Saint Francis of Assisi
By Rev. Rebecca
"Sanctify yourself and you will sanctify society. "
Saint Francis has been an inspiration to me since I first stumbled upon a photo of him in my local library as a teenager. I opened a book about saints and was struck by a photo of St. Francis receiving the Holy Stigmata (the crucifixion wounds of Jesus) from a Christ-faced Seraphim. In my Baptist background, I had absolutely no context to make sense of this photo or the stunning, radical spirituality and lifestyle this saint portrayed. Since that day, Saint Francis has haunted me.
The more I learn about Saint Francis, the more drawn and inspired I am. I discovered that he was born in Italy in the twelfth century and had come from a wealthy family. He was a witty, handsome playboy who aspired to be a noble knight but found himself called by God to a very different lifestyle. One day he encountered a leper and felt a certain repugnance within himself towards the poor leper. Immediately he resisted that impulse and embraced the leper in his arms. That was, in some sense, a "conversion" for Francis, a turning point in his life. Later he was in the Chapel of San Damiano and heard God's voice speak clearly to him from the crucifix saying, "Francis, Go and rebuild my Church, which you can see has fallen into ruin." Francis believed initially that the call was to a literal, physical rebuilding of the Church...only later did he realize the call was to a spiritual rebuilding.
One day Francis took some of his father's fine possessions and sold them in order to earn money to begin rebuilding the local churches. His father was outraged and demanded repayment. The incident culminated in a heated argument with the town priest in which Francis gave up his inheritance as repayment and proceeded to strip off all of his clothing and handed them over to his father. At that time he vowed to follow God alone and walked out of town naked while the townspeople looked on in astonishment. Francis chose homelessness and wandered the country side during his ministry for the rest of his life.
Francis' first ministry was gathering rocks to rebuild chapels and churches in the area. He also began serving the lepers and outcast of society. Soon he gained a large number of followers, eventually leading to recognition by the Pope as a religious order which he named "The Friars Minor." Francis and the friars travelled from place to place preaching, serving the outcast, caring for lepers, cleaning churches, giving food to thieves, praying, and praising God. They embraced radical poverty, owning nothing, and were often thought to be "crazy" because of it. Francis called poverty his "bride" whom he referred to as his dear "Lady Poverty." He believed that owning nothing was the ultimate freedom as possessions could no longer control him.
The Friars were often mocked, spat upon, and had stones thrown at them. Francis called this treatment "pure joy" because he knew such treatment freed them from caring about the opinions of other's and freed them to focus on God.
Francis also had a special love and relationship with animals; to this day he is the patron of animals. It is said that animals were tame and gentle around him and seemed to understand Francis' words. He preached to the birds and was able to tame a viscious wolf who had been attacking people. It is reported that at times Francis would sit outside to pray and the birds would land and sit on his shoulders and squirrels would crawl into his lap.
Francis was also known for his deeply passionate spiritual life and rigorous spiritual disciplines. He kept strict fasts and spent many hours in prayer each day. The brothers report that he would often go into ecstasy during prayer in which he would be entirely engrossed in the Divine life and light, unaware of all else. He loved God with a love that few can ever relate to or understand.
Francis is the first recorded recipient of the Holy Stigmata. He recieved it in meditation in September of 1224. From that day he bore the wounds of Jesus Christ...four nail wounds in his hands and feet and a fifth side wound which bled profusely at times. The stigmata is a sign of one who shares in Christ's suffering closely (as Francis had often prayed) and is considered a special grace.
Francis also began a religious order for women, originally called the "Second Order," with his first female follower being Clare of Assisi. Francis was the first to found an order for lay people who lived in the world, both married and single, called the Franciscan Third Order. Today the Third Order continues to thrive around the world in the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions.
To my knowledge, Francis is the most Christ-like figure besides Jesus himself. He lived the Gospel and its truths with pure simplicity, joy, and gratitude. He exemplified Christ-like suffering, love, and grace throughout his life. He died on October 4, 1226. His life continues to be commemorated on October 4, his Feast Day in the Church calendar. Animals and pets can also be brought to local Anglican and Roman Catholic churches to be blessed on the Sunday of St. Francis' Feast Day.
Written on Pentecost Sunday, 2002