FRANCIS OF ASSISI: A MAN OF HIS TIMES AND OURS [FEAST: 4 OCTOBER]
By: Fr. Joy Prakash OFM
AS THE MEMBER OF THE MERCHANT bourgeoisie Francis aspired for honor, adventure, knighthood, courtly love. Then in the wake of a question, “Francis, who can do most for you, servant or master?” he took to shred and tatters, mendicancy and voluntary poverty. The poverty that he once shunned he took for his bride – his Lady Poverty. The houses of wealth and the noise of merry-making he exchanged for caves nestled in the hills of Umbria, abandoned churches, huts of mud and woven branches and for the solitude of being in communion with God. The luxury of the fine garments he laid aside in exchange for the rough tunic of a hermit. And in the ultimate analysis what was anachronistic in 1200’s remains so even in the 1980’s.
Taking to rags was not the point of it all but what inspired him to do it. And the heart and the mind that sought to live that inspiration emerges as attractive and challenging for the centuries that followed his birth. Hence what is still more fascinating is that in the life of this man there are elements that belong neither to his own age nor to ours but to all ages. There is in this man something that appeals to persons who differ in nationality, social background and temperament. Could it be that Francis appeals to whatever is noble in our makeup?
Curiously enough what appeared to be anachronistic has a terrifying significance all through the centuries and up to the present time. Though a medieval man, his example and teaching transcend the period in which he lived. His own person and his human and Christian values have touched diverse types of persons throughout the centuries and throughout the world.
The dust jacket of the FRANCIS BOOK (Macmillan), a major anthology published for the International Year of Saint Francis, puts it this way: “Rembrandt painted him, Zeffirelli filmed him, Chesterton eulogized him, Lenin died with his name on his lips, Toynbee compared him to Jesus and Buddha, Kerouac picked him as the patron of the Beat Generation, Sir Kenneth Clark called him Europe’s greatest religious genius. Merchants and revolutionaries and filmmakers all turn to him for inspiration and a glimpse of a better life. The Francis phenomenon grows and cross-fertilizes the earth’s culture ……”
Francis’ appeal is universal. The basis for this appeal is that he touched every field of human endeavor and every human aspiration through a serious imitation of the life of the Gospel. Many cultures and religions have a great affinity with him. Could it be that Francis appeals to our deepest longings of heart and mind?
There is Francis the mystic, who attracts people of prayer. There is Francis the Bhakti Yogin, who enables people to pursue the path of devotion to God or the Bhakti Marga. There is Francis the lover of nature, which makes him a friend of the earth and hence patron of ecologists and environmentalists of today, (in 1980 Pope John Paul II declared St. Francis the Patron of the Environment). There is Francis the personalist, who looks upon people as individual, rather than as part of a crowd. There is Francis the reformer, who creates in the way of life he proposes to his three orders a model of what Church should be (poor, caring communities with a fraternal form of organization) with Poverty in the vanguard.
There is Francis the activist, who cares for the social out-casts of his day whatever he can find them. There is Francis the peace-maker who tries to stop the killings on the side of the Christians and the Muslims alike during the Crusades, through a personal appeal to both warring factions. There is Francis the poor man, who prefers to be known as “a new kind of fool for God’s sake,” and who has all his life a great liking for people who have been put hopelessly in the wrong. Thereby he purposely identifies himself with the poor and the marginalized of society.
There is Francis the revolutionary who through his Gospel life-style gets Christianity on the move. With the creation of a Third Order for the common folks living in the families he motivated them to live Christian life in the ordinary circumstances of their life and not to bear arms or pledge them to battle, which was actually a blow the heart of feudalism, and by which he became partially responsible for the downfall of the feudal system. Serfs (semi-slaves) were freed and the number of petty wars were reduced. There is Francis the poet, who in writing his supremely magnificent hymn of praise of creatures, THE CANTICLE OF BROTHER SUN, becomes the first Italian poet.
There is more than a streak severity in Francis. Though he publicly disowned his father, and treated his own body harshly, and dismantled a building that was too luxurious for his followers, many events in his life are rimmed with light and laughter. His fashioning two sticks into a make-believe violin to sing to his Lord; his spinning a brother on a crossroad to determine which way they should head that day. There are other revealing details: the joy of Christmas fills him with so much enthusiasm that he says even the walls should be pasted with meat. The sensitivity toward a young brother who over-estimated his own resistance during Lent. And when he gets up at midnight shouting, “I’m dying. I’m dying,” Francis breaks his own fast and has a meal with the whole community to save the lone hungry brother from the shame of eating alone. The sense of earthly realities: Knowing that we catch more flies with one spoonful of honey than with a barrel of vinegar, he orders good wine and cheese served to “our brother brigands.” The gentle irony toward a squad of soldiers whose every attempt at reprovisioning had failed: “But, of course, you have been trying to buy things. Go out and beg, then come back and tell me what happened.” They do so and their daily ration has never so delicious and copious.
There is hardly any area of life that Francis has not touched or where people haven’t felt his influence. On his deathbed, Lenin murmured, “To save our Russia, what we needed – but it is too late now – was ten Francises of Assisi. Ten Francises of Assisi, and we could have saved Russia.” The English author and playwright, Oscar Wilde, said: “The life of Saint Francis was the true imitation of Christ, a poem compared to which the book of that name is merely prose.” Albert Camus, coming the school of existential pessimism says, “He (Francis), justifies those who have a taste for happiness.” Ernest Renan who left the Catholic fold declares in an astounding statement that “one might say that Francis of Assisi was the only perfect Christian since Christ. After Christianity itself the Franciscan movement is the greatest popular achievement known to history.”
For men and women who chose not to leave their homes and jobs, yet wanted to be like Francis, he founded the Third Order. For over 700 years this movement has fostered the strong current of popular Christianity. As we have already mentione elsewhere, by forbidding the laymen to bear weapons and from taking the oath of fealty, Francis was partially responsible for the downfall of the feudal system. The Third Order of St. Francis for the laity, also known as Secular Franciscans, has included artists Giotto, Michaelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci; Poets Petrarch and Dante (who was buried in a Franciscan habit), and musicians Palestrina, Gounod and Liszt; and kings and queen’s Louis IX of France, Emperor Charles V, Marie Therese of Austria, Elizabeth of Hungary; discoverers like Christopher Columbus and saints like Vincent de Paul, John Bosco and others: Fredrick Ozanam, Leo Harmel; l’Abbe Pierre; Joseph Folliet, Pope John XXIII etc. There are also informal groups of men and women who are anxious for the spread of the Gospel life and try to do something about such questions as poverty, justice, non-violence, respect for creation, international understanding, etc. There are so many other groups – “Companions of St. Francis,” “Friends of St. Francis” etc., besides all those who, though not belonging to a specific group, still look to Francis for their inspiration. Ernest Raymond calls such ‘non-official’ Franciscans as belonging to the Fourth Order: “The fancy came to me that there cleaves always to St. Francis, whether he approves or not, a Fourth Order. It is the Order of those who do not abjure their fighting and their oaths, who cannot abandon their comfort, or their fame, who still like the top table at the feasts and are not the least eager to return their excess profits, but who, in spite of all this weakness, love Francis of Assisi and wish they were more like him. Perhaps they, even in a small way, limp after him.”
Francis’ Indian and Asiatic appeal was predicted as early as his own time in the poetic writings of Dante Alighieri (1265), in his Paradiso. Comparing Francis to the sun that rises in the Ganges he said that Assisi meant no ‘ascent’ but ‘Orient’. Psychologically and, Francis’s simplicity, mysticism and spirituality are as much oriental as he is an occidental. Writing extensively on the striking similarities in Saint Francis and Sri Ramkrishna, Guido Fernando says, “There is a striking similarity between these two divine men who belong to different ages, different races and different faiths; a similarity that is most illuminating as it proves the fundamental unity of true religion.”
Fr. Samuel Rayan, SJ in his study of Christian dialogue with Hinduism says: “I have always felt that ultimately it will be in the language of St. Francis, his language of love, freedom and song, in the language of renouncement and of the wounds of Christ and of contemplation, in hymns to Brother Sun and Sister Death, that Christianity and Hinduism can meet in real dialogue, and in truth can give themselves to each other.”
Fr. Basetti-Sani, who has written extensively on Saint Francis and Mohammad says, “For a more Christian understanding of our muslim brothers – more imperative and urgent than ever – it remains for us to meditate upon the example left by St. Francis and to enter into his spirit. It is not so much the confrontation of two stand-points that is important as the challenge involved.” Liam Brophy, in comparing St. Francis, Buddha and Confucius, comments that, “at the present time, one solution to the Chinese problem would be a prayerful appeal to St. Francis because for 4,000 years the Chinese have been ‘naturally Franciscan’.”
It is the relationship of Francis to Jesus that is the core of Francis’ personality. Because Francis was truly ‘a personal friend of Jesus’, he restored to the church the personalistic approach to Jesus that had been lost for centuries. Perhaps the greatest contribution Francis made to the Church of his time was his emphasis on the humanity of Christ, showing people that Jesus was like us, identified with us, and hence was approachable to us as a brother. Francis’ recreation of the Nativity Scene of Bethlehem in a place called Greccio started the custom of Christmas crib and the modern theater. His use of the vernacular to reach the masses is one of the reasons some historians credit him with the origin of the Renaissance. Artists of his time and later times moved from the formal and stylized Byzantine approach to art to a more human and naturalistic style after the saint restored emotionalism to faith and worship.
Eight centuries have gone by and all the centuries found back in him true humanity and nobility of faith. As for his time and for the centuries that followed him and for today’s people and world his message is simple: “Fall in love with Christ. Don’t just honor Him, worship Him, reach Him, Preach Him, – fall in love with Him.”
Note: The article is taken from the TAU – Review on Franciscanism, March 1984, Vol. 9 No. 1, pages 14-20.
Jakarta, 4 October 2012 (Feast of St. Francis of Assisi]
A Christian Pilgrim