There are as many ways to follow Christ as there are humans beings, even if many seem not to avail themselves of the grace Our Saviour offers. Some amongst the paths to sanctity are more radical than others, and by ‘radical’ we mean ‘back to the very root’, as in, how did Christ Himself actually live? The closer to that ideal, the easier it is to attain the end that the Son of God Himself willed for us, eternal life with Him. Better to take the short-cut than the round-about way.
Saint Francis, need it be said, was one of the most radical of saints, a man who, once converted from his worldly ways in mediaeval Italy, could not compromise. It was all or nothing; hence, his utter poverty and obedience, his quite literal re-building of the church of the Portiuncula, stone by stone; his, to our worldly prudent eyes, reckless trust in God’s protective help, strolling into the very tent of the Sultan to convert him; his seeing God in all creatures, not least his fellow man, from the robbers who left him bloodied and beaten, to the leper whom he kissed, so that he might overcome his revulsion, so unnatural to one of his once-fastidious nature, with one swift blow; his clear perception of the Creator’s wonderful artistry in the Sun, the Moon, the wind, rain, animals and flowers; and his constant cheerfulness, whether feasting or fasting, cold or warm, wandering the earth or with his brethren to some quiet place to rest for a while. Yet his was a joy born from sacrifice, and two years before his own death, at the age of 42, while in prayer and penance on Mount Alvernia, he was graced to bear the wounds of Christ
Many followed the charismatic Francis, eventually hundreds, even thousands, but he had no idea of starting an Order, nor how to do so, inimical to the free-spirited way he himself lived. But an Order did develop around him, eventually many Orders, for there are now many kinds of Franciscans.
Francis died at the age of 42, on the evening of the third day of October, 1226, lying, as was his wish, on the dirt floor of his cell, as he sang Psalm 141, Voce mea ad Dominum:
I cry with my voice to the LORD,
with my voice I make supplication to the LORD,
I pour out my complaint before him,
I tell my trouble before him.
When my spirit is faint,
thou knowest my way!…
Il Poverello – ‘the Poor One’ – was canonized two years later in 1226 by Pope Gregory IX who, as a cardinal, had been the former protector of the Order. A few years after that, the
first stone was laid in Assisi for the magnificent basilica that bears his remains. Francis would have smiled from heaven that his body, hidden at the orders of Brother Elias to save it from desecration by the Muslims, was not rediscovered until 1818. After all, he loved to remain hidden, and would likely marvel at all the fuss made about his ‘donkey’, as he called his body. But God does exalt His lowly ones.
We could learn much form Saint Francis, that the world will be what it is, from political fiascos, ecclesiastical scandals, earthquakes and signs in the sky, but what matters most is the human soul and its relation to God, manifested in how it relates to His creatures.
Even a tinge of the love, spirit and enthusiasm of Francis would carry us a long way to heaven.
Ora pro nobis, Frater Francesco!