In an age of social media and political punditry, it seems odd to many that I find myself drawn to a long-dead medieval religious fanatic who had a propensity for talking to animals. And yet, in the person of St. Francis of Assisi, I have encountered a timeless and beautiful connection to God -- not merely for my private and personal piety, but as a relevant exemplar for life and faith amidst today's instability. So who is this odd little poor man and what can we learn from his rather idiosyncratic example?
Born Francesco Bernardone in the late 12th century in what is today Italy, this young son of a wealthy merchant earned himself a reputation of being a wild-child, playing the generous playboy who spent his time wooing women and singing songs of knightly valor. He even went off to war to make his hoped-for conquests a reality, though that ended with him languishing in a dungeon as a prisoner of war, his health destroyed along with his hopes and dreams.
When Francis decided to give the rest of his life in service to God, he didn't take the track expected of him. He did not pursue the priesthood, yet was known for his ability to captivate crowds with his preaching. He didn't choose the cloistered life of a monk, yet he embraced vows of poverty and chastity that set him apart in remarkable ways. He created a new way to follow Christ, one that required all the devotion and sacrifice of a religious calling, yet was lived out among the common people, especially the poorest of the poor. And people followed him by the thousands.
What made his life so appealing to so many? Among other things, Francis's love for Jesus was so explicit that he was naive enough to believe that Jesus actually meant for us to do the things he taught us. And while such a radical devotion often led him to extremes -- like when he interpreted Jesus' command to "preach the gospel to every creature" and so began to proclaim the good news to the birds -- it also produced in him a commitment to love God through loving others, especially those who lived on the margins of society, such as the poor and the lepers. He managed to draw to his movement both the simpleton and the academic, the lawyer and butcher, because his was a faith of actively imitating Christ.
Francis lived in a time when the church had taken for granted its position in the culture. Often compromised by wealth and political power, the church had lost credibility among the people. Many would worship Jesus at Mass, but few truly followed his teaching or example. Francis became a reformer, not through angry protests and recriminations against the corrupted clergy, but through his life of humble yet fearless obedience to Jesus. In other words, he knew that the best rebuke of the bad was the embodiment of the better.
In the face of a religious war, Francis walked across a continent to convince his fellow Christians to make peace. When that failed, he crossed the battle lines so that he could plea for peace for his "pagan" captors instead. In the face of poverty, he refused to accumulate wealth or property (which could have been utilized for noble ends), but instead choose to share life alongside the poor, creating communities where the wealthy and poor came together as sister and brother. And in a culture where he was surrounded by moral compromise, he refused to police people's behavior, instead demanding of himself and his brothers such a high standard that a watching world was humbled by their example.
Francis was far from perfect, prone to extremes and failings like any other human. Yet that is part of what makes him such a great example for us today. If he was perfect, we might too quickly dismiss him. In his imperfection, he is like us and therefore his example is one we might actually consider following. We might work for peace and change, even if it appears we are betraying our political or even religious allegiances. Far from some long-dead saint who's best known for being the inspiration for bird baths, St. Francis of Assisi invites us- dares us- to consider what life might be like if we followed his example.
The question is, are we willing to be naive enough to believe that Jesus actually means for us to do the things he asks? I'm game if you are.