Today the church honors a saint who could arguably be the most well-known saint outside of those directly associated with Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, Friar and Renewer of the Church.
In the late 12th Century, Giovanni Bernadone was born into wealth. He was called Fracesco as a child because his father regularly traveled to France and admired the French. The name stuck. Fracesco, or “Francis,” was not a popular name back then, but has since become popular due primarily to this saint.
St. Francis wanted to be a knight, and even enlisted early and participated in some skirmishes. He was captured, came down with a serious fever, and was returned home. In his illness he had time to think and reflect, and as he recovered he came in regular contact with the poor and the destitute. These experiences of self-examination and proximity to the “least of these” encouraged in him a change of heart. This slow conversion process culminated in a vision in the church of St. Damian where he heard God say to him, “Francis, go and repair my house which is falling into ruin.”
Francis took this literally, and sold a good sum of his father’s goods to repair St. Damian…which caused his father to disinherit him. Pro-tip: an easy way to lose your future fortune is to give it away before it’s yours.
Having no family now, he decided to “wed Lady poverty,” took off his clothes on St. Matthias’ Day (February 24th…perhaps the only good thing Matthias is known for is encouraging Francis from his grave, over 1,000 years later, to take on the vow of poverty), wrapped a peasant’s smock and a rope belt around himself, and began his mission.
This became the Franciscan uniform.
Soon he had many followers who also took up poverty as a calling, and they tried their best to live out the Sermon on the Mount. They took on a simple joyfulness, a comradery with one another, an appreciation for creation, and a wry sense of humor.
No, seriously, humor is part of the order…Franciscans are funny. I think you’d have to be to take on such extreme vows!
St. Francis never became a priest, though he loved the Church and the clergy. Some of his followers got oral permission from Pope Innocent III to formally establish the order, dedicating themselves to poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Franciscans went far and wide with their embodied obedience to the simple life and preaching. Francis himself tried to convert the Sultan of Egypt at one time, but was unsuccessful. A little-known fact about St. Francis is that he literally had a “martyrdom complex,” and as he walked through the armies of the Fifth Crusade he prayed he might be struck down and killed, fulfilling the dream of dying for the faith.
Not one for clerical work, St. Francis easily gave up the administration of the order, finding it too far removed from the simple life he wanted to live. He quickly left the administration to others as the order grew, and stayed on the streets of the world, claiming that his monastery was the whole world itself.
Fun fact: St. Francis was the first to set up a manger scene at Christmastide. He reconstructed the nativity story from Luke in a little cave in Greccio, Italy, and since then we’ve been doing it in our homes and in churches. The manger scene you have packed in your attic was made popular by St. Francis.
As his health and strength waned, St. Francis became more and more a mystic. He is even reported to have experienced the stigmata in his last years. He died on October 4th in 1226 singing Psalm 142 with his last breath.
The Franciscan order remains strong and resolute in the world.
Oh, and that love for animals he’s so well-known for? That comes from a genuine respect for creation that St. Francis had, and for the fact that sometimes he’d be found preaching to the birds. In his mystical visions he recounts a oneness with all creation, which is why we take this day to bless our animal companions, acknowledging our kinship with them and our shared joy in a shared life with them.
St. Francis is a reminder to me, and to the whole church, that sometimes less is more.
Less domination, more companionship with creation.
Less stuff, and more travel.
Less dogma, and more devotion to simple things.
Less administration, and more walking the way.
Less wealth, and more joy.
Less is more.
-historical bits gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
-icon “St. Francis Dancing Monk Icon” © artist Marcy Hall at Rabbit Room Arts
-extraneous commentary by me