St Francis of Assisi
You may have noticed upon entering the chapel this morning that the liturgical color is white rather than green, which it would normally be during this season of the Church’s year. It is white because we are observing the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, the little poor man (Il Poverello) who has long been recognized as one of the most beloved saints of all time. His actual feast day is October 4, but we have transferred the feast to today to bring to a close our month-long observance of the Season of Creation, during which we have celebrated and prayed for the earth and its creatures.
I have twice had the good fortune of visiting 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 St Francis, and of the religious order he founded, the Order of Friars Minor (OFM). During my visits to Assisi, my favorite pastime has been 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, to witness the silent, steady stream of admirers and devotees from all over the world, as they approached his tomb to offer their prayers and to pay their respects. I have literally spent hours there, wondering, as I looked 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. There has never been anyone like him.
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. With his father’s wealth at his disposal, and aided by his own magnetic personality, he surrounded himself with pleasure-seeking friends and partied to his heart’s content. But over time, he found the antics of his friends to be shallow and meaningless and began to withdraw from their presence. His conversion had begun. How we need his witness today to recognize the folly of our own pointless pursuits, and to see that the one purpose worth living for is the end for which we were created, namely, to know God, to love God, and to serve God.
By God’s grace he awakened to the “good news” of the Gospel, and particularly to the mystery of the Crucified Christ, which he recognized as the most profound manifestation of God’s love, not only for the world, but for him personally. It was said of him that ‘the Crucifix was his Bible.’ In the Cross of Christ he saw the love of God generously and lavishly poured out for an undeserving and ungrateful world. In the Cross he recognized the saving action of the Good Shepherd, the One who had freely laid down his life for his sheep. And in the Cross, he found the pattern and inspiration for his own life. In imitation of Christ, he determined to live a life of self-abandonment and loving service, 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. “No one has greater life than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13) The sight of a crucifix moved him to tears and stirred his heart with devotion. 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.
How we need his witness today to perceive the truth and beauty of the Gospel that proclaims, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). How we need his witness to inspire us to “take up (our) cross and follow (Jesus).”
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 – every living thing offered to God its unique praise and thanksgiving 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 each day with a profound sense of wonder, and gratitude. He called the sun his ‘brother’ and the moon his ‘sister.’ Every object or force of nature, every creature, was a gift in his eyes, and he recognized his deep connection with them all. How we need his witness today to remind us of the beauty and preciousness of the earth on which we live, and of the sacredness of every plant, every animal, and every person that calls it home. We are stewards of this earth; not owners with license to use its resources in whatever way we wish.
He awakened also to the freedom that comes from abandoning oneself to the service of God. He freely and joyfully 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 voluntarily identified himself with the poorest of the poor. He wanted nothing for himself; and all for God. How we need his witness today to help us rediscover the beauty of simplicity, and the wisdom of surrounding ourselves only with what we need, rather than giving in to the temptation to indulge ourselves in luxury and waste (SSJE Rule, chapter 7, page 14). How we need his witness to rediscover the dignity of serving others.
He awakened, too, to the need for peace, and to the role he could play as a ‘peacemaker.’ He taught his brothers to greet everyone they met with the words, “May the Lord give you peace.” He forbid them to carry weapons or to defend themselves by violent means. He preached peace wherever he went and insisted that those who aspired to be peacemakers in the world first find peace in their own hearts. Traveling about the countryside, he acted as an agent of peace, reconciling disputes between neighbors, between citizens and their government, between warring cities and principalities. How we need his witness today to teach us to live peaceably with our neighbors and to love even our enemies, as Jesus commanded us.
Think of it. One man. One life, cut short at 44 years. Like Jesus, he never owned a home or acquired wealth. Like Jesus, he never wrote a book, or earned an academic degree, or held a political office. He refused to pursue worldly status and power. He chose instead to live as a poor man, as Christ did, giving himself to the care and service of the most needy. And yet, his life is a shining light that has illumined the whole world. Millions have dedicated their lives to following his example of complete and utter devotion to God.
Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners community, has written 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 was “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 had to take notice. Never have we seen such devotion and such commitment; never have we witnessed such profound freedom and joy; never have we been moved by so deep a love.
We recall him with thanksgiving today, and ask God for the grace to be shining lights in our own generation, as Francis was in his. Blessed Francis, little poor man of Assisi, pray for us.
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