Experts say that the best way in which to give God a good laugh is to tell him our plans. Perhaps Fr Murray Bodo should have known better than to think he knew his future path after ordination: as a Franciscan, life would inevitably be surprising. If anything, to be a Franciscan means being pre-programmed for the unforeseen ideas of the God of the Unexpected!
“I never expected to spend my life teaching, writing and leading pilgrimages to Assisi. I had thought that, after ordination I would be working with the Navajo people. Life just did not turn out as I had predicted.”
Fr Murray Bodo OFM, Franciscan friar, writer, poet and author of the modern spiritual classic, Francis: The Journey and the Dream, laughed. “I grew up in Gallup, New Mexico quite close to the Navajo Reservation, and my father worked for a while on the Reservation. We had friends there and knew two of the Franciscan missionaries. I was also inspired by Fr Berard Haile, who put the Navajo language into writing, inventing a morphology to visually transmit the sound of the Navajo words. I wanted to be a Navajo Missionary like them.”
The contrast could scarcely be greater. Thousands of people across the world, for more than 40 years, have associated the name of Fr Murray with teaching, writing, poetry and Franciscan study pilgrimages. How did the change of plans come about?
“I ended up teaching literature and writing at St Francis High School Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, right after my ordination. I was asked if I would replace the friar who taught English and who was terminally ill. I was assured it would only be for one year. Twelve years later I was moved from the High School Seminary to our Franciscan college as Professor of English there until it closed two years later. I then taught English at other universities and colleges, having, by that time, a Master's Degree and a Doctorate in English. I was writing poetry seriously from my undergraduate studies through my theological studies before ordination.”
The name of Fr Murray Bodo OFM conjures up an image of a gently-spoken American Franciscan, whose book, Francis: The Journey and the Dream, has sold more than 200,000 copies and has been translated into French, Spanish, Danish, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, and Maltese. With more than 30 books in print, several of them collections of his own poetry, it is not surprising that he comments, “Writing is something I just have to do to be me. It’s intimately a part of my identity.”
Fr Murray did not simply wake up one morning and decide to write Francis: The Journey and the Dream, a poetic, story-like version of the life of St Francis of Assisi. He points out, “I was asked to write the book by Father Jeremy Harrington, OFM, who was at that time the editor and publisher of St. Anthony Messenger Press. The thought was that there would then be a book on St. Francis released at the same time as Franco Zeffirelli's film, Brother Sun, Sister Moon. I was sent to Assisi for three months to work on the book. It is a mystery to me why it has been so popular and been translated into so many languages. St Francis must have been using me as an instrument to speak to others in a way that touched a chord in people all over the world.”
Forty years later, Fr Murray wrote Francis and Jesus, another small book and one which is, in many ways, a continuation of Francis: The Journey and the Dream. What inspired him to write Francis and Jesus? Why is it so different from its predecessor?
“I wrote this book because I found the writing voice I had used in The Journey and the Dream. I was working with a scene from Francis's life, and suddenly that voice was there again, and I just went with it to see where it would lead me. The book is different because I was forty years older and had spent those years working three months of the year in Assisi and doing research on Francis's life. I had also grown in my understanding of the inner life and the Franciscan charism.”
Many insights enshrined within Francis and Jesus are the result of long years of reflection and life experience.
“The book, Francis and Jesus, grew out of the silence that lies between the lines of what St Francis said about himself and what was said about him by the early biographers. He says so little about himself and only the imagination, I found, could give me access to what was inside the lines, what was contained in the silence, in the unsaid, as it were. As with my first book, Francis: The Journey and the Dream, so, too, in this book, when I began to explore the inner silence for what was inaccessible to me historically, St Francis began to emerge on the page as a developing character who had feelings and thoughts, dreams and aspirations, discouragements and disappointments, fears and triumphs, sadness and joy. And above all he emerged as someone deeply in love with God whom he saw concretely in Jesus Christ. Jesus was for Francis, in an extraordinarily powerful way, the Incarnation of God, a God whose love was so great that Francis could do nothing but return that love with his own love. Jesus was his all, his everything. I let Francis lead me on the page, let him speak and think and lead me where he would.”
St Francis was the first recorded person in history to receive the Stigmata, the wounds of the crucified Jesus in his hands, feet and side. This happened on the mountain of La Verna, a mountain in northern Italy, given to Francis and his followers as a place for prayer and solitude. Despite the passage of 800 years and countless thousands of pilgrim feet, its forest-clad rocky slopes, sometimes ghostly with mist still seem pristine and untouched.
Francis received the Stigmata on 17 September 1224, two years before his death. Since then, Franciscans across the world have celebrated the memory of that unique event. Do his Stigmata have any relevant meaning for us today? Fr Murray is convinced that it has.
“I believe it has great relevance because it seals St Francis and his way of living the Gospel with the sign of the Crucified Christ in whose footsteps Francis had walked all his life following his conversion as a young man in his early 20s. The Stigmata is a sign of God's approval of a way of living and of St Francis himself. It says that in Francis we see an image of God's own son, Jesus. In fact, in the Middle Ages St Francis was called, Alter Christus, Another Christ, and also, Speculum Christi, A Mirror of Christ.”
One thing is certain: on 17 September, celebrated as the feast of the Stigmata of St Francis, Fr Murray Bodo will simply be one of many thousands worldwide to thank God for ‘the little poor man of Assisi.’ Their thanksgiving, however, will be deeper and more real because of Fr Murray’s writings.