Saint Francis of Assisi

[Preface: I try to update this blog every Thursday morning or at the least by Thursday PM. I had family in town this week, which was great, but also pushed out this post a bit. It also took longer because it required a good bit of re-reading.]

“Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.
Where there is hatred…let me sow love,
Where there is injury…pardon,
Where there is doubt…faith,
Where this is despair…hope,
Where there is darkness…light,
Where there is sadness…joy.”

Saint Francis of Assisi, plaque found in the lobby of Saint Francis Downtown hospital

“Blessed is he who expectedth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.”

“What you’re looking for is what you’re looking with.”

St. Francis of Assisi

My subject for this post is Saint Francis of Assisi. The hospital I was in is named “Saint Francis Downtown”, the hospital I got my alarming CT scan at is named “Saint Francis Eastside.” It’s all part of the Bon Secours (french for Good Heart) hospital system here in Upstate, South Carolina. It’s a Catholic health institution and it’s very common for me to overhear a Psalm or quick devotion read aloud over the PA system when I am in one of their facilities for an appointment or treatment. I thought it would be annoying but, surprisingly, it hasn’t been.

The only thing I knew about Saint Francis before this year was that he was the Dr. Doolittle of Catholic saints and that, for some reason, my class watched a 1961 live-action biography movie of him in 6th grade and we all laughed at his naked backside when he stepped out into nature sans clothes.

This year (before my hospitalization) I began to listen to podcasts with Fr. Richard Rohr as a guest. He is a Franciscan Friar in the Order of Friars Minor (OFM, Ordo Fratrum Minorum, or “Lesser Brothers”). I did not expect to be drawn to the teachings of an older, aged, Catholic leader but his emphasis on love over dogma immediately had me drawn to what he was saying and writing. In one of the podcasts he’s featured on, he mentioned that before he was even allowed to open the Bible for study he had to endure four years of philosophy teachings to ensure that he would be ready to read scriptures contextually. I could go on and on about him, and his books, but I also became very drawn to the namesake of his Order, Saint Francis, this lover of nature, champion of grace, and mercy. 

Once I got back from the hospital I started my mornings by preparing a breakfast of a plate full of fruit and would eat it outside, one blueberry at a time, under our covered patio, while listening to the biography of Saint Francis of Assisi by G.K. Chesterton. 

It’s a short book— under 100 pages. That means it’s a short audiobook— four hours and four minutes long. The biography was published in 1924 and is a free kindle book on Amazon and free through project Gutenberg in various countries (depending on copyright laws). The paperback is a cheap $5. [sidenote: so the prices changed overnight? C’mon amazon.] I got the audiobook on Audible while I was limited in my media intake during brain surgery recovery. It was the most reviewed and highest rated biography of Saint Francis in audiobook format. I bought the paperback later so I could underline some passages and see them on paper. It’s very worth it. 

The audiobook is read in a very high-British voice but perfectly fits the approach the book takes to its subject. The very first chapter (The Problem of St. Francis, available as an excerpt from this publisher’s website) sets the tone for how this historical figure will be studied throughout the book. It strikes a delicate balance of reverence for Saint Francis and his accomplishments without resorting to over-the-top adulation of the subject. It’s academic but not dismissive or cynical. The man himself won me over after I read this anecdote from his time early into his devotion. He heard a message from a crucifix in an abandoned church, “Repair my church,” so he became a beggar. But not a beggar for money, a beggar for building materials. He would beg for stones and then carry them to this church in disrepair (outside the town), and then start piecing it back together, stone by stone. He gained a bit of a comic reputation in his town for being the eccentric beggar, asking for rocks as alms. 

As a young man, he was a child of well-to-do parents and enjoyed fashion and galavanting around town. He thought he would be an excellent knight (keep in mind this is around the year 1200 A.D.). He had a couple of attempts at joining a military expeditions but none were successful, and his last attempt ended embarrassingly for him in dire illness, and possibly as a prisoner. After a recovery at home, he strode out again to try to be a heroic solider but, as is featured in many archetypal conversion stories, he had a vision on the road. Riding his horse he spotted a leper traveling toward him in the opposite direction. His first instinct was disgust and repulsion. But something else came over him and he ran to the leper, embracing him, kissing him. As the story goes, he gave the leper money and started to travel again but he looked around to see the leper and there was no one there. It occurred to him that the man who he embraced and gave money to was Christ. 

And that is the connection to this blog and to the idea of living in the present. Saint Francis was always living in the present. Begging for building materials, helping lepers, selling his father’s goods to give to the poor, rending his clothes and and disowning his father for taking him to court over the stolen goods. Even the manner of his death (which we’ll get to) was a beautiful way to live in the present moment. 

I have to give you some tastes of this book. The study of Saint Francis is largely about the study and embrace of paradox (another underlying theme of this blog), so my highlights reflect the times, and analysis of his life that accentuate this point.

St. Francis really meant what he said when he said he had found the secret of life in being the servant and the secondary figure. There was to be found ultimately in such service a freedom almost amounting to frivolity… But in the inward sense it was a profound spiritual revolution. The man who went into the cave was not the man who came out again; in that sense he was almost as different as if he were dead, as if he were a ghost or a blessed spirit. And the effects of this on his attitude towards the actual world were really as extravagant as any parallel can make them. He looked at the world as differently from other men as if he had come out of that dark hole walking on his hands. If we apply this parable of Our Lady’s Tumbler to the case, we shall come very near to the point of it. Now it really is a fact that any scene such as a landscape can sometimes be more clearly and freshly seen if it is seen upside down. There have been landscape-painters who adopted the most startling and pantomimic postures in order to look at it for a moment in that fashion. Thus that inverted vision, so much more bright and quaint and arresting, does bear a certain resemblance to the world which a mystic like St. Francis sees every day.

GK Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi

This long passage, below, reflecting on this inversion, elaborates on it beautifully. Emphasis mine.

We used to be told in the nursery that if a man were to bore a hole through the centre of the earth and climb continually down and down, there would come a moment at the centre when he would seem to be climbing up and up. I do not know whether this is true. The reason I do not know whether it is true is that I never happened to bore a hole through the centre of the earth, still less to crawl through it. If I do not know what this reversal or inversion feels like, it is because I have never been there. And this also is an allegory. It is certain that the writer, it is even possible that the reader, is an ordinary person who has never been there. We cannot follow St. Francis to that final spiritual overturn in which complete humiliation becomes complete holiness or happiness, because we have never been there. I for one do not profess to follow it any further than that first breaking down of the romantic barricades of boyish vanity, which I have suggested in the last paragraph. And even that paragraph, of course, is merely conjectural, an individual guess at what he may have felt; but he may have felt something quite different. But whatever else it was, it was so far analogous to the story of the man making a tunnel through the earth that it did mean a man going down and down until at some mysterious moment he begins to go up and up. We have never gone up like that because we have never gone down like that; we are obviously incapable of saying that it does not happen; and the more candidly and calmly we read human history, and especially the history of the wisest men, the more we shall come to the conclusion that it does happen. Of the intrinsic internal essence of the experience, I make no pretence of writing at all. But the external effect of it, for the purpose of this narrative, may be expressed by saying that when Francis came forth from his cave of vision, he was wearing the same word “fool” as a feather in his cap; as a crest or even a crown. He would go on being a fool; he would become more and more of a fool; he would be the court fool of the King of Paradise.

GK Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi

There are more beautiful passages written about his capacity for gratitude.

The mystic who passes through the moment when there is nothing but God does in some sense behold the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else. He not only appreciates everything but the nothing of which everything was made.

GK Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi

On grace, debt, and gratitude.

It is the highest and holiest of the paradoxes that the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be for ever paying it…He will be always throwing things away into a bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks. Men who think they are too modern to understand this are in fact too mean to understand it.

GK Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi

Saint Francis is commonly known as the saint closest to nature. His wikipedia entry lists him as the patron saint of stowaways, Italy, ecology, and animals. But Chesterton decides to push this idea further in his analysis of the saint’s life.

St. Francis was not a lover of nature. Properly understood, a lover of nature was precisely what he was not. The phrase implies accepting the material universe as a vague environment, a sort of sentimental pantheism. In the romantic period of literature, in the age of Byron and Scott, it was easy enough to imagine that a hermit in the ruins of a chapel (preferably by moonlight) might find peace and a mild pleasure in the harmony of solemn forests and silent stars, while he pondered over some scroll or illuminated volume, about the liturgical nature of which the author was a little vague. In short, the hermit might love nature as a background. Now for St. Francis nothing was ever in the background. We might say that his mind had no background, except perhaps that divine darkness out of which the divine love had called up every coloured creature one by one. He saw everything as dramatic, distinct from its setting, not all of a piece like a picture but in action like a play. A bird went by him like an arrow; something with a story and a purpose, though it was a purpose of life and not a purpose of death. A bush could stop him like a brigand; and indeed he was as ready to welcome the brigand as the bush.
In a word, we talk about a man who cannot see the wood for the trees. St. Francis was a man who did not want to see the wood for the trees. He wanted to see each tree as a separate and almost a sacred thing, being a child of God and therefore a brother or sister of man.

GK Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi

The manner of his death, to me, most closely mirrors two other spiritual leaders. Christ (crucified outside in front of the public, friends, and family) and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (who, when the time was upon him, asked to be laid outside of his tent, on the bear ground, in front of his follow soldiers while traveling for a military campaign). There seems to be something very mystical about dying slowly outside.

After he had taken farewell of some of his nearest an especially some of his oldest friends, he was lifted at his own request off his own rude bed and laid on the bare ground; as some say clad only in a hair-shirt, as he had first gone forth into the wintry woods from the presence of his father. It was the final assertion of his great fixed idea; of praise and thanks springing to their most towering height out of nakedness and nothing. As he lay there we may be certain that his seared and blinded eyes saw nothing but their object and their origin. We may be sure that the soul, in its last inconceivable isolation, was face to face with nothing less than God Incarnate and Christ Crucified. But for the men standing around him there must have been other thoughts mingling with these; and many memories must have gathered like ghosts in the twilight, as that day wore on and that great darkness descended in which we all lost a friend.

GK Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi

It is a great biography. Dense, yes, like drinking from a not just a firehose, but a waterfall. But it’s worthy of reading and taking part in the deconstruction and reconstruction of this curious and wonderful man who lived 800 years ago. Wikipedia describes him as “one of the most venerated religious figures in history.” I submit this man to you for your consideration. He is a remarkable study on living in the present and practicing gratitude.

0 thoughts on “Saint Francis of Assisi”

  1. Thank you for your review and the shared excerpts. Years ago when I was anti-religious , I happened to hear a young woman singing a song based on his prayer, one which seized my heart immediately — as did Francis and GKC in their turn when I began to consider them. I’ve not read GKC’s treatment of Francis, however. This review is a good judge in that direction. I’m positive I’ve seen references to Chesterton’s “interverted view” before.

  2. Thank you for your Blog John. I am a huge fan of St Francis, having been educated by the Order of Friars Minor (OFM) at St Bonaventure University a long time ago. In 1981, I went to work at WFLA, channle 8 in Tampa. I have known your Dad, and your Mom, ever since. I met you too, many years ago. In any case, there’s too much of that to leave here, but I want you to know that your Dad wrote me about your condition about a month ago, and you and your family have been in my daily prayers ever since.
    Before I take my leave, I want to thank you for upgrading my library on St Francis. I recently read his life by St Bonaventure, and while certainly enlightening, it was also somewhat overbearing. Enough for now. God Bless.

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