Loving the Creation
St Francis (1181 – 1226) is surely one of the most attractive and best-loved of all the saints, but he began by being anything but a saint. Born the son of a wealthy cloth merchant of Assisi, Francis’ youth was spent in fast-living, parties, and on fast horses as a leader of the young society of the town. Then he went to the war between Assisi and Perugia, and was taken prisoner for a year.
By the time of his release, Francis had changed. Perhaps his own suffering had awakened him to that of others. In any case, he abandoned warfare and carousing, and began to help the poor and the lepers of his area. Then one day a voice which seemed to come from the crucifix in the small, semi-derelict church of Damiano Assisi, “Go and repair my house, which you see is falling down”.
This religious experience was a vital turning point in Francis’ life and Jesus Christ became very real and immediate to him. His first action was to begin repairing the church, having sold some of his father’s cloth to pay for materials. His father was not amused; in fact he was furious, until Francis renounced his inheritance and even his clothes by his dramatic stripping off in the public square of the town. The Bishop of Assisi provided him with simple garments, and Francis began his new life.
His inspiration was always religious, not social, and the object of his quest was always the Crucified Christ, not Lady Poverty for her own sake. Francis rebuilt San Samiano, and then travelled as a pilgrim. His compassion for the poor and lepers became famous. Soon disciples joined him, and they set up a communal life in simple wattle and daub huts. They went on occasional preaching tours (not until later did they become an Order whose theologians won fame in the Universities.)
In 1219 Francis visited the Holy Land, and his illusions about the Crusaders were shattered. He went on to seek out the Sultan and tried to convert him. Back home, he found his Order was now 5,000 strong, and growing. Francis stepped down as Head, but continued to preach and was immensely popular. He died after a prolonged illness at the age of 45 and was canonised in 1228.
Francis’ close rapport with the animal creation was well known. The story of his preaching to the birds has always been a favourite scene from his life. He also tamed the wolf of Gubbio. This affinity emphasises his consideration for, and sense of, identity with all elements of the physical universe, as seen in his Canticle of the Sun. This makes him an apt patron of nature conservation.
The 20th century witnessed a widespread revival of interest in Francis. Sadly, some films and books caricatured him as only a sentimental nature-lover or a hippie drop out from society. This ignores the real sternness of his character, and his all-pervasive love of God and identification with Christ’s sufferings, which alone make sense of his life.
Two ancient and many modern English churches are dedicated to him.
Feature Image: Luis Tristán (1586-1624) The Vision of St. Francis of Assisi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons