“In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.” Frederick Buechner, Vermont theologian and source of this quote, comes, as I do, from a tradition that does not have a calendar of saints.
Making do without an array of saints is both a freedom and a deprivation. Any believer is a saint, so the thinking in traditions like mine goes. And the Bible does support that use of the word, saint, as believer. But most of us find that faith is a life dappled with shadows. We wonder what belief really is anyway, and whether we truly do believe, and what it is we believe, and if there are any who can show us the way. In my life there are dear companions, none are as dainty as a handkerchief, some are as rough-hewn as lumberjacks, a few almost frightening in the strength of their resolve, while others delight me in their wandering convictions. They all, as Buechner says, entice me to travel toward them, and to let them shape me. In this, they engage me in flirting with God.
As I learn about the canonical saints I discover they, too, are rough and ready, scary and delightful. And I suppose the chief difference between my saintly companions, and the people who occupy Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican saint calendars, is that my saints are mostly contemporary, not medieval.
The exception, the one who jumps off the calendars and walks with us all, is Francis of Assisi. On October 4 the church marked his Feast Day, .
Poet Kenneth Rexroth wrote of St. Francis, “he is not only the most attractive of all the Christian saints, he is the most attractive of Christians, admired by Buddhists, atheists, completely secular, modern people, Communists to whom the figure of Christ himself is at best unattractive.” The root of his popular appeal is in his back story, a tale of transition, family rupture, the breaking of hearts and lives. From the fires of all this came the man who called animals and the poor his family, the sun his brother and the moon his sister.
Nearly a thousand years ago, in 1181, Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone was born in the north of Italy, to an Italian cloth merchant father, a man of considerable means, and his French wife. He was their only child, and they cosseted him. Petted and privileged, he was reported to have been vain and showy, and very much a party animal. Knighthood, glory, and fame were his ambitions, and he enlisted in a drawn-out provincial war to gain his goals, riding off dressed in exquisite silks and the finest silver chain mail armor money could buy, on a pure white steed, with a squire.
The war was a wretched affair of brutal hand-to-hand combat, fought in endless rains on disease-ridden fields. Francis saw a human hell he had never imagined: sepsis, starvation, and savagery.
At the end of two years he came home, ill and dispirited, and just outside Assisi saw a poor beggar by the side of the road, who asked him for bread. Stopping, he gave the man his horse, armor and silks, in exchange for the fellow’s filthy rags. Dressed in those, he entered his father’s house. And for the next two years, racked with fevers, thin and tormented, he closeted himself at home. He began giving things away when beggars came to the door: his clothing, hats and plumes and swords, the treasures he kept in his room. Then, he began to give away his parents’ things, china and silverware, crystal and linens. The poor came often.
His adoring father went from tolerant to worried, annoyed, then adamant, and finally outraged. Francis was unrepentant. Francis arranged with some local monks to drive a cart up to his father’s storehouse when his father was away on a business trip, and there he unloaded a fortune in bolts of cloth upon these men, who sold it to support the poor. When his father came home he was beside himself at the fortune that had been lost. He dragged Francis to the town square and shouted for the Bishop to come out and conduct a trial, as was the custom of the times. Francis was the accused, his father the one pouring out the accusations of ‘after all I have done for him . . .’ The Bishop pronounced Francis guilty of theft, whereupon Francis stripped off all his clothing, even his shoes, and naked, pronounced himself free of all debt to his father. The church organist, taking pity on him, brought out a spare robe of his own, brown, plain, and coarse.
Francis put it on and walked away. He wore such robes the rest of his life. He spent the better part of the ensuing year in the ruins of an old small church on the edge of town. With his own hands he piled the stones back together, rebuilding the church. Peasants who lived nearby, in pity brought him food and blankets. Winter set in, but he would not stop, nor would he leave. He dedicated the small church to the peasants who were feeding him, and began holding services for them there. He was untrained and not ordained, and his preaching came from his heart, a gospel of belovedness in which they, the animals and the land itself, were the family of God.
People rose to his message, one of love and kindness, sharing and compassion for poverty and suffering. Friends rallied to him, and together they formed a community. Their words and work spread. But Bishops all around were angered and afraid of Francis’ popularity, his unorthodox teaching, and, as they saw it, his heresy. Francis would not compromise with them, and after some years of escalating outrage among the episcopacy, Francis walked to Rome to appeal to the Pope, surrounded by admiring throngs all along the way. The Pope wisely blessed Francis and gave him independence from the Bishops in exchange for his oath of loyalty to the Pope.
By the time of Francis’ death, on October 3, 1226, his fame and acclamation had spread through Europe and the British Isles, carried by devoted disciples to churches where people flocked to hear Francis’ his words about God’s family of creation, love of the poor, and longing for us to engage in endless mercies.
It was said Francis preached to the birds, and to the fish who swam in the rivers. It was said he spoke with wolves, who for him were as tame as dogs. It was said he saved villages and healed many. It was said by the Pope that Francis lifted up the Church. This last was clearly true, for church attendance across Europe revived because of Francis. On his deathbed, Francis composed a poem of praise, which a thousand years later is still a beloved hymn in every church I know: All Creatures of Our God and King.
I am awed that Francis, a vain and unlettered man, was able to discern that the peace he so ardently desired after the experience of war, required both redistribution of wealth and embracing all living things in equality and love. But he may simply have been hearing and doing what Jesus recommends to the rich young man in this week’s lesson, who asekd what more he must do in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus answered, Sell your possessions, give what you have to the poor, and come and follow me.
Francis never saw his parents again, after that terrible day in the town square. But in breaking the heart of his own family, he began a healing for the heart of world, that is still at work in our world. Perhaps the closest thing to a comment about those difficult post-war years in his home, is these words of his, quoted by German theologian Dorothee Soelle in The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance: It is the devil’s greatest triumph when he can deprive us of the joy of the Spirit. He carries fine dust with him in little boxes and scatters it through the cracks in our conscience in order to dim the soul’s luster. . . . . When gloominess takes root, evil grows. If it is not dissolved by tears, permanent damage is done.
For nearly a thousand years, people have celebrated St. Francis by blessing animals. Farm animals, cart horses, police mounts, war horses, circus animals, guide dogs, family pets, all are brought to churches to receive a personal blessing and to be honored by the people with whom they live and for whom they work, whose gloom they assuage and whose joy and sorrow they share.
We do like to portray St. Francis as a handkerchief of a man. But the love he preached was strong as iron, and forged by choices made in the fires of this world.