Today we celebrate the feast of St Francis of Assisi, a well beloved Saint and one of the more popular. St. Francis of Assisi is immortalized in garden statuary, in the chosen name of the Pope and in countless churches, monasteries and the monastic order of St. Francis continues this day; so popular in fact that there is even a branch of Franciscans for people who admire and follow Francis without becoming monastics.
But why is he so admired? Francis was born into a large, very rich Italian family. His family were merchants who imported cloth from France. Francis was spoiled and indulged, he was dedicated to pleasure and indulgence and early biographers were quite harsh in declaiming Francis’ love of fine clothes, of drunkenness and frivolity. He was well known to be witty, handsome, and a very popular fellow with the noble and wealthy set of Assisi.
Francis also shared in the romance of the age… an age of chivalry and the glory of battle. Italy was full of petty feuds and battles between neighbouring cities and Francis was keen to join in. However, his city was defeated and Francis was taken prisoner for over a year.
During that time he took fever and, as many do when they become ill…Francis began to think of things spiritual and of his own mortality. Yet, once his rich father secured a ransom for him, his health returned and his thoughts quickly turned back to fun and glory.
However, Francis didn’t get far in his military career…in fact he didn’t even make it to the camp before he became ill. During his short military career Francis had had visions from God that he was meant for a more spiritual path, slowly Francis’s life began to change.
He was less keen to join the revels of his friends and he began to have a yearning for the spiritual life he had contemplated when imprisoned. Francis began to seek out solitude and prayer…and to give up his rich clothes and parties.
At this point we begin to hear the stories associated with St Francis of Assisi, One fateful and famous day he was out riding and saw a leper, the sight of this leper initially filled Francis with disgust and he retreated, but something caused him to rethink this reaction. Francis, famously dismounted his horse, embraced the leper and gave him all his money.
When Francis returned home to Assisi he received another vision…this one saying ‘Go, Francis, and repair my house, which is falling to ruin.” Francis took this quite literally and went to his father’s shop, stole several bolts of expensive fabric and sold them to repair a broken down chapel. This was great for the chapel, but not for Francis’ standing in Assisian society, who were beginning to think Francis had gone mad. Not t mention that his father was more than a bit upset and when Francis returned home he was beaten and locked up by his father as punishment.
However, this didn’t stop Francis who had become spiritually eccentric and a bit of an embarrassment to is wealthy society family. Consequently, Francis’ father dragged him before the courts in order to disinherit his crazy son. But by this point, Francis had begun to discern a vocation and as he liked to say…he had begun courting ‘lady poverty’.
So when his father tried to disown him, Francis declared he had devoted himself to the church, stripped himself naked in front of the bishop and the court, and declared that God was his only father... Leaving himself devoid of all worldly goods, honour, family and privilege.
Following the call from Matthew’s gospel which said Jesus’ disciples should carry neither gold nor silver, nor extra coat or shoes or staff and that they were to exhort sinners to repentance and announce the kingdom of God.
Francis and his followers gave away their wealth, wore rough robes and lived in handmade huts near the churches. They became known as the penitents of Assisi and soon received papal permission to be a formal order of monastics. Becoming the Friars Minor in Assisi. So many people were moved by St Francis’ life and words that he was forced to create a third order of St Francis who were not in monastic life, but still followed the rule of Franciscan life.
Franciscans were known for going about two by two like children…singing and working, being full of joy. Francis attracted many followers especially by his famous short, simple and affectionate homilies.
As time passed Francis began to age poorly. His life of deprivation and extreme poverty took its tool…he was often sick and quickly becoming blind. After a 40 day long fast during which St Francis focused his devotions of the suffering of Christ on the Cross…his desire to imitate Christ received new depth. St. Francis received was a called the stigmata… physical wounds on his own body echoing the wounds of Christ…hands, feet and side.
St. Francis taught in all things to imitate Christ and especially Christ’s love. St Francis believed whole heartedly in reconciliation and love, and in divine perfection in all of creation. This was obvious in the way he lived his life in pure joy, and in his understanding that all things were related to him through Christ.
One of the last things he did was write the Canticle of the Sun…which speaks of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. He preached to the birds and feed the bees, because they were a part of the great congregation which we are all a part of.
St Francis is also famous for making popular the adoration of the crib, or as we know them nativity scenes. Christmas was his favorite feast day, where Christ came humble and poor to save us all. The image of worshiping God in something as dependent and humble as a baby had great meaning for St. Francis.
This is something we can all learn from St Francis. Our time is not so different from that of St Francis… the wealthy and powerful people of trade in our land have the respect and influence in society. Those who seek a life of simplicity, humility and poverty are considered eccentric and odd at the very least.
Yet we too have been called to rebuild God’s church in humility, reconciliation and love. To seek to imitate Christ and find God’s truth in all the world. To go where the people are and preach simple Godly words to them, not only in word but in action. Devoting the church, as in the people who are the church, to lives that imitate Christ.
Rebuilding God’s church as a people of humility, simplicity, joy, sacrifice and great love. Re-establishing the good relationships that have been damaged in our world, between people, between creation, between God and those God created.
The world today is as much in need of peace and reconciliation, intentional love and simplicity as it ever was. St Francis shows us an example of how we can live our lives in imitation of Christ, in love of the world without being drawn in by the world. A life devoted to others, devoted to truth, devoted to Christ. amen