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Friday, October 4, 2013


Today is October 4, the feast of St. Francis. He is probably the most popular Christian saint and ranks among the best known. In seminary I was especially interested in him and even did a history paper on him. Reading a half dozen biographies (including GK Chesterton's wonderful take which you can find here: and actually visiting Assisi a couple of times I think some of my core understanding of Jesus and the Gospel call was much shaped by this man who died over seven hundred years before I was born.

Francis' life is worthy of much more than a blog summary. Suffice to say he was a product of the middle ages and especially impacted by the troubador movement. Raised in the relative affluence of the emerging "middle class" of 13th Century Italy (his father was a cloth merchant) young John (he was nicknamed 'the little Frenchman, hence, Francis) had dreams of being a hero. Dressed up in his armor he road off to war, was captured and spent a miserable time locked up prior to being released after payment of a ransom. The events changed him and his return to the life of a party boy seems to have been halfhearted. As he and his compatriots ran the streets of Assisi one night it is said he did not keep up. One of the revelers turned back and found Francis wandering with a lost look on his face. "I am in love," the young Francis reportedly said, "with the fairest woman I have ever seen." Later, we learn, he had fallen in love with Lady Poverty. And so began his journey to embracing a life of radical renunciation.

His efforts to follow Jesus more seriously led to extensive prayer in a small chapel not far from the town. [I have been there in prayer myself on a couple of occasions] One day as Francis knelt before the iconic crucifix he heard the voice of Jesus. "Francis, rebuild my church which you can see is falling down." Taking the words literally, Francis began energetically gathering stones and doing repairs to several area churches. It would be some time before he figured out that the church meant the people. In 13th Century Italy Christians had lost their way. They needed a holy man to lead them back to Jesus.

Francis' love for the poor motivated him to give away much of his father's wealth, something which caused his father great irritation. The local bishop was called in to mediate the problem and Francis was told that his duties to his father precluded such behavior. In a profound act of renunciation, Francis accepted the bishop's decision and then proceeded to strip naked and return "everything" to his father and declare himself unattached to the family. He was solely committed to Jesus (and Lady Poverty). It is said that the embarrassed bishop placed his own cloak around the young prophet. It is painful indeed for the professional religious to encounter true holiness. Yet, we do well to also see the full humanity of the situation and remember the idealism of youth and the difficult passage of young people into adulthood. As I get older I understand the father's side.

There are many stories about Francis, among my favorites are these. He preached the Gospel to birds which patiently gathered and listened. He tamed a wolf which had been wreaking havoc at a nearby village, making it the "pet" of all that town. When he and St. Clare were at prayer in the woods one night a volunteer fire brigade ran with buckets to put out the blaze, only to find the two saints beaming with blinding brightness as their mystical union with God erupted in divine light. The list of miracles and unusual events culminated with him receiving the marks of the crucifixion in his own body. Called the stigmata (some others have also had this), doctors and psychologist give various explanation of  the phenomenon, Francis' desire to share in the life of Jesus included his suffering. It is hard to know what is history and what is pious legend in these and other stories, but what is clear is the man must have been remarkable and done remarkable things--remarkable enough that such stories were told about him.

Francis' commitment to not having and not owning, ironically, proved impossible. He quickly inspired by his example other young Christians to join him. Soon he was a movement and the holy man ended up creating the fastest growing order in Europe. Rules and governance became necessary. Figuring out how to house and care for such a large group (too many to rely simply on begging) got out of control. Francis was made to turn over leadership to another. Soon Francis' simple (and simplistic) approach to faith and preaching was replaced by scholarship and learning. One of his followers, Bonaventure, is among the brightest of Medieval thinkers. It is safe to say that the "success" of Francis movement broke his heart. The simple life of poverty, holiness and love of Jesus which he embraced was not easily translated into the society of Friars Minor. It is no wonder. Less extraordinary people than Francis found it difficult to completely understand and totally practice his virtues. It may well be that Francis is one of a small group who 'perfectly' embraced the Gospel call of Jesus. Such is what we may all aspire to; though without the grace and commitment of the little holy man of Assisi.

It is said the Francis apologized to his body (which he called brother ass) for the harsh treatment to which he subjected it through the many long fasts and harsh penances. He once fasted for forty days eating only one loaf of bread (because in humility he wanted to do less than Jesus did). He died in his early forties, blind and in great pain. He asked to die on the floor, his last act of embracing poverty and giving up everything for Jesus. In many ways he felt a failure. He had lost control of his order and thought himself a failure.But he truly loved Jesus and tried to live the life Jesus spells out in the Gospel. For that witness we are all eternally in his debt.

Any who read his life will find themselves both affected and repulsed. The purity of his faith and the integrity of his discipleship are such that his life is an act of preaching the glory of God. Yet, that same purity is so completely foreign to the compromised life which I live that it is too much to bear. Creature comforts and regular meals are too much a part of the Christian life style around here. Like that bishop, I am ashamed in the presence of the naked prophet who renounces everything to embrace Jesus alone.

It has been a long time ago that I read Francis. I was younger and more idealistic then. Perhaps I do not often revisit his life because I recognize my own shabby version of discipleship? Perhaps I am ashamed to be in his presence? I do not know. What I do know is digging into all these memories has stirred my heart and soul. It makes me want to read of him again. And it makes me wonder if, having lived now some fifteen years longer than Francis did, have I still only lived half as much?

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