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40 Years of St. Francis (and a Little Over the Rhine)
Published: Monday, April 23, 2012
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They met last year in Santa Fe, not Cincinnati. But one of Cincinnati’s most famous musical duos, Over the Rhine, and one of the Franciscan Order’s most famous American writers hit it off so well out west that the musicians came to the National Shrine of St. Anthony yesterday to play a brief concert in honor of Fr. Murray Bodo, OFM, and the 40th anniversary of his first book.

St. Francis: The Journey and the Dream sold for $1.50 when it came out in in 1982, Fr. Murray told the crowd that packed the Shrine’s small chapel. “Some people still bring me those books to sign. Of course, they’re first editions — so now they’re worth $2.00!”

Then a young friar exhausted from splitting his time between teaching and writing poetry, Fr. Murray had never written prose and didn’t want the commission to write a new biography of St. Francis that would come out at the same time as Franco Zeffirelli’s film about the world’s most popular saint, Brother Son, Sister Moon.

But he went to Assissi anyway, where he saw some of the filming and met the famed director, as well as visiting sites associated with the saint and talking with scholars and researchers. He wrote the book in the third person, from the point of view of St. Francis, which seemed a little presumptuous. “But try as I might I could only write it that way,” he said. “So I let St. Francis write it through me. I felt, sometimes almost eerily so, that Francis was right there giving me the words.”

It’s a feeling he has had since, writing other books. “I’m not talking about mystical stuff,” he said. “I’m talking about the writer’s voice.” Writing some books, he said, the writer is very much in charge. But in others, the story seems to write itself — much of his book about St. Clare, he said, came in a rush while he was on a long train trip. “At times I was taken over by something bigger than me. After I finished [St. Francis] I had almost the sense that someone else had written it. I had the feeling that the book was healing me, in a sense. That Francis was giving me words that would help me heal and love this life more.”

But he wasn’t certain anyone else would feel the same way. His writing mentor, who didn’t believe in God, told him that the book was terrible and he would have to start again. In the first six months, it sold very few copies. Then a review called it “the best kept secret in the Franciscan Order,” and sales took off. After 40 years and numerous other books of both poetry and prose, the friar finds that people still find that first difficult book inspiring and life-changing. A new edition by Franciscan Media includes a foreword by singer and secular Franciscan John Michael Talbot, whose own journey in following St. Francis was influenced by Fr. Murray’s book.

Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, who make up Over-the-Rhine, have found the friar inspiring as well The duo brought their soulful, heart-rending songs to the spare Franciscan chapel. Detweiler said they wrote On the Sacred Ground, a song about loss and hope in coal country, a few days after they met Fr. Murray. “Maybe it was a little bit of that St. Francis Mojo rubbing off,” he said. The ended their set with the haunting song Long Lost Brother.

“A friend once said all songs are prayers,” Detweiler said, “and I think this might be one.” The audience agreed, as the words rang out: Jesus and Mary, can you carry us across this ocean into the arms of forgiveness?

For 800 years, the followers of St. Francis have been helping people learn that the answer to that question is yes.

Fr. Murray Bodo’s books are available from Franciscan Media (formerly the St. Anthony Messenger Press). He is working on a new book about St. Francis.

Photo and text courtesy of Sacred Heart Radio's "The Catholic Beat"

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