Imitating St. Francis
We all have a fascination with stories. Our first memories are filled with stories that we have heard over and over again as a child. Grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, friends and neighbors all had stories to tell as they gathered for visits and celebrations. Stories about people, happenings in their homes, traveling and vacationing events, Christmas and Easter celebrations, and countless other experiences. Sometimes these stories were comical; sometimes sad. But we remember them all and probably continue to retell them in our families and with our friends.
As a young person, it was through stories told in school or religious classes that perhaps some of us were first introduced to St. Francis of Assisi whose feast we celebrated just last Thursday, October 4th. The stories of this thirteenth century saint have a charm and folk-like quality that, even as a child, we could relate to so well. From childhood through our adult lives Francis might have been for many, and can continue to be, an example for us. We’re all familiar with the stories that portray Francis as the well-known animal and creation lover. Pictures, statues and garden figurines keep that image before us. The most famous of these is a depiction of Francis surrounded with birds or with the famous wolf of the town of Gubbio. He was known for his gentleness and kindness for all creation and especially with animals, but what often slips through the cracks is that the real Francis was an impetuous and idealistic founder of one of the most influential monastic orders of the time—the Franciscans.
If you have ever walked the quaint, cobblestone streets of the little town of Assisi in Italy retracing the steps of this saintly, simple man, you would be highly inspired. There, the concept of animal lover does not seem as important as other, more outstanding qualities of this saint. Yes, he was a lover of God’s creation, but he was a man of action, a profound lover of God, and a Franciscan brother whose only desire was to listen to the Lord and carry out what he was asked by God. And what was that and how is he an example for us? He spent all his energies reaching out to the townspeople and also to the many unattended and desperately needy people of this area. Like Francis we, too, must embrace God in every creature and see God’s face in those with whom we live and work as well as in the powerless, the poor, and the sick on the streets of our towns and cities. If we could gaze into the tiny Portiuncula Church that God asked Francis to rebuild (both physically and spiritually), we would be reminded how, similarly, we need a pilgrim heart that is ready to hear and follow God’s direction in our lives and “rebuild” what needs reform within and around us. Despite his joyous countenance, Francis suffered deeply with both physical pain and mental anguish in his attempt to respond to God. But no matter what God asked of him he was always at peace. Thus we are reminded of the familiar prayer attributed to St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace” which we pray and put to music so frequently. If we could stand outside the grill of the tiny room where Francis’ poor and tattered relics of 900 years ago are preserved, we would understand better the importance of allowing Francis, who espoused “Lady Poverty” as a lifestyle, to teach us that we, too, are called to be poor in spirit. “To be poor,” said Francis, “means that we must be rich only in what the Lord does in and for us.” Francis communicated intimately with his Lord, even receiving the imprint of Jesus’ wounds in his own body later in his lifetime. Unlike Francis we will probably see no extraordinary visions, but we can in a sense, dream. We can dream and strive to live in peace ourselves and then resolve to help others to live in that peace and joy which were the secret of Francis’ life. Amid the pain and sacrifice, the hallmarks of his life, was this: to celebrate everything, even suffering for Christ who first suffered in love for him. Clearly, Francis was a living example of the gospel message. He knew the God of a gentle, humble heart. He understood what it meant for his soul to find rest in the Lord and to carry a yoke that was easy, a burden that was light only because he was doing it for the sake of Christ and his Church.
Today, let us be aware that we are creating our own story. How will it develop it as we attempt to respond to God’s call as did Francis? We pray that the example of St. Francis will move us to some positive resolutions in our own lives. We ask Francis to guide us into becoming, like him, a living, moving, breathing image of Jesus Christ. May we, like him, draw people to God not necessarily by what we say, but definitely by what we do – by our very lives. Francis seldom preached with words but he was a preacher by his living. In the familiar words of Francis, then, let us follow his example – the example of one whose instruction to us is “Preach and, if necessary use words!”
Sister Lauretta Leipzig