St Francis of Assisi
I have twice visited the town of Assisi, which rests on a hilltop in the breathtakingly-beautiful central region of Italy called Umbria. Assisi is, of course, the birthplace of the little poor man, St Francis, who has long been recognized as one of the most beloved saints of all time. I love to sit in the small chapel in the undercroft of the great Franciscan basilica, where the body of St Francis and four of his early companions are buried, and witness the silent, steady stream of admirers and devotees from all over the world, as they approach the tomb to offer their prayers and to pay their respects. I wonder, as I look on, how one man, one life, could have had such an enormous impact on the world and could have influenced for good millions upon millions of lives.
Francis was a man whose life was completely transformed by his encounter, and subsequent relationship of love, with God. He seems to me to have been a man who awakened to new life in God, and who, as a result, saw the world and other people and himself in a completely new light. It was as if he had been born again, infused with a divine light and presence, so that he saw what others could not see and perceived what others could not recognize or comprehend.
Early on, he awakened to the folly and emptiness of his youthful years, which had been characterized by vanity, pride, frivolity, and concern only for the temporal and worldly pleasures life could provide. He had used his father’s wealth and his own magnetic personality to surround himself with pleasure-seeking friends, but gradually he found their antics to be shallow and meaningless.
By God’s grace he awakened to the beauty of the Gospel, and particularly to the Crucified Christ as the most profound sign of God’s love for the world, and for him personally. It was said of him that the Crucifix was his Bible. In it he saw the love of God poured out so generously for an undeserving world. In it, too, he saw the pattern for his own life – a life of self-abandonment and loving service in imitation of Christ, a life of poverty and of total dedication, a life that embraced suffering and death – the laying down of one’s life – as the path to new life and profound joy. He taught his brothers to pray every time they entered a church, saying
Both here and in all your churches, we adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, for by your Cross you have redeemed the world.
He awakened, too, to the beauty and wonder of creation. In it he saw God’s love revealed for all to see, as the psalmist did when he wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows God’s handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Every creature was precious – each offering God its praise and thanks by reason of its very existence. Every mountain and hill, every valley and river, the sun and moon and stars of the sky – they all spoke to him of the majesty, the power, the wisdom, the generosity and love of the Creator. He was in awe of it all, and lived with an abiding sense of wonder and gratitude.
He awakened also to the freedom that comes from abandoning oneself to the service of God. He freely gave himself – all that he had and all that he was – to God, asking only to be an instrument of God’s peace in the world. In imitation of Christ, he embraced “Lady Poverty,” finding great joy in sharing the poverty of Jesus and in imitating the generosity of God. He abandoned not only his possessions, but his privilege and pride, once stopping along the road to embrace and kiss a leper whom he had previously found disgusting. He wanted nothing for himself, all for God.
Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners community, writes of the profound influence St Francis has had on his life in these words: “Never before had I encountered a life so consumed with the gospel, so on fire with the love of God, a disciple so single-mindedly focused on following after Jesus, a spirit so joyful in abandoning everything to serve his Lord.”
Here lies the key, I think, to his effectiveness and the answer to the question of how one man could have such a profound influence on so many over the span of eight centuries: He is “so consumed with the gospel,” “so on fire with the love of God,” “so single-mindedly focused on following after Jesus,” “so joyful in abandoning everything to serve his Lord” – that the world has to take notice. Never have we seen such devotion, never have we witnessed such profound joy, never have we been touched by so deep a love.
We recall him with thanksgiving today, and ask God for the grace to be shining lights to our own generation, as Francis was to his. Blessed Francis, the little poor man of Assisi, pray for us.
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