Occasionally, because I’m a Third Order Franciscan in the Episcopal Church, I get asked to explain who St. Francis was and what he did. The following essay is something I’ve created to satisfy that request. There is a significant back-story to my membership in the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis. I’ve gathered up those thoughts and added them to the ‘About’ section of this blog. If you don’t want to read all the other material in that section, just search the text in the ‘About’ section for ‘TSSF’.
St. Francis of Assisi was born Francesco Giovanni di Pietro Bernardone. His birthday has been narrowed down to some time in either 1181 or 1182. He died October 3, 1226. For his time in history, St. Francis lived an unusual life. At the beginning of the 13th century, sons followed a fathers’ profession. The obvious exception was the church where vows of chastity were required for priests and monks. St. Francis eventually ended up in the ‘monastic’ category, but he lived a monastic life in a way that nobody had done before. At a time when nobody did anything out of the norm, St. Francis did almost everything differently.
St. Francis was a mystic who devoted his life to prayer. And yet he was a practical Christian who lived a non-cloistered life. Every person who has tried describe St. Francis’ life and ministry comes up against these two polar opposites and has to find some way to combine Christian mysticism and a Christian life lived in the world in a very practical way.
My solution for solving the multi-dimensional corundum presented by St. Francis is to focus on Holy Poverty. Holy Poverty recommends itself for several reasons. St. Francis elevated the holy poverty we find today in monastic vows to the status of a person. He called this person Lady Poverty. He then said he would ‘marry’ Lady Poverty. The idea to personify Holy Poverty and then bind himself irrevocably to that person came at the beginning of his ministry and is typical of the revolutionary processes St. Francis used.
Holy Poverty isn’t part of our common global discussion of serious intellectual subjects. It’s not even part of the larger Christian Theological discussion. Today’s society doesn’t see the value of Holy Poverty. It’s difficult to imagine someone starting his career today by saying ‘I think I’ll take Holy Poverty as my bride’. In modern society, if you are poor, you are perceived as a failure. It’s just that simple.
Francis takes Monastic Vows
St. Francis’ first encounter with Holy Poverty was with the traditional vow of poverty taken by a monastic. Francis continued to have mystical experiences during his teenage years. These experiences began to convince him that God had some special job for him to do. The content of God’s task wasn’t clear to Francis until he heard the crucifix over the altar at San Damiano Church tell him to ‘Rebuild my church’. San Damiano was in a very poor state of repair. St. Francis had a very literal mind. He understood this mystical vision to be telling him to fix that particular church – San Damiano.
Throughout his life, St. Francis had a very direct way of solving problems. In the case of rebuilding San Damiano, he took several bolts of cloth from his father’s store and sold them. Then, he took the money from the cloth and tried to give it to the priest at San Damiano to pay for the needed repairs. When the priest found out where St. Francis had gotten the money, he refused to take it.
Meanwhile, when St. Francis’ father found out what St. Francis had done, he was livid, because he made a lot of money as a cloth merchant. His hope was that he could somehow purchase a noble title for St. Francis. When St. Francis was young these ideas of nobility and chivalry were particularly appealing. As St. Francis continued to have mystical experiences, he re-framed the ideas of nobility and chivalry into concepts that were God-centered.
When Francis’ used his father’s money to rebuild San Damiano, the father-son relationship was damaged beyond repair. Francis’ father took him to the city magistrate and asked the magistrate to make Francis behave. Francis’ father pointed out that Francis didn’t own anything that his father hadn’t given to him, including the clothes on Francis’ back. Francis, with typical directness, took off all his clothes and gave them back to his father. He declared that from henceforth, the only father he would have was ‘Our Father in Heaven’. It was understood from this statement that St. Frances was taking monastic vows. The magistrate had no power over someone in monastic vows. As far as we know, St. Francis’ father never forgave him.
When next we see St. Francis he is in Assisi, his home town, begging for bricks to repair San Damiano. He was an object of ridicule. He had been a rich young man about the city. And now here he was begging, wearing beggars’ clothes with a rope tied around his waste for a cincture. When St. Francis begged for food, the people of Assisi laughed at him and gave him garbage to eat.
St. Francis made a success of his monastic vocation. He continued to live vows of obedience, chastity and poverty in ways that were radically literal. He continued to have mystic experiences and he began to share those experiences in charismatic, extemporaneous sermons spoken mostly outside traditional church settings. The largest sermon was St. Francis himself. He lived his monastic vows outside of a monastery, right among the people to whom he was preaching.
Francis Writes a rule for the Little Brothers
St. Francis’ personal success brought him a small group of men who wanted to live life with the same simple spirituality that Francis preached and lived. Soon there was a religious order, which Francis called ‘the little brothers’. It was because of his order that Francis had his second profound encounter with Holy Poverty.
Francis’ order was like nothing else in that early thirteenth century society. Traditional monks who also took vows of obedience, chastity and poverty, lived in monasteries. The monks weren’t rich themselves but the monasteries had endowments and were frequently large landowners. St. Francis’ followers lived in the world. Their first house (San Damiano) was and still is owned by a local Benedictine Monastery. St. Francis, during his lifetime, required that his order not hold money or own land. His little brothers were supposed to earn their keep by working or begging their sustenance each day from the people among whom they lived. The Franciscan Order went through a period of explosive growth, large enough that provinces were defined, each with its own minister.
Because Francis was the founder and spiritual head of that order, the church eventually required him to write a rule of life for his ‘little brothers’. Francis resisted writing a rule. He said that the Bible was the rule for his brothers and that was good enough. Eventually, Francis did relent and write a rule. This rule was distributed to the provincial ministers. Very shortly the provincial minsters tracked down St. Francis and asked him to take the rule back because it set such high spiritual standards that the ministers felt nobody would be able to keep it. St. Francis was very angry. He told the ministers to ‘go join some other order’ and walked away from them. Eventually, Francis again relented and wrote a second, easier rule which the ministers found acceptable.
When Francis wrote the second rule to fit the provincial ministers’ requirements, he lost practical control of the order to the ministers.
Francis Receives the Stigmata
St. Francis continued to lead the order he founded with an increasingly austere ascetical life. He continued to preach both to the general public and to his brothers in the order. He helped St. Claire found the Poor Claires and encouraged the formation of the a third order for secular believers who wanted to live a Franciscan life without taking monastic vows. All the Franciscan orders continued to grow. There was and still is something immediate, practical and satisfying about the spiritual life St. Francis shared with the world.
Toward the end of his life Francis received the stigmata. Franciscans understand Francis’ stigmata as a justification of Francis’ life and ministry. In his lifetime many people thought Francis was a living saint. Francis’ stigmata removed all doubt for the people of the early thirteenth century. St. Francis and his entourage became something of a religious side-show. Everyone wanted to see his wounds.
Francis didn’t simply receive the stigmata and then die. He lived another six to eighteen months. He had punished his body throughout his life with ascetical disciplines. He was blind from an eye disease he acquired on a trip to the Holy Land. The medical care available in his life was very poor. And finally, there was some real concern that the people of Perugia (a city near Assisi which was intensely competitive with Assisi) were plotting to steal St. Francis’ body after he died. To avoid the Perguian plot, St. Francis was randomly moved from place to place.
All accounts say that St. Francis endured his failing health, the stigmata and the poor treatment he received with grace and humility.
St. Francis blazed a trail of uncompromising Christian discipleship. Previous similar examples of radical discipleship were lived by monks or nuns in monasteries. People who live in monasteries are purposefully withdrawing from the world. St. Francis’ life was lived in the world among ordinary people. In the world he told the truth about Jesus, God, Holy Poverty, Christian charity and any other worthy subject to whomever would listen. In all the things St. Francis spoke about, he backed up his talk with a life lived. The practical yet passionate preaching of religious truth and the humble poverty of his life made St. Francis loved wherever he went.
Because of St. Francis I can be an uncloistered mystic. I have a spiritual home, spiritual brothers and sisters who tell me the truth and with whom I am equally truthful. Because of St. Francis the Path grows clearer.