The Dreamer and the Saint
by Jim Long
CCM Magazine July 1997
It’s the work of a dreamer. Who but a dreamer would write a musical on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi and reconstruct the 12th century saint into a 19th century cowboy named Frank of Kansas? Who but a dreamer would give the saint a posse of fellow pilgrims with names like Buzz and Ivory, Claire and Lefty? Instead of setting off for the Crusades, Saint Frank goes west, young man – yes, this is the work of a dreamer.
His ideals are tested, his life transformed, and the crisis of life is a crisis of faith. Francis faced it, and so did Frank, and the dreamer saw a parallel and wrote it down.
Wheaton College was chosen to be the first to present the musical, The Canticle of the Plains. This month it will be performed again at the Cornerstone festival. Now Rich Mullins talks about the deam.
“In our play, silence is the big deal that leads to Frank’s conversion. He gets a sense of how he’s nothing, yet also very, very significant because he's different than anything else he can see. That's when he has an encounter with God. He wanders around the plains until he comes to Lawrence, Kansas, where God speaks to him through an old lady, an escaped slave, who is cleaning a burned out church.”
Frank and his friends head off into the sunset where they meet and befriend a band of displaced Navajos. But with the palefaced cavalry approaching, Frank, his friends, and this band of Native Americans must decide: Do we fight violence with violence, or do we continue on toward a greater ideal, even if that means disaster?
The musical, written by Mullins in collaboration with fellow songwriting buddies Beaker and Mitch McVicker, finally brings to life the long-term dream of crafting a work in celebration of Saint Francis. It was admiration for the saint’s simple life and profound faith that led Beaker and Mullins to form the Kid Brothers of Saint Frank, a tongue-in-cheek Gesture with some serious intent – as close as the musicians would get to joining an order. The Cantide of the Plains gives musical expression to that admiration.
"I guess it started when I was a senior in high school and saw the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Having grown up in Protestant rural Indiana, I had never been exposed to the lives of any of the saints. Our particular brand of Protestantism focused more on de-sanctifying. It stressed, 'We're all saints... and we're all sinners.' That was 1974, and the Jesus Movement was going on all around us, but we couldn't get to it. We were surrounded by a culture agricultural in its roots and Christian in its bias. We wanted to be Jesus freaks, but we'd never been freaks. So I resigned myself to being just a blah, old Christian. I had my doubts about Christianity, but I had more doubts about atheism, and other religions seemed even more dubious to me. Then I saw that movie, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and I started to wonder if maybe Saint Francis had found a more authentic faith, though he had found it so many years before. Of course, it was just a movie, and yet, it stirred my interest."
Years later, Rich Mullins met Beaker with whom he would establish a friendship and co-writing relationship that already spans more than a decade. He found that Beaker shared his interest in Saint Francis. "He was a hero of Beaker's, too, but Beaker's view of Saint Francis was a bit more realistic than mine – and a bit more authentic. My vision of Saint Francis was really just an actor dressed up in funny clothes."
Of course, there's more behind Rich Mullins' interest than the aesthetics of a Hollywood film portrayal of a 12th-Century saint. He read the book Little Flowers of Saint Francis and wrestled with the ideas. What are you to do with monastic vows like celibacy, poverty and obedience? What do they mean? Rich found perspective in the book Exploring Spiritual Direction.
"In the book, Allen Jones talks about those three vows, not from the negative side, but from the positive. He wrote about the vow of poverty and explained that a person who decides not to burden himself with possessions is free to enjoy everything. Isn't it a positive thing to learn how not to be possessive, how not to be a control freak? Don't all of us have to learn that we are stewards of our possessions rather than owners of them? This is really a liberating idea."
Rich lifts his coffee cup, but sets it back down without drinking. He is suddenly animated by ideas, the same ideas that drew him to Saint Francis, that planted a dream, that inspired a canticle.
"Even the idea of chastity is not strictly that you don't express yourself with sexual intimacy. The point is that when you love, you learn to love purely. You learn how not to be a user. It's an attempt to be honest with your motives."
But even more than these ideas, it was the concept of obedience that changed how Rich looked at faith and how his personal faith expressed itself.
"There is an element of Christianity that is deeply personal and subjective. Go back to the Bible. Jesus told one guy to be born again; He told another to give up all that he had. When Zacchaeus gave up half of what he had, Jesus said that salvation had visited his house that day. Someone else asked to follow Jesus, and He sent him home. 'No,' He said, 'go back and tell everybody what I've done.' There is a subjective, private side to faith. But there is also another side to it. It's important to be a part of something larger. Beaker and I decided that not only should we hold each other accountable as friends and co-workers, but we also needed to seek out spiritual direction. We needed to be submissive to the church, which was funny, because the church wasn't quite sure what to do with that. That’s where the Kid Brothers of St. Frank came from – it grew out of a realization that medieval Christianity was not necessarily out to lunch. There were some valid ideas, too.”
From here, the conversation ricochets from one thought to another. Rich is convinced that Igor Stravinsky was right: Progress is a myth. From there, the ideas bounce.
"I think the world matures, instead of moves; I don't think there is such a thing as progress. I think it's going to be the same muddled mess until the very end. There will be moments of glory and moments of despair. I think we're in the death throes of the enlightenment... The Information Age is the gasp of a dying era, and we'll be better off when it's gone - if you can be better off....”
As thoughts carom around the room at odd angles, the essential point somehow gains in clarity: Saint Francis and other medieval Christians may be an ancient source, but even after all the years and all the "progress," we still have a great deal to learn from them. And any ol’ dreamer or Kid Brother of Saint Frank could tell ya that.