Twelfth century Assisi was much like our world today where we see great moral upheaval, social change, and war. “Mercantile mania” and “conspicuous consumption” gripped the townspeople of that time, the Roman Catholic Church was beset with scandal, and Christianity was at war with Islam in the Holy Land.
Francis, the son of a highly successful merchant, “left this world” and all the trappings of a privileged life not to avoid humanity but to embrace it. His spiritual development was a gradual process beginning with a memorable encounter with a leper during a business trip with his father and ending on his deathbed at age 44 when he abandoned himself to God.
A man of principle and action, Francis rejected his society not because he didn’t like nice things, good food and wine. He rejected Assisi society because he saw money as an impediment to his happiness. It was fitting, then, that Francis’ announcement of his new life would begin at the cathedral steps of his hometown with the dramatic and symbolic act of shedding the clothes of his upper class life. Bishop Guido then wrapped the naked man in an old hermit’s tunic, which would become the recognizable garb of all the Franciscan brothers.
The charismatic Francis instantly attracted other followers, although he resisted imposing his new way of life on others. Rather, he believed that each individual needed to discern his/her own witness to the Gospel. Eventually his small band would grow into thousands and include the following prescriptions for life: strict poverty; authority exercised as service; obedience for the good of the community; a fraternal, democratic spirit; and honest work. Also, unlike most preachers of his time who talked of judgment, penance, and damnation, Francis focused on the love of God and the joy of committing one’s life to Him.
St. Francis was a true visionary but what strikes anyone who studies him is his steadfastness of heart and integrity of purpose. Francis engages the world completely while he disregards what people say about him. He is his own man and he lets nothing and no one to discourage him from doing what he thinks he is called to do. For example, Francis joined the Crusades as one of those who eagerly followed the pope’s call to save the Holy Land from the Muslims. Francis did this with sincerity, simplicity, and naïve determination to establish peace in that land. However, his failure to convert the Muslims, which could have ended in his death, illustrates his willingness to risk all in order to follow his Lord’s call. It was through such pursuits that he grew spiritually and, in this case, eventually he befriended the Muslims and realized his misguided quest.
During the last several years of Francis’ life, his vision of the brotherhood could not compete with the vision of certain influential members of his community who wanted to be sanctioned by the official Church. Their plan, he thought, compromised the character and purpose of the brotherhood, which identified with and served the poor. He anguished over these conflicts, which resulted in his dread of evil and fear of death. To fight against these intense feelings, he undertook a regimen of penance, self-denial, and prayer, none of which helped. He also had furious outbursts and even fingered the malocchio (the evil eye) against his opponents. Then, he’d withdraw, weep for his impatience, ask forgiveness for his foul moods, and increasingly suffer from physical pain and encroaching blindness.
This was Francis’ “dark night of the soul.” However, from that darkness, Francis, like Jesus before him, abandoned himself to God. It was at this point that he became a saint: Francis decided to be forthright and true to his God rather than to salve his own ego.
Francis of Assisi remains a model for us as we search for a life of peace—especially as we contemplate and endure the struggles and conflicts of our own difficult times. Such an approach to life is not about fantasy or denial. As Francis might say, peace is our purpose in life and it is indeed do-able. God help us if we don’t give it a try!