Feast of St. Francis of Assisi
Today, we celebrate in the calendar of the Church, Saint Francis of Assisi who died on this day in the year 1226. Born 44 years earlier to wealthy parents, Francis grew up in the lap luxury and as a young man enjoyed a care-free lifestyle, gallivanting with the other upper-crust youth of Assisi with whom he was popular. Upon returning home from fighting in the Crusades, Francis had a conversion experience. After a prolonged illness he stumbled upon the ruins of a church in San Damiano where he heard the voice of Christ say, “Francis, repair my falling house.” He returned home and sold some of his father’s expensive silk to pay for the repairs. Angry, his father brought him into the public square where, with the citizens of Assisi witnessing the display, disowned and disinherited him. Francis likewise renounced his father’s wealth and tradition says he took off his expensive clothing and laid them at his father’s feet and walked away naked. He left Assisi and began to rebuild the church at San Damiano all by himself.While engaging in this work, he ministered to the poor of Assisi, especially the lepers who were feared by the townsfolk and were literal outcasts. Francis would sneak back into town and scavenge for scraps of bread and vegetables to provide nourishment for those he cared for.
Eventually he began to attract a huge following, including many of his former friends, who joined him in his work of rebuilding the church and caring for the poor. In the year 1210, the pope authorized the forming of the Friars Minor, who have come to be known simply as the Franciscans. Francis and his companions took literally the instructions of Jesus to his disciples: ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.’[i] In a biographical sketch of Francis, James Kiefer writes: They would have no money, and no property, individually or collectively. Their task was to preach, “using words if necessary,” but declaring by word and action the love of God in Christ.[ii]
Francis is probably one of the most beloved monastics and saints in history. He was the first saint I encountered and fell in love with when I first began to attend the Episcopal Church. Just prior to my senior year of high school, inspired by the movie Dead Poet’s Society, I began to immerse myself in a new found love of reading and stumbled upon a book of poetry on one of my parent’s bookshelves. In it was a section of religious verse that included these words:
All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made,
And first my lord Brother Sun,
Who brings the day; and light you give to us through him.
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his spendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars;
In the heavens you have made them, bright
And precious and fair.[iii]
This Canticle of the Sun, attributed to Francis, continues on in beauty and eloquence to praise God for the wonders of the created order, witnessing that even in worldly poverty, God has made us rich and through His grace, provides for us out of the bounty of his creation.You may know that the current pope, who has taken the religious name of Francis, recently wrote an encyclical called Laudato Si, which advocates for the care of the environment. In the first paragraph he writes: ‘In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embraces us.’[iv] We brothers had the pleasure of reading this encyclical and engaging in conversation about its implications for us.
So what can you and I, living in the modern age, take away from our remembrance of Saint Francis? First I think we can cultivate a spirit of gratitude for what we have been blessed with in our life understanding that all of it is a gift from God. Even though we are fascinated by the romantic notion of Francis’ asceticism, many of us lack the zealous enthusiasm to renounce lives of comfort and privilege. Even before Francis’ death there were disagreements among his brethren about the degree of poverty that he ascribed to. The Franciscans eventually split into two sects, the Conventual Franciscans who held a limited amount of property and the Spiritual Franciscans who rejected any possession of property.[v] We brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, like the Franciscans, take a vow of poverty. But we often struggle with what that means, recognizing that because of our upbringing, our access to education and resources, adequate healthcare, our association with people of means and some power, we cannot fully know the poverty of those who quite literally sleep on our city streets. In the chapters from our Rule on the vow of poverty, we read: ‘If our religious poverty is to be authentic we must stay soberly aware of the essential difference between the deprivation of those whose poverty is forced upon them, and the way of life we choose by vow.’[vi] ‘Therefore we come to the poor in need of their witness to what it means to be powerless and to put ones trust entirely in God.’[vii]
And I think that out of our gratitude toGod for what we’ve been blessed with, comes a response of stewardship; to share all we have been entrusted. We brothers try to live into this of gratitude for our lives, our talents and skills, our education, and our life in community by also striving to be faithful stewards of these gifts, giving often to organizations that help to provide shelter for the homeless, education and care for at-risk youth in our urban environment, and making strides in our efforts to live green and promote just stewardship of the earth and her resources. How has God blessed and nurtured you? How can you share with others that which has been gifted you by God? Perhaps you are able to give financially to those causes which are special to you or donate your time and skills to educate, heal, and alleviate pain and suffering in the world, by forming communities of interdependence that in the words of the Baptismal Covenant, strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.[viii]
And this is the second thing we can take away from Francis: the avoidance of indifference by engaging in the work of the gospel to which we have been called and being relentless in that work even when it is not easy or glamorous. When Francis was unable to use the money from the sale of his father’s silk to fund the rebuilding of the church of San Damiano, he didn’t give up, but found another way, even though that way was difficult. One of the most beloved prayers of St. Francis says: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.[ix]
Third, we can all show hospitality to others. Francis cared for those who could not care for themselves. Even while rebuilding the church at San Damiano, he took time to hunt for food to feed the hungry that came to him. He did all he could to make those suffering from leprosy comfortable and was devoted to cleaning their oozing sores and bandaging them, a task even doctors of Assisi avoided out of fear. He provided a place for those in need to sleep and included them in the building of community. You may know that we have a guesthouse here at SSJE; as a matter of fact, a few of you may be staying with us this week, enjoying a time of restorative silence and retreat. Our guesthouse is named after St. Francis and the guesthouse garden contains a statue of his likeness. The Franciscan coat of arms can be seen above the doorway as you enter the guesthouse as a tribute to Francis’ hospitality. But hospitality doesn’t just include housing those who need a place to stay, or feeding those who need a meal (although those are important things). Hospitality grows in seeing others as a manifestation of Jesus in the world; of seeing their intrinsic worth and dignityabove and beyond all that has been their lot in life. We may not all be able to open our homes in order to house and feed, but we all can give a person the dignity and respect that is their right as a child of God: to learn someone’s name, to speak to them with interest in learning who they truly are, instead of ignoring or dismissing them as inhuman, which is the norm for someone living on the street.
And last I would say, we can take every opportunity, even in mundane and ordinary situations, to praise and worship God who biggest desire is to be in relationship with us. You can get a sense from Francis’ prayers that he took pleasure in praising God for sun, moon, wind, air, fire, and all the cycles of life. Our own Father George Congreve SSJE once wrote: “How strange it is that though we would not waste half an hour doing nothing, yet often when walking for half an hour along the road we do worse perhaps than waste it, when we might have glorified it and made it radiant with the brightness and sweetness and preciousness of the life and love of God by thinking of God and speaking to Him.”[x] I can’t help but to hear the echo of Francis resonating in this statement and witnessing to the joy of relationship with Jesus. May we too strive to be in relationship with our Lord like Blessed Francis of Assisi, monastic and founder of the Friars Minor, whom we remember today.
[i] Luke 9:3
[ii]Kiefer, James. “FRANCIS OF ASSISI.” Francis of Assisi. Charles Wohlers, 2 Oct. 2016. Web. 05 Oct. 2016.
[iii]Gasnick, Roy M. The Francis Book: 800 Years with the Saint from Assisi. New York: Collier, 1980. Print.
[iv]Francis. Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home: Encyclical Letter. Vatican City: LibreriaEditriceVaticana, 2015. Print.
[v]Kiefer, James. “FRANCIS OF ASSISI.” Francis of Assisi. Charles Wohlers, 2 Oct. 2016. Web. 05 Oct. 2016.
[vi] Chapter Six: The Spirit of Poverty
[vii] Chapter Seven: Poverty and Stewardship in Practice
[viii]Book of Common Prayer. New York: Seabury, 1979. Print.
[ix]Francis of Assisi. “Prayer of Saint Francis.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 Oct. 206. Web. 05 Oct. 2016.
[x]Woodgate, M. V. Father Congreve of Cowley. London: S.P.C.K, 1956. Print.
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