Faithful Through the Ages - Friday, March 14, 2014

Francis of Assisi - Blessing Our Brothers, the Birds

Verse: Matthew 10:9

Quote: "If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men."

The son of Pietro di Bernadone, a wealthy Italian fabric merchant, Francis of Assisi is one of seven children. Young Francis spends several years vacillating between the life of a troubadour, time in the military, and visions of God speaking to him.

In 1209, in his late twenties, he hears the voice of Go, saying: "Preach, the kingdom of heaven is at hand, heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils. Provide neither silver nor gold, nor brass in your purses." This becomes his rule of life.

He discards his purse and shoes, dresses in rags, and feels guilty if he meets someone poorer than he. He lives with lepers, washing their puss-filled sores and kissing their fingerless hands and stubbed feet. His father and his friends think he has gone mad. Initially, he is a loner. But then a follower comes along, and by the end of the year, with ten more disciples, the "Lesser Brethren" beg from house to house, spending nights out of doors.

In Rome Francis seeks the papal blessing. Initially, Innocent III is insulted by his apparent show of disrespect, but, he later agrees to give provisional approval for a new religious order. Final sanction will come only after they have proven themselves worthy.

Poverty is not new to monasticism, but Francis gives it greater prominence, bringing new meaning to urban poverty. He embraces poverty rather than separating from it as hermits and monks had done. The inward emphasis on personal self-denial is turned upside-down with an outward focus on the poor and needy living on the margins of society.

Although having taken a vow of celibacy, he considers himself married to Lady Poverty, revering her as "the mistress and queen of the virtues." Second only to Lady Poverty is his other love, Mother Nature. So close was Francis to nature that he preached sermons to those he regarded as his companions: "Brother birds," he admonished, "you ought to love and praise your Creator very much. He has given you feathers for clothing, wings for flying, and all things that can be of use to you." An environmentalist before his time, he asked the emperor enact laws to protect "our sisters, the birds."

For Francis, however, life is far from idyllic. For many of the less-committed friars, the love for Lady Poverty quickly evaporates. They rebel against what they perceive to be an evil stepmother. Having been stirred by the personal charisma and emotion-charged sermons of Francis, they have second thoughts about being on the bottom rung of society. Other monks, they observe, live the good life. Supported by clerics, angry friars replace Francis with a new leader while he is away on a mission trip. It is the most dramatic coup in monastic history. He returns to find a wealthy cleric in charge of the very ministry he has founded. He might have rallied his dedicated followers and led them away and begin anew. But this, he reasons, is not the way of humility. He accepts the stunning reversal as God's will. He tells his followers, "From henceforth I am dead for you. Here is brother Peter di Catana whom you and I will obey." He then prostrates himself before his new superior and directs the friars to follow in submission. His heart is broken, but there is no other course of action for this most singular saint.

Despite this turn of events, Francis is widely regarded as a saint, and his death in 1228 only increases his stock as a holy man. After he dies, the vicar of the Franciscan order testifies to the miracle of the stigmata on the body of Francis. Church leaders from far and near, including Pope Gregory IX, bask in his popularity. In fact, the pope preaches at his funeral, lays the cornerstone for a church in his memory, and canonizes him as a saint.

Today's reading is from Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church by Ruth Tucker. © 2010 by Zondervan. Used with permission. All rights reserved. The book's title must be included when sharing the above content on social media.

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