Thursday, November 6, 2008

T is for Tau

Since the time of St. Francis and St. Clare in the 13th century, the distinctive emblem of the “tau” has served as a trademark of Franciscan identity. It is said that Francis used the “tau” (rhymes with “how”) in his writings, employing it as his own personal signature. Tradition also has it that he had the ‘‘‘tau’’’ painted on the walls and doors of the places where he stayed. If so, it is our earliest documentation of Franciscan graffiti, but hardly the last. What is the “tau” exactly, and what is its significance in Franciscan life and identity today?

I’m so glad you asked! First of all the “tau” is exactly what it looks like, the letter ‘T’—the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet ,which could be simultaneously written: /\ X + T. The most frequent reference used by Christians is from the prophet Ezekiel: ” Then he called to the man dressed in linen with the writer's case at his waist, saying to him: Pass through the city (through Jerusalem) and mark an X ( i.e., ‘‘‘tau’’’-ed) on the foreheads of those who moan and groan over all the abominations that are practiced within it.” .-- Ezekiel (9:4, New American Bible translation)

In early Christian tradition, the stylized ‘‘tau’’ cross came to represent the means by which Christ reversed the disobedience of the old Adam and became our Savior as the “New Adam.” Origen wrote in the third century: “The shape of the letter ‘tau’ presented a resemblance to the figure of the Cross and that therein was contained a prophesy of the sign which is made by Christians upon their foreheads, for all the faithful make this sign in commencing any undertaking and especially at the beginning of prayer or of reading of Holy Scripture.” (Note, below, the Tau cross on Tory Island, Ireland, dating from the sixth century):

The use of the “tau” scarcely originated with Francis, then, but he certainly succeeded in popularizing the emblem as the unofficial logo of the movement which bears his name. Some writers indicate that Francis may have had contact with a religious community called the Anthonians/ Antonians, known for their work with lepers. They wore a great “tau” painted on their habits. It would not require a great stretch of the imagination, then, to infer that Francis may have appropriated the symbol as an indication of his own commitment to serve lepers and other marginalized people in his time.

At the Fourth Lateran Council, on November 11, 1215, Pope Innocent made reference to the ‘‘tau’’ and quoted the above-cited verse in reference to the profaning of the Holy Places by the Saracens. It is widely accepted that St. Francis was present at the Council and that he heard the words of Pope Innocent III when he said, "The ‘‘tau’’ has exactly the same form as the Cross on which our Lord was crucified on Calvary, and only those will be marked with this sign and will obtain mercy who have mortified their flesh and conformed their life to that of the Crucified Savior. “

St. Bonaventure said, "This ‘‘tau’’ symbol had all the veneration and all the devotion of the saint: he spoke of it often in order to recommend it, and he traced it on himself before beginning each of his actions." Thomas of Celano, another early Franciscan biographer wrote that, "Francis preferred the ‘‘tau’’ above all other symbols: he utilized it as his only signature for his letters, and he painted the image of it on the walls of all the places in which he stayed."
In the famous blessing of Brother Leo, Francis wrote on parchment, "May the Lord bless you and keep you! May the Lord show His face to you and be merciful to you! May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace! God bless you Brother Leo!" Francis sketched a head (of Brother Leo) and then drew the ‘‘tau’’ over this portrait.

Indeed, the habit worn by Franciscan men is itself in the form of the ‘‘tau’’ cross, a sign of lifelong penance and conversion of heart. As St. Bonaventure further wrote: "For even while he [Francis] lived among men,
he imitated angelic purity
so that he was held up as an example
for those who would be perfect followers of Christ.
We are led to hold this firmly and devoutly
because of his ministry
to call men to weep and mourn,
to shave their heads, and to put on sackcloth,
and to mark with a ‘‘tau’’
the foreheads of men who moan and grieve,
signing them with the cross of penance
and clothing them with his habit,
which is in the form of a cross". -- St. Bonaventure, The Life of St. Francis.

That was then and this is now. Today, the ‘‘‘tau’’’ is a common sight at Franciscan gatherings. It is often worn as a simple wooden cross around the neck, attached with a string cord that not infrequently has three knots on it: one for each of the three vows to poverty, chastity, and obedience taken by all Franciscans.

Most frequently, the ‘‘tau’’ would be worn by friars (when not in their formal habit), and on a daily basis by many Franciscan sisters, as well as by the nearly one million Franciscan women and men who belong to the lay movement known as the ‘secular’ Franciscans. In fact, since Vatican II, a modified version of the ‘‘tau’’, including what is known as ‘the conformity’—the crossed and outstretched arms of Francis and Christ—has served as the official habit of the secular Franciscan order (SFO’s) around the world.

Of course, since we don’t check id’s on this score, the ‘‘tau’’ is also worn by a great number of people who have a particular devotion to and admiration for the Gospel life as inspired by Francis and Clare of Assisi.
Personally, I am of the opinion that one can never have too many friends or too many ‘‘tau’s”, either, for that matter. Often when I travel ‘incognito’, which is to say, not wearing my habit, people will ask me about the ‘‘tau’’. And if they seem sincere in their interest, then, well, I’ll just give ‘em the one I’m wearing. Not to worry; I’ve got a stash of them at home.
The ‘‘tau’’. A simple and beautiful sign. And a reminder of a commitment which is meant to be equally simple and beautiful: to follow Christ and to serve others with an open and joyful heart. //

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