The Life And Lessons Of St. Francis Of Assisi
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
It was a bitterly cold Christmas Eve in 1223, in the tiny Italian mountain town of Greccio. The peasants trooped off to a nearby stable to see what the eccentric holy man Francis had planned for them. Within, they were amazed to find a baby nestled in a manger, the air of the stable heated by the breath of a small herd of sheep and cows. Thus did Francis teach about the Nativity to an unsophisticated audience. This first known manger scene more accurately captures the spirit of the season than the frenzied commercialism that has come to characterize the holiday in our time.
On March 13, 2013, the Roman Catholic Church elected the first pope from the Americas, who immediately took the name Francis, in honor of the 13th century holy man from the Italian town of Assisi, the first person in recorded history to bear the Stigmata. Francis may be the most beloved of Christian saints. Underlying the popular image of a kindly man who preached to the birds, we find a man of peace and compassion, who challenged the status quo of his day by living the kind of life preached by Jesus.
Francis, patron of the poor, of animals and nature, was born around 1181, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant who insisted that he pursue a career in business. As a youth, Francis was a playboy, aspiring to become a knight and do great deeds in battle. Yet, he was kind and generous, giving money to every beggar he met. He sometimes gave away his own clothes, and smuggled food to the poor.
Riding out to do battle with a German king, Francis fell ill and was forced to return home. One day, he met a leper. Terrified of being infected, Francis nevertheless, embraced the man and gave him a sack of coins. Filled with joy, he recognized that his purpose was to help others, and he spent long periods ministering to victims in a leper colony.
While praying at the Church of San Damiano, a voice ordered him, “Francis, do you see that my house is in ruins? Go and restore it for me.”
Concluding that he was to rebuild that crumbling structure, Francis sold his father’s best cloth to purchase mortar and stone for the project. His father, angered by what he regarded as his son’s irresponsible, even delusional, behavior, sued to force him to return the money. At court, the bishop advised Frances to repay his father.
Francis responded by giving away all his possessions, including the clothing he was wearing, shouting that from then on only God was his father. He fled into the woods, where he lived a life of poverty, prayer and charity to others.
At the time, many clergy were focused more upon materialism than upon their vocations. Francis opposed greedy, gluttonous behavior. Jesus had advised a wealthy young merchant to sell all he had, give the proceeds to the poor and come and follow him. Francis took that passage literally, adopting the simplest of lifestyles. Francis advised, “Blessed is he who has nothing, for he will enjoy everything.”
Thousands followed his example, men joining the Order of Friars Minor, women joining the Poor Clares, living in huts and giving the proceeds of their labors to the poor.
Francis is perhaps best known for his close relationship with nature and animals. He believed that the Creator communicates his joy through his creation. He took great joy in birds and other animals and always treated them with kindness. Francis believed in the sanctity of all life at a time when even human life was regarded cheaply. He considered God as an artist who is known through his art, the majesty and variety of his creation. His words and actions seem to anticipate the pane theistic teachings of Meister Eckert a century later, the view that the Divine interpenetrates all of creation. His Medieval Catholic outlook is evident in his famous Sermon to the Birds, but he expands that concept, addressing the birds as Little Sisters.
Francis took great joy in all creatures, singing with a cicada, freeing a rabbit from a trap, taking warm wine and honey to the bees in the winter, purchasing lambs to save them from the slaughter. His “Canticle to Brother Sun”, pays homage to the glories of creation.
The most famous story about Francis involves the Wolf of Gubbio, who had been preying upon the peasants’ livestock. Francis convinced the wolf to cease his evil ways. Afterwards, the wolf followed Francis docilely through town. From then on, the people fed the wolf and he lived peacefully among them. This story is cloaked in myth but not so unbelievable when we remember that animals often respond positively to acts of kindness, as the experiences of Dr. Lynn Rogers with wild black bears affirm.
Francis would be saddened by vivisection, bull fighting, trophy hunting, poaching, and the destruction of God’s creation by mountaintop removal mining, clear-cutting and fracking, the corruption of nature by the introduction of genetically modified organisms, the inhumane practices of factory farms, the heavy handed attitudes of energy companies and polluters.
During the Fifth Crusade, Francis journeyed to Egypt in an attempt to bring peace and convert Sultan Al-Kamil. He was welcomed warmly and the two developed mutual understanding centered on monotheism, prayer and kindness to the poor.
Francis turned no one away, always attempting to erase the boundaries between individuals and ideologies. He avoided language that blocks the poetic flow of Christianity and encases its living spirit within the iron cage of literalism and legalism.
Anyone can begin applying Franciscan principles to their lives by cultivating a vegetable garden, feeding birds, treating animals with kindness, practicing the Leave No Trace doctrine as we walk the beach, the woodland path, the mountain trail. Sharing our wealth with victims of poverty, disease and injustice could go a long way toward eradicating many of the ailments that trouble mankind.
Francis asks even more of us, urging us to put aside the vanity of earthly goods and transcend the twin evils of success and failure. He urges downward mobility, a life of poverty and service to others.
Francis prescribes a life of solitude, necessary for silencing noisy souls, creating a space where we can experience the Ultimate.
He insists that we turn off the outward dialogue and the inward monologue, shut off the constant noise to which so many are addicted in their panic to escape themselves. He cautions that happiness cannot be successfully sought by means of fleeting emotional highs, pharmaceutically induced avoidance of normal emotions, the acquisition of this or that vehicle or technological bauble, but only through the cultivation of solitude, silence, stillness.
When Francis passed away in 1226, it is said that myriads of birds and animals appeared to mourn the passing of their friend.
In our time, his likeness stands watch over lawns, gardens and birdbaths around the world. Each year on October 4, the Roman Catholic and Anglican Communions honor Francis with the Blessing of the Animals. My grand-dog Kodi, a precocious Labrador retriever, is always in attendance.