Franciscan Footprints: Following Christ in the Ways of Francis and Clare. Helen Julian CSF tells the story of her new book for BRF
It was never going to be the final title, but in my mind this book is called ‘Living the Gospel – the sequel’. That was my first book, published more than 20 years ago, and it told the stories of Francis and Clare, the founders of the Franciscan way, and the spirituality which sprang from them and their passion for God. It did include a little about my own journey, but mainly it was firmly rooted in the thirteenth century.
But now we’re in the twenty-first century, and there have been eight centuries of Franciscans, formal and informal, signed up Christians and those on the fringes of faith, who’ve been inspired by Francis and Clare in their own journey and discipleship. A few of them are well known, high profile saints; more may be known to those who also follow the Franciscan way, and some are almost unknown. I felt that there was a richness here which I wanted to share, and stories which weren’t often told.
This idea had already begun to bubble around, when an editor from BRF contacted me to ask whether I had any ideas for another book. After a long period when life had been too busy to take on such a major project, it had finally become possible, and I had a real sense of God’s timing, and of my idea and BRF’s enquiry coming together. And so I began to research, and to formulate a shape for the book.
As a lapsed librarian I love researching but, with a deadline signed up to, the day soon came when I had to start actually writing. I began with the second chapter, on the Anglican founders, as I’d already written part of it as a sample. It was really difficult to whittle all that I knew down to one chapter; sometimes knowing more is not helpful.
The third chapter, on theologians, had its own problems, as some of the language and concepts used by major Franciscan theologians, who really had to be included, are quite alien now and rather complex. I wanted to get this chapter done so it wasn’t looming up ahead of me.
Most of the rest were more straightforward, though I did heave a sigh of relief when I finished the chapter on martyrs. They are of course inspiring, but all those stories which ended ‘badly’ were dispiriting to be engaged with day after day. Finally I wrote the first chapter, so as to ensure that what I wrote about Francis and Clare dovetailed with the later chapters.
The person I’m proudest to have been able to include is one of the least known – a twentieth century Congolese Poor Clare sister called Claire of the Eucharist. For a long time all I had was one picture and a few lines about her in a book about Poor Clares around the world. All my attempts to find out more failed, and I was resigned to including her as one of those who had lived and died leaving little trace behind. And then, while researching someone else entirely, I found a reference to her on the website of a Roman Catholic Poor Clare community in America, which mentioned a book. I e-mailed the community, who responded speedily, giving me the details of the book, and even offering to lend me their copy. It was a wonderful example of what my agnostic father used to refer to as ‘the religious mafia’.
What I hadn’t factored into my previous research was that the Congo had been a French colony, and so any information about Claire was in French. Armed with the details I found a copy of the book online, bought a small French dictionary from a second-hand bookshop, and resurrected my school French to find out more about Claire. It was a big investment of time and effort, probably more than I put into anyone else, but she’s an inspiring and very human role model, and I’m glad I persevered.
It wasn’t a big part of my original thinking, but as I write this in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, I’m acutely aware of the ways in which the saints can accompany us through life, and perhaps especially when we’re feeling isolated or afraid. It may be that the book will lead readers to new friends, saintly and not so saintly, who they can call on for support through difficult days.
And talking of role models – one of the other blessings of writing this book was learning more about some of the earlier members of my own Anglican Franciscan community, and being reminded of some of those I’ve known in my own time as a member, in all their wonderful variety and giftedness and sometimes strangeness. It’s been a valuable reminder that this isn’t a story which is over, which all happened a long time ago, in a very different world, any more than the Gospel is.
It's a story which continues, being shaped and reshaped for different times and places, for different churches, for the ever emerging and changing needs of today's world. And I hope it will lead its readers to discover this rich tradition, and their own place within it.