We could ask: What we could we possibly learn from a humble little man who lived in another part of the world 800 years ago, who walked away from his home and family to wander about the countryside barefoot, in a rough brown robe, preaching to birds and begging his bread and sharing his love of God in complete simplicity?
And we could ask: What could we possibly learn from a humble man who lived in another part of the world 2000 years ago, who walked about the countryside in a simple robe, urged people to appreciate birds and flowers and trees, washed the feet of his disciples, and shared the love of God in simplicity and generosity?
Our companion for Lent this year is St Francis of Assisi, born into a wealthy merchant family in Italy in 1182, known originally as Francesco Bernardone (he was in fact baptized with the name “John”), who became known as a holy man and eventually as the founder of a new movement: the Friars Minor, later known simply as “the Franciscans.”
There are a number of iconic images from the life of St Francis of Assisi: talking to the birds; taming the wolf; embracing the leper; appearing before the Pope. But perhaps the most famous is Francis stripping off his clothing in the centre of his home town.
Just as Jesus walked out into the desert, having left his heavenly home, to embrace the unknown, emptying himself and exposing himself to temptation, in order to clarify his messianic vocation, Francis is famous for rejecting his family’s wealth and position, recklessly offering his father’s money and goods to the poor and finally stripping off all of his clothing and walking out of the town of Assisi stark naked.
And of course, during Lent, the primary image we focus upon is of a young man, stark naked upon a cross, not just losing his life but offering it, even though the people around him at the time did not comprehend what he (or they) were doing.
Jesus said “take nothing with you for your journey” and so Francis began his ministry with a radical act of defiance, shedding his clothes, defying his father and walking away from a life of comfort and respectability, inviting people to refer to him as “God’s clown” or “God’s buffoon.” And of course, people mocked and insulted him.
Jesus concluded his earthly ministry with a radical act of defiance of worldly authority, his clothes torn from him by the authorities, mocked by the soldiers, insulted by the religious leaders, and crucified, naked. His crucifixion was a choice that reunited him with his Father.
In each case, however, this was also a radical act of obedience to the will of God.
Richard Rohr, himself a Franciscan priest, says “St. Francis of Assisi occupies many hearts and gardens as an icon of gentleness and compassion. Yet he was so much more. Francis was a radical prophet whose lifestyle continues to challenge people of many faiths. The Franciscan Way closely follows Jesus’ path of simplicity, justice, and inclusivity. It is a counter-cultural movement, an “alternative orthodoxy,” that values vulnerability and union over power and independence.”
So if we listen, we find St Francis is speaking to us:
Of the sacredness of the environment and harmony with creation
Of the need to challenge the emptiness and false promises of materialism
Of the call to a simpler but deeper form of spiritual and religious practice
Of the quest for a deep and real connection with God and a life of freedom
Here’s a picture of the world we live in:
There is a big protest going on in Vancouver about the $7 million mansion about to be torn down to put up a bigger mansion. All the people of the neighbourhood, well-dressed, wealthy people, many of whom themselves tore down smaller heritage homes to build their own mansions, are out protesting that this is an outrageous act.
Here’s the world we live in:
We have recently had to come up with a new word to justify the unfortunate victims who are raised with so much luxury and excess they can’t be expected to know right from wrong or to care about anyone else — we call it “Affluenza” and the hope is that we can give these special people different treatment under the law to recognize how hard it must be for them.
Here’s the world we live in:
Donald Trump, a real estate mogul and now presidential candidate for the Republicans, who is running at about 40% of polled GOP voters at the moment, wants to build a gigantic wall between the U.S and Mexico, and considered doing the same between the U.S. and Canada, and wants every American to carry a gun as a solution to all the violence and the threat of terrorism.
Francis had had enough of that world – he saw what power and possessions did to people – how it separated people and made them envy and despise each other. After his brief, failed attempt to be a warrior, he saw that force and violence were not the way.
Sometimes people just reach an age or a level of maturity when they realize that being self-centered and living foolishly is not only a waste of time but a waste of life –that it’s time to leave behind childish ways and become an adult. But after a year in prison, Francis had no doubt thought a great deal about many things, perhaps the value of freedom most of all. And maybe it was in prison that he realized that there are other forms of prison as well, such as wealth and status and possessions that must be protected.
We struggle with the concept of tithing. Try walking away from everything! Francis walked away, willing to trust God for his daily bread, willing to find a sense of family among the poor – an act of total dedication to seeking God and serving God, trying to copy the life of Jesus, and trying to live the Gospel literally. If Jesus said take nothing for your journey, that is what Francis did.
Francis wrote: “The Rule and life of these brothers is this: namely, to live in obedience and chastity, and without property, and to follow the doctrine and footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ, who says: “If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come, follow Me.” And: “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me;”
The outfit he chose was of rough cloth, and bare feet, and he chose the humiliation of the tonsure, a further renunciation which meant shaving the head in such a way that you could not possibly find him attractive in any conventional sense. Again, he was following Jesus’ words, to identify with the birds and the wild flowers, to abandon all sense of anxiety about appearance, and to experience the freedom of living primarily for Christ.
He chose to be among the poor, the people who had been born with no advantage, no privilege, no sense of entitlement, and rather than see this as something to avoid and fear, or, worse, as some sort of condescension, he saw it in positive terms – as a privilege, as his one love became Lady Poverty. The image of a rich man rejecting his money and status and embracing poverty as freedom rather than punishment could be a powerful one for our time.
He had to completely cut his ties, burn his bridges, so that he had no recourse, otherwise his identification with the poor would have been token and even false. As he handed over his last possessions, his clothes, to his father, he said: “From now on I can walk naked before the Lord, no longer saying, ‘My father, Pietro Bernardone,’ but ‘Our Father, who art in heaven.’”
As we begin Lent, and particularly this journey with St Francis as our companion, we might ask: Were people like Jesus and Francis too extreme? Is it fair to ask people to desert the conventional path of security and safety and status?
In a society of such overwhelming material well-being, are we something like the ancient heretics, preaching a strange, subversive counter culture?
Is it reasonable to expect that people should attempt to follow the way of Jesus as literally as possible? (The cardinals of the day felt it was extreme and even impossible – they were extremely wary of such an approach.)
Do we want to see hundreds of people wandering the streets—homeless, begging for their next meal (oh, right, we already know what that looks like!)
It can seem like such a huge challenge, partly because we are buried under years of habit and accumulation of possessions. What can we do? Where do we start?
Francis began his journey dramatically by taking off his clothes. How about we follow his lead and remove some of our clothes — from our closets and drawers?
Use Lent as a time to de-clutter and simplify. De-cluttering is a big thing today, and we have become very aware of the mental stress over-accumulation and chaos causes (you know you have an issue when you can’t find the book on de-cluttering you are looking for because it’s buried under all the debris on your dresser!). I’ve always felt that I was a “closet Franciscan” so let’s start with our closets. Get rid of anything you haven’t worn in two years. If, after that, you still think your closet is too crowded, get rid of anything you haven’t worn in the last year. If that doesn’t do the trick, start in on your garage or storage space (or on your spouse’s closets).
Francis let go of everything except the gift of his life and his trust in God.
This Lent, let us try to use less, and share more – save your spare change for a cause. In fact, I just happen to have some handy coin containers for that purpose. Make that a special Lenten offering in honour of St Francis.
Francis became a profound contemplative and mystic – he spent much time in silence. He is known for saying “preach the Gospel; use words when necessary.” Once he went to speak to a group of nuns, and simply went into the middle of the room, poured ashes on his head, and sat there, saying nothing. Birds aren’t drawn to people who make a lot of commotion.
Talk less; seek to listen more.
Francis, in his love affair with Lady Poverty could be ecstatically grateful for the simplest of things. You can follow Francis’ lead by saying thank-you for simple things you normally take for granted like being able to run a bath – you’ll use more clean water running a bath than most people in the world will use in a week
Above all, Francis found freedom by rejecting all the expectations and assumptions and conventions of the society around him. As St Paul said, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
Challenge yourself – recognize addictive or compulsive patterns in your life. Resist – break free. Lent is a good time to get out of whatever jail you have put yourself in. Say No to yourself. It’s only 40 days – try it. Ask the Spirit to be more present to you to fill the emptiness in your soul that you are attempting to fill with things.
Francis was big on forgiveness. The Prayer of St Francis is an obvious example of his thought, but forgiveness was a gift he wanted people to receive. Days were set aside in the Portiuncula, the Church of the Little Portion – later called Our Lady of the Angels – for forgiveness to be granted which became known as the Portiuncula Indulgence. Francis understood the connection between forgiveness and freedom – and that it is in pardoning we are pardoned. You can follow Francis by letting go of some attitude or position on something that has caused hard feelings between you and others. Or: Pray for someone you hate. Ask God to heal you from the damage that hatred has caused to others and to yourself.
Francis never watched Gilligan’s Island, Dynasty, Hoarders, General Hospital or Walking Dead — do you really think he was missing anything significant? Yet many people are more faithful to their regular TV programs than going to church, talking to their spouse, reading, exercising, meditating, etc.
In the spirit of Francis, try cutting your TV watching by 2/3 – TV exists primarily to convince you to buy into the very lifestyle that is killing our planet. It also wastes a huge amount of time. When we are killing time we are in a real sense killing our own spirit.
With your newfound freedom of time, you should be able to find that 20 minutes for meditation that you can’t ever seem to carve out of the 24 hours of the day.
Failing all that – hug a tree. Or wave to a bird flying by (if you think about it, they are waving back). Breathe deeply and say thank-you for air that is still clean enough to breathe (the trees are largely responsible for that).
You can do this. You can take up this challenge – the challenge of Lent; the challenge of St Francis; the challenge of Christ.
The image of Francis stripping off his clothing and embarking on a new direction and purpose is a perfect metaphor for Lent. Lent is about simplifying and prioritizing – shedding ourselves of encumbrances – de-cluttering not just the stuff in our closets but the stuff in our heads and hearts — letting go of things and habits and attitudes that interfere with our primary goals in life. It is a summons to radical change and new directions. Francis revealed to the world that we can be “blessed by less.”
But you don’t need to go striding out of town naked – you don’t have to do anything dramatic or grandiose. Francis was all about the little way, always referring to himself and the brothers as “the friars minor.” So as our tradition always says at the beginning of Lent: “I invite you therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.”
May God bless you on your Lenten journey to freedom.
Illustration of St. Francis by John August Swanson
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot. Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
Romans 10:8b-13 “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Luke 4:1-13 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.