Troubadour, madman, beggar and finally saint are names once hurled at one of the best known and most beloved saints in the Church’s calendar.
On October 4 we commemorate the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, a man who lost his life in order to find it. Perhaps no other saint reflected the life of the Savior of the world more closely than the litde Poverello of Assisi.
Today statues of him decorate landscapes, animals are blessed on his feast day, and his descendants can be found serving the poor and the marginalized in every corner of the world. He is a saint for all seasons and for all people. I recall a Baptist neighbor once asking me if I would turn the statue of St. Francis that was in our backyard in the direction of their home in hopes that he would turn their lawn from brown to green. This was almost 30 years ago, long before St. Francis was associated with ecology and caring for the earth.
However, for a man whose understanding of God was so large and so inclusive, it should come as no surprise that he would continue to expand the vision of the world in death much the way he did in life. Like St. Francis, all are called to sainthood, perhaps not in so heroic a way as he, but we are called. And … we have much to learn from the saint who took the teachings of Jesus literally and embraced the Gospel without compromise.
Francis grew into sainthood. Like us, he struggled with doubts and uncertainty. He was conflicted by what his head told him and by what his heart knew to be true. Even when Jesus spoke directly to Francis from the cross at St. Damiano, the youthful Francis misinterpreted the message, taking literally Jesus’ instruction to rebuild his Church because it had fallen into ruin. Yet, as each conflict gave way to grace, this humble man of God discovered the deeper significance of God’s invitation. The fact is: holiness happens in stages. Conversion must be ongoing because it involves returning to God with ever greater willingness to abandon thoughts and actions which are contrary to the Gospel.
If you’ve read the life of St. Francis of Assisi then you know his life is a prime example. Writing about St. Francis, Father Gwenole Jeusset, OFM identified three interior barriers that had to be broken down as part of the saint’s conversion process. The first was the physical barrier that separated the sick from the healthy, and was shattered when Francis encountered the leper. The story is familiar. Francis meets a leper outside the city gates. His first impulse is to run from the leper, but no sooner had he fled than something caused him to return. Francis not only returned, but upon seeing him, embraced the leper and in that moment, his heart was changed. He saw Christ in the man who only moments ago had been physically repugnant. The second barrier he shattered was a form of moral leprosy. It seems there were a group of thieves living not too far from where the friars had pitched their huts. Since they were a continual threat, St. Francis instructed the friars to visit them and to treat them like any brothers who were suffering and hungry. He told them to spread as lavish a feast as they could prepare and serve the thieves with humility and good humor. He cautioned his friars to provide moral guidance. Only during a subsequent visit when they had won their friendship and trust.
The last barrier in the saint’s conversion process, according to Father Jeusset was a spiritual barrier, which Francis when he visited the Egypt during the Crusades. Although Francis set out with the intention of converting him, after meeting and spending time with the Sultan, his heart was moved from a mentality of conquest to the mentality of encounter. Francis saw Christ in the Sultan and was touched by his deep love for God and his devotion to prayer.
Like the encounters with the leper and the thieves, Francis’ encounter with the Muslim sultan became an encounter with Christ and whenever encounter Christ we changed. In the presence of fraternal love barriers crumble and walls that divide one against another are shattered.
As Francis’ love for God became perfect, he responded to every encounter as an encounter with Christ and so his conversion was complete. Shortly after wards, St.Francis received the stigmata. He received not only the I wounds of Christ but nails actually penetrated his skin and so St. Francis became the personification of Christ in every way. According to Father Jeusset, the saint of Assisi did not convert the Muslims because he looked at their hearts and saw Christ. He embraced the Sultan much the same way that he embraced the leper and the thieves and after spending two weeks with him, they parted as friends who had a deep and profound respect for one another. One can only imagine what St. Francis would have to say about the kind of suspicion and hateful rhetoric that is taking place around the building of a mosque and community center in New York.
Today, let us call upon the humble man of Assisi to show us the way to peace so that we may encounter the other in a spirit of fraternal charity, recognizing every encounter as encounter – with Christ.