Anyone who''s read much about St. Francis comes away with the sense that this man was unique among the followers of Jesus.
I have heard and seen all sorts of silly things about Francis, from syncretistic religious gobbledegook to sentimental garden statues that reduce this amazing saint to the level of a lover of cute woodland animals and birds, but then, I have heard many silly ideas about Jesus as well. I guess it should not surprise us that similar things befall all of the Lord''s saints; just imagine what they might turn you into should you live a saintly life. Lord deliver us from all foolishness and triviality!
Many of the religious stories of St. Francis are told with such flowery language, and are so full of pietistic religious jargon that the real Francis alludes us, and that . . . in my view, is a real pity. Nevertheless, I believe we can still see much of his life if we demystify the language and play down the Catholic religious lore regarding Francis. The man is still there behind all the fluff and sentimentalism.
Both in the summers of 1998 (just after the earthquake that demolished a major portion of the basilica''s ceiling), and 2006 (with a tour group I was leading in Italy), I was privileged to visit Assisi and consider the life of the man behind the legend.
We visited the obligatory locations around the town and saw some of the more famous sites in the area. Very impressive, and sometimes odd, especially from a contemporary American perspective. But, I was impressed with what I saw, and felt privileged to visit Francis'' grave on the lower level of the basilica. I was impressed by how much reverence there still exists for St. Francis . . . and not just for the person, but for the ideas that have come to us by means of Francis.
The impression that stands out in my memory is that this must truly have been an extraordinary individual to have affected so many lives and to have inspired so many people through the years, including mine, a non-catholic.
Francis'' spiritual life begins with a mystical experience, which those who are interested can/should read about. Francis was one of many Christian mystics, and, for whatever reasons, he is one who has risen to the top of our corporate consciousness. I am glad about that, and may it ever be so, because if Francis and his contribution to Christian spirituality ever fade away, we will be left greatly impoverished, indeed.
The command Francis received from the Lord, to "rebuild" his Church, which was broken down and in disrepair, speaks to my own heart as a pastor, and church planter. I hear the same Jesus calling me (and MANY others), to the same task. To REBUILD Christ''s Church, because, in countless ways, it is broken. Selah.
One of the many outstanding qualities of the man, Francis, was his humility. There is profound wisdom in humility. Francis was, apparently content with little, and grateful for much. I like that about him, because this is what I am praying for in my own life.
Most people are downcast and depressed when they are being held back, given little, excluded, or when they don''t receive all they believe to be justly due them. The way of the world is to grasp and fight for all that is rightfully yours, and because of this, the world is full of hurtful competition, maddening aggravation, perpetual frustration and endless sorrow.
Francis knew that to "die" was the way to be born . . . again; perhaps not as Evangelicals would use this term, but in a way that is certainly just as vital, and maybe even more profound. To have Francis'' insight and ability to accept your life as a gift that comes directly from the hand of God, everyday, and in every situation, is a miracle.
St. Paul talked about the spiritually mature condition of living in contentment, and of knowing how to live at peace with life, whether he prospered or whether he was brought low in his station in life. He tells us that "godliness with contentment is great gain," but have we learned that lesson yet? It is certainly front and center on the list of things God has been trying to teach me -- all my life, and it has become part of my "bucket-list."
It seems Francis learned this lesson well, and that''s one of the reasons why, I believe, even Protestants are willing to call him a saint of a special kind. It is no easy task to learn the lessons of living in humility, and to do it with gratitude and joy. I can personally vouch for that fact.
"Lord, make ME an instrument of your peace."