Today, we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis, the beloved twelfth century friar who is most known and celebrated for his love of creation. There is more to St. Francis than his love of nature, and I question if he were alive today, if he would appreciate his legacy being so limited and so purified.
The life of Francis is more about the freedom of poverty than creation. He was born into wealth. In his younger years he was raised to fight for the City State of Assisi and then to take over his father’s mercantile business. After fighting and the being held captive during Assisi’s war with Perugia, Francis spent time recovering in Assisi. While in his parent’s care, he spent countless hours praying in the abandoned chapel located at the foot of the Assisi hill. It was while at prayer in this tiny chapel, Francis discovered God had a different dream for him. In a vision, God asked Francis to rebuild the church. At first Francis thought the call was to restore the chapel in the woods, but soon discovered it was not the building but the institution itself Francis was called to restore now crumbling from politics and corruption.
To answer God’s call, Francis denies his birthright, returns all that he had from his father and embraces a life of simplicity and poverty. Later in his life, Francis will teach his fellow brothers the freedom of poverty going so far as to discourage them from owning anything beyond the clothes on their backs. To own even a book, Francis taught, would require the individual to be a servant to that book.
While I may struggle with what I consider an extreme point of view, I cannot totally dismiss what St. Francis taught. When I think about what holds many of us back from making important and necessary changes in our lives. . it is often material things that keep us frozen in place. For many who fall into the category of the frail elderly, the house, their sacred chalice of family memories and at one time the epicenter of family life, is now for many a prison as decreasing mobility continuously isolates them from family and the world around them.
For the younger generation, technology has quickly become our master as we have entered a world that insists we be constantly connected. We are stressed by the need to be wired every second, of every minute, of every day. We are overwhelmed by the need to tweet and to keep up with tweets, to keep abreast of social network status reports as we must let the world know what we are doing in real time. And, our schedules are oddly controlled by network programming. I was stunned the other week when I realized in a few months time, the monthly bill Maureen and I will be paying to keep a family of four connected will match the monthly rent we paid for our first apartment, and may exceed the cost of a mortgage for a modestly priced home.
n St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, he tells the reader that through Christ we are no longer enslaved to sin. As a child I was told that through Christ we are released from the chains or bonds of sin. I often thought of sin as a dark, murky, formless reality. Today, I realize that sin is anything that separates us from realizing the fullness of God’s love for us.
St. Francis comes of age and independence when he realizes the only way he could be truly free to serve God was through denying his birthright and returning all his father had given to him. It was literally an act of placing his whole trust in God and letting go of the security built on the foundation of human hands for the freedom of following the divine.
In the Gospel assigned to the Feast of St. Francis, Christ calls all who are burdened to rest in him, and then he tells us his yoke is heavy and his burden light. I believe the yoke of Christ is the need to let go of all that binds us to human burdens and the load he speaks of is the freedom of being unburdened of the artificial constraints of sin.
During my senior year at St. Lawrence, I remember a sister from the Order of St. Margaret visiting the parish where I worshipped. In her homily, she discussed the vow of poverty and the freedom it gave her and made it clear that living a life of poverty and being destitute were two very different things.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ tells us, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? It seems this is the passage Francis chose to live and is remembered for.. In giving up his material wealth for a life of poverty and simplicity, Francis discovered a new richness and freedom with God.
In the hymn All Creatures of Our God and King, and in his Canticle to the Sun, it is evident that Francis not only discovered he is part of creation, but realized he is one with creation as he calls upon all the voices of nature to sing in harmony with him. However, St. Francis’ spirituality ran even deeper than this, when freed from the distractions of human bonds and immersed in creation, he found he actually lived in the midst of the Creator itself.
This is why so many of us relate and admire St. Francis. Because, Francis experienced the divine in much the same way we do.
It would come as no surprise if I were to poll the congregation today . .most, if not all would claim they have had a greater experience of God while immersed in nature than they have while in church. And that is as it should be. This building is of human hands designed to shelter us from the elements while offering our praise to God. Nature, is unfettered by sin. Nature, as Emily Dickinson writes . . is heaven.
Last month, Maureen and I had the good fortune of taking a cruise from New Jersey to Bermuda. As I look back on that experience the two things I enjoyed the most was the time I spent on our veranda looking out over the ocean and the two hours I spent snorkeling in a coral reef. As I look back, I realize both provided opportunities to be immersed in the untouched beauty of nature. While looking out from the boat, there was nothing but blue sea and sky as far as the eye could see, a sense of being totally cut off from all of humanity. While submerged in the womb like waters of Bermuda, cut off from sound and all other distractions, one could only see and experience the beauty of God’s handiwork. . . a space of perfect harmony and be awed.
It is in this space of simplicity and freedom, creation itself, God brought Francis to live, to experience and to celebrate the Creator. It is this Creator, our creator and the simplicity and freedom of creation itself that we come to celebrate as we celebrate the life and ministry of St. Francis.