St Francis of Assisi
The 4th of October is always a special day, because it is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. I first fell in love with St. Francis when I was a student. I was staying with a friend who was studying to be a priest at the English College in Rome. It was January, and the biggest shock for me was how cold it was. The fountains of Rome were all frozen, and the marble floors of the college gave little comfort. So, one weekend, we decided to take ourselves off to Assisi. We took the train, and headed north towards the Apennine mountains. As the train journeyed inland and uphill, it started to snow, and it was quite exciting. After about two hours, we finally pulled into the station, and by now the snow was very deep, and it was getting dark. We got out and looked around, and I remember feeling actually rather disappointed. The town looked a bit dull. But then, I looked up, and there, high above us, clinging to the mountainside like a dream, was the medieval city of Assisi, lit up by the setting sun, shimmering in the snow. It was stunning, and has stayed in my mind’s eye ever since.
During the next few days we walked in the footsteps of St Francis, heard his story, prayed in the churches, played in the snow, throwing snowballs outside the church of Santa Chiara (nearly hitting a nun!), and I remember feeling full of joy. Francis had captured our hearts! And it was joy above all, which was the gift we received from Francis. I think he has been blessing the world with joy ever since.
But joy is not the same as just feeling happy. It’s deeper. It’s a gift, a gift of the Spirit, and it does not always come cheaply. For Francis it came through the way of great personal suffering and sacrifice. Francis was a wealthy and privileged young man, who, like so many before and after him, had a profound spiritual encounter with Christ, which completely and utterly changed his life. This young man, who once took great delight in striding through Assisi wearing the finest of clothes, embraced the way of the poor man of Nazareth. He publicly stripped himself of his finery, and put on the clothes of a beggar. He followed the call of his Lord to recall the Church to the radical simplicity of the Gospel, to the spirit of poverty, and to the image of Christ in the poor. Yet, this new vocation was not one of grim self-abnegation, but one of joy.
Where did this joy come from? In our reading today, from the letter to the Philippians, St. Paul I think, gives us an answer. He too was a wealthy and privileged young man, and once very proud of his pedigree: ‘A member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.’ All this ‘finery’ he could parade proudly before others. Yet after his profound spiritual encounter with Christ on the Damascus road, he was to strip himself of all these privileges. “I regard them all as loss because of Christ. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things. I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ, to share his sufferings and to know the power of his resurrection’. It is a very moving passage. And of course, in speaking these deeply personal words, Paul’s eyes were fixed on the very place where Francis’ eyes were fixed; on the image of the crucified Jesus, who himself was stripped of honor, ‘who emptied himself, took the form of a slave, humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.’
In this most deeply personal and moving of letters, Paul is writing from prison. He is likely in chains, and facing the threat of execution. Yet, there is no letter in the whole of the New Testament that is so filled with the spirit of joy! ‘I continue to rejoice’, he says. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice’. ‘Paul and Francis, for much of their lives, suffered beyond measure; yet, they were both overflowing with the gift of joy. They knew this profound gift of joy; this inner peace and contentment which had nothing to do with their outward circumstances.
‘What is Perfect Joy?’ That is the question which Brother Masseo asked Francis one day, as they were walking through the countryside together. Francis replied by repeatedly telling him what perfect joy is not. ‘If I knew all things, that is not perfect joy’ he said. ‘If I loved my neighbors, that is not perfect joy,’ he said. And he carried on with all the things that are not perfect joy, until Brother Masseo got frustrated. So finally, Francis said, ‘If we come to one of our houses during a storm, hungry and tired, knock on the door, and a brother comes out, doesn’t recognize us, slams the door, and when we knock again, comes out and hits us and throws us down into the snow, THAT is perfect joy, because we are with Christ crucified, may his name be blessed forever.’ That is a hard story, and doesn’t sound very sensible to modern ears, but it was Francis’ definition of perfect joy. I think he was trying to express in a dramatic way, that joy is an interior gift which is not dependent on our outward circumstances, but has more to do with our union with Christ crucified. Perfect joy can come even when we are chained in prison, even when we are thrown into the snow, even when we are living through a pandemic.
The poet William Blake put it beautifully:
‘He who binds to himself a joy/ Does the winged life destroy. / He who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in eternity’s sunrise.’
Joy is a gift that God longs to give to each one of us. And there are ways I believe in which we can open our hearts to welcome this gift. Here are a few suggestions:
Firstly, we can ask God for joy. God loves to be asked! So, pray for the gift of joy in your life.
Secondly, why not read Paul’s letter to the Philippians all the way through in one session. It’s quite short! Notice how many times he talks of joy and rejoicing, and allow yourself to draw on his joy. Immerse yourself in the atmosphere of joy which pervades this letter.
Thirdly, take Francis as your model. Open your eyes and look around you, just where you live. You may be feeling so bored with what’s around you. But look at it again as Francis would see it. Francis was continually overwhelmed by the beauty of the world; and not just trees and flowers, but also the wounded, the broken, and the sad. He saw them all as transfigured by God’s love. He had a vivid sense of the sacramentality of all of creation. All things reflected their creator’s love and filled him with wonder and joy. So maybe ask God to renew your vision, to see the ordinary and familiar as ‘charged with the grandeur of God.’
When he was very ill, near the end of his life, and almost blind, Francis wrote a magnificent song of praise, ‘The Canticle of Creation’. If you are feeling low and joyless right now, read this song, or sing it! It’s hard not to pick up its radiant joy. Here are few lines and phrases that I love:
‘Be praised my Lord for all your creation…for our Brother Sun…for Sister Moon, and for the stars…for our Brother Wind and Air… for Sister Water…for Brother Fire. Be praised my Lord, for Sister Earth our Mother, who nourishes and sustains us. Be praised my Lord for those who forgive for love of you…for those who bear sickness and weakness in peace and patience. Be praised my Lord for Sister Death, whom we must all face. I praise and bless you Lord, and I give thanks to you and I will serve you in all humility.’
Happy St Francis Day! May his spirit and prayers fill you always with peace and joy. Amen
Year A Proper 22
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