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Brother Sun, Sister Moon: a Lenten Memory

Brother Sun, Sister Moon: a Lenten Memory

written by Teresa Donati

It was 1972 — how long ago that seems, yet in memory as only yesterday. My group of friends, including spouses (some of us were newlyweds) would attend movies as a group when we could, as many of us as could share the time. We would exchange news of our graduate studies and first teaching positions, our encounters with scholars, the funny and sobering things happening in our lives. And although we were all different religions, we all attended each others’ services whenever a holiday or celebration or simple opportunity, offered itself. 


At that time, beneath Carnegie Hall in New York, was the Carnegie Hall Cinema, a movie house that gave enormous discounts on tickets to students and faculty. Show some proof of being affiliated with a school, and a dollar or two could get you in. Ironically, the theatre had a ‘naughty’ reputation of screening gay movies, and pornographic movies. None of us had ever seen one shown there. And this very theatre was opening a screening of ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon,’ the story of St. Francis and St. Clare. 


The night we saw the movie, everyone in our group was busy except Andrew and me. Andrew was a couple of years behind me in graduate work, his girlfriend had exams the next day. Everyone else in our group had some pressing matter or other. But the word, the pre-internet chatter about the movie, was that it was compelling, beautiful.  Oh, was it ever. 


Andrew and I arrived to find that a large audience awaited the screening (one screen, one showing, that one night). There were many men in couples and groups, so in retrospect, maybe the theatre did show gay films. 


The tone of the place was quiet, gentle, funny, light-hearted. Women dotted the audience, I was one of the few, and Andrew and I sat together in that marvelous seating where everyone could see the screen clearly, no matter where you sat. People took us for a couple, he was so very handsome, a kind of blond angel, but our actual feelings for each other were so familial, so brother-sister, that the movie made us grin at its title. 


What we did not expect was the power of the movie, overwhelming our young idealistic minds. We were seeing a rich young man giving up everything to follow the way of Lady Poverty, to restore the message of Jesus to a church that had often forgotten its deep ties to the poorest and most despised, the leper, the maimed, the impoverished and mentally ill. We saw him joined by Clare, a young beauty who fled the promises of the world for the soul of Christ.


The most significant scene that night turned out to be Francis, in his coarse robe, kneeling in his parents’ courtyard, rain falling, soaking him as he held up his hands in prayer, his mother distraught but controlled by her husband who indicated she keep her seat. She wept quietly when her husband, Francis’ father, that rich cloth merchant, got up from their dinner table, looked into the courtyard where his son knelt, alone, in the pouring rain. Looking on his son with contempt, the father slowly, purposefully, closed the shutters, disowning him forever.


At this point, Andrew and I were clinging to each other, crying, and do you know, looking across the theatre, I did not see a single person who was not crying, men embracing men, men embracing women, strangers reaching across seats to comfort each other. The low sobbing lasted long enough to know that every heart in the place had been moved in what seemed to be a whole new experience of connection.


By the time the movie ended, we were all dry-eyed again, but that unforgettable scene even now, all these years later, as vivid in memory as ever – a power that Isaac Asimov felt as he recounted his life in the first volume of his autobiography,  ‘In Memory Yet Green.’ a modern man naming his life story in a kind of Robert Burns title manner.


But to continue the setting in the theatre – after the lights came on, the lowest, sweetest words were emerging everywhere, including from Andrew, who turned to me and said, ‘Here, take my wallet.’ Across the theatre, people were offering each other their coats, money, handshakes, and shared head-shakings over the power the film had exerted upon them.


What, exactly, had happened? I have since seen the movie on tape and DVD. It is still shown.  I got the movie poster for my husband (another story, Part 2) as a birthday gift, because my husband was a lay Franciscan. 


The power of media was so clear, I see in retrospect. It takes such an occurrence, where the deepest feelings are stirred by seeing a story re-told, of religious adventurers. They set their mark first on the churches in the West, and now, today, one can only wish that the young of all faiths can see what a young man and a young woman can do: live the ideals that underpin the teachings of Christ.


Their story is one of extreme commitment. The lesson is to see what full commitment looks like, a faith that is a nation without borders, big as the world, forever defying the distance of time.


Dare we try some of the sacrifices Francis and Clare showed? Dare we give up some bauble or ‘enviable’ fashion, to share with the poor and outcast? It is worth seeing the film again or for the first time, it is worth thinking about how much we take for granted in all we have. 



In Part I of this tale I noted how deeply the movie, ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon,’ had affected those who watched it; and I mentioned that I bought the movie poster for my husband, who was a Lay Franciscan. (I should also note that by the time I got him the poster, he had seen the movie at least 3 times).


Several years after the movie appeared, in autumn, I was with a friend at an antiques show, being held at a large nearby mall. Christmas catalogues had already begun to fill our mailboxes, so I had an eye out for gifts. 


 I managed to find a small purple antique glass swan. ‘Oh,’ I told my friend, ‘my sister-in-law loves swans,’ and I bought the swan, which came with its provenance described on the bill. My friend laughed that he was the one always looking for antiques, and in five minutes I had found and bought a beautiful one.


At the next table, old movie posters were on display, some of the movies long forgotten, others still famous. I had a thought. “Do you have a poster for Brother Sun, Sister Moon?” I asked the vendor.


‘You know, it’s strange that you ask.” he replied. ” Just this morning I had a delivery; I opened a Blacula poster, and found the one you’re looking for, folded inside it!’


I felt so excited! Two coups in one day! “I’ll buy it!” I exclaimed.

“Oh I’m sorry,” he replied, “ I didn’t bring that bunch of posters with me, they’re at home. But if you give me your name and address, I’ll mail it to you. If you like it, send me a check for fifteen dollars, and if you don’t, just send it back to me.”

I agreed, and gamely wrote out my name and address. Sure enough, within the week, the poster arrived. I loved it, and wrote out the check immediately, to mail it on my way to the framing store.  That poster was treasured by my husband, as I hoped it would be when I gave it to him.


But the story had many ‘branches’ to it: when I shared my excitement with my friends, at having found a perfect gift for my husband, the typical reaction went as follows:

“He just mailed it to you?”
“Yes!” Happily.

“And you sent him a check for the poster?”


“You mean he just trusted you, he’d never met you before, but he sent you the poster?!”
I nodded another, now curious. “Yes!”

I do not remember a single person who heard the story, who did not shake their heads in disbelief. 

“What is so odd?” I would demand. I would try teasing them: “Haven’t you heard of Honest Abe?”

But the answer was always the same: how was it possible for two total strangers to trust each other that way. (There was one exception, a longtime friend and colleague who giggled that the story yet again illustrated my head-in-the-clouds life.)


Ironically, these incredulous reactions to my story occurred after the Christmas break. In the new semester I was teaching The Sociology of Religion, re-reading scriptures along with my students, looking at how biblical stories were interpreted in daily life. 


So it was a time that my head was filled with stories of perilous trust, such as jumping out of a boat to walk to Jesus on the water. Peter faltered, but good heavens, he had climbed out of the boat! Or Abraham, leaving his land, coming from Ur of the Chaldees to an unknown place which he trusted God to give to him. The Western Bible, Old and New Testaments and Apocrypha, contain story after story of heroic trust. So why was this one little story of a fifteen dollar poster so astonishing to my hearers? One couple who heard the story decided that it was a serendipitous meeting of two fools, a curiosity, not anything that would normally occur. Both were practicing psychologists.


 “Why is trust so abnormal?” I challenged them. Their answer was two smiles of pity.  ‘There are reasons why you think this kind of trust is normal,” one of them told me. In their eyes, I had failed to embrace realistic, untrusting, adulthood. 


I laughed good-naturedly at their answer. And this only convinced them that they had diagnosed my behavior correctly. I obviously lived a life of self-deluding immaturity. 


Oh, but think. ‘Follow me,” He said, and they straightaway left their boats and nets to become fishers of men. Talk about trust!  We can only wonder at how much skeptical head-shaking went on as the Apostles came to form the core of Jesus’ followers. There are many descriptions of fear and contempt among those who opposed Jesus’ message and methods.  We hear much about the comfort of trust and love, but the Gospel stories also told of large numbers of important people who were very nervous over the way people trusted Jesus.


Well, power often depends on distrust: anyone with a different message is a potential usurper of power. 


And the power of trust is the power brought by faith. Hebrews 11 is called ‘The Hall of Faith’ because it begins by defining faith: ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.’ Its subsequent verses describe the work of faith, noting at verse 6 that without faith, we cannot please God.


Faith is trust in God. Faith and trust are the path to holiness.


Will trust always lead to a good outcome in our dealings with others? Probably not. We hear many stories of cheating and betrayals of trust. But we also hear many stories of the joys that trust has brought. So this is not an argument for seeking out opportunities to be bilked of our money or left destitute. It is an argument for taking chances, ‘by faith.’ For sure, the path of trust is one which is, indeed, often very hard indeed to follow. Look at the Apostles, even as they lived with Jesus day after day, doubting their own choices. But they kept on. 


And when faith failed them, and they fled from Jesus as He was led to his suffering and death, tradition tells us that they had whole lifetimes to repent of it, one killing himself, one surviving in exile, others martyred. 


And of those martyrs: What had they come to know, that led to their willingness to die for a Jesus they had doubted?  What unbearable regret led Judas to suicide? What extraordinary witness led them to hold steadfastly to their faith? Obviously, they had found a trust stronger than any fear. Even Paul, after Damascus, could not be turned around.’ By faith’ means ‘by trust’.


 Distrustfulness is like endless clutter in the house of the soul, so hard to finally set in order. A trusting heart makes room, it frees us from the suspicions that crowd out joy. And if we are free from the ongoing fear of being cheated or fooled, who knows what other good things might happen? Trust does not mean abandoning good sense, I t simply frees us from a perpetual paranoia, and gives rest to the spirit.


Trust is spontaneous, an openness to possibilities. It means we take a chance ‘by faith,’ to give of ourselves and our treasure, to help others. It is certainly worth a try, to look at the world, the stranger, the ‘different,’ without pre-judgment. The world needs so much of this faith and trust, in which we find room for love and hope. 

(Note: I never did give my sister-in-law the swan. That season marked the sad end of their marriage, and no Christmas spent together to exchange gifts.)



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