The perpetual challenge of Francis of Assisi
One problem when looking at figures in history is that we tend to find in them what we want to see. This is a particular issue with the unique figure of Francis of Assisi (1181–1226), a Christian rightly honoured across denominations and whose feast is celebrated on 4 October. So, for those with a commitment to social justice, Francis is the pioneer activist, a man whose outspoken advocacy of the poor and rejected puts him up there with the great social reformers of history. For those of a greener persuasion, Francis is the founder of environmental action; a quiet, gentle soul who, while not recorded as having hugged trees, did apparently preach to birds. Now concerns for social justice and care of the environment are vital, and Francis was important in both areas, but to see him merely in either of these terms is to run the risk of creating a caricature that fails to do justice to the extraordinary man that he was.
In fact, discovering the real Francis is far from easy. He was the sort of larger-than-life person about whom legends gather while they are still alive, and from this distance it’s hard to distinguish historical fact from the doubtless well-meant exaggerations of his followers. Yet if you read what we really know about him, you are left with the impression of a man who challenged people then, and continues to challenge us today.
There are many aspects of Francis that I find exceptional but two things stand out.
First, Francis’ life was marked by extraordinary action. After an irreligious youth spent in pleasure, Francis underwent a dramatic conversion to Christ and from then on never stopped doing remarkable things for God. He does not seem to have naturally been an activist; it is plain that he was always tempted to retreat somewhere quiet where he could spend every day doing nothing but praying. Yet the account of his short life – he died before he reached his mid-forties – is one of continuous and unwavering action. Francis cared for the poor, gathered followers, founded institutions and preached when, and wherever, he could. Although the phrase ‘preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words’ is probably not anything he ever said, it is certainly true that Francis lived out the truth he preached. One striking instance of this is how, when the Crusades were raging and Christianity and Islam were bitterly at war, Francis crossed the battle lines to visit the Sultan with the hope of winning him to Jesus. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that as an inspiration and a challenge to us today.
Second, Francis was someone with extraordinary compassion. Born into a position of privilege, Francis turned his back on a life of comfort after his conversion, and felt compelled to show God’s grace to the poor and the neglected. His was a ministry of remarkable and sacrificial passion. He gave away everything he had to beggars and showed courageous love to lepers. In his preaching he exhorted others to care for the poor. Linked with Francis’ support for the disadvantaged was an outspoken attack against his society’s idolatry of money and success that had contributed to the creation of the poor and the neglect of the sick. Francis’ often contemptuous rejection of power and wealth doesn’t sit easily with our age where affluence is worshipped and even sometimes seen as a proof of God’s blessing. Yet I think we ignore his warning at our peril.
Francis was a man of extraordinary action and compassion, but I would suggest that what gave rise to both of these aspects of his life was his extraordinary devotion. Deep inside Francis, powering everything that he was and did, was an astonishing and remarkable commitment to Jesus. From his conversion onwards nothing else mattered to Francis but Jesus: he loved him, identified with him and imitated him. There are many adjectives you can use of Francis but ‘half-hearted’ or ‘lukewarm’ are not two of them. Life for Francis was very simple: if he felt that anything posed even the remotest possibility of coming between him and Christ – whether money, position or even status within the church – he simply threw it away. This overwhelming passion for Jesus was the secret to everything he did. Francis loved the natural world, not because he saw it as beautiful in its own right but because he saw it as something that was made by the God he loved. He cared for the poor and the sick, not because he felt this was some sort of moral duty, but because he saw Jesus in them.
To read of Francis of Assisi is to come into the presence of a giant, and to find oneself in the shadow of a giant is not comfortable. But when we are in danger of falling short of what we could be, being made uncomfortable may in fact be a rich blessing.
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