On March 13, when the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was elected as the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church, and took the name “Pope Francis”—after St. Francis of Assisi—his intent was clear to almost everyone. This would be a papacy that would seek to model humility, simplicity, care and concern for even the lowliest creatures of the earth.
That is how indelibly a deep impression of the life and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi has been carved into the mind of the West. That is how clear a picture we think we have of St. Francis, and how he entices us still. He is a saint that even we Unitarian Universalists can love. St. Francis has a special place in the hearts of many people who are not otherwise especially religious, or even especially spiritual for that matter. Even many of the un-churched remember his famous prayer which calls upon us to be “channels of peace” in the world:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
His famous hymn (which we’ll sing shortly) sings praises to all aspects of nature (all five verses full; and that’s been shortened from the original version). I mean, Francis could have written our seventh UU principle: “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” That was what so much of his ministry in this world was about. Francis loved nature; he even considered the birds and bees and the sun and moon to be his brothers and sisters. One of my colleagues has written that St. Francis even qualifies as a sort of “UU superhero” based on his love of the natural world!
But, of course, Francis was more complicated and complex figure than that. As a man of the 12th century, we have to resist trying to import his teachings and worldview in total into our modern age. Nonetheless, there is something about him that calls out to us across the centuries and across differing religious traditions. There is something that speaks to our times still, in spite of the passage of these many, many years.
So I think that it is right and just, as we approach Earth Day, to take a fresh look at the life of this holy man of central Italy.
Francis was born either in 1181 or 1182 (they’re not sure which) to a wealthy family in the town of Assisi, in the region of Umbria, about a hundred miles north of Rome, smack dab in the middle of the Italian peninsula. According to legend, he was born in a stable, because his mother, when about to give birth, listened to a passing beggar who told her that if she wanted everything to be all right, that her baby should be born in a stable, just like Jesus. She named her son Giovanni—John—in honor of Saint John the Baptist (or in honor of John, the beloved disciple; they’re not sure which; 1182 was a long time ago). Either way, he was named John because his mother wanted him to lead the life of a religious and become a great man in the Church. This did not please her husband, Pietro di Bernadone, one of Assisi’s leading merchants, who was away on business at the time. Pietro had the baby re-baptized as Francesco, or Francis, in honor of his commercial success in France—and to show his love for all things French-- including his wife.
Francis was raised with the full intention that he would follow his father in business. He led a comfortable childhood, and something of a dissolute youth. He was popular with his friends—who even named him their dominus, their “Lord” or “King”—an honor sometimes conferred upon the “coolest” (and usually the richest) kid in town. He was a party animal, who drank and caroused and generally fooled around—but even here, he showed a certain sensitivity; he was considerate of others, and generally very popular with the people around him.
In 1201, when he was about 19, he joined the military expedition against Perugia, and spent a year as a prisoner of war at Collestrada, an experience which seems to have changed his whole way of looking at the world. On his return to Assisi after the war, he resumed his former carefree ways. But then came a serious illness that left him broken and depressed, wondering about the purpose of his life—and triggering the great spiritual crisis that would change everything.
He stopped hanging out with his friends, gave up the life of partying and carousing. When his friends asked him if he planned on getting married, he replied: “Yes, but to a fairer bride than any of you have ever seen.” Meaning Lady Poverty, perhaps; or the Church; or the Christian faith—he had decided by this time that his would be a religious life. In embracing the lepers outside of Assisi, he confronted both his greatest fear—death—and his greatest temptation—the carnality of the body.
Francis started spending more time in lonely places like caves and forests and abandoned churches. He made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he begged at the houses of the rich for the needs of the poor. Returning home to central Italy, Francis had the first of his mystical visions—this one of the old abandoned Church of Saint Damiano, in the hills outside Assisi . As he knelt in prayer, the crucifix before him began to speak: “Francis,” the voice told him, “Francis, go and repair my house, which you can see, is falling into ruins.”
Francis took this to mean the church of Saint Damiano (it may also well have meant the Catholic Church in general, not in a good state at the time). To get funds for the project, he sold all his possessions, including his horse. He also sold off some his father’s possessions, as well; about which, as we might imagine, Pietro di Bernadone was none too pleased.
Francis sought sanctuary in a local monastery in order to avoid his father’s wrath. His father had him kidnapped, hauled back home, imprisoned in the family’s cellar, and severely beaten. But to no avail. So his father then had him arrested and put on trial, and attempted to disown his son, once and for all. Because Francis had sought sanctuary in a monastery, the civil authorities in Assisi passed the buck (or the lire) to the local bishop. During his trial before the bishop, it was Francis himself who severed his connection with his family; repudiated his inheritance; even stripped off all of his clothes. Before the court, he declared:
“Listen to me, all of you, and understand. Until now, I have called Pietro di Bernadone my father. But, because I have proposed to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so upset, and also all the clothing which is his, wanting to say from now on, ‘Our Father who is in heaven,’ and not ‘My father, Pietro di Bernadone.’”
Francis then retreated to the outskirts of town, where he set to work restoring several abandoned old churches, one after another. He dressed in a rough garment fashioned from coarse brown cloth, with a rope tied around the waist. He walked around barefoot; talked to the animals, continually sang hymns of praise to God. Many of the townsfolk of Assisi thought he was crazy; others, however, were impressed by his simplicity, his piety, and his dedication to the literal ways of the Gospel. In the movie version of the events from the 1970s, at least, a young woman named Clare (who would later become a saint in her own right, and founder of her own order, the Poor Clares) comes to Francis and says to him, “People said you were fine when you went off to war and killed and plundered, but now they say you’re mad because you sing like the birds, chase butterflies, and look at the flowers. I think they have it backwards.”
Soon, Francis had gained his first follower—a prosperous lawyer from town named Bernardo; within a year, he had eleven followers, who declared themselves to be, not priests, but fraters minores, or “lesser brothers”.
Some of those in power feared these Lesser Brothers, lest they drain off support from the established (and Establishment) Church, and spread ideas which might be “heretical”. Others, however, believed that Francis and his followers were simply living radically the very message of the Gospels. One of these was Bishop Guido of Assisi, who had draped his cloak over the naked Francis as he stood before him on trial in his court. Now, Guido again offered protection to the radical young son of Assisi, and argued his case before Innocent III , the pope in Rome .
Innocent was also a complex figure: a wily politician, who had greatly expanded the power and wealth of the Church. He was also one of the intellectual heavyweights of his day, known as a learned theologian, and generally considered, even by contemporary historians, as somewhat “more spiritual” than your average pope.
Initially, Innocent seems not to have been impressed by this young ragamuffin from Assisi. The first meeting between the two didn’t seem to go very well; he would not endorse the new order, the Pope said; instead, he told Francis to “go home and pray”.
But then, the night after that first meeting, Innocent, apparently, had a dream:
He saw the basilica of St. John Lateran, the pope’s “official” church in Rome. The towers creaked, and the walls cracked, and the whole edifice seemed about to fall down—while the Pope himself stood by helplessly. He then saw a small, young man, dressed as a peasant, barefoot, with a rope around his waste, approach the church. The young man then stood against one of the walls of the basilica, until it steadied, and stood upright again.
You didn’t have to be a learned theologian to interpret the sign: Francis was the one sent by God to uplift and uphold his sagging Church. The Pope called Francis back into his presence, embraced him, and granted ecclesiastical approval to the Rule of his new order—the Fraters Minores, who would henceforth become known as the “Franciscans”.
Back in Assisi, now with the approval of the Pope himself, Francis began to preach even more boldly his Gospel message of repentance, simplicity, and most of all, compassion for all the earth and its creatures.
Francis himself would live only seven more years. But even within his lifetime, miraculous stories became attached to him. It is said that one day, as Francis was traveling with some companions, they happened to a place along the road where birds filled the trees all about them. Francis told the others to wait, “while I go preach to my sister the birds.” Not one of them flew away, as Francis preached to them.
They say that Francis calmed the ferocious wolf of Gubbio, by reminding him of his birthright as a creature of God. He removed worms from the middle of the road, so they wouldn’t be crushed by the feet of travelers. It is even said that, on his deathbed, Francis thanked his donkey for carrying him all those days of his ministry. And the donkey, they say, wept when Francis died.
His was a circle of compassion that knew no bounds. His was a reminder to us that we human ones did not weave the web of life, but are only one part of it, and that we are inseparably bound with all other species of creation in that great web of life.
His was a call of service to all of us, whatever our stations in life, to take up our crosses and follow in the ways of Love.
His was a call to heed the voice of the Greater Self within our souls—for by heeding that voice we hear the echo of the divine voice, the voice of God, reminding us of our holy purpose.
His was also a reminder that, so very often, this world does get it backward. Our true power is not found in the accumulation of power and riches and fame, but in serving these, the least of our brothers and sisters.
If we would dare to live it, the revolutionary spirituality of Francis of Assisi would turn the pecking order of human society upside down. His was a ministry to all of God’s creation, with the poorest of the poor and the simplest creatures at its very heart. His was also a ministry to the poor and broken and sick within each of us. His was a call to us to find our full humanity—and glimpse the divine that is within us—through humility and simplicity and compassion.
“Compassion is a kind of fire,” writes Matthew Fox, “…it disturbs, it surprises, it ignites, it burns, it sears and it warms. Compassion incinerates denial; it especially warms and melts cold hearts, cold structures, frozen minds, and self-satisfied lifestyles. Those who are touched by compassion have their lives turned upside down. That is not necessarily a bad thing.”
Through our compassion for all creation, Francis reminds us, we kindle the very Kingdom of God, which is in our midst, but which we so seldom see. Through our compassion, we reclaim our holy birthright as children of God, divine sparks of that great Spirit of Life.