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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Feast of St. Francis

Illustrations and statues of St. Francis abound. In most, he’s garbed in his simple Franciscan robe, face in beatific repose, while birds perch on his hands and wild beasts rest tamely near his bare feet. Some of these representations are tacky, but many are lovely, conveying a sense of peaceful co-existence in which both Francis and the animals are reflecting the wonders of an Eden-like moment. For a perfect example of this, take a look at our own stained glass window of Francis.

There are fabulous—if apocryphal—stories about his gift for communicating with animals. One, often depicted in art by portraying him with a wolf, is that in the town of Gubbio a wolf was terrorizing the village, snatching away not only livestock, but people. The enraged townspeople wanted to kill the animal but Francis prevailed upon them to let him talk to the creature first. He went into the woods, and as the wolf charged him, jaws lashing toward him, Francis made the sign of the cross, calling out “Come to me, Brother Wolf. In the name of Christ, I order you not to hurt anyone.” To the shock and relief of Francis’s companion, the wolf obeyed! Francis discovered it was simply doing what hungry wolves do—finding prey—and then explained to the animal that he was killing humans who were made in the image of God, and that he needed to ask forgiveness and make peace with the people of Gubbio. The wolf meekly accompanied Francis back into town, where, after hearing Francis give a moving sermon on God’s powerful love and our need for repentance, the people and wolf made a pact of peace, thereafter they fed the wolf, who lived gently in their midst until dying of old age. It’s that bond between humankind and animals that we celebrate in our other two services today, as we have the blessing of pets.

The only problem I have with these images, visual or in words, is that they drastically undersell this 13th century saint. He started life as the educated son of a well-to-do merchant, but after an illness and military service, he began to question his role in the world. One day, while in a church, he heard Christ saying to him, “Francis, rebuild my falling house.” Francis took the words literally and sold some of his father’s goods to put toward reconstruction of the church building. His dad had a fit and disowned him, and Francis in turn repudiated his father’s wealth, reportedly by stripping off all his luxurious clothes, dumping them in front of his father, and walking away naked!

From that time forward, Francis understood himself to be “wedded to Lady Poverty,” shunning all forms of ownership and devoting himself to serving the poor. He compassionately cared for outcasts suffering from terrible illnesses, worked to rebuild the church by his own labor, and scrounged for his food. Others, moved by his devotion, began to join him in this life of service and renunciation of worldly goods, and several years later the Pope authorized the order of Franciscans…who still exist today, including as a monastic order in the Episcopal Church.

The call of these friars was both to an active engagement in the world AND to an intimate spiritual relationship with Christ. Francis cared for the poorest of God’s children, begging for alms on their behalf; traveled to Egypt to proclaim the gospel, ultimately establishing a relationship between a Muslim sultan and himself that in time resulted in Franciscans becoming the guardians of Christian shrines in the area; and is credited with creating the first living Christmas crèche at which animals joined in worshipping the Holy Child and visitors could experience the Nativity with all their senses. Based on popular conceptions, there can be a sort of romanticism about Francis as a man who spent his days wandering in the woods communing with nature, but nothing could be further from the truth. He freely embraced poverty and the messy, exhausting, demanding work of ministry, and by his witness that led to the Franciscan order, he still has an impact 800 years later.

When Jesus tells us to leave everything behind and follow him, I want to take it sort of metaphorically, maybe make myself a little bit uncomfortable at times, perhaps let go of a lot of my emotional baggage and presuppositions, but not anything too extreme. Francis took him literally and gave it all up, everything, with a determination that belies the gracious beauty of a stained glass window or statue. It’s so easy for us to be lulled into a comfortable Christianity. The communion of saints, including Francis, is here not just to provide us with a faith family tree, but to speak to us, to challenge us, to inspire us, to call us to new depths of faith in action. In the words attributed to him:

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;
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. Amen.

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