So, the time of year to celebrate St Francis is here, and we will be filling our church with animals to bless on Sunday October 1.
Francis must rank as one of Christianity's best known saints. Needless to say, I really like him. More so since a few years ago when I had a few beautiful weeks enjoying Tuscany in Italy. We visited Francis' hometown of Assisi in the neighbouring Province of Umbria. However, you did not have to travel far in that area to find the marks of Francis everywhere. One village we lived in, Anghiari, had at the top of its main street an ancient church and monastery marking a place where St Francis planted a wooden cross in the ground. This is level of veneration of Francis you see in Italy. This is why there was such jubilant celebration there when the present Pope took Francis' name when he was elevated to the Holy See.
You see, the reason I love to travel is to meet famous people. Although Francis lived just short of 800 years before I got there, you meet him everywhere in Tuscany and Umbria. He is one of the saints who, the more you look for him, the more you meet the bloke, and find yourself liking him. And the more that bloke teaches you.
He was born into the luxurious wealth of the time and lived as a pampered party animal. He joined in the great adventure of war, but was caught and imprisoned and then later became extremely ill. These experiences brought him to a spiritual awakening that led him to discard and shun his wealth and live in complete poverty.
I personally admire this capacity to radically reevaluate what is important in life, to totally change your view of the world and its values. I am in awe of the incredible clarity Francis showed in his ability to see what is good and cling to it and totally cast off that which is an impediment to that good value.
Francis shook the world around him. His radical view of what constituted a life lived well affected many who met him, pushing him almost begrudgingly to establish and lead an order of religious brothers, and eventually, with Claire of Assisi, sisters, who admired and wanted to follow Francis' holy way of life. It is almost disturbing to try to reconcile the qualities of extreme humility with the powerful leadership that comes out of the stories of Francis' ministry.
Taking the humblest of positions to shake the most powerful authorities – in this I see Francis following as close as any ever have the footsteps of Jesus.
I truly identify with Francis in his desire to head out into the forest regularly to immerse himself in solitude. These times are when he was seen by other brothers in the woods preaching to the birds in the trees and ministering to wild animals and even a ferocious wolf that had killed people near the town of Gubbio. It is from this, and Francis' own teaching that all the world's creatures were created by God and worthy of our compassion, that he is the patron saint of animals, nature and the environment.
Perhaps I was most moved before I even arrived at Assisi. As you drive across the valley, passing dry ploughed fields, the city appears before you rising up the hillside on the other side of the valley. I made the driver stop so I could take it in and photograph it. It was truly breathtaking beauty. When I read Revelation 21:2, it is what I see in my mind.
I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
For all his humility, Francis must have been a pretty impressive dude for his admirers to have built this in his honour.
These characters we call saints – their purpose is not to be somehow holier and superior to us. They should be our guides and friends on this journey of faith that brings us back to our God. But in the great communion of saints, Francis is one of the ones I feel to most comfortable falling in next to.
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Ven Bill Beagley
reflections and occasional thoughts (appearing in the Parish newsletter)