Monday, November 11, 2013

I was wrong about something on the Internet ... something Christopher West said ... about St. Francis.

The prostitute and the hermit.

The Little Flowers of St. Francis

Yesterday a friend posted something Christopher West related in one of his seminars regarding an apocryphal tale from the Fioretti of St. Francis.  My friend posted about it here.

I immediately reacted, posting claims it couldn't be true - that I had never come across the story - ever - in any scholarly work.  Obviously I imagined I was an authority on the life of St. Francis - I've done that before.  I also neglected to note West used the story telling his audience it was apocryphal, albeit relevant to whatever point he was making.  Evidently his tone was suggestive, perhaps salacious, he also got some of the details wrong.  That's how apocryphal legends, oral traditions work sometimes.

Like I said, I reacted and commented - then I researched online.  That's so backwards - I've done that before too.  I found scholarship and poetic writings that substantiated the story - and then - I checked my library.  The story may be found in the Little Flowers of St. Francis.  It is included in the chapter covering St. Francis' encounter with the Sultan.  The version in the Fioretti differs somewhat from West's anecdotal version - he indeed spiced it up a bit - but essentially the same story.  Perhaps West takes poetic license with such things to help stress a point?  I don't read him or follow his work, and I've never listened to an entire talk - so I just don't know enough to comment - and therefore, I have no business involving myself in the discussion.

I surprised myself in my reaction to the West story, and completely forgot that detail from the story of the Sultan.  It really bothered me - not so much that I was presumptuous - and wrong, but because I actually forgot the story.  At my age, any sign of memory loss is scary.  Seriously.

The prostitute of Damietta

I believe the Damietta story is the one Christopher West referred to.  It can be found in The Little Flowers, Chapter 24.  Footnotes reveal a similar story is recorded of an incident at Bari - I don't know the details of that one however.  Such stories were popular amongst hagiographers of the 14th c..  Morality tales such as these 'pepper' the stories of the Desert Fathers as well.  They are used to illustrate the struggle against sin, how to combat lust, how to control the passions, and so on.

I'm not sure how Christopher West uses such stories in his presentations. 

The point in the Damietta story is the miraculous conversion of the prostitute.  West says she became a nun - the Fioretti says she was converted through the merits of St. Francis, embraced the faith and lived a holy life.  No mention of becoming a nun - more likely she became a penitent, a lay follower of Francis.  It is related Francis undressed and laid on the fire, he wasn't dancing around to celebrate his nakedness - if that's what West intended to pass along, that wasn't what Francis intended.  If he actually did that - I'm not sure.  A man's nakedness doesn't impress a prostitute - especially an ascetics body.  These stories tend to emulate the sayings of the Desert Fathers - not unlike stories of the Northern Thebaid from Orthodoxy.  They are spiritual instructions for the ascetic life. 

The prostitute and the hermit.

Contrast the Franciscan story of laying on fire to convert a prostitute, to the story of a prostitute going to a hermit to seduce him. 

"In lower Egypt there was a very famous hermit who lived alone in a cell..."

A beautiful prostitute heard of him and by Satan's wiles decided to seduce him.  She told the clients what she was going to do - if they would pay her.  They agreed, she went to the hermit's cell, claimed to be lost, he gave her shelter and she tried to seduce him.  He was tempted to do so, but said to himself, 'the ways of the enemy are darkness, but the Son of God is light'.  The hermit lit the lamp.  Burning with desire he told himself that people who do things like this go into eternal torment, and unquenchable fire.  'Test yourself - see if you can endure it.'  Putting his finger in the lamp he burnt it without feeling any pain because his passions burned within him.  One by one he burned his fingers - the prostitute watched in horror.  At dawn the men with whom she made the bargain to seduce the hermit came by and asked if a woman visited him.  The hermit said she was still there, asleep.  The men investigated and told him, 'abba - she is dead!'  The hermit showed them his hands - each finger roasted, saying 'Look what this child of the devil did to me.'  The men were astonished - in his charity, the hermit prayed and the woman was restored to life.  She repented and lived the life of a penitent.

Perhaps if West used this story - or the story of St. Francis more soberly - he would surely help people understand the dangers of concupiscence and the necessity of vigilance, prayer and mortification.

Just a thought.

NB:  I watched a video of a Minnesota priest speaking to youth, referencing TOB.  It was 'hip' - he was 'hip' and I totally get that.  Sometimes these people can make mistakes in their presentation - sometimes I think I could do it better.  Many times I'm mistaken, presumptuous, and don't know what I'm talking about.  So pay no attention to me - I'm a sounding keyboard.


  1. You were wrong? About something on the internet? Impossible.

  2. I know Nancy Drew - I depend on you to uncover my errors.

    I'm not sure I can get over this one.

  3. Terry, you weren't wrong in fact, at least in the part that matters - that you had never heard of such a story ever told by any scholar and that the story West relates is sheer nonsense, if not profanation of a saint. And there's a reason for that. Not that it matters, and not that you care though. I get that.

    The story West told is absolutely different from the Damietta story. It is not a matter of that he changed certain details, but that he totally removed the core of the Damietta story and replaced it with something different - that is, with his immanent body-magic BS. He turned Francis into some kind of magic man who just by showing his naked body dancing around a fire converted a sinner and this "conversion" didn't involve repentance and shame as is told in the Damietta story. In the Damietta story Francis lying down in the flames becomes, by Francis' lived faith, a miraculous revelation of an image of purgation, which becomes an evocation of the purifying flames of purgatory - or in the case of unrepented sin, the fires of hell.

    Also in the Damietta story it tells of how the prostitute looks upon Francis' gently smiling face - in spite of the flames he is lying in, whereas West tells of how the prostitute gazes upon Francis' naked dancing body.

    Reminds me of Dawn Eden's criticism of West, of how he ignores JPII's speaking of the body in context of "face-to-face".

  4. What is the context of "face-to-face"? Like, as in not seeing it as disjointed from the actual person?

    1. "Like, as in not seeing it as disjointed from the actual person?"

      Yes, that is it. West depersonalizes by his Gnostic focus on the body, both in the preoccupation and in the ultimate ends of his teachings, whereas JPII in TOB is speaking differently.

  5. No offense, but ordinary people/couples probably could care less about this stuff. Just saying.


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