October 4, 2012 by eneubauer
I have a personal love for St. Francis of Assisi that goes back to my conversion to Catholicism. I had resigned from my job as a protestant pastor and was preparing to begin a new chapter of my life – moving my family into an urban neighborhood in the northeast to work on issues of food security, urban restoration, and evangelistic outreach. It was in the midst of this transitory period that I felt called to pick up the book, “The Lessons of St. Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into Your Daily Life” by John Michael Talbot. I read it, pondered the contents and fell in love. I felt like I met the better version of me in St. Francis and I knew immediately – I wanted to learn more.
Fast forward in my journey towards the Catholic Church and I found myself going back to school at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell Connecticut. After discovering I was not a Moral Theologian I turned my sights on Church History and began to develop a fascination with the Church in the Middle Ages in general and with the rise of the Mendicant Orders in particular. It was in this context that I began reading more about Francis and the Franciscan Order in addition to taking retreats with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. It was here that I learned first hand how the friars lived out their vocation in prayer, adoration, reflection, conversation and work on behalf of the poor. This was my opportunity to take what I was learning within the pages of my books and watch it lived out. I am thankful to the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal for allowing me, not only to observe, but participate in their rhythm of life. It was life-altering!
It was in study and quite reflection over a period of 2+ years that I began to realize a difference between how many viewed St. Francis and the real St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226 A.D.) Let me explain. In simple terms – St. Francis is hailed as a universal saint both inside and outside the Catholic Church. For many, St. Francis is inspirational – especially in his commitment to simplicity, poverty, love for creation and care for the marginalized in society. He is catalytic and many use his example as the pretext for their personal involvement in poverty issues. For this I am grateful.
However, I am also aware of the disconnection the secular world embraces between St. Francis’ work (world applauds) and the religious experiences that were the foundation for that work. Let me say it another way. It became painfully obvious that non-religious people tried to separate St. Francis from the very thing that made him SAINT FRANCIS – those religious experiences that were the foundation for his love affair with God, the Catholic Church, the poor and God’s creation. Without St. Francis’ religious experiences one has neither the work nor the Saint. They cannot be separated!
Mother Teresa said it best, “some people mistake our vocation with our work. Our vocation is the love of Jesus.” This is the reason why Mother Teresa became a universally recognized Catholic Saint. Her love of Jesus was the foundation for everything she did. She saw Jesus in the poor, the leper, the elderly and indigent – left dying on the side of the road in Calcutta, India. Mother Teresa actually followed in the footsteps of St. Francis who, post his unsuccessful bid to become a military hero, encountered the living God who called him to, “rebuild my church.” Let’s remember, it wasn’t about rebuilding the Church although Francis did a good job of making physical improvements to Churches, alters and those items which graced the alter for Holy Eucharist. It was about the love of God (first)!
It was the love of God wrapped in religious experience(s) that empowered St. Francis to care for that which he did not care for before – loving God & neighbor. As a matter of fact it was in the midst of his own conversion that he encountered a leper. It was in sheer disgust that Francis overcame himself (selfishness, self-seeking, self-interest) and began to love that which God deemed lovely. Again, it was his radical acceptance of and love for God that fueled this Saint of the Middle Ages to become the man we all admire today. This is the reason for the radical rejection of material wealth, stature in society, and the other accouterments that make life comfortable. Francis wanted to be uncomfortable, he wanted to be dependent on the ONE who created and sustained the world. The ONE whom he consumed at the Table of our Lord. It was in the development of a committed, love relationship with the Holy Trinity that Francis gets raptured – into love of God, Neighbor and Creation.
This understanding of Francis brings me to his love for creation. Folks love to come and get the animals blessed on October 4 – a day set aside for the Feast of St. Francis. Not that I am opposed to the “blessing of the animals” but I do believe this religious activity can be devoid of and misdirect some away from the true meaning of Francis’ life. The reason why he had such a connection to creation is the same reason why I am so fascinated with astronomy. When one encounters the reality of the living God and begins a journey in relationship with his Creator one cannot help but become in awe of God’s creative order. My jaw drops when I look at the stars and I’ve been blessed enough to seem them from many different vantage points throughout the world. My awe and wonder at creation is in direct connection to the reality that I now know the ONE who created this order. He is the same one who died for my sins, rescued me from (literal) death and gave me a new life, a wonderful marriage and three beautiful children. This is why I still cry when I drop off my kids at school or pick up my son from his nap. I am in awe of them because I am in awe of the ONE who made all this possible. So, bless the animals for sure but don’t forget about why we are blessing – we do so in grateful recognition of the ONE who created them.
May God give us perspective and help us reclaim the truth behind what made Saint Francis of Assisi a universal Saint.
Another GREAT book to consider: Francis of Assisi: A New Biography