Isn’t that what we think of when we think of St. Francis of Assisi? Maybe because of this movie, but I often have the vision of St. Francis as the patron saint of the flower child from the 1960’s – peace, love, and everything is beautiful, man. Perhaps some of that is accurate: the love for all living things; work for peace instead of war; and both, perhaps experienced a certain high. In the 60’s, it was often chemically induced. For Francis, it was living in harmony with God and all that God created.
We continue in our Lenten series Rebels With a Cause. What I think we will find in Saint Francis, unlike the flower children of the 60’s, is that instead of rebelling against something (war, rules, The Man), rebels with a cause rebel for something. Saint Francis rebelled. He rebelled for the poor. He rebelled to bring the earthly kingdom in harmony with the heavenly kingdom. He rebelled to be Christ-like. He rebelled to bring the whole living order into the peace of God so that all and everything might experience their God given purpose and potential. And the path he found to be most effective is to be in love with “Lady Poverty.”
But that wasn’t always true for Francis.
Saint Francis was born to Pietro and Pica Bernadone and was baptized Giovanni. Pietro was from Assisi and his wife, Pica, was from France. Whether it was because his wife was from France or because he had business ties with France, from very early on Pietro began calling his son Francesco, or “the little Frenchman.”
Pietro was not born into wealth. He was one of few, in that time, who was able to rise from the ranks of the poor and become a wealthy businessman. He was a cloth merchant, aggressively rich and living only to build bigger barns, and to seek greater status. He was born with no status, so it was important to him to be seen among the nobility.
It was Pica, his gentle, French born wife who led God and the sound of music into the life of their son. She taught him to pray and sing and love and laugh. From Pietro, Francis inherited a passion to excel; from his mother, a faith that sang and danced.
School bored Francis. He left school in order to work in his father’s shop. Then the store bored him. He tried to forget it in a life style that we might call a party animal and spending his father’s money with abandon. Pietro was happy that his son was sowing his wild oats with the sons of the nobility, so he put the finest clothes on his boy’s back. Pietro wasn’t quite as happy when Francis would give the clothes away to beggars on the street. His mother seemed to know the heart of her son better and often commented that one day he would be a good Christian gentleman.
What you may not know of the Saint, who many celebrate as the incarnation of peace, is that he was once a warrior. As a young man he was once clad in armor and mounted a warhorse. Assisi seemed to have an ongoing feud with Perugia, its neighbor to the west.
In his book “The Saint and the Sultan,” Paul Moses paints a picture of young Francis on his steed, outfitted in the best money can buy. He comments that Francis was a devotee of chivalry. Influenced by his mother, he loved the songs of the French troubadours’ who sang the glories of honor and patriotism, chivalry, and the glad duty of war. Francis knew the troubadours’ songs of King Arthur and his heroic band of knights. That appealed to Francis’s imagination, even to the point where, later in life, he called his scruffy band of friars, “my knights of the round table.”
As is often the case, the glories of chivalrous war imagined, is not what is experienced in real life. In the fall of 1202 the Assisians marched off to battle to protect their honor only to be slaughtered by the Perugians. It may be a bit uncomfortable to think about, but to fully understand Francis’ transition from warrior to peacemaker, we probably need to assume that upon that battlefield Francis killed and maimed other men, which might explain Francis’ eventual decision to pursue a life of penance.
It was probably Francis’ wealth that saved him. While the Assisians were in retreat, poorer men were hunted down and killed. However, Francis was spared because he was rich enough to be held for ransom. He was taken prisoner. Francis spent a year in prison before Assisi ransomed him and his fellow captives. Whatever happened in prison, Francis left a changed man. The earliest accounts of his life attest that Francis returned home a physical and emotional wreck.
It is written that Francis was a depraved man who began to despise himself and all the things he had admired and loved before. He left prison a hollow man, but learned to fill the empty space with God, which led to his spiritual awakening.
However, it was not enough to keep Francis from fantasizing about chivalry and fame. Once again, he signed up for war when the great French commander Count Walter of Brienne was looking for soldiers to fight a quasi-Crusade on behalf of Pope Innocent III.
However, on his way to war, Francis had a dream. He heard a voice ask him, “Who do you think can best reward you, the Master or the servant?” “The Master,” Francis answered. “Then why do you leave the Master for the servant?” the voice asked. Francis response was the next step to his total conversion. “Lord, what do you wish me to do?”
Some conclude that Francis suffer PTSD. It took months of prayer and solitude to find his footing. Paul Moses comments that the gradual change of heart over the months after his return to Assisi paved the road to what has become the best-known moment in his conversion. The conversion took place when he prayed on his knees before a painted crucifix late in 1205 in the broken-down, century-old Church of Saint Damian, and what Francis heard Jesus saying to him from the image was to “go repair my house.” Francis understood this to mean not only to repair the church of St. Damian, but also to restore the entire Christian Church.
The bulk of Saint Francis’ story is well known. To pursue his mission, Francis rebelled against the values of his father and friends: wealth and honor. To them, it looked like Francis turned to a life of shame and madness, but it freed Francis from all that held him captive including his own family.
The story goes that in his effort to restore Saint Damian’s, Francis realized that he needed money for stone, mortar, glass, and wood. So, he ran off to his father who had plenty of money. However, his father was gone on a business trip, so Francis help himself to many of the fine cloths in his father’s shop and sold them at a nearby fair. He brought the proceeds to the old priest at Saint Damian’s. The priest was smart enough not to take the money, and when Francis’ father returned home, he was furious. Pietro actually took a warrant out on his son’s arrest and took him to court, which of course, was judged by a bishop.
It was a clear-cut case. Francis admitted he had stolen the goods from his father’s shop and the bishop had to find him guilty and forced him to immediately return the money. Francis threw the money at Pietro’s feet, and then tore off the clothes that Pietro had put on him. Francis stood there naked swearing that from this moment on he had but one father, and that is God.
Francis may very well have looked like a madman to the populace, but there was also something about him, that drew a crowd. He had a spirit of hospitality for the sick and the poor. There were others that looked up to Francis because there was an air of freedom about him. There was a sense of love and joy that was expressed with and to all living things. It was something that could not be experienced, Francis would preach, unless you marry yourself to Lady Poverty.
Here’s the unique thing about Francis. He rebelled against all the things that he thought he wanted and enjoyed in life: wealth, status, fame, and power. However, the place that he found freedom, joy and purpose – the place where his faith became a nourishing part of his life was in poverty, servant hood, and lowliness. And, of course, since God created all things, then all things are of value, even your enemies. He became adamant against war of any kind.
But he never rebelled against the church, even though at the time corruption was rampant in the church. Bishops and popes were always vying for power. The church was extorting monies for the Crusades. But seeing himself as a servant, Francis always sought the permission of the church, so when he began his band of friars, he sought permission to begin his new order. When he disagreed with the church he always did so within the order of the church.
There is a wonderful part of Francis’ life that we don’t have time to tell in detail, that I never knew about until I borrowed the book I’ve been quoting from Nancy last summer called “The Saint and the Sultan,” by Paul Moses. It outlines the time when Francis, fed up with the way the church conducted the crusades, went to Egypt to meet with Sultan al-Kamil who was commanding the Muslim Army. Francis was pretty impetuous in everything that he did, and this would rank high among them. Francis snuck his way into the Muslim camp, introduced himself and requested to meet with the Sultan. The fact that Francis was not killed on the spot was a miracle all by itself.
Francis was convinced that if he just had a chance to talk with the Sultan, he could convert him to Christianity. It didn’t work out that way, but the Sultan was hospitable to Francis. They communed for days talking about faith and religion. And while the Sultan was not converted, he came to respect and admire Francis, giving him the freedom and safety to travel throughout the Holy Lands.
It is hard to summarize the life of Saint Francis in one sermon. Even today, much of what he did and said seems a bit crazy. And yet throughout the centuries, millions have come to the Spirit of Christ because of how it was manifested in the person of Giovanni Bernadone – Saint Francis.
A rebel for the poor. A rebel to bring the earthly kingdom in harmony with the heavenly kingdom. A rebel to be Christ-like. A rebel to bring the whole living order into the peace of God so that all and everything might experience their God given purpose and potential. A rebel to bring the freedom that comes with being in love with Lady Poverty. Crazy isn’t it?
May God bless us with such craziness. Amen.