As part of my tour St. Francis kept on cropping up, I was reading a booklet by my friend Chris and he is constantly quoted! I visit the young francisceans in London and they talk about “how the life of Francis and his care for creation inspired them”, I see the brothers in Plaistow talk of how Francis helps them follow Jesus and I tried (unsuccessfully) to visit the Franciscan brothers of the renewal when I was in Bradford!
He get’s everywhere does Frank!
St. Francis of Assisi has become something of a surprising companion in my Christian life! As a child I had seen some rather naff pictures of St. Francis looking all ethereal in his brown habit and long beard, surrounded by the animal cast of “Ace Venture: Pet Detective” hanging around him and to be honest was someone I didn’t know much about -or care much about.
Later as a young Christian I’d been to what a “liturgical cake club” where people talked about St. Francis more than Jesus, read liturgy and ate cake -which left me a little cold!
Yet when I was at theological college we had a remarkable lecturer called Howard Worsley, who caused me to re-visit Francis in a way that was life-changing for
me, he was a truly inspirational man of God, whose life challenged me in how I
Francis was born in Assisi in 1182, grew up the son of a wealthy silk merchant and was extravagant and wild, drinking heavily and womanising.
As a Street Pastor seeing people falling over in the street, brawling over girls and dropping their kebabs all over the floor, I used to sometimes remember Francis and think that anyone of these guys waiting for a taxi, could be someone who could be mightily used by God to change this nation.
Yet despite Francis’ licentious life-style inside he felt crushing emptiness and longed for purpose and meaning. Seeking adventure he signed up for a military campaign in Perugia, and ended up as a Prisoner of War in Collestrada.
It was during his time here that he had a dramatic and life transforming conversion to following Jesus Christ. When he was freed he returned home a changed man.
His friends tried to tempt him back to his old life and he talked of marrying “A fairer bride than any of you have ever seen… Lady Poverty”.
On one occasion a beggar asked Francis for Alms from his Fathers market stall and Francis gave him all the money he had.
His Father was furious, and beat Francis and locked him away. His Father threatened to cut his son out of his will if he didn’t give up his crazy new life and ideas.
Too often we allow the ‘golden handcuffs’ of other peoples’ opinions, financial security, career stability or whatever to stop us doing all that God would have us do. Yet Francis, however, wouldn’t be dissuaded In a fantastic act in the middle of the city-centre of Assisi -the Bishop used his Mitre to try and protect Francis modesty.
Francis spent time seeking God’s call on his life, and heard Christ say to him “to go and restore my Church which is falling into ruins” -he initially took Christ literally and tried to rebuild the falling down Church he was praying in.
Too often we think about the Church as in the building and the institution, yet God does not see his Church as just bricks and mortar but rather his people, his body, his bride those who have heard and heeded the call to following/loving/serving Christ.
From there Francis literally had nothing, he began to wear a habit -the clothes of a beggar- which has now been known by being worn by monks, but at that time was a symbol of poverty but also a deliberate standing in solidarity with the marginalized. He was attending a Mass when he heard the story of the Disciples going out to call people to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom, going without a bag, belt, money or even a spare tunic. This idea of ‘stepping out in faith’ reliant on Christ for everything appealed to Francis and him and eleven other friends began to do just that, sharing Christ where-ever they went taking nothing with them. His rule of life was simple it was “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps” -too often in the Church politics of much of Christendom -now and then- people get so caught up in things that ‘follow Jesus…and walking in his footsteps’ gets side-lined. Francis’ discipleship was costly and sacrificial, not a going through the motions religiosity.
Francis began to work with lepers, and on one occasion when he was being castigated for touching a leper spun around and kissed the leper on the mouth. Francis wasn’t afraid to shock and challenge.
At this time the crusades were raging and many people were going off to spread Christianity not with converting hearts but with swords and violence, something Francis opposed. During the war the Sultan (the leader of the Arabic army) offered gold for the head of any Christians discovered in his lands. Francis bravely sought to make peace speaking both to the crusaders and the Muslims. He walked into the Sultan’s lands, risking his life, and met with the Sulton and although neither converted the other, both walked away respecting the other and becoming friends.
Struck by Francis bravery to seek another way the way of peace, too often we as Christians seem to collude with the idea that problems are best solved with violence. Francis risked his life to build relationships -friendships- with people who would have been viewed as his enemies. His love, grace and the reality of Christ in his life saved his life.
After the Crusades, the Franciscan movement continued to grow, and a friend, Claire of Assisi, felt called to start an order for women who wanted to live out their faith and discipleship in such a radical way as Francis and his followers, following the three rules of “Poverty, Chastity and Obedience”.
In a world that is so deeply materialistic, and capitalism runs wild to deliberately choose to live in poverty is liberating and an act of resistance and protest.
In a highly sexualised, promiscuous and hedonistic culture choosing celibacy is radically counter-cultural.
In an independent world, a world whose mantra is often “you can’t tell me what to do” in choosing to say ‘no’ to ourselves and ‘yes’ to Christ, is something that our culture cannot understand, and yet it is at the heart of discipleship echoing that war within ourselves that Paul speaks of in Romans 7.
For me as I read Francis words’ he was someone who wanted to be utterly committed to living his life for Christ.
His story reminds me of the Simon-Peter, Andrew, James and John who left everything and went and followed Jesus.
Jesus talks of the parable of the Pearl of Great Price so beautiful and pure that the merchant seeking fine pearls was prepared to give up everything to possess that pearl.
We as Christians know this pearl to be Christ.
So, as we take this glimpse of Francis someone who wasn’t just prepared to go through the motions of faith, but lived a life of radical obedience to his Lord.
I’ll end with Francis famous prayer:
“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’s in dying that we are born to eternal life”.