevant for today’s Christian community. Community, of course, is central throughout the book and one does not walk away from this book doubting in the least the place — with its joys and challenges — that community has as the constitutive element of Christian life. You simply cannot “go it alone.”
To, as they say, “put my money where my mouth (or review) is,” I will tell you that this book was the most popular gift that I gave to friends for Christmas this year. It might not be for everyone, but there is certainly something about it that will speak to the heart and experience of each reader.