By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published October 16, 2020
Walk through most gardening stores and you’ll spot a stone statue of St. Francis, surrounded by rabbits and birds. He looks safe and tame, the perfect addition to a manicured lawn decorated with tidy clusters of flowers.
You won’t find a statue that shows Francis standing next to a leper, nor one that shows the wounds of Christ on its body.
Francis was born into a wealthy family in Assisi in 1182 and when he was a young man, he spent his time partying and drinking. After being injured in a battle and spending a year in prison, he decided to leave wealth and decadence behind—and instead embraced poverty out of love for Christ. His father was embarrassed by the odd behavior of his son, which included dressing in rags and heading into the wilderness to pray.
Where did Francis get such bizarre ideas? Right out of Scripture, it seems. One day, he opened the Bible three times randomly, deciding to take the advice revealed there. The words he uncovered still challenge us today: Christ telling the rich man to give everything to the poor; Christ advising the disciples to take nothing with them on their journey; Christ admonishing his followers to pick up their crosses daily and follow him.
As Francis endeavored to live these words, people didn’t regard him as a placid, tame fellow, whose likeness graces many gardens today. Instead, they thought his behavior bordered on madness. Bad enough that he was willing to live among wild animals and eat scraps for supper, but he also exhibited a deep and abiding joy.
And it was this mysterious joy that attracted other men to join him. When they numbered twelve, Francis asked the pope to approve a rule for the group’s life—and thus was born what became known as the Franciscan order.
Now if this were a movie, in the next scene we’d see well-groomed, plump friars singing and throwing crumbs to a flock of darling birds. You’d also see townspeople waving at the men and cheering them on.
In truth, though, Francis and his brothers were far removed from today’s Hollywood icons. Many folks feared the raggedy fellows, considering them somewhat mad. Instead of respecting them as men following the Gospels, townspeople often rejected and ridiculed them.
Was Francis a nature lover with a soft spot for animals? Yes, he did love animals and birds, but he didn’t worship nature as many do today. Instead, every creature inspired him to adore God the creator, and these included cuddly rabbits, but also loathsome worms.
There were also members of the human race widely regarded as loathsome with lepers being foremost. People studiously avoided them, but Francis and his friars ministered to them.
In his biography, St. Bonaventure writes that Francis had a vision of the crucified Christ shortly after giving up the worldly life. The experience moved Francis so deeply that from then on, whenever he reflected on Christ’s crucifixion, he was overcome with sorrow. The vision also changed his behavior, because Francis began serving the most despised people, the lepers.
When Francis encountered a leper on the road, he leapt from his horse to give the man money and also kissed him. Getting on his horse to leave, Francis glanced back and realized the man had vanished. He believed Christ himself had appeared to him in the form of a leper.
Two years before he died, Francis had a second vision of the crucified Christ and shortly after, he received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, on his body. These bleeding wounds were agonizing, but he accepted the pain as a share in Christ’s passion, which drew Francis ever closer to him.
All these years later, Francis continues to intrigue people, whether they are believers or not. My prayer is that we don’t see Francis as a tame statue in a garden, but rather as a courageous man, who took the Gospels to heart and followed Christ with a deep and abiding love.
Artwork by Jef Murray. Lorraine’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.