Friday, October 04, 2013

Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Today I’ll talk about a saint who is not one of the early saints and I’m sure you’ll find much better posts about him all over the internet today, but I want to say my piece, too. It was the parish of St. Francis in San José, California, which raised Mona and I up in ministry and supported us in seminary, and they supported our ministry in Panamá. But even though Francis isn’t a martyr or from the third century, he is one of my favorite saints. For me, the life of St. Francis is an example of total surrender to God's will, a life which full enjoyed God's creation, and his life is also a model to us of one who is gentle in spirit.

St. Francis was born in the year 1181 in the town of Assisi in Italy. His father was a wealthy merchant who sold cloth. As Francis grew up, he worked in his father's shop, helping sell cloth to the people of Assisi. He and his friends were kind of wild and had parties that lasted until early morning. When he was twenty years old he joined the army. He was captured by the enemy and spent a few months imprisoned. When he was finally released from prison, he returned home to Assisi. When he returned home, he had changed. He was no longer interested in hanging out with his friends, eating and drinking late into the night; he was no longer interested in singing outside the windows of the young women of Assisi. While he was imprisoned he had a lot of time to think, and when he returned to Assisi he no longer found happiness in the silly pursuits of his friends. He began to spend time with the poor of Assisi and helping the lepers on the outskirts of town. He spent less time working at Dad’s shop and more time in prayer in a little grotto outside of town. He and his father argued often about his strange behavior.

One day Francis decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome to see if he could figure out what God wanted of him. While in Rome he realized that he wanted to separate himself from his father's money, and one day he asked a beggar to change clothes with him. He gave the beggar his fancy clothes and put on the beggar's rags. He went around the city and experienced rejection from the well-dressed people and he began to understand the hard life of the poor. He returned to Assisi determined to find a way to please God. He continued to with the lepers of Assisi. Early one morning, he went for a ride on his horse, contemplating the glory of God in nature all around him. He almost fell off his horse when the horse balked at seeing a leper standing on the side of the road with his hand outstretched, hiding his face with his cloak. Francis was about to ride away when he heard a voice in his heart say: "Francis, all that up to now has been hateful to you must change into unspeakable joy!" He got off of his horse and was going to give the leper some coins when he bent down to kiss the sore hand of the leper as a means of seeing the face of Jesus in the leper's face. At the moment he kissed the leper's diseased hand, he felt a sense of liberation and purification. Francis continued to argue with his father and he lost all interest in his father's profession. He kept giving his father's money away. He was finally kicked out of the house and he began to spend a lot of time in a little decrepit church, the church of San Damiano. One day while he was there praying, he looked up at the crucifix and heard it say to him, "Francis, go and rebuild my house, which is threatening to collapse." Francis started working at San Damiano, reinforcing the walls, patching the roof, and fixing it all up. Other young men began to come help his with his work. Soon he had several followers, and they all took on the life of "Lady Poverty." They gave up everything and begged for their food. Francis wrote a Rule of Life for the group and after getting approval from Pope Innocent III, they became known as the Order of Friars Minor. Soon, a wealthy young woman named Claire and her friends desired to live the same life as the Friars, who were known as "Franciscans" and became known as the "Poor Claires." Both groups worked with the poor and sick and outcasts of society. Both groups lived holy lives of poverty.

St. Francis heard God's voice in the natural world which surrounded him, and he saw God's face in the elements and in all of creation. He saw the face of Jesus in the faces of the poor and sick. His understanding of the connectedness of all creation is evident in his calling everything either "brother" or "sister." An example of how St. Francis experienced God in nature is illustrated in a song he wrote, The Canticle of the Sun:

Most High, Almighty, Good Lord.
Yours be the praise, the glory, the honor and all blessing.
To You alone, Most High, are they due.
And no man is worthy to speak your Name.
Praise to You, my Lord, for all your creatures.
Above all, Brother Sun who brings us the day and lends us his light.
Lovely is he, radiant with great splendor, and speaks to us of You,
O Most High.
Praise to You, my Lord, for Sister Moon, and the stars
which You have set in the heavens, clear, precious, and fair.
Praise to You, my Lord, for Brother Wind, for air and cloud,
for calm and all weather by which you support life in all your creatures.
Praise to You, my Lord, for Sister Water,
whop is so useful and humble, precious and pure.
Praise to You, my Lord, for our sister Mother Earth,
who sustains and directs us and brings forth varied fruits
and colored flowers and plants.
Praise and bless my Lord, thank Him and serve Him with great humility!

St. Francis also experienced God through the animals, and as we know, he was very fond of the animals he met. As a result, many churches celebrate his feast with a blessing of the animals. When I was at St. Francis’ in San José, we always had the blessing of the animals as part of our Patronal Festival. This was also the day that the Bishop would visit, and there were many times when I helped the bishop bless dogs, cats, mice, snakes, lizards, birds, and all manner of pets.
Another story which illustrates the love St. Francis had for creation is the story of St. Francis and the birds: One day St. Francis and some of the brothers were walking between the towns of Cannara and Bevagna. While they were walking, St. Francis saw some trees next to the road and there was a large group of many different birds, varieties that he had never seen in that area before, all standing about (think of what he would think of our birds here in Panamá!). There was another group of birds standing in the fields next to the trees. While St. Francis was looking at this strange sight, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he told his companions, "Wait here in the road, I am going to go over and preach to our sisters the birds." As soon as he went into the field the birds began to gather around him, and the birds up in the trees flew down and they all stood about him quietly, even when he walked among them. St. Francis looked at the birds gathered around him and said,

"My sisters the birds, you have so much from God and should always praise God for the gift of flight, for your beautiful colored feathers, for the food you get, for your gift of singing,
and for the fact that God has blessed you with great numbers, for your species was saved on the Ark with Noah, and for the element of Air which was set aside for you to travel in.
You don't plant or harvest and God feeds you. God gave you rivers and streams from which to drink, and mountains, hills, rocks and crags to hid in tall trees for your nests; and since you can't sew, God gave you and your chicks feathers for clothes. It's true that the Creator who made you loves you very much. So take care, sisters of mine, the birds, not to be ungrateful but be happy and always praise God."

When St. Francis finished his sermon, all the birds began to open their beaks, stretch their wings and necks and bow their heads reverently, and sing. With their songs and actions they were telling St. Francis that they liked what he said. When St. francis saw this, he was very happy and full of the Holy Spirit, and was amazed at such a wide variety of birds who showed that they loved each other. He praised God for this creation, called the birds to praise God, and blessed them with the sign of the cross. The birds all rose into the sky and flew off in the four directions, north, south, west, and east, to show St. Francis a great cross.

St. Francis died on October 3, 1226. He had passed on leadership of the Order of Franciscans seven years earlier. He was made a saint on July 16, 1228, by Pope Gregory IX. St. Francis was one who was able to surrender totally to God, he was one who was able to trust God fully; he trusted God to feed him, to provide shelter, and to keep him safe. He trusted God enough to listen for God's voice in the world around him. He was able to see God in the lives of the animals he loved, but also in the face of the poor leper at the side of the road. He was extremely humble, yet able to lead a great order which exists to this day. The life of St. Francis is proof that, if one is to be great, one must be the servant of others. May all of us look to the life of St. Francis and see God in the faces of the least among us.

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