Sunday, April 22, 2007


Francis of Assisi is, by general consent, the greatest Christian since Jesus. Pope Pius IX called him 'the most perfect image of our Lord that ever lived.' People across the religious spectrum from the evangelical John Wesley to the Anglican-turned-Roman Catholic John Henry Newman have been inspired by his example and teachings. Many millions have been drawn to imitate this man who walked so closely to Christ. Even Jews and Moslems have honored him. And he was a favorite model for many of the counterculture 'Jesus people' of the 1960s, venerated for his emphases on peace, joy, simplicity, and charity.

Francis and his friends lived the 'gospel life' as Jesus did: devoted to teaching and to prayer, wandering from place to place, without any money or possessions. He took Jesus' teachings literally, including 'Go, sell all you have, and give to the poor, and come, follow me.'

He strongly, strangely and powerfully influenced everyone he met. CSLewis said about Jesus that once you'd met him you couldn't be neutral about him. It was the same with Francis... In the words of the popular historian Will Durant, Francis 'reinvigorated Christianity by bringing back into it the spirit of Christ.'

Francis was born in 1182, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. His early years were frivolous, but an experience of sickness and another of military service were instrumental in leading him to reflect on the purpose of life. He spent a year as a captive in prison: that experience always changes people: most of God's best servants spent a disproportionate amount of their lives in deserts or prisons! Most know how he exchanged his fine clothes with a beggar's. He lived off 'alms' requested 'for love of God'.

One day, in the church of San Damiano, he seemed to hear Christ saying to him, Francis, repair my falling house.' He took the words literally, and sold a bale of silk from his father's warehouse to pay for repairs to the church of San Damiano. His father was outraged, and there was a public confrontation at which his father disinherited and disowned him, and he in turn renounced his father's wealth (one account says that he not only handed his father his purse, but also took off his expensive clothes, laid them at his father's feet, and walked away naked). He declared himself "wedded to Lady Poverty", renounced all material possessions, and devoted himself to serving the poor. A few companions joined him, and after three years, in 1210, the Pope authorized the forming of the Order of Friars Minor, commonly called the Franciscans. The order grew rapidly, but, over the opposition of Francis, it soon abandoned his original plan of complete poverty, both for the individual friars and for the order as a whole. Francis' public ministry was relatively short - from his conversion in 1207 until his death on 4 October 1226. Within two years he was then canonized by Pope Gregory IX.

One of the most moving spiritual classics you can read is 'The Little Flowers of St. Francis.' There, legends and history exist side by side, but that doesn't matter really. If you read it to be energized by the sheer utter commitment of this man to love and obey to his Lord, you won't be the same again.

He introduced or popularized some common customs practised in many churches and homes - like the Christmas crib. We have had a little wooden one given by a friend that our children used to put under the Christmas tree each year. We have all heard of his wonderful prayers, 'The Canticle of Brother Sun,' and the one that has become known as 'The Prayer of St. Francis.' Some of you may have seen Franco Zeffirelli's movie 'Brother Sun, Sister Moon.'

1. Francis was a 'FOOL for Christ's sake.' He described himself as 'God's Fool.' 'My brothers, my brothers, God called me to walk the way of humility and showed me the way of simplicity... The Lord has told me that he wanted to make a new fool of me in the world... I put my trust in him.' [1] In an era when Scholasticism flourished, and universities were being founded across Europe, Francis said, 'It is not for us to be wise and calculating in the world's fashion; we should be guileless, lowly and pure.' [2] He believed that knowledge, apart from the wisdom of Christ, could be at best useless, at worst dangerous. (Last week I attended an international Theologians' conference. We didn't pray or worship together. Francis would have given us a prophetic blast at all the 'wise foolishness' in that place...)[3]

2. REDEMPTIVE SUFFERING. Francis suffered many illnesses and diseases, particularly in his later life.

The church has oscillated, throughout its history, between a doctrine of redemptive suffering, and a belief in divine healing. Both are biblical, and we must hold both in tension. Jesus was 'made perfect through suffering'. Jesus and Francis both had their Gethsemanes. Francis believed that, as it has sometimes been expressed, 'This is the way the Master trod. Shall not his servant tread it still?'

3. Francis believed he was God's ARCHITECT. Many Christian chapels had fallen into disrepair, and Francis devoted a lot of energy to raising funds and working hard to rebuild them. In John Mark Ministries' seminar on 'The 100 Marks of a Healthy Church' one of these tests is associated with the old adage: 'Church buildings preach.' What does yours say to your community about the kind of God you worship?

4. One of the most popular associations we have of Francis is his love of NATURE. Find his 'Canticle of Brother Sun' and read it slowly some time. It's the best nature prayer-poem after Psalm 19. Jesus said, 'Look at the birds.' Francis did that. Preaching in the open countryside once, he was interrupted by singing swallows. So he turned from the people to address the birds: 'My brother birds, you should praise your Creator very much and always love him; he gave you feathers to clothe you, wings so that you can fly, and whatever else was necessary for you. God made you noble among his creatures, and he gave you a home in the purity of the air; though you neither sow nor reap, he nevertheless protects and governs you without any solicitude on your part.' [4] Of course, the most common statues of Francis, in gardens all over the world, has him talking to the birds.

Look at the birds. Do you? I have a fernery outside my study, and a pair of scrub wrens visit me regularly there - as do doves, and crimson rosellas, and, occasionally, king parrots. They remind me constantly of the variegated beauty of God's creation; and their delight and colour are a wonderful inspiration. Sometimes when I'm counseling we stop to listen to the dynamic excited whistle of the white-eared honeyeaters... And this week a pair of bell-birds is visiting the trees in our garden...

Most have heard the story of the visit of Francis to a town named Gubbio, where a wolf had been terrorizing the community. Francis, says the story (or legend, I don't know), talked to the wolf, and harmony was restored between humans and this animal from the wilds.

Richard Rohr, my favourite contemporary Franciscan, says there's a wolf and a leper in all of us - and in every human. The wolf is angry and dangerous; the leper is also dangerous - and repulsive. Both can kill. But we must befriend both the wolf and the leper - in ourselves and in others. It's an evocative thought.

So Francis loved all God has made. No wonder he sang of burning sun, and silver moon, the weather's moods, rushing wind, clouds that sail, pure flowing water, mother earth, flowers and fruits... and kind and gentle death. Francis loved nature because he loved nature's God. Nature, as Francis concludes his 'Canticle of Brother Sun', causes him to 'Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks, And serve him with great humility.' Nature, according to one mystic, is the hem of the garment of God. Touch nature, and you touch God. You shouldn't worship nature (pantheism) but you can worship God via nature (panentheism).

'Prior to [Francis' revolutionary attitude] ... for some, nature was to be feared, for it was demonic. For others, it was to be bribed, for it was capricious and unpredictable. For yet others, it was to be adored, for it was divine. For still others, it was to be destroyed, for it was the enemy. To polytheists, nature was confusing, for it was a complex of contradictory energies.' [5]

5. Perhaps the greatest impact Francis still has on us is his total COMMITMENT to his Lord and God. Let me give you a few of his prayers that speak for themselves:

* 'O great and glorious God, illuminate my heart, give me a steadfast faith, firm hope, perfect love, and knowledge and understanding so that I may keep your commandments'.

* 'Let us all love with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, with all our strength and fortitude, with all our understanding and with all our powers, with our whole might and whole affection, with our innermost parts, our whole desires, and wills, the Lord God, who has given, and gives to us all, the whole body, the whole soul, and our life; who has created and redeemed us, and by his mercy alone will save us; who has done and does all good to us, miserable and wretched, vile, unclean, ungrateful, and evil.'

* 'And since [our Lord] has suffered so many things for us and has done and will do so much good to us, let every creature which is in heaven and on earth and in the sea and in the abysses render praise to God and glory and honor and benediction; for he is our strength and power who alone is good, alone most high, alone almighty and admirable, glorious and alone holy, praise-worthy and blessed without end forever and ever.' Amen.

I would defy anyone to read Francis' prayers and not be moved by his utter commitment to his God.

6. Like his Lord, Francis was a wanderer, an ITINERANT. He took seriously Jesus' instructions to his disciples (see Matthew 10:7-13). Like Jesus, Francis preached wherever people would gather - in marketplaces, in open fields. And like Jesus, Francis would turn a motley crowd into a congregation. Many thousands would leave these open-air meetings imbued with a greater love for God and a desire to devote their lives to God's will and service. A popular biography of Francis is titled 'The Journey and the Dream' (Murray Bodo). The theme is of Francis the wayfarer. And in a sense we are all pilgrims here, wayfarers, journeying through and beyond this life. Our short life on earth lacks permanence: Francis would never want us to forget that. We are strangers here; heaven is our home. We're just 'traveling through...'

7. Finally, there's Francis' SIMPLICITY. They say childish people live in 'simplicity this side of complexity'; scholars often inhabit 'complexity the other side of simplicity' - they know more and more about less and less; but the saints have moved beyond simplicity this side of complexity, through complexity to simplicity on the other side (if you understand!). They are childlike, but not childish. They, like Jesus, believe that to enjoy the rule of God you have to get in touch with the child within you. (The motto for my counseling practice: 'It's never too late to have a happy childhood').

One biography writes of him: 'It is almost impossible to reflect upon the saint of Assisi without a smile. His joy and his humour were unforced. They did not come at the expense of others. Instead they came from an inner childlike quality of spontaneity and an essential optimism... It was difficult for Francis to take the world with utmost seriousness.' [6]

Francis was a happy man, for he was 'poor in spirit' (Matthew 5:3). But he also 'went through the world weeping'. Betrothed to 'Lady Poverty' he did not fear destitution, but enjoyed Lady Poverty's invitation to a life of simplicity and integrity. He wore a habit, often with many patches inside and outside, bound with a cord, and trousers underneath. That's all. He was often hungry and cold: sometimes in the winter icicles were seen hanging from the bottom of his cloak. He sometimes had no shelter... So life wasn't easy for him. He was occasionally beaten, robbed, shipwrecked, betrayed by false friends, misunderstood by those in authority, often ridiculed. But like Paul before him, he 'counted all things loss' for the excellency of Christ.

Francis was a servant of all - inside the church and outside it; a missionary-evangelist to all; he respected the authority of people in authority, and he let his life be the prophetic reformer of corruption and ungodliness. (I saw in someone's Internet .sig file: 'Preach the gospel at all times - use words if necessary.' St. Francis).

On October 4th 1226, blind and very sick, Francis was laid on the cold earth, and with some of his closest 'friars minor' he sang with them the evening office. After the psalm was read, in a frail voice he said 'Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise your name' (Psalm 142:7). Then silence. Francis was visited by 'Sister Death'...

The other day I counseled a person who felt spiritually abused by a strong-willed dominating pastor. She had ten pages of examples of his abuse. What was she to do? After we'd talked, we prayed. And both of us then glanced to a small wooden plaque on a bookshelf in my office which I'd brought back from Israel. It was the prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon...

We both saw it. And for her (though not for everyone in this situation) there was her answer. 'Where there is injury, pardon.' She wrote a letter of 'pardon' to her pastor, who, hopefully, has also learned something through her painful experience...

Let us make Francis' great prayer our own today:

Lord, make me an instrument of your PEACE. Where there is hatred let me sow LOVE. Where there is injury, PARDON. Where there is doubt, FAITH. Where there is despair, HOPE. Where there is darkness, LIGHT. And where there is sadness, JOY.

O DIVINE MASTER, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to CONSOLE. To be understood as to UNDERSTAND. To be loved as to LOVE.

FOR it is in GIVING that we receive, It is in PARDONING that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to ETERNAL LIFE.


From the oldest known letter written by Francis to all Christians:

'O how happy and blessed are those who love the Lord and do as the Lord himself said in the gospel: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole soul, and your neighbor as yourself. Therefore, let us love God and adore him with pure heart and mind. This is his particular desire when he says: True worshipers adore the Father in spirit and truth. For all who adore him must do so in the spirit of truth. Let us also direct to him our praises and prayers, saying: "Our Father, who are in heaven," since we must always pray and never grow slack. Furthermore, let us produce worthy fruits of penance. Let us also love our neighbors as ourselves. Let us have charity and humility. Let us give alms because these cleanse our souls from the stains of sin. Men lose all the material things they leave behind in this world, but they carry with them the reward of their charity and the alms they give. For these they will recieve from the Lord the reward and recompense they deserve. We must not be wise and prudent according to the flesh. Rather we must be sinple, humble and pure. We should never desire to be over others. Instead, we ought to be servants who are submissive toe very human being for God's sake. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on all who live in this way and persevere in it to the end. He will permanently dwell in them. They will be the Father's children who do his work. They are the spouses, brothers and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ.'

PRAYER (traditional language): Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant unto thy people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of thee delight in thy whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

PRAYER (contemporary language): Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace gladly to renounce the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfect joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

We conclude with one of Francis' own prayers:

'Almighty, eternal, just and merciful God, grant us in our misery that we may do for your sake alone what we know you want us to do, and always want what pleases you; so that, cleansed and enlightened interiorly and fired with the ardour of the Holy Spirit, we may be able to follow in the footsteps of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and so make our way to you, Most High, by your grace alone, you who live and reign in perfect Trinity and simple Unity, and are glorified, God all-powerful, for ever and ever. Amen.' [7]

1. Legend of Perugia, Omnibus trans., p. 114.

2. Letter to All the Faithful.

3. Get yourself a good recent book titled 'Jesus the Fool' by Michael Frost (Albatross, 1994.) As one of the judges who awarded it a 'highly commended' rating for the 1995 Australian Book of the Year Awards I believe it says something important about Jesus in a popularly written style.

4.Thomas of Celano's 'First Life of St. Francis', p.58].

5. Duane W. H. Arnold & C. George Fry, 'Francis: A Call to Conversion,' London: SPCK, 1988, p.112.

6. Arnold and Fry, op. cit., p. 95.

7. Letter to a General Chapter.

Rowland Croucher
Article borrowed from the John Mark Ministries website

No comments: