Sunday, July 20, 2014

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SAINT FRANCIS, POOR MAN of GOD
by DAN MAUK

Note: This essay first appeared in 'The Catholic Worker' (November 1975).

Francis of Assisi is most easily remembered as a soul so full of love for God that his worldly cares were few and seldom. He was a gentle man, a man of great tenderness: so much tenderness that Thomas of Celano, the first biographer of Francis, describes how the Poverello once preached to the birds:

'My brothers, birds, you should praise your Creator very much and always love him. He gave feathers to clothe you, wings so that you can fly, and whatever else was necessary for you. God made you noble among his creatures, and he gave you a home in the purity of the air; though you neither sow nor reap. Nevertheless, he protects and governs you without any solicitude on your part.'

And it is said that the birds rejoiced at his words. In 'The Little Flowers', we read that Francis tamed the fierce wolf of Gubbio; it 'lowered its head and lay down at the saint's feet, as though it had become a lamb.' But if we look further, we will see that Francis was more than just a lover of God's animals and a man to be remembered in birdbath figures.

Francis Bernadone was a man who fully embraced the Gospels and found in the Word of God a way of life and a clear direction to follow, so much that he began a written Rule for his followers by saying: 'The Rule and the life of the Friars Minor is this, namely to observe the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.' Francis realized that the 'Rule' for Christian life had already been written and now only needed to be joyfully and seriously followed. The words of Matthew's Gospel moved him to action and a lifelong commitment: 'If you would be perfect, then go, sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me (19:21).' And Francis repeated these words to those who came to follow him.

For his wealth, and for his spouse, he chose Lady Poverty, because like Jesus, he had a Father in heaven who was his only treasure. It has been said that there was no one so desirous of gold as Francis was desirous of poverty; and no one solicitous in guarding his treasure as he was solicitous in guarding this pearl of the Gospel. How great was his compassion for the poor, again described by Thomas of Celano:

'The soul of Francis melted toward the poor and to those to whom he could not extend a helping hand, he at least showed affection. Whatever he saw in anyone of want, whatever of penury, he transferred in his mind, by a quick change, to Christ. Thus, in all of the poor, he saw the Son of the poor lady, and he bore naked in his heart Him whom she bore naked in her arms.'

Francis was a peacemaker in the true sense of the Gospels. For him, war, violence, and destruction had no place in the hearts of the children of God. In the Rule, he wrote for the Third Order (Secular Franciscans), the laity who chose to follow him, he declared that they were 'not to take up lethal weapons, or bear them about, against anybody.' So warmed by God's love, Francis's heart was light and soaring, so much that he could walk through the woods praising God by rubbing to sticks as a violin. Francis, than and character in Kazantzakis's novel 'Saint Francis', could say, 'When a person believes in God, there is no such thing as a mute piece of wood, or pain unaccompanied by exultation, or ordinary life without miracles.' Two sticks for a violin are all one needs if deep within the chambers of the heart there already lodges music so profound.

If we are to capture the essence of the man called Francis, the animating force behind him, it would be an injustice to focus in on merely one aspect of his life: his love for poverty, his simplicity and joy, his life of prayer, etc. To see the whole of Francis is to see a man of God: one who saw how well bound together are the body and the world, the soul and God. When Francis knelt before the cross in the Church of San Damiano and heard the words of the crucified Christ: 'Go, Francis, and repair my house', there took place in his heart a complete change that left him ever after burning with love for the Crucified One. In the years that followed, his joy and light heartedness were also accompanied by times of deep and dark suffering. He knew well the 'dark night of the spirit', suffering many physical illnesses, seeing his quickly expanding order of brothers often falling into mediocrity and corruption. He was a man who had attained mystical heights, planted deeply in suffering. But so in love with God was Francis, so filled with the Spirit, that even in the midst of darkness, he would compose his famous poem and prayer, 'The Canticle of Brother Sun.' Accordingly, he calls on all creatures, the sun, the moon, the stars, even the suffering and death itself, to pour out praise to God.

Today, while scientists guide and direct the great technology overcoming the earth, and politicians, government authorities, and wealthy corporations dangle the world over the delicate fringes of destruction, we are able to look to Francis as a great witness, teacher, and guide. We can share in that greatness and power that made Francis exuberant with joy, true joy, if we are courageous enough to become little ones, and join him in his prayer:

'May the power of your love, O Lord, fiery and sweet as honey, wean my heart from all that is under heaven, so that I may die for love of your love, you who were so good as to die for love of my love.'



Our Prayers

Almighty God and Father,
to those who go astray, you reveal the light of your truth
and enable us to return to your right path:
grant that all who have received the grace of baptism
may strive to be worthy of their Christian calling.
We make this prayer through Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Amen.

For our families & friends, we pray: Hail Mary...
For our parish communities, we pray: Hail Mary...
For our Holy Father, Pope Francis, we pray: Hail Mary...
For our departed brothers & sisters, we pray: Hail Mary...
For our Pope-Emeritus, Benedict XVI, we pray: Hail Mary...
For the Catholic Church throughout the world, we pray: Hail Mary...
For peace in the Holy Land and throughout the world, we pray: Hail Mary...
Our Father...

Saint Francis, pray for us!
Saint Clare, pray for us!
All Saints of Assisi, pray for us!
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!

For more information about the Assisi Project and upcoming opportunities for prayer, pilgrimage, and retreat in the spirit of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi, please contact Cliff Garvey at assisiproject@ymail.com. May the Lord give you peace!