In our third week of delving into the medieval mystics, we will explore the life, stories and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi.
Francis was born in 1182 in Assisi, Italy. Europe and the Muslim world had already endured two crusades. The third crusade began when Francis was a boy, and the fourth when he was twenty-one. Despite the atmosphere of war, as the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francis grew up fairly carefree, almost a playboy and party-er. Assisi itself joined in an ongoing war with Perugia, a neighboring city. Exuberantly, Francis rode off to fight, but was quickly taken prisoner and held for ransom. While in prison, Francis contracted malaria and began to reflect inward on the purpose of his life.
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After a year his ransom was finally paid and Francis came out of prison beaten down, disillusioned, and feeling there must be something more than all this cruelty and aggression. It was during this time that Francis wandered into a little run down church and heard a voice saying, “Francis, repair my house.” With a purpose now before him, Francis was transformed.
However, rehabbing the little church would be a challenge with no money. Not to be deterred, Francis simply stole goods from his father and sold them to get the money for materials. When he was caught, his father called a town meeting, and I assume planned to make an example of him and shame him into shaping up. Instead Francis took off all his rich clothing, tossed them back to his father, and claimed that his only father was God. Francis then pledged himself in service to God and the church. He donned the rough clothes of the beggar and proceeded to live a life of voluntary poverty.
One day when he was out walking on the plains below Assisi, he came across some lepers… people the “old Francis” would have given a wide berth while plugging his nose at the stench of their disease. Now, however, Francis approached them, touched them, and offered them comfort and compassion.
Francis began to live the Gospel of Jesus as he knew it. He lived in poverty, had no possessions or place to lay his head, showed love and kindness to all people, lived with deep compassion, and preached about peace and the love of God for all. It wasn’t long before others were attracted to the monumental change in him and his way of life and began to follow him.
Though Francis resisted priesthood, perhaps because that would identify himself with a higher class of people, he had such a following that he did finally seek permission from Pope Innocent to preach and to establish an order based on living the Gospel.
I think I’ve always sort of thought of St. Francis as a fluffy saint who loved animals and preached to the birds. Yes, he is said to have had an inexhaustible tenderness about him, but his message wasn’t necessarily warm and fuzzy. His message called people to do something hard… be like Jesus. Love one another and do something about improving the world.
Francis preached peace in the midst of war.
He preached benevolence and God’s love for all in opposition to those who preached about duty, sacrifice and killing the infidel.
He is the only Christian man ever known to attempt two or three trips to dialogue with the “enemy” during the Crusades against Muslims in the Holy Land. Francis even went so far as telling the Christians they were wrong for crusading and persecuting these children of God. During one trip he even met with the Muslim Sultan of Egypt, who wanted peace as much as he did. They had great discussions about prayer and theology and Francis returned home having grown in his spirituality.
Francis lived in simplicity because he understood that having things tended to lead to greed and defending those things. Once you have things you worry about losing your things, and you want more things, you may even covet your neighbors’ things.
No, we’re not like Francis, it is truly a Divine calling to voluntarily live in poverty. But perhaps we could take a small step back and take a look at how our culture has twisted Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the one holiday that isn’t about getting stuff (gluttony, maybe, but not stuff). It’s about the simple gifts of harvest, abundance, sharing, family, relationships. There is no expectation of receiving gifts, except the gifts of the earth – food for our tables. The whole goal is to feel gratitude.
The essential goodness in all that is now being overshadowed by football and commercialism. In fact, now we have pre-Black Friday sales, and Black Thursday sales. And heaven forbid we let retail folks get a good night’s sleep… instead we’ll start opening the stores at midnight on Thursday. Then we’ll have Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday! If you have anything left by Giving Tuesday, we can then give a little to our favorite charity. When will it stop?
Poor Francis would’ve had a heart attack. What happens to our souls in the midst of it all?
A sermon about Francis would be lacking without the story of the birds…
As time went on, more and more people were attracted to his order, and it lost more and more of his original vision. Francis struggled with whether to retire entirely and devote himself to prayer, or to continue traveling and preaching. To answer this question, he sought the counsel of some of his trusted friends and colleagues, Brother Sylvester and Sister Clare. The answer came quickly: yes, God wanted Francis to continue preaching. Without delay, Francis took to the roads. As he is walking, he comes upon a very large flock of birds and rushes to greet them as if they could understand him.
St. Bonaventure writes, “He went right up to them and solicitously urged them to listen to the word of God, saying, ‘Oh birds, my brothers and sisters, you have a great obligation to praise your Creator, who clothed you in feathers and gave you wings to fly with, provided you with pure air and cares for you without any worry on your part.’…The birds showed their joy in a remarkable fashion: They began to stretch their necks, extend their wings, open their beaks and gaze at him attentively.
“He went through their midst with amazing fervor of spirit, brushing against them with his tunic. Yet none of them moved from the spot until the man of God made the sign of the cross and gave them permission to leave; then they all flew away together. His companions waiting on the road saw all these things. When he returned to them, that pure and simple man began to accuse himself of negligence because he had not preached to the birds before.”
Some sources say that from that day on Francis made sure to preach to all the animals and entreat them to praise and love the creator.
As with any of us, Francis’ spirituality continued to change and grow. The more he came to understand the boundlessness of God’s love, the more he recognized that it wasn’t just about loving humans, but about loving all creatures.
As we quickly approach the Advent season, Francis is a good segue as he had a particular fondness for Christmas. For him the Word of God not only became a tiny child entering the human family, but Jesus entered the whole family of creation, becoming one with everything.
So, as Jack Wintz writes, “Francis had a keen sense that all creatures—not just humans—must be included in the celebration of Christmas.” There are stories about how Francis wanted “the emperor to ask all citizens to scatter grain along the roads on Christmas Day so that the birds and other animals would have plenty to eat. Walls, too, should be rubbed with food, Francis said, and the beasts in the stable should receive a bounteous meal on Christmas Day. He believed that all creatures had a right to participate in the celebration of Christmas.”
Living in poverty and pushing his body too hard took its toll on Francis. He became badly malnourished and contracted leprosy and malaria. He spent four years on a straw bed. During those four years 3,000 men joined the order.
But as the order grew it became divided between those who wanted to live Francis’ original vision of poverty, simplicity and service, and those who wanted a more traditional monastic life. Eventually Francis resigned and he experienced his own dark night of the soul during which he became very ill again. It was during this time that it is said he received the stigmata – the wounds of Jesus – as a result of living his life so like Jesus.
It was on his deathbed that he dictated his famous poem, “Canticle of the Creatures” where he sang praises to Brother Sun and Sister Moon, to Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire and Sister Mother Earth, and finally Sister Death.
There are many lessons we could take from Francis:
- Oneness of all creation and God’s love for all of creation
- Living simply and tenderly
- Embracing the outcast
- Accepting other ideas and understandings of the Divine
- Seeing God everywhere
- Accepting death as a sister
- Living peacefully without greed or violence
- Being grateful
- Be a servant
We probably won’t become another Francis, but perhaps his example will prompt us to grow spiritually in one of those ways, to make even a small change to the way we live or behave.
Love & Light!