September 28, 2007
We’re coming up on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4), and he is an easy saint to love”provided you are careful not to understand him. His story is full of romance, charm, and warmth. He was tender to wild animals”even wolves”and preached to little birds. He cared about the poor enough to join them, and organized a band of other well-meaning social workers devoted to serving them. Think of a genial, retired professor who has devoted his afternoons to saving wetlands and his weekends to Habitat for Humanity. Except that this “green” activist inspired painters such as Giotto to paint exquisite frescos on the roofs of magnificent Renaissance churches, and countless brilliant writers to recount his life and works. At the height of the 60s counterculture, Francis was portrayed as a proto-hippie in Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a flower child who embraced the God we find in every leaf and bumble bee, to the warbling strains of folk hymns by Donovan. Soup kitchens and homeless shelters around the world have worked in Francis” name for centuries, and priests of his order are renowned as easygoing, gentle confessors. One of his spiritual sons, Fr. Mychal Judge, died on Sept. 11″crushed by the rubble of the World Trade Center as he gave last rites to dying firemen. What’s not to like?
But be careful. However appetizing the figure of Francis may seem, like a dish of authentic Mexican food, you have to eat around the peppers. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out in his life of the saint, it was chock-full of disturbingly other-worldly elements unsuited to the modern American palate. When he famously renounced the wealth of his grasping capitalist father, stripping naked in the square before the bishop and clergy, Francis was not, we fear, striking a blow for nudity and naturalism. The truth is more disturbing: He was casting off the world, not as evil in itself but as a distraction. To us, this makes no sense at all”but there it is in the story, and there’s no sense in Photoshopping it out.
Francis subjected himself and his followers to a poverty that appalled their fellow beggars, fasting frequently and sleeping on dirt (when perfectly good piles of filthy straw were available), taking all too literally Christ’s eerie injunction, “Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me.” When it comes to sex, Francis didn”t just give up playing the field and settle down with a life partner; he embraced total celibacy, and scourged his own flesh to remind it of its place. Naming his body “Brother Ass,” he treated it as harshly as Italian peasants did their donkeys”rolling in snow or patches of thorns when tempted by lusty Italian maidens he saw along the road. (We can only imagine what they thought.) Inspired by his youth as a troubadour love poet who searched for an invisible, unattainable “lady love,” Francis fixed his affections on “Lady Poverty,” and tried his best to die of love for her”since she seemed to him the closest companion of Christ. To show his approval of all these undertakings, Jesus conferred the same stigmata (wounds) he bore on the cross to Francis”making him the very first saint documented as enjoying this painful privilege. One of the last things Francis did was to write a will forbidding his friars to accumulate possessions, build themselves elaborate churches, or try to introduce loopholes into his austere way of life. Of course, as soon as he died, that was precisely what they began to do.
But however comparatively corrupt one branch of the Franciscan order became, another would always spring up to reclaim its founder’s original divine madness; even today, a band of men called the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal sleep on pallets on a gymnasium floor in the South Bronx, running a parish and releasing Catholic rap albums with songs like “The Zipper Zone,” preaching innocence and freedom from care to youths whom society has sloughed off like so much dead black skin. You can see the same friars on Saturday mornings, kneeling in silence and praying, eyes downcast, outside abortion clinics around New York. What rational motive could drive young men to throw their lives on such a bonfire? I don”t pretend to know. I admire them, of course. But I wish they”d stand over there, on the other side of the church basement. I’m trying to get to the donut table.
CELEBRATE: Looked at in its historical context, Francis” movement can be seen as a vigorous reaction against the effects of the newfound wealth of the Renaissance. As trade recovered after the Black Plague, new products flooded the market from the East (“globalization” anyone?) and the merchant classes got terrifically rich. They left the poor behind”as wretched as ever, in the midst of sudden prosperity. If you”d like to participate in Francis” spirit in a tiny way”and which of us aspires to much more than that?”why not keep him in mind the next time you go out shopping. As you get to the check-out counter, put just one item back. If every American would do this once a week, it would cut consumer spending, depress the economy, and bring on the sort of poverty that would make St. Francis smile. OR: The next time you go out to eat, don”t supersize that meal. In fact, don”t eat it”take the time and forethought to cook at home. As an extra penance, do something really radical: Gather every family member in the same room around a table to eat at the same time. I know it will hurt. Offer it up.
Excerpted from The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living.