The 4th of October is the feast of St. Francis, the man of whom it can truly be said that no other has ever come closer to the likeness of Jesus Christ, and none has so perfectly apprehended the essence of the Holy Gospel as this one man. “Alter Christus”: another Christ. The epithet is undisputed by Christian and non-Christian alike.
St. Francis discovered, or rather, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was given to discover, the pure Gospel, the true Christian life: poverty, simplicity, humility; prayer, penance, peace; charity, fraternity, and nobility. He lived the Sermon on the Mount, most especially the Beatitudes. Long before Luther began banging on about “Sola Scriptura” St. Francis had made this his own, made the Bible his home; not using it as a weapon to attack the teaching of the Church, but in the sense that his whole life and thought was governed by nothing other than the Holy Scriptures, taken at their plainest and profoundest level. Like St. Paul, he wanted to know nothing else besides “Christ and him Crucified”. Also like St. Paul he was given “blessed assurance” that his sins were forgiven and he was justified in Christ. He rejected wealth, power, status, and ecclesiastical preferment. He became a fool for Christ, choosing the wisdom and folly of the Cross instead of philosophy and scholastic theology; the way of God rather than the way of man. (1 Cor. 1:18-2:39). In an age of knights and incessant war, he turned the concept of knighthood upside down; choosing the way of lowliness and meekness rather than the way of haughtiness, vainglory, and belligerence. He took up the Cross and discovered the chivalry of Christ, which seeks to serve, not dominate; to make peace, not war; to have less, and not to want more; to see all equally as brothers and sisters, dear to God, and not as stratified and separated by class, race, nation, and religion. Only the man who puts on the livery of Christ, which is the word of God, and takes up the chivalry of Christ, which is the Cross, can do this. The natural man, lost in his lust, vanity, and self-love, is not up to it. And yet all Christians, without a single exception, are called to this chivalry. That’s why St. Francis is the truest of all Christians, as he lived the sublime rule of Jesus Christ more completely, more simply, and more wonderfully than anyone before or since. And indeed, the whole Church is meant to be Franciscan, for the way of St. Francis is only the eternal Gospel, nothing else.
But alas, the Church missed its opportunity for a new beginning, the age of the Spirit, which Francis had been raised up to inaugurate. What should have been the Franciscan Reformation of the Thirteenth century became the Franciscan civil war; when the majority of Francis’ followers opted for compromise, in order to slot into the ecclesiastical machinery, and become a wealthy, powerful, and academic religious order; and the minority, spearheaded by his first followers, made a determined effort to remain loyal to his vision. The Conventuals, as the majority were known, went on to become an order bent on aping the Dominicans in the universities and the halls of power, and were thus indistinguishable from them. The Spirituals, as the minority were called, took to lonely hermitages, preserving to the last, the poverty and simplicity of St. Francis. They were ruthlessly persecuted by the official Franciscan Order and Pope John XXII, who was most probably an anti-pope, and many of them were imprisoned, or executed. Not until well into the fifteenth century did this Franciscan civil war end, with the destruction of entire villages where the “Fraticelli” had strong support. Sadly, over time, the Spirituals, now called Fraticelli, became somewhat heretical, making it even easier for their opponents to destroy them with inquisition, fire and sword. Already in the thirteenth century, the Stalin of the Franciscan Order, St. Bonaventure, had commanded that all the original written sources pertaining to St. Francis and the lives of the first friars, should be destroyed. He then had the leader of the Spirituals, the saintly John of Parma, thrown into prison for life. What had started out as Francis’ brotherhood of vagabonds, mainly laymen, had become a specialized and powerful clerical order which went on to make its own baneful contribution to scholasticism in the form of William of Ockham and Duns Scotus, both of whose ideas were to prove detrimental to Christian doctrine. All this was entirely contrary to the rule and life of St. Francis. But men aren’t able to endure the pure Gospel. It’s too much, too simple. They have to smother it with all kinds of rationalizations and qualifications, to make it more palatable to fallen man, so that he can have his cake and eat it, as it were.
So the Catholic Church lumbered on with its heavy clerical bureaucracy, its nit-picking scholasticism, its wealth, and its power politics, until at last the inevitable reformation came. Not the gentle one St. Francis would have ushered in but the brutal bulldozing revolution of Luther and Calvin, Cranmer, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Protestantism went on to treat both the Bible and the Church in pretty much the same way as an alligator treats a swimmer. Who in their right mind wouldn’t prefer the charming graceful religion of St. Francis, “the little poor man” who spoke so eloquently and passionately of God’s love and the peace of Christ, to the miserable religion of those Calvinist blockheads of the Orange Order in Northern Ireland, of the state-pleasing chameleon-like religion of that ever so comfortable construct, Anglicanism, or the insipid professorial religion of Liberal Protestantism, or even, for that matter, to the tedious and passionless religion of Vatican II Catholicism?
Yet there’s not much devotion to St. Francis in Catholicism, only a general nod of respect. Catholics prefer the likes of St. Anthony of Padua, who they’ve turned from an austere preacher into an effeminate lost property finder. You’ll not see many statues of St. Francis in Catholic Churches. In fact, there’s more appreciation of Francis among Anglicans probably, who in their usual pseudo style, have produced a Society of St. Francis no less; managing to ignore the first chapter of his Rule, which insists on obedience to the Pope.
Yet the spirit of St. Francis lives on. Not so much among the First Order, the friars, the vast majority of who are clerics, who aren’t interested in lowliness and self-effacement. But among the Second Order, the Poor Clare Nuns, it most certainly is to be found in great evidence. Their way of life still to this day is one which would have St. Francis smiling from this blessed place in heaven. Also among the Third Order, the tertiaries will you still find the authentic Franciscan charism. The Englishman John Bradburne in our own day for example, who lived a vagabond life as a poor man, and ended up serving the lepers in Rhodesia until he was martyred by the rebels on their way to creating the glorious new state of Zimbabwe. (yes, well.....). Mother Teresa’s nuns are genuine Franciscans in their humble life of poverty, penance, prayer, and service of the poor and outcast. And yes, the friars too, even they in times past have managed to produce genuine Franciscan movements; the Observants of the 15th Century and the Capuchins in then16th century.
But I say again, all Christians are called to be “friars minor”, lesser brethren. This is the true way of Jesus Our Lord, who was born of a poor virgin, Our Lady, in a stable in a poor village. Who lived as a poor man with nowhere to call his own, who came to seek the lost, the poor, the lowly, the outcast, who imparted peace and reconciliation to all , and who died among thieves on a Cross, to be buried in a grave not his own.
St. Francis abandoned a life of wealth and privilege in order to embrace the Poor Crucified Christ. And such was his mystical union with Jesus that two years before he died he received supernaturally the marks of the Lord’s Passion upon his body; the “Stigmata”. When he lay dying upon the bare ground he had the Passion read to him, and then, surrounded by his friars, he began to sing, much to the dismay of some of them. It’s wonderful isn’t it?
I was once a Franciscan friar, a somewhat disappointing experience to put it mildly. But every now and again I find myself wistfully, imagining that one day I’ll leave everything and take off to a lonely place, and there give myself to prolonged prayer and the reading of nothing else but the Holy Scriptures and the Franciscan chronicles, which along with St. Augustine’s Confessions are probably the only books a Christian really needs to read. From such an experience I would emerge with purified vision, true conversion of heart, and passion rekindled. Alas, I’m now 51, somewhat cynical, hardened by years of defeated hopes, and crippled by the anomalies of human existence. Besides which, I’ve comrades for whom I have to be responsible. But my love for him will never fade. Nor will his memory, his vision, and his followers ever disappear from the Church.
There ought to be statues to St. Francis all over the place, just as there ought to be statues of Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin everywhere. But poor us, inhabitants of a Protestant and post-Protestant culture which can only build statues to warmongers like Churchill or war criminals like Bomber Harris, alongside generals and governors, and the plethora of war memorials. Never mind, such is the fate of those who choose the foolishness of the Cross to the wisdom of the world; whose programme is the Beatitudes rather than “the pursuit of happiness” Western style.
The best biographies of St. Francis are the one by Omer Englebert, the Frenchman, and the one by the Anglican bishop John Moorman. Or even the original by Thomas of Celano, not all the copies of which St. Stalin Bonaventure was able to get his hands on. Unfortunately, none of the celluloid versions of his life have done justice to him. The so-called “Prayer of St. Francis”, which he may, or may not have written, does indeed sum the man up.
Lord make me an instrument of your peace;
Where there is hatred let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, union;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen
So there you go, St. Francis; the one who lived and died the truest and purest knight of all.