ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI
CHILMARK COMUNITY CHURCH
OCTOBER 30, 2016
REV. ARMEN HANJIAN
Mon. is Halloween. All- Hallows Eve is Tues., Nov. 1 – All Saints Day. I would like to introduce you to a saint. St. Francis was born in 1182 and died at age 44, on Oct.3,1226. This month is the 790th anniversary of his death.
The 13th century was noted by the supremacy of the Church, gothic cathedrals, universities, monks and mystics. The Church of Rome was supreme. There was a strong feudal system, many superstitions and masses of people killed in wars and other masses who were sick and hungry.
What makes this saint so important to us is that in his writings we can see the real struggles of a man, yet a man wholly dedicated to God. We see a sinner saved by God’s grace. Continually sensing his human frailties, he would all the more depend on Divine power.
Born in Italy. His father was a wealthy clothing merchant. He called him not by his baptized name – John, but by Francis (this the first known us of the name). As a boy of means, he got himself into a good deal of pranks and extravagances, yet he always remained courteous and charitable.
Francis had little formal education. He wrote with simplicity with a talent of weaving scripture into his writings. He says nothing drastically new. The greatness of the man is that he took Christ at his word; for him the sermon on the mount was a clear and concise directive. He got caught with a handful of Jesus’ sayings, and they never let him go. (e.g. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” Matt.16:24).
But Francis did not grow up in a steady Christian nurture. He was not always the stainless saint of his celebrity. After his schooling he went into the clothing business with his father. Though he walked with the nobility, he continually stood up for the commoners, even to the extent of being imprisoned for fighting with the nobility – the government of his day. Upon his return to the business, he fell deathly ill. For the first time in his life he began to realize a dissatisfaction with his former life. He had lived a life of pleasure and it left a bitter taste in his mouth.
To forget these disturbing memories, Francis turned to other pleasures; he sought meaningfulness in the life of a soldier. He got a fever in an early battle and was left behind by the rest of his company – thus his military fame was purged away. Having nowhere else to turn, he looked to religion for hope and direction. After telling his friends of his wedding to “Lady Poverty”, he retired to a near-by cave for meditation; he asked for forgiveness and sought the light of truth.
Most biographers, as well as St. Francis himself, emphasize the importance of his visit one day to the St. Damian Chapel near Assisi. In his deep meditation on the crucifix, he could hear Christ say, “I have accepted thy sacrifice, thy desires, thy offering, thy work, thy life, thy self.”1 He considered this personal confrontation with Christ a call of God, he spent the remainder of his life in quest of Jesus’ will for his actions. With the same wholeness he had thrown himself into a life of pleasure, he now immersed himself into religious dedication. In this, his single-mindedness, lies his claim to sainthood.
What followed was not an existence of seclusion; the zeal of the living Christ demanded expression in his puny life. Arising from his knees, he looked around for the nearest need. He found a chapel in need of repair. Immediately, he sold all that he had, and began the work himself. The youth of nobility was thus forced to become a beggar for crumbs.
Truly, he had the mind of Christ. He loved the simplicity, gratitude and kindness to one another of the poor in contrast to the proud and selfish rich. In every person he saw someone for whom Christ died. His imitation of Christ was spontaneous. Love was the absolute standard for him – love of God, of people, of flower, of animal, of all creation. We usually think of Francis only from this viewpoint, but he also had a strong voice in condemning injustice.
He took an excursion to Rome where he downed a good deal of pride by begging; he won an even bigger battle upon his return in his learning to live with lepers, even learning to love them. Leprosy had run wild in the filth of Europe. Francis, like his Master, provided for their many physical and spiritual needs, healing them with trust and love. Not many would wash a leper’s feet, dress his wounds and eat with him. Later, becoming a part of the Order of St. Francis, the care of lepers not only help clean up Italy, but made a living witness to the love of Christ.
Because of his “uncommon” behavior, Francis’ father saw fit to separate family ties and brought him to court. Actually it was Francis who made the separation claiming first allegiance to his Heavenly Father. Francis stripped naked and gave back to his father all that he had gotten from him. The bishop at the trail was touched by his sincerity let Francis go on his own with only a rag to cover himself. Even this was taken by thieves, and he was left with nothing but his faith in God.
Friends had pity on him and gave him help. He immediately returned to the chapel to finish the work he had begun. Then he repaired two nearby chapels. The amazing thing about this saint is he was a Christian in his own community.
At 27, three years after his conversion, he heard a priest in mass read a gospel passage; the words came to him as if directly from Christ: “As you go proclaim the good news, saying, the kingdom of heaven has come near. Cure the sick, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons; freely you have received, freely give. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two coats or sandals or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. (Matt. 10:7-10)
Wonder of wonders, he took the Lord’s words seriously. He preached with power, and those who heard were amazed at the simplicity and sincerity of his message – a message of a God of love and a Christ of forgiveness. He became poor neither to show off nor to make a down payment on eternal life, but to be better tied to Christ. His one aim was to see life from Christ’s point of view. This meant a complete self denial so Christ could live in him. In denying his own will to do God’s will, he found his true self and intended will. He saw shame and dislike of blame both as a praise of self, not God.
St. Francis had no intention of beginning an order, but this became almost inevitable when those who once scorned him, now coveted his Christlikeness. At first there were four men who traveled two by two. They worked for their daily rations and found shelter anywhere from a church porch to a leper’s camp. Soon there were twelve. Some thought they were mad (even among the clergy), yet their sanity and hope was seen even through their hungry faces.
The Bishop of Assisi once said to them their way of living was harsh and difficult. Francis responded, “If we possessed property, we should have need of weapons to defend it, for it is a source of quarrels and lawsuits, an obstacle to the love of God and neighbor.”1 He knew the whole feudal system, with its endless warfare and oppression, rested on the possessions of land and property. For this everything else was sacrificed. It took the shock of Franciscan poverty to shake the complacency of the times.
Francis took his group of twelve to Rome to receive papal approval. Pope Innocent, in his worldly splendor, and likely with a lump in his throat, authorized their activities. The saint continued to champion the cause of the down trodden, averting
small wars among the nobles. The men of the order worked at their previous trades and would receive no pay, thus there was no shame in their begging for food. The order was known by its fruits. Francis considered idleness an opponent to the soul.
A second Franciscan order had it’s birth when a women, Clara Sciffi, responded to his preaching. She became the head of the Poor Clares Order. A third order was the next natural step; married couples too wished to live a sacrificial life. Thus, the Tertiarians, could keep some property, remain in marriage and still live a life of charity. These orders became leaven in Italian society and resulted in the break down of its feudal system. Francis had an awareness of the divine imperative which yielded a monasticism of service to the world rather than flight from it.
He wanted to share his Christ even beyond Italy. He attempted to go to Syria, but was shipwrecked. He went to Barcelona , Spain and established a few groups there. In Egypt, he preached, was captured and imprisoned; fortunately, he was released by the Sultan. Though he had little success with the Saracens, the Christians were greatly encouraged by his courage.
1 Rev. J.H. Mc Ilvaine, p.74.
Prayer was his life line. A life of contemplation was a real temptation to him; yet, in his meditation he was always thrown back to love of neighbor in some physical way. He was struck by an illness which blinded him. He would say even in sickness we ought to rejoice in the Lord, to be merry and full of joy, not pious like the hypocrites.
With great difficulty he returned to his home village. These last days were full of joy for him. He had never been ordained into the priesthood, but in his final hours, Francis took bread,, blest and broke it to those about him in remembrance of Christ’s death and passion.
The Franciscans in the years following his death made their greatest contributions as preachers and creators of religious literature for commoners. Their language was easily understood for they had intimate knowledge of the life of the people. They put aside formal theological questions and preached the love and mercy of God who frees us from our sins. To put off evil habits and take up a new life in Christ was their message; the Gospel was their authority.
Did you ever wonder what your biography would be like?