There are various aspects of the life, personality and spiritual gifts of St. Francis of Assisi which attract people to follow his way of following JESUS CHRIST, either in the First Order (friars), Second Order (Poor Clares), Third Order (Secular Franciscans for laity and also priests and religious who follow the Third Order rule), or simply as Christians who admire him. Many people speak of his commitment to radical poverty and may be inspired to live more simply. Others marvel at the story of his conversion and his commitment to a life of penance. Others marvel at his deep life of prayer.
In modern times we can often look back upon the events of the Protestant Reformation and the division in the Mystical Body of Christ in light of the call that St. Francis received from the LORD while praying before the San Damiano cross, “Francis, rebuild My Church, which is falling into ruin”. There was corruption and materialism in the Church at the time of St. Francis. Francis worked to rebuild the Church, obedient to the LORD’s call in a way that was still totally loyal and obedient to the Church. He did this not by criticizing or condemning anyone or pointing fingers or breaking away, but by his own example and message of simplicity and devotion to God’s Word and his integrity. Unfortunately, not everyone learned from his example and there was still materialism and corruption in the Church (e.g. abuses such as the selling of indulgences)—factors that helped provoke the Protestant Reformation. So if people had paid greater heed to Francis’ preaching and example and lived more simply, with greater integrity and greater devotion to Scripture and living the Gospel, perhaps there would not have been a Protestant Reformation, because there would have been less of a need for reform.
Others cite St. Francis’ great love for God’s Creation and his special relationship with animals. Still others marvel at his identification with the Crucified Christ in the gift of the stigmata, his life of prayer, his devotion to the Eucharist that was so great that it even caused him to honor the most sinful priest, his representation of the events of the Birth of Christ at Greccio, or his dedication to the cause of peace and reconciliation.
Even one of these—and particularly the combination of all of the above—provide good reason to love and admire St. Francis of Assisi and even seek to follow his example of living the Gospel in our various states in life (priesthood, religious/consecrated life, diaconate, married life or the single vocation and in various professions and occupations). However, although these are all very significant, I think that with the possible exception of Francis’ call to rebuild the Church, I don’t think that any particular one of these are what attracted me most to our beloved seraphic father Francis.
In the interview preceding my profession as a Secular Franciscan almost 20 years ago, I stated that my deepest admiration for St. Francis and sense of connection with him is that he was so in love with the LORD that he was not afraid to appear foolish. Many are attracted to Francis as one who embraced suffering and embraced a life of poverty and penance (all of which still scares me). However, I am more attracted to the other side of Francis, which is equally true: a man so full of life and love and joy—the love and joy that led him to burst into song and to tell people he encountered, “The LORD is in love with you!” This Francis so desired to share his love and joy that one of his great delights was that the LORD gave him “brothers” and “sisters” who were drawn to follow his way of life. In the process of formation I read a few books about St. Francis that inspired me to draw this conclusion, particularly GOD’S FOOL by Julian Green.
Although many would see the obvious contrast between the pre-converted playboy “party animal” Francis and the saint committed to penance and poverty, it is also true that in the conversion of Francis the LORD actually sanctified Francis’ “joie de vivre” and transformed this ringleader of late-night revelry and carousing into the “Troubadour for the LORD” and the jovial host of a feast of bread crumbs at the Chapter of Mats. I think that it is generally true that the “new creation” God works in each of us is often not a stark difference that makes us “other” than ourselves but a sanctified actualization of the person God created us to be—our “true selves”—much of which can be seen in our pre-conversion life. After all, Saul/Paul was always characterized by great zeal bordering on obsession-compulsion: the Pharisee zealous to “protect” the God and religion of Israel from those “followers of the ‘Way’” on the road to Damascus became the zealous Christian compelled to preach the Gospel and consider his suffering and even martyrdom nothing in comparison with the joy of union with Christ.
Why did I become a Secular Franciscan? Quite simply, I came because God called me (and showed me in various ways that He was calling me), and I came for the joy. I came for the joy of falling in love with the LORD, of praising and worshipping God for and with His awesome creation, of singing the LORD’s praises, of preaching the Gospel always and using words when necessary, and the joy of sharing with and serving my brothers and sisters. I suppose that this connection with joy can be viewed to be consistent with my character and personality and the working of the Holy Spirit in my life, since people throughout my lifetime have referred to me as “the one who’s always smiling”. It is consistent with the way God made me and the way I was raised. As I see it was with Francis, I see that in myself this joy finds its fulfillment in sharing community and fellowship and in praising the LORD in song. Shared prayer, shared song in harmony, and shared food and fellowship in an atmosphere of warm welcome, good conversation, laughter, and gracious hospitality is, for me, a foretaste of heaven. After all, it has been written that in heaven we will share in the heavenly BANQUET.
I remember learning from Jesuit retreat masters (and one of the early experiences of my calling to become a Secular Franciscan came at a Jesuit retreat house with a Sister of Charity of Halifax as my director) that St. Ignatius of Loyola initially called his followers “Companions of JESUS”. I was taught that “companion” literally means someone with whom one shares bread. I think that this applies not only to the Eucharist but to earthly bread as well. The Francis I admire has often been depicted as inviting people to share in the fellowship he enjoyed with the LORD and his family of followers. It has been said that evangelization is actually “one beggar showing another beggar where the bread is”, so, in that vein, evangelization is actually a high form of hospitality.
The Francis I admire has often been depicted engaged in extending hospitality. The Francis who was once extravagant with material riches became extravagant in the context of his poverty, as in the feast with bread crumbs at the Chapter of Mats. Francis loved God and loved people extravagantly, desiring to share and give all he had, and putting the needs and comfort of others ahead of his own, as, we, too are called to do in demonstrating the virtue of hospitality! Francis embraced and welcomed all in a spirit of joy and gratitude for everything as coming from God, which is a wonderful example for each of us.
Although St. Francis and the friars fasted both when required by the Church and for times of voluntary penance, he also thoroughly enjoyed celebrations and feasts (e.g. Christmas) and encouraged others to enjoy feasting, in contrast with others who were more ascetic. For Francis, there was a time to fast and a time to feast, which is in keeping with the spirit of Ecclesiastes 3 (“To everything there is a season…”). When St. Francis heard a friar crying out in the night, “I am dying, I am dying!” and learned that the friar meant he was dying of hunger, Francis awakened the whole community and gave them all something to eat so that the friar both would be fed and spared embarrassment. This is another example of Francis’ gracious hospitality expressed in concern for the needs and comfort of all and his gift for turning an occasion of meeting a brother’s need into an impromptu celebration!
I believe that the joyous hospitality of Francis is fully realized when members of the various branches of his family come together to share prayer, song, food and fellowship, and when all share in love and joy together as brothers and sisters in one Franciscan family. Perhaps this is a foretaste of the joy Our LORD desires for ALL His children that will finally be fully realized in heaven.
Arlene Clare Muller, OSF – September 25, 2012