The Faith and Witness of Francis

This week we celebrate the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, who gave away all that he had - including his clothes - and became the founder of the Franciscan Order of traveling, teaching monks in the thirteenth century.  

St Francis is commonly known to be the patron saint of animals because of his canticle on creation (which we may remember by the phrase “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”) and the stories of his sermon to the birds, his taming of the wolf, and his love for all creation. So we often bring our animals to church to be blessed on the Feast of St Francis. 

The Franciscans, the little or lesser brothers, traveled around the countryside telling the story of Jesus to the people.  At that time, the language of the church was Latin and many people could not read or understand it.  And so Francis was thought to have set up the first creche, a living nativity scene, to help people understand the story of Christmas.  Hundreds of years later, the practice of putting stained glass windows in churches to visually portray the Christian story continues this tradition.  Just as Francis spoke to the animals to tell God’s story to them so he and his followers wanted to communicate with their fellow humans in ways that spoke to them, through pictures and stories they could understand.

Many of us know the story of Francis, how he started out as a party-boy, footing the bill for all sorts of revelries among the young smart set, how he was sent off to war and received an injury, how he began to see that his former life was shallow, how he was affected by meeting a leper, how he heard the voice of God imploring him to help rebuild the church, how he threw off all his possessions (to the consternation of his wealthy father) and embraced Lady Poverty, how he eventually gathered a group of monks around him which developed into the Franciscan Order as well as a group of women called the Poor Clares led by his friend and neighbor Clare of Assisi.

Francis was certainly a colorful figure, despite his rough brown robes and his bare feet. He was joyful and was said to urge the birds and the beasts to praise God in gratitude for their beauty and for God’s care for them. And yet he was incessantly seeking to deprive himself of comfort, often refusing food and shelter and finally dying naked as the day he was born while listening to someone read the 142nd Psalm. He was determined to live a life free of possessions which would keep him from following Jesus, but also he refused to live in a cloister, removed from the world, praying all the time, preferring to be out in the world, telling the story of Jesus to the people in their own language, even if it meant begging for his food. Willing to be ridiculed by the world, called by some the Clown of God, this joyful and yet deadly serious man embraced poverty and kissed lepers and figured if God told him to rebuild his church, which sounded like a tremendous job beyond one man’s capabilities, it wouldn’t hurt to begin by actually putting the stones back together on a falling down church building in his town.

Not everyone is called to be like Francis, but we are all called to consider his witness to the world. He isn’t just about blessing our pets, as good a thing as that is. Indeed, he took upon himself a yoke, but showed it to be light. He considered the lilies of the field and the birds of the air and bade them rejoice in their God-given beauty and to praise God for providing for them so richly. Would that we might do the same. Despite his embrace of deprivation, he did not consider himself worthy even to be a distant follower of our suffering God, as GK Chesterton put it in his biography of Francis, yet he was shown to be worthy because bore on his own body the wounds of Christ, receiving the gift of the stigmata near the end of his life. 

And so when you look in a garden and see a statue of St Francis in his robe with birds perched all over him, look beyond the legends and the quaint friend of cute pets and see a man utterly, fiercely, joyfully dedicated to God, who was willing to give up everything in order to follow Jesus, and marvel at his faith and witness.