Four Insights into the Christian Life from Saint Francis of Assisi
Tomorrow is the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, the great Italian monastic, mystic, missionary, and reformer of the Church. Born Giovanni di Bernardone in the late 12th Century, Francis was the son of a wealthy Italian textile merchant and a French mother (from whom he gained the nickname Franceso - or the Frenchman). Following several events leading to his deep conversion, he committed himself to a life of poverty, prayer, and mission.
Seek to Build Up the Church
Saint Bonaventure tells the story that shortly after Francis rejected the life of a soldier upon meeting a leper on the road, he stopped into the Church of Saint Damian in Assisi to pray. There, he prostrated himself before the beautiful painted crucifix which hung in the church and was filled with deep consolation by the Holy Spirit. He looked up at the crucifix and he heard a voice emanating from it, saying “Francis, go and repair My House, which, as thou seest, is falling utterly into ruin.” The church building was in desperate need of repair, so Francis immediately began selling his father’s goods at a cut rate to raise money for the repairs, devoting himself to masonry work in his spare moments. The greater message, of course, was that Francis was being called to rebuild not just church buildings, but the Church herself. Saint Paul tells us in First Corinthians: “Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.” (1 Cor. 14:12) Francis did not see the Christian life as a purely personal matter, but sought through his work and teaching to build up the Church. Deep manifestations of the Holy Spirit poured forth, not only from Francis, but the members of his new order.
Pursue Holy Poverty
When Francis’ father returned to find his inventory liquidated, he flew into a rage, and not only upbraided Francis, but beat him severely. Then, he took him to the Bishop to publicly deprive him of his inheritance. In response, Francis began to strip off his clothes and hand them to his father, until he was completely naked. He said to his father, “Hitherto I have called thee my father on earth, but henceforth I can confidently say ‘Our Father, which art in heaven,’ with Whom I have laid up my whole treasure, and on Whom I have set my whole trust and hope.” With that, the bishop wrapped Francis in his cloak, and from then on, Francis became a poor son of the Church. Francis endured great poverty throughout his life, coming to see every part of creation as a consolation in the midst of his poverty. To this day, members of the Franciscan order are forbidden to own anything at all. Not every Christian must actively seek a life of poverty, but every Christian can intentionally learn the way of poverty. We can learn from Francis to be content with what we have and to use things until they’re worn out. We can be allured to the temporary pleasures of owning new things, new clothes, new devices, and new cars. Francis shows us that our quality of life is not determined by wealth, but by being rich toward God. (Luke 12:20)
Love Jesus in the Eucharist
“Toward the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body he felt a glowing devotion that consumed the very marrow of his bones, marvelling with utmost amazement at that most loving condescension and condescending love. Oft did he communicate, and so devoutly as to render others devout, while, as he tasted of the sweetness of that Lamb without spot, he became like one inebriated in spirit, and rapt out of himself in ecstasy.” Bonavanture, The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi
For Francis, the Sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, are the continuation of the Incarnation of Christ in the world. Over the course of his life, Francis was drawn from a mystical life of contemplation of the Cross to the instantiation of that mystical life within the Body of Christ’s Church through the Eucharist. Through cultivating a life of devotion to Christ in His Sacrament, we too can be built up in a life of holiness.
Prayerfully Read Holy Scripture
Francis regularly encouraged his brothers to spend more time in prayer than in reading Scripture:
“It is indeed my will, yet for so long alone as they follow the example of Christ, Who, we read, prayed more than He read, and for so long as they do not lose their zeal for prayer, nor study only that they may know how they ought to speak; rather let them study that they may be doers of the word, and, when they have done it, may set forth unto others what they too should do.”
For Francis, the Bible is not a book to be read, but a text to be performed. In his own time, most Christians assumed that Holy Scripture was merely a book of truths. Francis showed the Church a way of reading Scripture to conform our lives to the ways of Christ. Just like we cannot learn music by reading books of scores, but must practice and perform the music, so we must be constantly looking for ways to be obedient to the Word of God. This is the reason Scripture must be read prayerfully. Because of this, Francis became something of a prophet. He could speak deeply into the lives of those who came to him since he was full of deep and abiding wisdom.