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franciscan - January 2000

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1999

Hawks and Hunting: Images of Religious Life

by Sister Gillian Mary SSC

Hawks and hunting may not seem the most obvious images for Religious Life, yet Franciscans will find a hawk in Assisi. In the Lower Basilica a fresco by Simone Martini shows Saint Martin receiving his investiture as a knight from the Emperor Constantine. Behind the Emperor stands a courtier with a hawk on his fist. It is possible that both Francis and Clare in their youth handled hawks. Even if not, they would both have been familiar with hunting, which was woven into the fabric of medieval society.

Dedicated Enjoyment
Medieval literature on hunting is permeated by a sense of dedicated enjoyment. Planning the chase was a mental challenge, taking part in it physically and emotionally satisfying, and the spoils delighted the stomach. Religious Life involves the whole person, challenging and releasing physical, emotional and spiritual energies. Responding to the call of Christ, living the Gospel life in community under vows, demands wholehearted dedication. Francis said: “We will learn through the Gospels how the Lord instructed his disciples ... this is our life and our Rule.” In our generation the whole concept of rule and authority has undergone a sea-change. Religious life can give significant witness to a society which undermines both authority and community. It also can and should bear fruit in enjoyment. Despite the tensions inevitably arising when any group of people live together, Religious stand together before God day by day and hear the Scriptures constantly moving them to reconciliation. In that spirit of repentance, Francis challenges us: “Show yourself always as having joy”; not of course the joy of the medieval huntsman, but something nearer the incarnational joy of the Visitation.

Necessary for Food
As hunting provided food for the table, so Religious Life nourishes the Church. The rhythm of the life flows from chapel to refectory. The Word heard and food eaten witness to priorities. Many communities buy food fairly traded and are concerned about ethical issues in food production. All bear witness to the priority of the Word of God. In our consumer society eating or fasting with simplicity and thanksgiving can be a prophetic sign. Practising due respect for the body and its needs, we seek also to provide the spiritual nourishment for individual and community which will build up the Body of Christ.

Avoiding Idleness
“A good huntsman can never be prey to any of the Seven Deadly Sins” was the astonishing claim made by the greatest medieval Spanish authority on falconry. That was because hunting precluded idleness. Today Religious sisters and brothers would laugh at the idea that they had time to be idle! With resources stretched over too few people, the roots of sin may well lie in over-activity. Poverty for many Religious Communities lies in this area. The challenge is to keep this form of poverty both practical and dedicated, to keep priorities alive for necessary spiritual sustenance. Otherwise over-work may occasion a kind of chronic sinfulness.

What did Francis make of the extravagances of the medieval hunt, the great feasts, the gorgeous apparel of the huntsmen, their retinues and their horses? Even the hawks were splendidly attired. The splendour displays the riches, dignity and good taste of the hunters while avoiding vulgarity. One Spanish writer defends falconry as exhibiting the virtue Aristotle called Magnificentia, a mean between extremes in the use of wealth.
‘Saint of excess’, Francis literally stripped himself of his clothes at the episcopal court. In his radical poverty he rejected the Aristotelian understanding of virtue. For him extreme poverty, voluntarily undertaken as the way of Christ, was a specifically Christian virtue. What would Francis have made of the costly frescoes in the Basilica at Assisi? They celebrate his life marvellously but seem at odds with his own practice of poverty. Is there an inescapable tension here between religious poverty and the right use of wealth for God’s glory?
This may well be so in Religious Life today, given that Religious enjoy material support and companionship into old age, a roof over their heads and the security of a vocation without redundancy. We use our ‘wealth’ responsibly, yet the poor are always with us. They are caught in the unjust structures of society and trapped by its economic forces. Our prophetic witness as Religious in challenging social injustice is vital.

Lover and Beloved
The chase in hunting has something in common with courtship. A medieval German manuscript of 1300 has an amusing illustration of courtly love. A hawker languidly lies on the lap of his lady, wooing her while his hawk feeds on his left fist! Lover courting beloved, God courting his beloved people: similar images recur throughout secular and Biblical literature.
Franciscan spirituality centres on God the Lover who became Incarnate to seek out and save his people. In costly sharing of the life of Love, Francis discovered a deep joy in the midst of suffering – the joy of ‘being with’ his Beloved. Conformed to Christ, he was taken into the mystery of Cross and Resurrection. Religious Communities must pray that their novices grow in awareness of the Lover God. Sustained by that love, they will learn the redemptive way of the Cross.

The medieval training of hawks may provide insight into the patterns of formation which novices can expect to undergo. Hawks had to be caught, bought or taken from the nest, and kept in a quiet building. They were allowed to fly free by day, returning to take food and roost. Before the training could begin they had to be vermin-free and induced to accept the proximity of man. When ready, they would be hooded to persuade them to sit reasonably calmly on the fist. Only gradually would their vision be restored, while they were being kept awake and fed. It takes a ‘long-suffering man’, one authority claimed. Much of the falconer’s art lay in assessing the amount and type of food which his hawk’s species, state of health and flying programme demanded. The trickiest time was the moult, a fretful season for the hawk and worrying for the falconer, who had to restore his bird quickly to healthy flying condition.
Novices are not caught like hawks but they do require training and formation. At first there is usually a free pattern of coming and going. Formal entry into community involves being clothed but not ‘hooded’! Novices’ eyes must be opened gradually to the loving judgements of God, as they begin the lifelong process of being ‘clothed with Christ’. To be ‘vermin-free’ is not an entry requirement! But a physical and psychological assessment is required before clothing, to give a realistic assessment of strengths and weaknesses to be worked on in community life. Many entrants need to be trained in living at close quarters with others. For years they may have lived alone, not having to share a bathroom or close a door quietly! Although not deliberately kept awake, novices may spend sleepless hours discerning whether God really is calling them to this distinctive way of living Christian life. An uninterrupted time of testing in community is part of the training. Those responsible for formation certainly need to be long-suffering.
In a novitiate programme, food will be important, food for the body but also for mind and heart. The integrity of response to the call of Christ in sisters and brothers, their willingness to grow and change, binding and freeing ‘structures’, will all be seen with the fresh eyes of novices. Customs such as corporate silence may surprise or even dismay, until understood. There will also be the equivalent of the ‘moult’, periods of difficulty in community living or prayer. The ‘fretful’ season comes round often as we are being formed in the image of Christ! Sensitivity, courage and wisdom are needed by all concerned. ‘Peace, quiet, good feeding with interesting titbits’, recommended for hawks, are important for us all.

Flying Free
When the falconer was finally able to fly the hawk loose in the hunting fields he had probably invested in her large expense and long hours of sometimes frustrating devotion. Sometimes he saw all this vanish literally into the blue. Something similar may happen in community when in the course of formation it is discerned that a novice’s vocation lies elsewhere. Then pastoral care for the individual who ‘flies free’ is ongoing.
Other novices fly free but within the community, and this is marked by public vows: a deep joy for the novice and an opportunity for re-commitment for the rest. Profession as an extension of Baptismal promises offers a glimpse of the culminating joy to which we are all called. Medieval huntsmen celebrated a successful hunt with ‘Sparviters’ Pie’. The community may hold a comparable feast, its own ‘Pie’, rejoicing in those called by the Lord to Religious Life, its recipe seasoned by the salt of humour and generous handfuls of common sense, and baked in a hot oven fired by the Love of God: in all, a foretaste of Paradise.
Gaston Phoebus in Livre de Chasse wrote: “It is my firm belief that [hunters] will enter Paradise: not the centre of Paradise, but some corner . . .” Religious share a like hope of God’s mercy. Franciscans at the York Conference in 1999 sang of the Lord Jesus as ‘the stairway to heaven’. We are called to work and pray for the coming of the Kingdom.

Rooted in Jesus
the living signs of your presence
to the men and women of our time,
may our lives of prayer speak
in a new way to a new age.
Give us courage for the journey
and hope for its ending.
Use us, Father,
for the coming of your Kingdom
into the hearts of all. §

Author’s note: Thanks to Clare SSC, Joan SSC, Marion Fry (Companion CR) and Susan Williams for help in writing this article

Sister Gillian Mary SSC was until recently Reverend Mother of the Society of the Sacred Cross, at Tymawr.


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