Born in 1181 or 1182, Francesco di Bernardone had a lasting influence on the world in his short life. Born the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francesco had no interest in being part of the family business. In fact, he was the leader of a group of young rowdies who would carouse until the wee hours of the morning, and then sleep through the day. Francis often paid the bill for these nights; as a result, he was very popular.
He joined the army at the age of 21 or so and went to war. Assisi was defeated, and Francis spent a year or so in a rat–infested prison cell. That may have been the time his life started to change.
When he was 25, his father took him to the town magistrates, complaining that Francis was disregarding his responsibilities. Francis agreed with his father, renounced all claims on his family. In front of the court, he stripped naked, placed his clothes at his father’s feet and said that from then on, God would be his father. He declared himself “wedded to Lady Poverty”, renounced all material possessions, and devoted himself to serving the poor.
He claimed that God had called him to “Rebuild my church.” Francis saw his life’s work as waking people up so that they would focus on the pure and simple gospel and follow Jesus simply.
Francis took literally the words in Matthew’s gospel, “Preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ … You have received the Gospel without payment, give it to others as freely. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, no spare garment, nor sandals, nor staff.” (Matthew 10: 7–10)
He and his companions would have no money and no property, individually or collectively. Their task was to “proclaim the good news, using words if necessary,” and declaring in word and action the love of God in Christ.
Francis of Assisi had a profound respect for all life, experiencing all of God’s creation as sacred. In his day, if one wanted to seek God, the traditional religious way was to turn inward. Monks tried to transcend this world, spending their lives in contemplating God, seeking to know God fully.
Francis chose a different route. Instead of turning inwards, he turned outwards. The world was shot through with God’s glory. Francis discovered God’s presence and love everywhere he looked. God was to be found in the midst of this world, in the everyday moments of life, in the midst of a bountiful and wonderfully varied creation. Rather than fleeing the world to find God, God is to be found right here, in the physical, material world.
The paradox of Francis’ life is that although he gave up material possessions, he valued the material things of the earth more completely. He treasured people who worked with their hands — farmers, craftspeople, artists, bakers — and he valued the fruit of their hands. He esteemed material things not as having intrinsic worth in and of themselves, but because they displayed the immense variety and wonder of God’s creative imagination.
Francis had a remarkable belief in the universal ability and duty of all creatures to praise God. His famous Canticle of the Creatures includes the words, “All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Sun … Sister Moon and Stars … Brothers Wind and Air … Sister Water … Brother Fire … Sister Earth … Sister Death. All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made. Happy those who endure in peace.”
Many of the stories that surround St. Francis deal with his love for animals. He died on October 4, 1226. That became the feast day for this saint, since that was the day he was born into glory.
We will celebrate St Francis at Christ Church Anglican this Sunday. We invite you to join us on Sunday, October 4, at 2:00 pm for a blessing of the animals. Bring your animals and pets with you to church that afternoon for a special blessing. In the spirit of Francis, who called the animals his brothers and sisters, we celebrate the goodness of God, who calls us to live in peace with all creatures, and indeed with the whole of creation, treasuring it as God’s wonderful gift to us.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook