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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

01 October 2021

The message of Francis-tide has acquired a new urgency, says Malcolm Guite

I’VE ALWAYS liked the coming of Francis-tide, right in the midst of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, just as the year ripens and turns. In Cambridge, it comes as the freshers arrive, with all the promise and hope of a rising generation, a good time to remember the gifts and vision of Francis: the compassion, the radical poverty, the kinship with creation, the love and concern for our sister earth and air and water, and the kindling fire of love.

Time was when Francis-tide arrived on a tide of sentiment and a plethora of pet services, presided over by the “bird-bath” Francis, the little friar preaching to the birds and petting the rabbits. Not any more. Now, with each returning October, his message seems more radical, more edgy, and far more urgent — no more so than this in particular season, when our remembrance of Francis seems like the necessary preparation for all that might be achieved — or might fail — at COP26.

Some time ago, I worked with the theologian and choreographer Claire Henderson Davis on her project All Creation Waits (Poet’s Corner, 24 May 2019). Originally conceived as a Dance Theatre Performance, it reimagined the story of Francis and Clare in our own troubled times. It imagined them as young people in our own age, aware of the threat of climate change, struggling to make the right response, reading and being moved by Laudato Si’, engaged and challenged by Extinction Rebellion. My task was to produce a script that consisted of imagined letters between the contemporary Francis and Clare, interspersed with fragments of news about climate change, speeches from Greta Thunberg, and passages from the Pope’s challenging encyclical — it was a heady mix.

Covid put a stop to the projected tour of live performances, but it has now been turned into a film, touring various cathedrals and churches, in the run-up to the climate conference in Glasgow, and, this week, I finally got to watch the film itself. It is very moving, but also stark and challenging — a world away from the bird-bath Francis, but maybe much closer to the spirit of the saint himself.

The two figures meet on an almost bare stage, which represents a shoreline strewn with the flotsam of plastic detritus, and one or two beautiful long pieces of driftwood. When one of these is set up almost like a withered tree beside which these two ragged figures struggled to discern what they must lay aside — what they must take up to respond to the impending crisis — I almost felt I was watching a lost piece by Samuel Beckett: Laudato Si’ meets Waiting for Godot.

I hope that it does well, and stirs its audience to action and to prayer; if so, it will not be alone. I sense, even with the turning of the season, a turning tide of concern. It may be that the radical changes that we all made so rapidly and so effectively in response to Covid will themselves jump-start the radical and more long-term changes that the coming times require. We wait to see, but, this time, I hope that we will not wait in vain — that, in that sense, it will not just be like Waiting for Godot.


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