October 1, 2009 - 9:45 am
St. Francis of Assisi: In Timeless Appreciation
The Rev. Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
When one thinks of a saint today, what images come to mind? Is it some relic from your religious past? A statue used as a bird feeder in your aunt’s garden? A football team? A classic jazz marching song?
As I have come to understand it through my reading and experience with myth, archetypes, and our universal human need for role models, the importance of a saint for humanity goes way beyond some pious and distant recollection or connection to childhood.
A saint, in all the world’s religions, is someone who embodies and exemplifies the those noble and good qualities of mind, heart and spirit we humans all admire and appreciate: values and virtues such as devotion, harmlessness, unselfishness, kindness and love…
Many of us brought up in the Western churches, especially the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and the various Eastern Orthodox sects, could name those saints who have received the most popular attention: St. Jude, St. Christopher, well until he got demoted! And of course, jolly old St. Nick! Along with these well known figures, the most enduring, and I dare say, the most beloved saint in Western church history, was St. Francis of Assisi. He has been considered to be the one person, who through his life and devotion, became the model Christian, closer to Jesus than all the rest.
What makes him such a favorite? Part of his popularity stems from how broadly and commonly his life, his teaching examples have been portrayed in Western religious literature, art and film. For instance, I have read 4 biographies of him, various accounts of his monks, and have seen three different films, and the words to his prayer appears in many places: from classical devotional anthologies, to a latest best seller, bookmarks and greeting cards! Today, I feel that his ideas and ideals still hold value for us. From this exposure, we can safely say that one need not be particularly Catholic or even Christian, just universal, to appreciate the core of his teachings.
The outlook of his life, his teachings and example have created the many instructive stories and inspirational examples making him a timeless, cross-cultural role model. (Meha Baba Center) Allow me to refresh your memories…
The man who was to become the beloved saint was born 820 years ago and grew up around the small mercantile city of Assisi, in northern foothills of central Italy. Nicknamed Francesco, He was the oldest son of a well to do cloth merchant and French noblewoman. His father was an aspiring, amoral and ruthless businessman whose emphasis on life was to acquire money, possession, prestige, and who strived to achieve the lifestyle of the upper classes. His mother was a kind, gentle and protective influence. His parents, according to the popular expectations, sought out a military career that would lead to nobility for their firstborn son.
At approximately age 20, this once brave and brash young man confidently went off to fight in a city-state war with neighboring Perugia. As a result, he became a prisoner of war for over a year! After that incarceration and deprivation, Francis suffered a long, mysterious illness that lingered. And as some have said, prepared him for his future life…
On his way back home, traveling through Spoleto, Francis had a revelatory dream, one that both startled him and disturbed him. Still weak from his illness, he was perplexed by the dream’s message. In that dream, there was a voice that asked, “Francis, whom is it better to serve, the servant or the master? Francis replied, “The master!” The voice then said to him, “then go and do so.” (paraphrase of St. Luke, and The Good Samaritan story where Jesus instructs his listeners to “go, and do likewise”
But at that time, Francis remained unclear and still confused. He had no definite direction for his life, and asked himself, over and over, “What Am I supposed to do with my life?” He often recalled the cryptic dream message he had received, and his preoccupation began to alienate his incredulous family and his roguish friends.
Finally, one day, as he was walking past the ruins of the old church of St. Damiano, he felt a curious compulsion to enter and meditate there. Among the ruins, he sat, and his answer came in another inspired message as he stood beside the old battered crucifix.
In his memoirs we can read this intuitive flash: ” Francis, go and repair my house that you see has fallen around you.” With the joy of a long awaited recognition of an answer to his life’s riddle, he eagerly set out this restoration as his holy work- to rebuild a tiny, decrepit church, long neglected, and revive its spirit, through living a simple life as a disciple of Jesus, in humility, and in gratitude for this gift of purpose and meaning…
As you can easily guess, this change in Francis was neither welcomed by his family nor accepted by his coarse and indulgent friends. They regarded this enthusiasm to be outrageous behavior- a conversion away from their values and outlooks that was so startling that he quickly became a laughing stock among his family and the subject of vicious ridicule among his peers. The final straw came when Francis “started” a bargain sale at his father’s cloth store, and then proceeded to take all the money to buy bricks and mortar for the old church’s repairs! His father, in an indignant rage, dragged Francis before the local bishop and demanded that he repay him. To everybody’s surprise, Francis proceeded to publicly disown his father and with the statement that “I have only one Father who is in heaven!”, stripped off all his clothes and stood naked before the bishop! Flabbergasted, the bishop quickly took off his ornate robe and covered him! Later, Francis chose a personal vow of poverty, and donned a crudely woven brown robe. From this act, he began his public work and his spiritual quest. From his heartfelt conviction, one of best known and respected religious orders, The Franciscans, was born.
Dreams and illnesses can be signals of answers that are beckoning or on the horizon… When one does find or receive the answer to the riddle of their lives, like Francis, they often receive a calling- a vocation that often involves them in radical change or life transformation. It is a nagging voice, this calling… As we read in the Gospel of Thomas, ” If you bring forth that which is in you, it will save you or make you whole. If you resist or do not bring forth what is in you, it will destroy you.”
As a result of following his dream, and being transformed by his illness, Francis provided a faith-filled example. Through inspirational preaching, Francis soon found many disciples among the disillusioned youth of the nobility.
His vow of poverty impelled his followers to create teams of friars to go out and earn their support through helping, teaching, and comforting others in exchange for the daily rations and lodging. Fearlessly, these followers worked among the scourged lepers, the poor, and the mentally and physically ill. As their reputation for helping those in need increased, as a protection from jealous bishops who were losing their followers to him, Francis petitioned Rome to establish a religious order similar to the earlier orders of the Benedictines and the Dominicans. As his movement spread, there was a young noblewoman named Claire who became inspired by Francis’s example. She was equally disillusioned by material values and immorality of the day, and so following Francis, she established the “poor Sisters” who then worked tirelessly in caring for the sick and orphaned all around Assisi.
Now, this is but a brief synopsis of Francis’s life. More legends and stories abound, such as his confrontation with Pope Innocent III over material excess in the church, and his remarkable, empathetic gift of the Stigmata. I hope that you will read all the various stories, but now I would like to focus on how St. Francis can speak to us here today…
Among his most challenging teachings, we encounter Francis’s decision to willingly choose poverty. How could anyone live like that today? Obviously, we would not have to adopt any of his extremism to benefit from an honest appraisal of how we use money in our society today- how we can assign value to money, property, things. He asks us to look at what constitutes our true wealth and security, and whether that can be found on any financial balance sheet. His teachings point us toward choosing a more intentional and simple style of living which has other heart-centered dividends. Without a greater simplicity, we do not give ourselves the gift of time and reflection:
If we stay on a gerbil wheel of activity, we never spend enough time with our inner selves, or being receptive to creative solutions, and the inspiration some of us call God.
Like Francis, I feel that there is much significance in the fact that a majority of Jesus’ parables and lessons, center on our human concern for money, security, and possessions. It was his way of teaching that you can never really “own” anything or
“have” or control anything or anyone! What the parables define as real wealth comes from our inner resources of peace and gratitude. Jesus and Francis warn us of “putting up our treasure where moth and rust can corrupt”, and to avoid counterfeit images, feelings, or any sense of worth that is not grounded in giving and sharing; in love and in charity. Eric & UUSE Canvass team last year, addressed this in their theme of GIFTS: Guaranteed Insurance For the Soul- This theme refers to what Francis meant when he said, “I only want what Gods wants. That is why I am so happy!” From a canvass viewpoint, it would be “I only want what this church wants, and what will be best for us!Other outstanding themes or lessons from Francis’s life concerns chastity and humility. Chastity, as Thomas Moore, Jungian analyst and former monk reminds us, is defined in its original, spiritual and inclusive sense, as a protective virtue- one that urges us to keep our discernment and our distance from any morally empty or vacuous social standards. Chastity asks us to abstain from trying gratify spiritual hungers, or inner personal needs in a material way, or in a way that make us feel like our lives are on a emotional roller coaster of addictive highs and depressive lows. Francis recommends that we keep our hearts and minds full; and we do this by focussing on those ideas and reinforcing those attitudes that foster trust, faith, kindness and compassion. Likewise, Moore defines celibacy, not just as some pious sense of sexual abstinence, but as a statement of intention- It is to dedicate and direct the gift of your sexuality towards its spiritual expression- towards an openness and receptivity to God and to the good found in caring for, respecting, and cherishing your committed partner. Echoing Francis and this more enlightened approach, he quotes Carl Jung in his book, Civilization in Transition,:
“Love is not cheap- let us therefore beware of cheapening it! All our bad qualities, our egotism, our cowardice, our worldly wisdom, our cupidity, – all these would persuade us not to take love seriously. But love will reward us only when we do. I must regard it as a misfortune that nowadays the sexual question is spoken of as something distinct from love. The two questions should not be separated…. Any other solution would be a harmful substitute…. sexuality as an expression of love is hallowed.
And now, humility… Can anyone say that a true sense of humility is not an effective antidote to our culture’s support of self centered ambitions, or narcissistic sense of entitlement? Francis taught that we are all interdependent and equals; that to be humble was to respect one’s limits, and then to have courage with what you know you can change. Humility encourages us to define and refine our self worth, our success as a person by our inner sense of truth, our internal and eternal goals, not any external titles, trappings or attainments.
As I see it, when studying the lives of the saints, East and West, humility asks us to be patient, diligent, and forgiving; that we are to deflate any arrogance we might feel, and replace it with an understanding that self esteem comes from how well we serve the good and the noble we find in life and in one another, and that sense of meaning and purpose becomes the basis for our true standard of living.
Lastly, a prized lesson we can all learn from St. Francis is his widely celebrated love and regard for nature, and all the creatures of the earth. His Canticle of the Sun is a familiar musical reminder of his remarkable empathy and respect he had for nature. It is with all due respect, that ecologists and preservationists claim Francis as their patron saint. We can all appreciate how he never took nature’s balance or bounty for granted, seeking only to learn its wisdom, and harmonize human life with Sister Earth’s patterns, lessons, and laws. Maybe more than ever before, we need to recapture and retain Francis’s kindness, resolve, and gratitude to save animals from extinction, preserve coastlines and forests- to care for it all, from baby seals to renewable energy; to providing shelter, and clothes for the needy, to feed the hungry without depleting the earth or burning down rain forests to feed our national economic greed. For me, ecological responsible or sustainable living is the unspoken commandment. Our U-U Seventh Principle clearly speaks to this, and for me, speaks to the sacred interconnectedness of God and nature, the earth and all humanity.
The life and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi demonstrate many virtues, and we can choose to remember the enduring quality of his faith. No one I know, including myself, would not benefit from incorporating more of his spirit, his sense of simplicity and joy!
Could it be that this community could take the virtues and values of simple living and a reverence for life more seriously? Could we model it for ourselves and others? I truly hope that we could, for I believe that it contains many answers, many blessings for each and everyone of us. AMEN
Benediction: Sainthood is everybody’s potential. It consists of this:
To be willing to risk knowing the world and what it has to offer, but refusing to be defined or confined to it. It is to live joyfully and to love fully, but allow the Spirit to closely guard your dignity and self respect, and to allow yourself to be open to the inspiration and the guidance that fills your mind with insight and your heart with delight.
Children’s story: St. Francis and The Wolf
Who was St. Francis? When you look at all these different pictures of him, what kind of person do you think he was?
I want to tell you a short story, that comes from your RE class on Holy Days and Holidays, about Francis and the wolf, and how he showed us that love overcomes fear…
There once was a little town near where Francis lived and taught.
The people of that town were not happy, they really were sad and afraid!
You see, there was this big, fierce gray wolf that walked and stalked, and growled all around the town… What does fierce look like?
That’s right, the wolf would bear his teeth, and the people would run, put their sheep in the barn, stay inside, and bolt all the doors! They did not know what to do, or what the wolf wanted from them…
So, some of the townspeople went to Francis, and asked him for his advice. They knew of his reputation of being able to talk to the animals, and that he was such a peaceful person, he might know what they should do.
So Francis said he would come over, and soon Francis began walking all around the town… One evening, Francis came face to face with the wolf!
And the large gray wolf began to growl and show his teeth to make Francis afraid, but Francis calmly stood there, and showed that he wasn’t afraid !
Francis knew that often when someone snaps or growls, that it was just the wolf’s way to say, “I need some love!” And if the people won’t love me, then at least, I can make them fear me!” Francis saw that behind unhappiness and anger there is often a need to be understood… Francis reached into his cloak for some bread, and gently held it out to the wolf to eat.
The wolf was amazed at Francis’s kindness! Francis then patted the wolf, and the wolf felt relaxed and glad. Francis quoted the Song of Songs to the wolf, saying that love is stronger than death, stronger than fear, and that hate is often the lack of love.
From that evening on, the wolf began to follow Francis all around the town… And gradually the wolf became more tame and trusting. All of the townspeople were amazed; they began to relax, unbolt their doors, and the children came out to play, and soon, happiness returned to the streets and town square.
Then it was time for Francis to leave. So he asked his brother, the wolf, to stay and protect the very people he once threatened. The wolf agreed, and in appreciation, the townspeople set out all their table scraps so the wolf would feel loved and well fed. He soon became the town’s pet!
Through Francis’s love and courage to face and then go beyond fear, the prophecy of Micah, where the wolf and the lamb are together was made real and true. Whenever we can turn fear into love, and treat animals and one another with kindness, we will heal our hearts, and become happy….
Blessing For The Animals….
Spirit of Life, and of Love, we ask you to bless these animals that live with us. We pledge to look after them and treat them with kindness. We now bless these animals, in the name of St. Francis, who loved all the creatures of the earth.”