St Francis of Assisi (1226)
Sunday 6 October 2019 | The Rev’d Clare Barrie
Francis of Assisi is the most well known and venerated saint in the world. His popularity is ironic given how deeply he challenged and still challenges the power structures and values of the Church. He was deeply and transparently humble, he embraced poverty, and reached out in love to some the most destitute and rejected people in his society, the lepers and those in poverty. His feast marks the end of this season of creation, but offers us a vision to sustain us in our efforts to change our ways of living, and so care for the creation.
Known as Francesco Bernadone as a young man, he grew up the lecherous and lazy son of a wealthy cloth merchant, and was life and soul of any party. But he set off to fight in a local war, dreaming of future heroics as a knight, and ended up spending a year as a prisoner of war in captivity. Eventually returning home, he struggled to settle – beneath the surface there was now much soul searching. He felt a deep contempt for a life being wasted on trivial and transitory things.
One day in the midst of this time of uncertainty, he was kneeling in front a Byzantine-style crucifix in a tiny ruined church dedicated to St Damian and praying. The crucifix seemed to speak to him, ‘Francesco, do you not see that my house is in ruins? Go and rebuild it for me!’
With typical impulsiveness, young Francis took this literally. He famously sold off rich fabrics from his father’s warehouse without his permission, and used the funds to restore the church. His father became furious upon learning of his son’s actions, and the story goes that he dragged Francis before the local bishop, in order to sort him out.
The bishop told Francis to return his father’s money, to which his reaction was extraordinary: He stripped off his clothes, and along with them, returned the money back to his father, declaring that God was now the only father he recognized. This event is credited as Francis’ final conversion, and there is no indication that Francis and his father ever spoke again thereafter. Francis began a life of poverty, preaching the love of Christ.
And yet it is not Francis’ efforts at restoring church buildings which have had the greatest impact on the Church over the eight centuries since his death. It has been his spirituality – his unique and captivating vision of the life of faith and his love of Christ and his understanding of the place of humanity in God’s creation.
Late in his life, Francis told the story of something that had happened during his early spiritual crisis.
He was riding one day beyond the town of Assisi and encountered a leper, and this man’s open sores filled Francis with horror. And yet he felt moved to overcome his revulsion. So he jumped down from his horse, pressed into the leper’s hand all the money he had with him; and then kissed the man’s hand.
This was a profound experience, and Francis started to visit hospitals and the leper’s refuge. On a pilgrimage to Rome, he emptied his purse at St. Peter’s tomb, then went out to the swarm of beggars at the door, gave his rich clothes to the one that looked poorest, dressed himself in the man’s rags, and stood there in that man’s place all day, with his hands outstretched. The rich young Francis wanted to experience for himself the bitterness and humiliation of poverty.
We perhaps can’t really understand the place that lepers occupied in the early Middle Ages, or the cruelty with which they were treated. In the 13th century, those with ‘leprosy’— a label that covered a whole range of deformities and communicable skin diseases— were restricted to poor, shabby communes outside city walls. By decree of the Church – of the Church – they were required to cover themselves entirely to prevent contact with others; they had to carry wooden clappers or bells to warn people away whenever they came near; they were banned from speaking to children; they were even consigned to their own churches, their own sacraments, their own cemeteries.
This places the command that Francis heard in the ruins of St. Damian’s in a whole new light… The Church which had fallen into ruins was not the dilapidated, crumbling shrine, as Francis believed, but rather the wealthy, powerful Church of Francis’ time that had forsaken Jesus by segregating and abandoning the leprous. Thus Francis’ most powerful act of rebuilding the Church wasn’t his repair of St. Damian’s, but rather his establishment of community with the lepers themselves – those whom his Church had held at arms’ length.
So Francis was no easy, comfortable saint. He bent the rules, he disturbed and embarassed the authorities, he up-ended the values and priorities of the Church. He did this because his theological values were profoundly different. Francis was captivated by knowing God as the Creator, through all that God created – the beauty of this world and all who live in it. He was gripped by the fact of the incarnation – the birth of Christ – in its affirmation of the goodness of creation. He saw this goodness in all living and created things, whether flowers and vegetables, birds and animals, or the poor and leprous.
As Brother Thomas of Celano, Francis’ first biographer, wrote: “Saint Francis praised the Artist in every one of his works; whatever he found in things made, he referred to their Maker. He rejoiced in all the works of the Lord’s hands, and with joyful vision saw into the reason and cause that gave them life. In beautiful things he came to know Beauty itself. To him all things were good. They cried out to him, ‘He who made us is infinitely good.’ By tracing His footprints in things, Francis followed the Beloved wherever He led. He made from created things, a ladder to His throne.”
Francis is a saint whose vision is profoundly relevant to us today, as we face into the climate crisis. He has been known as the patron saint of animals, of ecologists, and of the environment.
In the last years of his life, around the year 1224, when he was in his early 40s, Francis wrote a poem known as the Canticle of the Sun or the Canticle of Creation. In it he expresses the holiness of nature, and the presence of God in the created order. Francis calls out to all of creation as brother and sister, revealing the core of the Franciscan worldview: that God is the source of all being; that the Creator God is the Parent; that all creatures therefore are brother and sister to one another; that everything deserves our love and respect.
Listen, then, to Francis’ Canticle – these words are eight centuries old, but speak with new resonance today.
“O Most High, all-powerful, good Lord God,
to you belong praise, glory,
honour and all blessing.
Be praised, my God, for all your creation
and especially for our Brother Sun,
who brings us the day and the light;
he is strong and shines magnificently.
O God, we think of you when we look at him.
Be praised, my God, for Sister Moon,
and for the stars
which you have set shining and lovely
in the heavens.
Be praised, my God,
for our Brothers Wind and Air
and every kind of weather
by which you, God,
uphold life in all your creatures.
Be praised, my God, for Sister Water,
who is very useful to us,
and humble and precious and pure.
Be praised, my God, for Brother Fire,
through whom you give us light in the darkness:
he is bright and lively and strong.
Be praised, my God,
for Sister Earth, our Mother,
who nourishes us and sustains us,
fruits and vegetables of many kinds
and flowers of many colours.
Be praised, my God,
for those who forgive for love of you;
and for those
who bear sickness and weakness
in peace and patience
– you will grant them a crown.
Be praised, my God, for our Sister Death,
whom we must all face.
I praise and bless you, God,
and I give thanks to you,
and I will serve you in all humility.
Can we learn to see creation – all created things – as our brother and our sister, now desperately in need of healing and care? Can we learn to understand ourselves as part of a great, living, interrelated whole? Can we fall in love with God’s creation, as Francis did, and treasure it?
Francis is a saint for our time – let us pray for his heart to live within us, his passion to transform us, his footsteps to lead us.