St Francis of Assisi
By Fr Shane Sullivan
Francis is most commonly associated with nature and a love of all creatures. But the image of Francis as some kind of fuzzy, medieval tree-hugger is a caricature that hides both the depth of his personality and the image of Christ in him. He was much more than that. That said, there was little to suggest in Francis’ youth that he was someone of such substance. Nothing indicated that he would revitalise the whole of the Church. In fact, there was little even to suggest that his legacy would be significant or spiritual at all. Born in 1181 or 1182, as a young man he was worldly and grand. It is reported that he was indulged by his parents and later seemed to indulge himself freely. Yet, even in his prodigal youth a more attentive study of his young character reveals a virtue which, when altered and enhanced by God’s Grace, made Francis the man who would blaze a trail across his own age and shore up Christ’s Church forever. Francis was a magnanimous man.
Magnanimity is literally greatness of soul. The young Francis loved life and all in it passionately. Living his youth as a bon-vivant, his full-throated love of life was not in any way diminished after his conversion, but changed and elevated. Whereas before he was passionate about everything and only tepid in his love for God and the things of God, after he came to embrace passionately all that was from God and all creation which spoke of Him. He cooled, instead, and then strongly rejected only that which was self-indulgent and corrupt. This dramatic change from prodigal to poverello (poor man) was effected when the young Francis mystically encountered the living Christ praying before a crucifix in a poorly-kept chapel outside Assisi.
Things had been changing for Francis for some time. He was being drawn from the things that used to occupy his time, the things he used to enjoy towards something transcendent. One day in 1205 he came to the Chapel of San Damiano and in prayer before the stylised Crucifix he heard Jesus say, “Go Francis and repair my house, which as you can see is falling into ruin.” What he initially understood as referring to the little chapel and later, other shrines around Assisi, we can see as an indication of his future significance for the whole Church. Francis more and more unburdened himself from worldliness until definitively in front of all Assisi, the Bishop and his own father Francis shook off all his possessions, all his concern for public esteem, all family ties (not to mention his clothes)and freely wed himself to his Lady Poverty and dedicated his life to magnifying the Lord. In Francis we see violent rejection and dedication with abandon. Now we approach the heart of St. Francis. G.K. Chesterton in his excellent autobiography of St. Francis gives us the key for understanding how the different and contradictory forces in his personality could co-exist like they did. He was, Chesterton explains, “a lover of God and really and truly a lover of men.” In order to make sense of Francis and to move beyond a simple admiration of him, one has to see that he was a man passionately in love.
A Man like Christ
That love of poverty and Jesus Christ was what ultimately transformed Francis and revitalised the Church. It transformed him increasingly to resemble the Master. Francis embodied so many of the Lord’s own characteristics that he has been described as a Mirror of Christ. He was unafraid of condemnation; dismissive of comfort, wealth and esteem; secure in his trust in God’s providence; full of mercy and burning with a love for God, his Father. How much do we, as Christ’s people, need churchmen like him today?
St. Francis of Assisi- pray for us!