Monday, 6 October 2014

Saint Francis

Early in the 13th century Pope Innocent lll had a dream. He dreamt that the cathedral in Rome was beginning to collapse, but there was a young man who held it up and kept it from collapsing. He recognized the man as the leader of a group of dirty beggars he had dismissed the day before. The man was Francis of Assisi.

Before becoming the leader of this group of beggars Francis also had a vision about a building. Francis was in an old church, San Damiano. While he was praying he heard Jesus speak to him from the crucifix at the front of the church. The voice said, "Francis, Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins." Francis was a man of simplicity and he was learning obedience so he began repairing the old church and raised the funds by selling some of his father’s fabric. (His father was a wealthy cloth merchant).

The pope’s dream was not about the actual cathedral building needing a carpenter, and Francis’ vision was not really about fixing an old church building. God was going to use Francis to bring renewal to the church as a group of people, not a building.

There was a growing sense that the church of Francis’ day had grown away from the origins of Jesus and his Apostles. The church was very rich, it was very political, it was full of ceremonies few understood, and so it must have felt like God was not very accessible. The church seemed more about institution than about spirituality. Francis’ life helped to rebuild the church because of his passionate and personal love of God, his obedience to the words of Christ, his life of simplicity, his passionate love of people (especially the poor), and his love for God’s creation.

Anyone who looks at the life of Francis knows that one of the marks of his life was joy. He was genuinely happy. That joy came from his profound faith. Francis had a passionate and personal love of God. He believed God was personal and intimate and he spoke to God in prayer often. You might know that Francis invented the crèche- the nativity scene people set up with hay and statues of animals. Francis wanted people to understand that God came to us humbly and personally as one of us. Francis had a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus and he wanted that for others as well.

He really truly believed in a God that loved him with an eternal love. He knew that the world and his existence were in the hands of a just and good God. He believed that God was good- better than he could possibly imagine and so he trusted Him. Francis knew that even if he died while following God, it would be alright because the world was sustained by an infinitely loving God. I think Francis knew what Jesus meant when he said “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”. Francis released the anxieties and fears of the world (the human system that tries to exist apart from God) as he embraced Jesus and Jesus’ way of life. The life Francis lived might seem to us to be a heavy yoke- a hard way of life, but I think if we asked Francis, he would tell us that he took off the heavy yoke when he took off the anxieties and the fears most people live with on a daily basis. Francis led a joy-filled life embracing the teachings of Jesus.

In his desire to follow the words of Christ literally Francis embraced a life of poverty. He knew what it was like to have wealth. Francis was born to a wealthy family in the late 1100's. His father was a cloth merchant and part of the rising merchant class. In his desire to follow Christ he sold some of his father’s cloth to pay for repairs to a church. He was eventually dragged to court by his father as a crazy person for attempting to give away his family’s possessions.

Francis grew up in a world, much like our own, that is full of all kinds of expectations concerning what it means to live a successful life. If you are wise then you will take over the family business, and start a family so that you can pass on the accumulated wealth. You are to be respected and wealthy. This is what it means to be successful. We’re not so different in our expectations. What does it mean to be “successful” in our world? We need to be highly educated. We need to have a nice car and a nice house. Dress well, talk on a cell phone a lot. Go on nice holidays. Maybe, appear on television. Instead of embracing the wealth of his father, Francis embraced poverty and simplicity. Francis and his followers showed the world a way of life that trusted in God’s provision to feed them even as God feeds the birds of the air.

Francis was also passionate about his love for people. He identified himself with the poor in his poverty and worked to help them. In a church that seemed to be more concerned with politics, Francis embraced the poor. He recalled the moment his heart was changed by God. He encountered a leper, and like most of society he was repulsed by lepers. God changed him. Francis went to the leper and kissed him and after that he began working among them.

Francis’ love for God spilled over to the people around him, but it didn’t stop there. Francis loved God’s creation and embraced creatures as his fellow brothers and sisters. In Francis’ Canticle of the Sun he describes the creation praising God and he describes the sun as Brother Sun, the moon as Sister Moon, and he goes on with Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire, Sister Mother Earth, and he even added Sister Death. Though Francis believed the world was a fallen world, he also believed the world was essentially good- it retained some of the original goodness God created it with. He did not reject the world as evil and something to escape from.

Francis’ love of animals stems from his belief in God’s goodness as the creator, and he saw animals as his fellow creatures- Created like himself. They were his brothers and sisters. There are many stories about Francis and animals. My favorite is the story about the wolf of Gubbio. Where Francis makes peace between a fierce wolf and a town that lives in fear of it. Eventually the wolf becomes sort of the town pet.

The thing that fascinates me most about Francis is his amazing determination to live out the teachings of Jesus as literally as possible. He was incredibly obedient to the words of Jesus. When Francis and a few of his followers were seeking God’s guidance they opened the Gospel three times randomly. First, they opened to Matt 19:21 and read Jesus’ words to the rich man, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me". Then they opened to Luke 9:3 and read about Jesus directions to the disciples he was sending out, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.” Then they turned to Matt 16:24 when Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Francis was always inclined towards literal obedience and so Francis and his followers embraced those passages and tried to live them as literally as they could, which meant they embraced a life of poverty.

Francis was a fantastic imitator of Jesus. The more he followed his commands, the more Christ-like he became. I remember hearing about a vision someone had about Francis. They saw Jesus walking along on a beach. Many people followed him like little children, trying to place their feet in his footsteps. Imagine these streams of Christians through the centuries all following the path that Jesus set down- all trying to walk in this footsteps. We’re all walking in the sand, trying to put our feet in his footsteps. In this vision those who did the best were the saints, but they still walked with poor balance. Then came Francis, who walked in his footsteps almost effortlessly. He walked in the footsteps of Jesus with wreckless love and trust, which is really the only way you can.

One of my favourite movies is about St. Francis. It’s called "Brother Sun, Sister Moon". People I show it to usually have two reactions when they see it. They either love it and watching the movie becomes a kind of spiritual experience in itself, or they tend to think that Francis is insane. People don't really tend to land anywhere in the middle. This reaction is appropriate because people react to Francis' life that way too. People either recognized something of God in him, or they thought he was crazy. But this was and is many people's reactions to Jesus as well.

Jesus teaches us to do some things that don’t seem rational to most people. He teaches us to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us. He teaches that we should turn the other cheek when struck. When we are forced to carry a load for one mile against our will, we should carry it two miles. He hung out with the undesirables of society. He said if you follow him you need to pick up your instrument of torture and execution- your cross- and follow him. People either loved him or thought he was crazy or dangerous. Jesus asked people to do strange things.

The things Jesus says just don't seem to make sense to the normal way we go about in the world, so we try to find ways to get around them. The Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said:
“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”

I don’t think I would go as far as Kierkegaard, but I think I know what he is saying. What Jesus asks of us is often challenging and difficult, and so it’s easier to discuss it than obey it. It’s easier to find a way to wiggle around it than live it. 

Francis was aware of this desire to reinterpret plain commands as well. We are would rather put effort into reinterpreting a command to make it easier to follow rather than simply obey it. Francis feared people would reinterpret the rule he wrote for the Franciscan brothers and so he wrote into the rule the following,
“And in all the chapters they hold, when they read the Rule let them read these words also. And I strictly enjoin on all my brothers, clerics and laics, by obedience, not to put glosses on the Rule or on these words saying: Thus they ought to be understood; but as the Lord has given me to speak and to write the Rule and these words simply and purely, so shall you understand them simply and purely and with holy operation observe them until the end.”
The German Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said something similar. He refers to the text where Jesus tells the young man to go and sell all he has and give it away to the poor and then to go and follow Jesus. In referring to the way in which we try to wiggle out of obeying a command he says,
"When orders are issued in other spheres of life there is no doubt whatever of their meaning. If a father sends his child to bed, the boy knows at once what he has to do. But suppose he has picked up a smattering of pseudo-theology. In that case he would argue more or less like this: 'Father tells me to go to bed, but he really means that I am tired, and he does not want me to be tired. I can overcome my tiredness just as well if I go out and play. Therefore though my father tells me to go to bed, he really means: 'Go out and play'." (Cost of Discipleship).

Francis, if he ever erred, it was in following Christ’s commands as literally as possible. If we take the Gospels seriously, we do have to admit that Jesus told at least one person to literally sell everything and follow him. Francis took that word to apply to him as well. Francis heard the words of Jesus and said "I think he really meant what he said".

Francis is so attractive because in his obedience and imitation he reflects Jesus. Near the end of his life Francis received the stigmata- the supernatural wounds of Christ on his hands and feet. His Christ-likeness was even found on his physical body.

It doesn’t make sense to the world, but Jesus said this was knowledge hidden from the wise and intelligent. The wise and intelligent of this world just didn’t get it. So who got it? Children, fishermen, and those on the fringe of society. Perhaps it shouldn’t make sense in terms of conventional wisdom. Francis seemed crazy to the people of His town. Jesus came and told us that the world is upside down, and so to the world, Jesus and his followers look upside down.

I think the main lesson we can learn from Francis today is to learn to love God recklessly, and let that love spill over to everyone and everything around you. The more you love God the more love you will have to give. In that love Francis learned an ability to trust and follow the words of Jesus- without fear. What if we obeyed Jesus’ words without fear? It’s not going to make sense to the world, but so what? Let’s live the upside down life. It doesn’t make sense to the world, but it is beautiful. Lets’ throw away the world’s ideas of “success” and listen to Jesus’ words to follow him. Francis followed and found joy there. He found that it led to a face to face encounter with the living Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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