In 2004, I met saints. Well, I met the saints in my thoughts. I began to obsess about the saints. I coaxed memories from my brain revolving around saint cards my mother kept in a steamer trunk when I was a child. My mother grew up Catholic and attended a Catholic school for girls in Panama. I wasn’t raised Catholic so the saint cards fascinated me. Around the same time, I watched superhero cartoons, “Super Friends.” And years later the saints on the cards and the superheroes would merge into super beings.
So in 2004, while I was diligently writing my morning pages each day I felt inspired to write my first novel three pages at a time–longhand. And I turned to this idea of marrying Saint Francis of Assisi to Joan of Arc. Actually, I obsessed about this concept. I had no idea how to write a novel even if I had attempted to write shorter fiction. And I knew my novel would need to include magic realism and comic relief. After all, I was poor and depressed at the time so I needed to cheer myself up.
When I began my novel I structured it similar to The Little Flowers of Assisi, which is based on true stories about Saint Francis and the Friars Minor. And around ten drafts later, I finally came up with a novel despite its vignette structure is hilarious and mystical. Below you will find one of the chapters featuring two of my favorite saints, Anthony of Padua and Francis of Assisi contemplating modern life in Central Park, New York City. When I read this chapter at an art gallery in Seattle in 2007, the audience members were in hysterics. This surprised me because they were aloof when I first arrived at the gallery. During subsequent readings, audience members also enjoyed the humor, often comparing it to Monty Python (though that was not my point).
In 2007-08, I blogged the novel and it attracted quite a following, mostly from Asian countries. Then later, I removed the blog because I realized the novel needed extensive revisions. It was a semi-finalist for the first Amazon Debut Novelist Contest in 2008. And then, it appeared on the Authonomy Site from 2008-2010. This excerpt is from the latest version of the novel.
- Our Brothers and Sisters, the Birds and the Bees: Francesco Talks Sense to Saint Anthony.
The autumn wind blows leaves in a spiral then sweeps them across the frosty grass. Despite the chill in the air, Saint Anthony shuffles his way through Central Park–his feet swathed in torn leather shoes with holes in the soles. His tattered trousers keep sliding down his hips and he wish he had a belt or suspenders to hold them in place. At least the old wool overcoat covers his thin and bare hips, even if its threadbare state leaves him shivering from the wind.
Of course, all of this is just a disguise. Anthony prides himself on his Merlin-like qualities. He marvels at how he can transform himself from administrator sporting short hair, a decent suit and a clean shave, to a ragamuffin. He practices poverty when ever possible so that he can understand the “invisible people.”
How can you help the poor if you do not truly understand their plight? He thinks of his dear friend, Francesco. How he once lived at a homeless shelter while he studied veterinarian medicine. Then Jeanne came along and changed all of that. He still thinks Jeanne was the best thing that could take place in his friend’s life. For Francesco to marry a woman that will cook for him, share her stories with him and give him companionship, and not just any woman.
Anthony wonders why he hasn’t connected with a former saint in that way. Goddess knows there are several fine single women saints residing in Manhattan. Of course, The Virgin is off limits, but he heard that Saint Catherine of Alexandria is available. She seeks a partner and won’t settle for anyone less than a saint.
The saint plops down on a bench. He gazes into the distance and notices a familiar figure. Could that be Francesco out walking Bernardo? Yes, it is. He wonders what the two of them discuss these days now that Bernardo returned as a hound. Well, at least the Franciscans meet Bernardo’s needs. Anthony heard a rumor that Clare adopted the greyhound. What a fortunate dog!
If only beautiful Clare would give her hand in holy matrimony, but obviously that would never happen. She’d have chosen Francesco in any case. What woman wouldn’t?
Anthony waves to his friends. The Italian saint and his hound approach their fellow Franciscan. “Oh, my dear Anthony, how wonderful it feels to see you here in this beautiful park on this wonderful late autumn day. I see that you have taken up with Sister Poverty again.”
Anthony smiles wearily, “I’ll be back with Sister Charity next week. I was just taking a break from the office routine…you know trying to understand instead of being understood. But I wonder my dear friend can one man really make a difference by being poor himself?”
Francesco plops down on the bench. Bernardo rests at his feet. He rubs his chin, pondering Anthony’s complicated question.
“I often wonder the same thing myself. After all, the poor need money more than they need sermons. They need food, warm clothing, and shelter and how can you provide those necessities for them if you have nothing like that to give? I think about how we went wrong in telling people to throw away their possessions and live like the birds.”
Anthony considers this food-for-thought. “And yet when we lived in grottos, people took pity and provided for us. I can’t think of a time when I felt so much joy to trust completely in providence and see that trust rewarded.”
“Those were the days. I can’t imagine we could get away with that in Manhattan,” Francesco sighs. “And even if this city has its own beauty, it could never compare to Assisi. Anthony, here you are hiding out as a self-imposed hermit. They could cart you off to Bellevue.”
Anthony laughs, “Yes, I’ve had a few close calls. Say, I wanted to ask you about Brother Bernardo and since you have him here with you…”
Francesco pats the greyhound’s head. Bernardo wags his tail as he hears his name mentioned. “Well, as you can see, he’s healthy and filled with Goddess’ presence. I almost wish I came back as such a faithful companion.”
Anthony nods and laughs. “Yes, I know what you mean.”
Francesco glances at all the people passing by women with strollers, athletic men, and women on roller skates or jogging with their sporty dogs.
“I wonder my dear friend, what goes on in the minds of all our brothers and sisters as they pass by us? Do they contemplate Goddess? Do they wonder about Sister Poverty? What do they think when they see us sitting here dressed in rags? Do you think they even notice us?”
“Oh, I think not. Today, our poverty only inspires guilt and fear, not compassion. I know because when I solicit donations for the church, few people give. They say that they are broke when they are swathed in furs…”
Francesco grimaces at the thought of ignorant humans draping themselves in the coats of their brothers and sisters. It is stealing after all.
“I don’t understand how people can proudly wear fur unless they are Indian and prayed to the creature in which sacrificed its life to them.”
“In this city at least, there’s an indifference to natural products and Goddess-made goods. Today people eat fake food when Goddess still provides a bounty of fresh vegetables and fruit.”
“Do you think that this is fall of man and womankind? Is it possible that we have returned during the earth’s last breath?”
Anthony chuckles, “Oh, my dear friend, there’s no use in getting apocalyptic. I think it was much worse when humans experienced plagues and wars that lasted a hundred years. Now things are a bit more contained. Life is easier for lots of people although not for all.”
“It’s more difficult for others.”
Anthony smiles, “My dear friend, look at you. You have clothes and you’re married to Jeanne d’Arc! Even if this place isn’t Assisi, it’s not bad. In fact, I quite like it.”
Bernardo wags his tail as a young man strides by walking two greyhounds that he recognizes. The two dogs wag their tails in response. The saints watch with total amusement.
A smile forms on Francesco’s weary face. “There goes Brother Juniper and Brother James.”
Anthony gawks, “Are you serious?”
“Oh, yes, Bernardo recognizes them.”
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