Feast of St. Francis
Jer 22:13-16; Ps 148:7-14
Gal 6:14-18; Matt 11: 25-30
In August of 1224, St.Francis took three of his companions into the wilderness for a time of fasting and of prayer. They went there because Francis was dying, and he sought some space to prepare for his death.Together, they climbed a mountain known as La Verna. Once they had arrived, the brothers built some rustic cells, while Francis retreated further into the woods, beyond even their gaze. He spent his time in prayer, reading the gospels, meditating on the Passion of Christ. On the eve of the Feast of Holy Cross Day, Francis passed the whole night in prayer. As the sun rose, he seemed to see a vision: a seraph nailed to a cross, hovering above him. Francis’ spirit was caught up in a rapture of love and joy; when he came back to himself, a sharp pain revealed to him the marks of the cross on his hands and his feet — making him the first person known to have been marked by the stigmata.
What are we to make of a story like that? In a scientific, skeptical age, it raises issues about psychosomatic manifestations, about the nature of miracles, about our own credulity. And yet, underneath all that, Francis’ stigmata — and his life — confront us with profound questions: How does our faith manifest itself in our flesh? How is it visible in our lives? How are we marked as disciples of Christ, and how deeply do we allow that marking to go?
Few people have been marked by Christ as deeply as Francis, whom we commemorate today. Born the son of a prosperous cloth merchant, Francis spent his early years much in the approved fashion: drinking, partying, wearing fine clothes, and making valuable connections among the young nobles who were only too happy to feast at his expense. In 1202, a neighboring town declared war on Assisi; the young Francis sprung to the defense of his hometown, was captured, and spent a year in prison. When he returned, he resumed his former life, but his heart was not in it. He had seen how easily the pleasures to which he had devoted his life could be taken away, and his heart had begun to search for something which would endure.
For many of us, I think, the most disquieting part of this whole Covid time has been the swiftness with which patterns of life and whole institutions, which we had seen as integral and essential to our society, could simply stop. People have worked in offices since at least the 18th century. We have eaten in restaurants from time immemorial. Making music together, gathering with friends, shopping without fear — so much of the substance of our daily lives has been suspended that everything seems a bit illusory. As if it will vanish if we try to grasp it too tightly. That is the moment in which Francis found himself.
Francis’ response was to stop grasping. Instead, he opened his hands, gave away all that he had: money, possessions, status, shelter, reputation, and, most important, all the love in his heart. He gave his heart to one he named Lady Poverty, a commitment to a life of radical simplicity.
It’s easy to see that as a romantic gesture, the kind of thing that a passionate young man who had yearned to be a knight, covered in glory, might do, if he chose, instead, to follow Christ. (Certainly, dismissing it that way might get us off the hook.) But more than that, it was a scathing critique of the ways that money was corrupting the society of his time, embodied in the success of Francis’ own father. Today, it seems natural to us that we should carry money in our pockets, either in the form of paper notes and metal coins, or in the form of plastic cards with chips, but in Francis’ day, money was still in the process of becoming the primary means of exchange. Barter was more prevalent, although the famous traders of Italy, ranging abroad, used silver coins as well. It was not until 1252 — almost thirty years after Francis’ death — that the first Italian city began to mint coins in gold for the first time since the end of Rome. So Francis lived at an inflection point, and what he saw was that those small silver coins formed a wall between people which was harder to breach even than the massive city walls of stone. Those stores of silver enabled a few people to amass wealth that would last beyond a year, as stores of grain would not. And so divisions came, and spread.
Francis chose to live without: without coins, without walls. When he began to roam the hills, rebuilding ruined chapels with his own hands, his father confronted him, demanding the return of the fabric which Francis had sold to fund his endeavors. The townspeople gathered in the great square; the Bishop laid forth the case. Francis responded with joy, immediately handing over not only the money he still had, but even the clothing he wore. Naked, he proclaimed in the hearing of all, “Until this time I have called Peter Bernardone my father, but now I desire to serve God. This is why I return to him his money, for which he has given himself so much trouble, as well as my clothing and all that I have had from him, for from henceforth I desire to say nothing else than “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Then, accepting a tunic from one of the Bishop’s retainers, he left the town, climbing into the hills and finding his heart moved with joy by the beauty of creation.
The saint is famous for his love of nature, for walking the hills entranced by their beauty, for preaching to birds, for buying them out of captivity and setting them free. Even as he and his friends went to La Verna, flocks of birds gathered to welcome them, landing on Francis’ arms and singing in joy. But that mystical oneness with all creatures loses its heft if we do not see it as part and parcel of Francis’ commitment not to be divided from anything: not from poverty, not from lepers, not from suffering, not from death. Stripped of possessions, Francis and his companions could interact with the poor on their own level, working in their fields, accepting whatever food a poor farmer might care to share in response, even begging for bread when that was necessary, and doing it with a glad heart. Again and again in his life, the saint meditated on Paul’s words, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Christ” (Gal 6:14)— the Cross which reconciled the world to God, dissolving every point of division in the transcendent love of God. Not my father, but ours.
The miracle was that people understood: they did not deride him as a madman, but saw him as a sign of love. At a time much like our own, when the church had accommodated itself to the practices of the great, when its leaders chose their own comfort over the disciplines of love, dissected God’s truth like philosophers rather than showing the fruit of love, the raw truth of the Gospel became credible again, embodied in one young man and in those who chose to follow him. There are lessons here for us, who live, like Francis, in a place where the church has discredited itself by abuse, and where unbelievers look at our lives and wonder whether our faith makes any difference at all. We know what we need to do.
Francis was drawn always to those who were rejected or shunned, to sinners, bandits, the bad guys, or the ones who had been done wrong. Among them all, lepers held a special place in his affection, because, in his youth, he had feared them beyond all else. Biographers tell of a time that Francis and his brothers were assisting at a hospital for lepers. There was one man there so bitter that even the brothers could not tolerate him, because he cursed the Virgin Mary. And so Francis went in himself , saying, “Peace be with you.” The man cried out, “What peace can I receive from God, who has taken away my peace and every good thing?” So Francis offered to assist him, and the man stared straight at Francis and said, “Bathe me.” Now, the one thing you did not do was touch a leper. Leprosy was communicated through touch, and physical distancing was the only defense. Nonetheless, Francis heated water. Then he carefully unwrapped all the man’s bandages, exposing his stinking, rotting flesh, and, taking a clean rag, he washed the man. And wherever Francis touched the man’s skin, he became whole. Finally, the man stood and atoned for his rage, for he had tasted the love of God.
When Francis spoke of love, he spoke of that love: of love which restores community, removes all sources of bitterness, brings the outcast into the fold, shuns no man. It is the love he lived, the love we must live if we wish our lives to be marked by our commitment to Christ. It is time — it is past time — to stop being afraid of that commitment, to become willing to cast aside all that divides us from one another. Not to cling to our degrees, our education, our nice homes, as if they were the measure of our worth, when the true gold in us is the image of God, which we did nothing to earn, and which cannot be taken away, — only hidden by our desire to be more-than, when the path which leads to God leads always downward, and can be walked only with empty hands. That story of Francis and the leper presents us with two paths: the path of bitterness, which regards loss as torment, and the path of sanctity, which embraces loss with joy. The loss, of course, will come: “the readiness is all.” (Hamlet, V.ii.218)
Thursday morning, I went to the park with my dog and my favorite book on Francis. I intended to read, but it was all so lovely, a perfect autumn day. I was entranced by the light shining from the water, and, beyond it, a floating scatter of golden leaves, as if that light had taken flesh. The hill was dusted with lavender blooms and there was a fresh breeze. The birds were rising and falling, their wings tracing ephemeral arcs in the sky. I found myself thinking, “If there were only today, it would all have been worth it.” And then it came home: this moment of joy was free of cost. I had not paid for it and could not have bought it, and it could not be taken away. That was the truth Francis lived: that what is necessary is given, and all we need do is hold out our hands, and pour out our hearts in return.
 Told in Paul Sabatier, The Road to Assisi, edited by Jon M. Sweeney, 67-68.