Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Franciscan Novena: Day Three

On October 4 -- next weekend-- we will celebrate the feast of our Seraphic Father Francis of Assisi. In preparation for that celebration, we are presenting a series of daily blog entries as a kind of "novena" for study and personal reflection. Today's entry is the third in a series of three articles which first appeared in Catholic San Francisco under the title "St. Francis' Conversions." The remaining segment will be featured tomorrow. The wonderful image of the smiling Francis (above) is provided through the courtesy of the artist,Mic Carlson. More of his cork can be found at and

Francis had been a troubadour as a youth. His songs of courtly love echoed through the piazzas of Assisi. After his conversion he sang songs to a new mistress, “Lady Poverty.” For 16 years he walked the roads of Italy, journeyed to Spain and even, on two occasions, visited the Holy Land. (With his customary directness, Francis requested an audience with the Muslim sultan. He thought that if he could just tell him about Jesus he would convert, and all these crusades could be avoided!)
Francis’ joy sustained him, even in the midst of exhaustion, illness, and misunderstanding, and it must have been contagious. The Fioretti (“Little Flowers of St. Francis”), among the most popular books ever written, convey something of the simple charm that radiated from St. Francis.

But the saint who laughed also wept. He was moved by the beauty of creation, by the pain of others, and above all by the Passion of Christ. He could not think of our Lord’s sufferings without weeping. It was Christ crucified who had told him, “Rebuild my Church,” and the cross was never far from Francis’ thoughts. There are two seemingly contradictory images of the saint: the joyful wanderer singing the beauties of creation, the mournful penitent weeping over the sufferings of Christ.
G. K. Chesterton points out that, while paradoxical, these images are not contradictory: “The whole point about St. Francis of Assisi is that he certainly was ascetical and he certainly was not gloomy.”
The “new madness” Francis preached was in reality the very ancient folly of the cross about which St. Paul had written to the Corinthians: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Cor 1:23-25)

All that Francis had given up – possessions, status, security – he had given up for the sake of Christ, who had called him to take up his cross and follow him. Francis let everything else go so that he could embrace the cross. Toward the end of his life, he in turn was embraced by Christ crucified in a remarkable way.
Francis’ final years were particularly difficult. He saw the leadership of his community taken from his hands, and his “little brothers” were heading in a direction not to his liking. He was afflicted with a painful disease of the eyes, and even more painful – and useless – remedies.
In 1224 he retired to Mount Laverna for a lengthy retreat. On Sep. 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, Francis underwent a profound and mysterious event. He himself would not speak about it, but it was an encounter with the Passion of Christ so intense that it left the marks of the Crucified on his body.
What St. Paul had ardently desired was Francis’ own longing, too: “Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things … that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3: 7-10)

“Becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead”: if there is a “secret” to the life of St. Francis, this is it. On Mount Laverna Christ fulfilled Francis’ hopes in a way beyond his wildest expectations. This embrace by the Crucified was to carry the Poor Man of Assisi from this world to the glory of heaven.
Did the reception of the stigmata make Francis indifferent to this passing world? No. It was after this event that he wrote his beautiful “Canticle of Brother Sun”; and he intervened to make peace between the quarreling bishop and mayor of Assisi. He still traveled from town to town to preach, although his poor health made it necessary for him to be carried on a donkey. But the experience on the mountain was the climactic moment in Francis’ journey of discipleship. He could follow his Master no more closely here on earth.

In September 1226, the dying Troubadour of God asked to be brought home to his beloved “Little Portion,” the church of St. Mary of the Angels which he had rebuilt as a young man in the first fervor of his conversion. The man who had owned nothing, but appreciated everything, sent word for a friend to come from Rome – and to bring him some of the delicious pastries she had made for him in the past. Then, on the afternoon of Oct. 3, Francis instructed his Brothers to remove all his clothing and lay him naked on the bare earth. In this way he welcomed “Sister Death.”

Francis was well aware of the insight of Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return.” (Job 1:21) He had stripped himself of all he possessed years earlier in order to follow naked the Lord who had stripped Himself of everything out of love for him. Paradoxically, the less Francis could call his own, the more he rejoiced in the beauty of the creation which he accepted as God’s gift to him. Now, he died as he lived – owning nothing, yet for that very reason closer to the earth; one with every human being in our common nakedness; united to the Lord who had died naked on the cross. Clothing not only protects, it conveys status. It says something about who we are. Francis had put all this aside. One thing only he could not take off: the marks of the crucified Christ. These had not been put on from without, like the clothes his father had given him. They emerged from within, from a heart on fire with love of God.
Francis of Assisi has inspired artists, novelists and filmmakers; the simple drama of his life makes him one of the most popular of saints. If you go on pilgrimage to his National Shrine in the city bearing his name, you can see the events of his life portrayed on the walls of the church, and there is a wealth of material available about him.
By all means, acquaint yourself with his life story. But take to heart the words he himself spoke at the end of his life: “I have done what was mine to do. May Christ teach you what you are to do.”

This article was prepared by the Worship Commission of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and is reprinted from Catholic San Francisco, newspaper of the Archdiocese. Our thanks to Dan Morris-Young, editor.

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