ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI, MENTAL ILLNESS, & PASTA E FAGIOLI
Welcome to my seventh annual birthday St. Francis of Assisi post in which I stop referring to my favorite saint endearingly as “a little bit crazy,” but finally honor his truth in my understanding that he was, indeed, mentally ill.
As a young man, he suffered traumatic battle experiences. His brain became sick with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which affected his perceptions and behaviors. And with medieval psychological treatments not being a thing that existed, he adapted and became one of the most beloved and respected Saints of all time.
St. Francis of Assisi (Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone) was born in either 1181 or 1182 in Assisi, Italy. He founded the Franciscan Order of Friar Minors and Sisters, lived the Gospels in obedience to the Church, traveled in peace to the Middle East during the crusades, created the first Nativity scene, saw God in everyone and everything, received the Stigmata of Christ Crucified, inspired countless people in his lifetime, helps us weather the storms in our lives, and continues to inspire us as leaders today. He died on October 3 (my birthday), 1226 in Assisi, Italy.
He is the patron saint of animals and ecology, and he’s honored in the Roman Catholic, Anglican (including Episcopal), and Lutheran Churches on October 4 (my daughter’s birthday). St. Francis is the patron saint of Italy (along with St. Catherine of Siena) and other places throughout the world. Many parishes celebrate his feast day with a Blessing of the Animals on October 4 or the Sunday before or after.
If you are unfamiliar with the biography of St. Francis of Assisi, check out my post on Young St. Francis first, so you know about the events I discuss here.
If you are a regular follower, you know that what I’ve been referring to as my Spiritual Journey has been a divinely-guided escape from the psychological abuse of my childhood and marriage.
In June of this year, I was correctly diagnosed with Complex-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by narcissistic parental and spousal psychological abuse. It’s complex because psychologically abusive trauma happened to me routinely. It dysfunctionally conditioned my perceptions and behaviors.
I was more than a little freaked out when I understood that Complex-PTSD is considered a mental illness because of the stigma associated with that term. But, I calmed down when I understood that having a mental illness simply meant that my brain was sick and needed quality health care.
I found a good EMDR therapist, and received nine 50-minute weekly therapy sessions. With his guidance, my brain processed the memories that once controlled me. Major shifts took place.
Then my therapist proved to me that I didn’t need any more sessions. My brain is healed now — I’m no longer mentally ill. EMDR therapy works like that. Highly recommend!
St. Francis of Assisi, on the other hand, suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by experiences during battle and imprisonment. But there was no treatment, or even recognition of such a condition as PTSD during the High Middle Age. The trauma he suffered triggered a search for meaning in his life.
Upon his release from prison, he spent the next year in bed recovering from tuberculosis. He suffered many symptoms of PTSD — flashbacks, guilt, self-loathing, grief, depression, and confusion. He was unable to return to his former lifestyle, and he had a few false starts as he tried to move forward into his new life.
Then, he read the Gospels bound in a book his mother gave him, wandered the countryside helping poor and sick people, and prayed at San Damiano, a church outside the city walls that had collapsed into near ruins. Miracles occurred.
Francis’s spiritual awakening miracle happened in his overcoming a lifelong revulsion and fear of people with leprosy when he recognized the eyes of Jesus in a leper’s face. Thereafter, he recognized God in everyone and everything.
These miracles led him to fast and pray and beg God to tell him what to do next. Jesus answered him from the icon Cross of San Damiano:
“Rebuild my church for it is in disrepair.”
Francis went about the work of rebuilding San Damiano as joyfully as he once sang with his friends in the streets of Assisi. Perhaps he thought that everything would be okay now.
Alas, his father tried to have him deemed mentally incompetent. Bishop Guido of Assisi advised Francis to renounce his inheritance to quell his father’s worries about Francis’s brother Angelo’s inheritance. In a public renouncement of his father’s financial support, Francis stripped down to his underclothes and declared:
Until now, I have called Pietro di Bernardone my father. But because I have proposed to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so upset, and also all the clothing which is his, wanting to say, from now on: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, and not, ‘my father, Pietro di Bernardone.’” – Life of Francis, Thomas of Celano
In psychological parlance, this is called “cutting contact.” It helped Francis move forward into his new life. However, PTSD continued to affect him. I mean, it’s pretty amazing how well people with mental illness can handle and even, as Francis shows us, excel at life while remaining always a little off kilter.
For the rest of his days on earth, Francis remained somewhat illogical. For instance, due to his excessively low self-esteem, he was unwilling to take on the full role of leader of his own Order (to its detriment and eventual split); even though he was a good leader, spiritual advisor, and preacher. Further, he was so full of the Holy Spirit and the Way of Jesus Christ, he was recognized as a Saint while he was still living; yet he refused to take charge even of his own health.
Somehow PTSD, a mental illness he never fully recovered from, was the space in which he met the Divine.
I mean, he believed that by trying as much as humanly possibly to follow the footsteps of Jesus in the Gospels, he could lose himself in Christ. He didn’t have the rationale to disbelieve that this could ever happen, and so he emulated, prayed, and fasted; and emulated, prayed, and fasted some more until he miraculously reached a state of divine ecstasy in which the Stigmata of Christ on the Cross appeared on his body.
Mental illness was not a social stigma for St. Francis of Assisi; it was the vehicle through which he began his Saintly relationship with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
This is how it happened for me, too. The thin place where my soul met the Lord was in the thick of trying to escape an unrecognized mental illness. I look back at May 10, 2017, at that whole thing with Jerry Garcia and time travel via a YouTube video to a concert I attended in New Jersey in 1986 on Bobby’s 42nd birthday and think, THIS is where I found Jesus and entwined my soul with His forever?! It’s ridiculous. It doesn’t make rational sense at all. And yet, it made perfect sense to me on that day (and it still does).
For weeks after, I experienced joy at such an intense level, I couldn’t sleep at night, nor read during the day. I was confused and elated at the same time. I didn’t know my life’s mission. As much as I prayed and listened, I couldn’t hear it.
And then, shockingly, I left my husband. Which was exactly what I had to do next in order to wrench myself out of his psychological abuse. But, it was something I was so afraid to do, I couldn’t even comprehend the need to do it until after I did it.
In retrospect, it all seems so clear to me, especially as I look back through the perspective of someone who has cut contact and received appropriate psychological health care.
Jesus knew I needed Him to walk ever so closely with me while I suffered through two years of rage-induced financially abusive marital separation. I will never stop feeling honored and grateful for this miraculous connection.
I’m pretty sure Jesus journeyed me through all that because He was preparing me for important earthly works He can only do through me. I’m not entirely sure what that work is, but I have a feeling it’s along the lines of what I’m already doing.
Have I become a saint now that Jesus has guided me, via divine connection, to mental healing? No. Not specifically.
I’m a saint because I’ve been baptized into the Communion of Saints. And, so are you. Or, you can be if you seek Baptism. I recommend the Anglican (including Episcopal), Roman Catholic, or Lutheran Churches, as they are the ones that recognize the Saints on their feast days. The Greek Orthodox, and other Eastern Orthodox Churches, are also BIG time with the Saints.
However, I do have some sort of mystical ability in the area of empathy and intuition that allows me to connect deeply with the Saints, Angels, and holy people I study — particularly Blessed Mother Mary for whom I’m named, and St. Francis of Assisi, my beloved birthday patron.
In fact, I’m so attuned to the divine feminine or Marian energy, I feel like I embody her. I imagine myself taking on her characteristics similarly to the way St. Francis strove to embody Jesus Christ.
I believe this to be a common occurrence for humans who seek these types of saintly or divine connections. All’s we got to do is try. Like practicing a bread recipe until we no longer need the guidance of written words to keep the yeast alive.
Hey! You know what goes good with bread? Soup.
St. Francis had friends who cared for him in the same way Blessed Mother Mary cared for her Son. People who fed him hearty soup to support his good works at the center of his crazy life.
To honor the St. Francis of Assisi in all of us, let’s make:
PASTA E FAGIOLI
(Pasta and Beans, also known as Pasta e Fasule, Pasta Fasul, Pasta Fazool)
Headsup: Ya gotta soak the beans overnight first.
4 carrots, diced small
1 leek, white and pale green part, diced small
6 garlic cloves, diced small
1/3 cup cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 smoked ham hock (Or a 1/2 pound end piece of Prosciutto from the deli.)
1 cup dried cannellini beans, soaked over night
4 cups water the beans soaked in, fresh water, or broth
1 15 oz can whole peeled tomatoes, cut into bite size pieces
1 bunch kale, leaves only, torn into bite size pieces
1 Parmesan rind
2 bay leaves
Salt and black pepper to taste. (Be careful with the salt as ham is salty, and some packaged broths are salty, too.)
8 oz small pasta, such as ditalini or elbow
Pinches of grated Parmesan cheese, sprinkles of crushed red pepper flakes, and drizzles of extra-virgin olive oil.
Heat 1/3 cup olive oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add carrots, leeks, and garlic. Cook about four minutes until very soft. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover pot, and cook, stirring every five minutes or so and reducing heat if mixture starts to brown, until the vegetables have turned into a soft and juicy mash.
Add ham hock and cook, uncovered, stirring and scraping bottom of pot every five minutes until the mash has started browning and decreased to about half of it’s original volume, about 10 minutes.
Add beans, water, tomatoes, kale, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil.
Add Parmesan rind, and bay leaves. Reduce heat to medium-low and bring to a gentle simmer.
Simmer soup with lid on askew, adding water or broth any time it looks like the beans are not submerged all the way so that they cook thoroughly, about two hours.
Remove Parmesan rinds and bay leaves. Discard.
Remove ham hock. Pull meat off bone with a fork. Return meat to pot. Discard bone and large pieces of fat.
Cook pasta in a separate pot, until only al dente, about 3 minutes less than the package directions. Drain pasta and add to soup pot. Taste to check seasoning. Add more salt or black pepper, if necessary.
Ladle soup into bowls. Top each with Parmesan, red pepper, and olive oil.
Serve with bread.