Robert Ellsberg, author of The Franciscan Saints, talks about the life and legacy of Saint Francis.
His name was Francis…
He used to praise God the Artist in every one of God’s works. Whatever joy he found in things made he referred to their maker. He rejoiced in all the works of God’s hands. Everything cried out to him, “He who made us is infinitely good!’ He called animals “brother” or “sister,” and he exhorted them to praise God. He would go through the streets, inviting everyone to sing with him. And one time when he came upon an almond tree, he said, ‘Brother Almond, speak to me of God.” And the almond tree blossomed.
That is what Saint Francis of Assisi did, and that is what he does for us once we are caught up in his life and teachings. He makes us blossom, wherever and whoever we are. We blossom because we see in Francis what could happen to us if we were to embrace the overflowing goodness of God revealed in everything that exists, and let that embrace change us.
–Murray Bodo, OFM
Enjoy these features about Assisi’s favorite son.
Francis was a poor little man who astounded and inspired the Church by taking the gospel literally—not in a narrow fundamentalist sense, but by actually following all that Jesus said and did, joyfully, without limit and without a mite of self-importance.
Serious illness brought the young Francis to see the emptiness of his frolicking life as leader of Assisi’s youth. Prayer—lengthy and difficult—led him to a self-emptying like that of Christ, climaxed by embracing a leper he met on the road.
The son of a prosperous cloth merchant, Francis had dreams of becoming a knight and gaining glory on the battlefield. But shortly after riding off to fight against Perugia, he ended up in their prison, broken and disillusioned. It was after his return from prison, and during the recovery that followed, that Francis’ life was changed.
The son of a prosperous cloth merchant, Peter Bernadone, his companions saw him as a carefree youth, calling him the “King of Revels.”
We could simply say that Francis’ prayer life was, “My God and my all!” and stop at that. Everything that can be stated about prayer in the life of Saint Francis is expressed in those four words. But the way in which Francis reached that apex of prayer needs exploration.
In searching Francis’ journey in prayer, we discover our own way to believing and living “My God and my all!” There are many significant markers in Francis’ prayer life, but among them shines the Canticle.
In 2013, when Pope Francis came to Assisi for the feast of Saint Francis, I happened to be there as a guide with a group of pilgrims making the Assisi Pilgrimage Program, which coincided with Saint Francis’ feast day. I knew this would be an experience I’d never forget.
It was a cold, wet October 4, but no one seemed to mind, knowing that Pope Francis would be there the whole day, which began just outside the city walls at the Serafico Institute, a religious charitable institution that treats seriously disabled children.
Francis of Assisi’s “Prayer Before the Crucifix” does not start with “Woe is me” or some dark misery of the heart. Rather, it focuses on the glory and sublime beauty of God. “Most High, glorious God”: Just by saying the words in a spirit of praise, my heart grows lighter.
“Most High, glorious God”: Just by saying the words in a spirit of praise, my heart grows lighter. I feel as though I’m swept up into the glorious presence of God! The prayer starts—as all prayer does well to start—with words of adoration.
Father Francis and his companions were making a trip through the Spoleto Valley near the town of Bevagna. Suddenly, Francis spotted a great number of birds of all varieties. There were doves, crows and all sorts of birds.
Swept up in the moment, Francis left his freind sin the road and ran after the birds, who patiently waited for him. He greeted them in his usual way, expecting them to scurry off into the air as he spoke. But they moved not.
Many people focus on characteristics such as voluntary poverty or care for creation when considering the life and model of Saint Francis of Assisi. I often wish that, just as regularly, they would notice the theme of mercy that frequently appears in his writing.
This is a theme that has become even more important as Pope Francis has dedicated much of his teaching and ministry to showing the compassionate and merciful face of God in the world.
Saint Francis called himself God’s court jester—the Jongleur de Dieu—as he went about singing the praise of God. Pope Francis brought the house down the night of his election, telling his brother cardinals, “May God forgive you!” One can’t help but notice a kind of effervescent joy that spreads happiness to others.
These men have shattered the stereotype of rigid, grim, calcified piety. They radiate something entirely different: the joy of Christ.
What does Saint Francis’ witness tell us today? What does he have to say to us, not merely with words—that is easy enough—but by his life?
The first thing he tells us is this: that being a Christian means having a living relationship with the person of Jesus; it means putting on Christ, being conformed to him.
Where did Francis’s journey to Christ begin? It began with the gaze of the crucified Jesus.
A spirituality is a particular way, or emphasis, in following Christ. Obviously many things are common to all Christians, and these are more important than the interests of any one group of Christians: Christlike love and forgiveness, community, personal and communal prayer, celebration of the sacramental life, obedience to legitimate authority, love of Scripture, and concern for justice and peace, to name a few. There is no difference between our goals and our ways and means. But there can be a difference in emphasis.