St Francis, a failure and a friendship

We think of Francis as a saint. But Francis didn’t think of himself that way, I suspect saints never do. Francis saw himself as a failure and this story is the story of one of those failures. It is a story set nearly 800 years ago, in fact it will be 800 years next year. It is the story of how Francis tried and failed to stop a war.

The war was the 5th Crusade. It is worth remembering that Christians have not always been people of peace. The 5th crusade was a crusade by Christians, against Jews, Muslims and heretics and it was breaking Francis’ heart. Francis had once been a soldier, he knew what violence was and he knew what it was to be a prisoner of war. But when Francis fell in love with the Risen Christ, he fell out of love with everything that puts barriers between people, the barriers of pride, power and wealth.

And in 1219 pride and power and wealth had already killed many people. To try and end the bloodshed, Francis went first to the Christians, begging Cardinal Pelagius, the Christian commander, to end the fighting. Pelagius refused.

So then Francis, and his friend Brother Illuminatus, went to the enemy instead, to the Muslim army against whom the Christians were fighting. They went to stop the war and they went to try and change the hearts of the enemy so that they would follow the Risen Christ.

And they walked, the two of them, unarmed, through the camps of that enemy. They were captured and they were beaten. They were taken, finally, to the Muslim commander, the leader of their enemy, to Sultan Malik-al-Kamil of Egypt, an enemy leader who had offered a gold piece for the head of every Christian. And when Francis was led into the Sultan’s tent he said ‘May the Lord give you peace’. It is said that the Sultan was startled to hear a greeting so close to the traditional Muslim greeting of peace, Assalam o alaikum (as-saa-laam-muu-ah-lay-kum), Peace be upon you.

And in the meeting that followed, I am first going to tell you what Francis DIDN’T DO, because I think it’s important.  Francis did not try to deny the truths of the Muslim faith. He did not insult Islam. He did not argue or attempt to convince this enemy unbeliever that he was wrong.

What Francis respectfully did was to tell the Sultan the truth of why he was there – that he was there because of the gospel of love, that he was there because of his love for the Risen Christ, that he was there because he had been sent there by the God who IS love, And that he was there because of his love for his enemy – for Sultan Malik – al- Kamil. And the Sultan listened to this gentle, foolish, ridiculous man of God, sitting in his tent, speaking truth about love.

And then, in his turn, the Sultan told Francis, truthfully, about the faith and the prayers and the practices that HE loved.  And the gentle, foolish ridiculous man of God listened in his turn. Because that is what love does, that is what friendship does, it listens.

And then Francis left. And the war continued. And the Sultan continued to be a Muslim. Which meant that Francis had failed. He had failed to stop the war. He had failed to convert the Sultan.

But it is said that the Sultan was changed by his encounter with Francis, with the gentle, foolish follower of the Risen Christ. It is said that after meeting Francis he treated Christian prisoners with unusual and unexpected kindness and respect. And perhaps that is as much because of what Francis didn’t do, as what he said. As much because of what Francis WAS – a gentle, foolish, ridiculously loving man of God.

And it was not only the Sultan who was changed. Francis loved the fact that the Muslims prayed 5 times a day. So when he went home he asked his brothers and sisters to do the same. And though Francis refused the many rich gifts that the Sultan offered him, because Francis was not terribly interested in stuff, he did accept the gift of a horn used to call Muslims to prayer. And when he got home he used it to call Christians to prayer. Five times a day.

And perhaps he listened, too, to the beautiful Islamic tradition of the 99 names of God. Because when he got home he wrote a song, the song we are about to share, called the Praises of God. There are not 99 names in it. But then Francis was a humble man. But, if you count carefully, there are 33 names in it. 33 names of the God Francis loved, the God who sent him not to argue with his enemy but to listen and to speak truth about love and to be changed by his enemy, to become his enemy’s friend.

Francis saw himself as a failure. I think that the Sultan and the Risen Christ saw Francis as a friend.

Sources

www.darvish.wordpress.com

www.aleteia.org

 

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A Saintly Request!!!

A special request! In the past I have written stories for school assemblies, simple versions to tell aloud. Quite a few of those stories figure saints – St Werberga (One of my geese is missing!) St Bridget, St Columba. These feature together with traditional folk stories and other faith stories in a book I published with TTS called Character Strength Assemblies https://www.tts-group.co.uk/assemblies-for-cha…/1009310.html

I would LOVE to write a similar book that collects together saints from different traditions and, for that matter, secular saints. Saints have BIG characters and are great for children to know about and think about. Could anybody, especially those from other faith traditions, help me out here with ideas for who to include and some stories???

New book chapter

I am very pleased to say that I have just had a chapter published in this new book on positive psychology. It is co-written with Judith Gray, formerly head of Frodingham Infants and details the work we did together on Celebrating Strengths.

Celebrating Strengths combined ideas from positive psychology with psychodynamic theory and theology and philosophy to create what I think was a unique educational philosophy and approach to school life – and Judith was an important part of that process.

Character strengths and virtues in education – how and why?

In my latest video I talk about how and why you might want to introduce character strengths and virtues in education. There are three main reasons – to help to manage or contain anxiety, to build relationships and to help teachers and students alike to stay hopeful. And I break all the good rules of talks by adding a fourth reason – it gives us a language to discuss – not to impose – ideas of right and wrong and what constitutes a good life.

Well-being in education – character strengths and virtues

Character strengths in action: Using your whole body to tell a story

You can, and I do, often use simple props to tell a story. You can also use your body. A mixture of tai chi moves, with signs from British Sign Language help me, as the storyteller, to embody the story. Because I am using my whole body, I am fully present, aware of where I am, my audience and my whole self as I tell the story. It is less a cognitive and verbal activity, than a way of inhabiting the story and drawing my listeners into the story with me.

I demonstrate this method of storytelling here

A retelling of Anansi and the Pot of Wisdom, using BSL signs and tai chi moves to enhance the storytelling

As well as the character strength of #wisdom, students see many other strengths in this story, including #humour, #persistence, #teamwork and #spirituality.

Here’s a picture from Frodingham Infants that is based on the story,

Frodingham Infant School Scunthorpe UK

 

I hope you enjoy it 🙂

 

Three ways to develop character strengths and promote educational well-being

In these blogs and the videos that accompany them I am sharing with you what I have learned from 12 years of working in schools supporting the well-being of teachers and students.

The blogs and videos are meant either as a stand alone training resource or as a supplement to my published resources and my story videos.

In an earlier film, I talked about how I have put stories and storytelling at the heart of my well-being work in schools – precisely because a good story well told promotes the well-being of both teachers and students, An introduction to my well-being in education videos.

Now I want to talk about another theme, that of paying attention to character strengths and virtues.

I first came across the idea of character strengths in the work of Martin Seligman and the VIA or Values in Action character strengths and virtues. You can find more about this approach at the VIA Institute .

Of course the association of character strengths with education is much older and dates back to Aristotle. Aristotle linked happiness with the use of character strengths and virtues. And he said that children learn about qualities like courage and honesty in three ways

  1. seeing them used by role models
  2. thinking and reasoning about them
  3. using them for themselves

So we learn what courage is by being brave.

In my work, I’ve tried to draw on those three ways of learning.

Firstly, I’ve encouraged teachers to tell stories that show characters or historical figures using – or failing to use – qualities like love or friendship or enthusiasm. I might tell a story like Anansi and the Pot of Wisdom or Where is the Moon or the Three Little Pigs and then ask, what strengths did you see in that story? Where? I might also ask, were there character strengths that SHOULD have been used but weren’t?

In this way, children and teachers engage in a thoughtful – and educational activity – and at the same time begin to build up a picture of what the strengths look like in action and to listen for, look for the strengths, to spot them both in stories and then in other people and finally in themselves. Using character strengths for yourself, seeing them in others, thinking about them, builds positive relationships in the classroom and creates an atmosphere that enhances learning and supports well-being.

To develop Aristotle’s idea that we learn about character strengths and virtues through reason, I have used Philosophy for Children or P4C and taken either a story or a single word like creativity or courage as a stimulus for discussion. If you don’t know about philosophy for children there are resources and training available and the more I use it the more powerful a teaching tool I think it is. Again, a philosophy session is a very educational activity – we’re not trying to be therapists, we are encouraging intellectual rigour, depth of thinking and discussion. At the same time you as a class are building your understanding of what a particular character strength means in this group and in this community, now. It’s not what the ‘experts’ say about courage that really matters – it’s what it means in your school, your family, now that is important.

Finally, the third way of learning about character strengths that I have used in education is to create a concept of Strengths Builders – ideas and classroom exercises that deliberately set out to let you use and therefore build a particular strength. So, for example, if you want to focus on building the strength of curiosity for yourself or your class, you might set a challenge trying a single new food you have never tasted in the week ahead, or of watching a television programme or film you haven’t seen before – or of reading and even learning by heart a poem by a poet you have never read. You set out deliberately to pay attention to – and build – a particular strength. Then, if everyone in the class has done this activity – you can share and reflect on your experiences.

The shared experience – and the way that you are all paying attention to the same thing – curiosity – is part of what builds community. I will say more about community building in a future video.

If you want lots of ideas for building character strengths you can find them in my Character Strengths Ideas Box Character Strengths Ideas Box or in Character Strengths for Circle Time.

 

character strengths activity box tts

You can find a high school programme that contains strengths builders for all the VIA Strengths here Strengths Gym – a high school programme of strengths builders and stories for 11 to 14 years

Equally, you can think up your own.

Have fun.

Character Strengths – The Ingredients of #Resilience

What is resilience?

This morning I worked with an Australian colleague putting together a workshop for the Practicing Positive Education Conference at Knox Grammar School in August.

In Australia, positive education, education for academic achievement and well-being, has been growing as a theme – or philosophy – of education for some years. Resilience is one of the core ideas at the heart of positive education and an important one. But what is resilience? How do you encourage it? Can you teach it?

A head teacher who has worked with positive education in the UK for 8 years now told me recently what she thought the ingredients of resilience actually are. She called it ‘an inner strength’ that gets you through times of difficulty or struggle.

We build resilience, she said, through identifying our strengths of character and learning to use them in different situations, learning to use them wisely. Over the next few weeks I am going to share some of her wisdom along with my suggestions for how you might apply it in your own context.

The Ingredients of Resilience

Ingredient 1: Open-mindedness

One of the things that undermines resilience most is jumping to conclusions:

  • ‘I can’t do this’
  • ‘this is too much for me’
  • ‘nobody cares’
  • ‘life is completely dreadful’

Open-mindedness is the antidote to jumping to conclusions because it helps us to withhold an immediate snap judgement and look again, more clearly, more thoughtfully. Open-mindedness looks at different sides of a situation, or a person, and is willing to change its mind in the face of evidence or persuasion.

Open-mindedness says

  • ‘I might be able to do this with the right tools’
  • ‘Perhaps I do have the strength to cope with this’
  • ‘I do have friends and people who care’
  • ‘life might be difficult but it’s not ALL bad’

Essentially, open-mindedness sees clearly and most situations and most people are a bit of a mixture!

So, open-mindedness in action:

  • listening to other opinions
  • finding out about different people
  • finding out about different cultures
  • looking for, and enjoying, similarities and differences

What can we do to encourage open-mindedness in our classrooms?

Firstly, try to practise it ourselves. Children and young people learn most by example. Think about how often YOU jump to conclusions or make snap judgements and challenge yourself to think again.

Then you could try this ‘Strengths Builder’ to encourage an awareness of how people think, believe and act differently.

A Strengths Builder for open-mindedness: Same or Different?

The sign from British Sign Language for ‘the same’ is both index fingers placed together. The sign for ‘different’ is the same two fingers placed together and then moved apart. Teach this to the students first.

Younger students can do this activity in pairs. They need to talk with their partner and find some way they are the same and some way they are different. Then they share this with the class. When a few pairs have had a chance to share, everyone moves around and finds a new partner and the process is repeated.

You could follow up with a class display of ‘Similarities’ and ‘Differences’.

Older students can work in bigger groups and make lists of the ways their group is similar or different.

(This activity is taken from Character Strengths Activity Ideas Box

http://www.tts-group.co.uk/shops/tts/Range/Search?search=character%20strengths)

A Character Strengths in Action Story for #Friendship or #kindness: One of my geese is missing

My version of the legend of St Werburga: One of my geese is missing 

Werburga was a saint, everybody said so, and they told stories about her kindness. But Werburga said she just looked and listened and noticed the important things in life. Like the children who played in the fields next to her cornfield. Werburga smiled when she saw them and when, one day, a little boy lost his favourite wooden horse in a clump of grass, Werburga noticed and helped him to look for it and stayed with him until it was found and his tears had dried up and he was smiling again. Werburga thought children were important and ought to be noticed

Werburga was a saint, everybody said so, and they told stories about her kindness. But Werburga said she just looked and listened and noticed the important things in life. Like the animals and birds who lived in and around her cornfield. Werburga smiled when she saw them and when, one day, a sparrow hurt its wing and couldn’t fly, Werburga noticed and picked it up and fed it until its wing was healed and it could fly away. Werburga thought sparrows were important and ought to be noticed.

Werburga was a saint, everybody said so, and they told stories about her kindness. But Werburga said she just looked and listened and noticed the important things in life. But when, one evening, she noticed a flock of geese trampling her corn with their great, webbed feet, as they settled down to sleep, she didn’t smile at all. Even saints have their limit and Werburga frowned, and called a neighbour and told him to tell the geese they could sleep in her barn instead.

Werburga never said very much. Mostly she looked and listened but people said she was a saint so when she did say something, people paid attention. And the neighbour did as she asked, though he thought the geese would ignore him and only hiss at him and honk at him and shake their great long snake like necks at him. And when the neighbour told the geese to follow him to Werburga’s barn, they did hiss at him and honk at him and shake their great long snake like necks at him, but they followed him all the same.

The next morning, Werburga went to the barn and opened the door. She looked and listened as the geese waddled out of the barn hissing and honking and shaking their great long snake like necks and then Werburga noticed something. She noticed that the geese were hissing more sadly than usual. She noticed that their honks were not as loud and fierce as they usually were. She noticed that they were shaking their great long snake like necks from side to side as if they were trying to tell her something. And then she noticed that one of the geese was missing.

She called her neighbour and asked him where the missing goose had gone. The neighbour hung his head in shame. He had thought no one would notice if he took one of the geese. He had thought no one would notice if he killed that goose and ate it for his supper. But the geese had noticed, and so had Werburga. Werburga looked and listened and noticed things.

Werburga told her neighbour to fetch the bones of the goose he had eaten. And then she prayed, hard, because Werburga thought geese were important and ought to be noticed and God must have thought so too because, as she prayed, the bones started to move and fit together, and as she prayed some more, flesh began to cover the bones and, as she prayed some more, feathers began to sprout out of the flesh and soon there was a live, hissing, honking goose waving its great long snake like neck at her, where before there had only been a pile of bones.

And the goose lowered its great long, snake like neck and bowed to Werburga, to thank her for her kindness in noticing that it was missing. And all the other geese did the same. And then they spread their wings and with a last great honk they launched themselves into the air and flew away.

So when you see geese flying overhead, and hear their honks filling the air, remember Werburga who looked and listened and noticed the important things in life.

A story for thinking about friendship, kindness, love, spirituality, wisdom…….

PrintYou can hear me talk about character strengths in action stories and tell this story here

One of my geese is missing – the story of St Werburga

You can find more of my stories here:

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