Part of an occasional series in which we remember apprentices of Jesus and members of the body of Christ who have paved the way for us. They offer us a model for following Christ in a variety of ways and settings.
If your church offered a “Blessing of the Animals” service recently, then you were unknowingly honoring St. Francis (or at least hearing about it). Most of the church remembers Francis (Patron Saint of Animals) on Oct. 4th.
One well known story portrays Francis, upon noting the reverence of a flock of birds and taking pleasure in the way they bowed their heads he began to preach to them. Francis praised God the Creator for the splendor of creation he witnessed in these birds.
But Francis was not born with this habit of praise. Born to a wealthy family in Assisi, Italy in 1182, Giovanni Francesco di Pietro di Bernadone was more accustomed to the splendor of wealth than creation.
Bonaventure recounts the story when Francis happened upon a leper just outside of Assisi. Francis was put off at the sight of the leper initially, but had a change of heart and ran to kiss the man. Once he got back on his horse, Francis looked for the man, but saw no one. Bonaventure writes of the experience, “Filled with wonder and joy, he began devoutly to sing God’s praises, resolving from this always to strive to do greater things in the future” (189).†
From that point on, Francis sought out solitude and prayer in order to fulfill Jesus’ words, “If you wish to come after me, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).
While praying in an old church–San Damiano–Francis heard a voice three times say, “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling completely into ruin” (191).†
Francis offered the wealth of his father to the priest for the rebuilding of the crumbling church, but the priest rejected it for fear of Francis’ parents. Finally, Francis renounced his father’s riches and possessions, down to the clothes on his back.
Francis was given a simple robe and he began to beg for money to rebuild the crumbling walls of San Damiano. By his work and humble example, Francis started an order of Mendicants (beggars) known as the Franciscans, “who like birds, possess nothing of their own in this world and commit themselves entirely to the Providence of God” (299).‡
Francis and his followers lived out Christ’s words:
27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:27-34)
So, Francis learned from Creation and was grateful for God’s goodness and provision in creation. Imitating Christ was foremost in Francis’ life and practice, his total commitment to this goal offered a compelling witness to all whom he encountered (whether they followed him or not).
“Thus the servant of the Most High King (Francis)
was left naked
so that he might follow
his naked crucified Lord, whom he loved.
Thus the cross strengthened him
to entrust his soul
to the wood of salvation
that would save him from the shipwreck of the world” (194).†
A prayer attributed to St. Francis:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is
hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where
there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where
there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where
there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to
be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is
in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we
are born to eternal life. Amen. (BCP)
†St. Bonaventure, The Little Flowers of St. Francis, translated by Ewert Cousins (NY: Paulist Press, 1978)
‡ The Little Flowers of St. Francis in Devotional Classics Revised and Expanded, edited by Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith (NY: HarperCollins, 2005)